All political movements in history need an idea or a set of ideas with a double relation to time—one as a code for understanding past and present, the other flowing from that as a story cast forward, like a prophecy about a time to come. But the future does not come unbidden, as a whimsical weather pattern may break over a landscape. A ‘movement’ finds life and blood only in people—it needs a body of agentive individuals who work on bringing that grand narrative to fruition, propelled by a desire to transform society by that blueprint. In more emotive causes, there’s even space for sacrifice, including of one’s own life.
The Naxalbari movement, named after the small area in north Bengal where adivasi peasants first sought to strike a blow at history, would find place in any encyclopaedia of movements. From its inception, it ballooned forth like a dense monsoon cloud, moving over the Indian landmass—holding out a threat to some, a transformative promise to others. Born as a peasant’s rebellion in a faceless dot in India’s immense feudal outback, it drew into its fold a mass of conscripts from among urban youths, all seduced by the idea of turning India to a more just future, by effecting a fundamental change in the equation between the rulers and the ruled.
In retrospect, half a century later, the Naxal moment seems like a case of grand overreach of mythic proportions in some ways—like a youthful god deigning to get too close to the sun. In other ways, it endures. In the collective imagination, it lives as a trope of virtuous, if misguided rebellion—the conscientious dissenter going beyond speech, to action. The seminal effect it had on insurgencies, each springing up from the graveyard of past revolts, gives it the status of a perpetual argument against the State. Neither political life nor economic or cultural life remains aloof from the changes it wrought. In a not very tangential way, the context of Naxalism in Bengal—and the presence of left-wing guerrillas next door in East Pakistan—was one of the factors that goaded Indira Gandhi to back the Mukti Bahini, a move that changed the subcontinent’s map. Even today, a band of active Maoist rebels are often interchangeably (if debatably) described as ‘Naxalites’—by themselves and others.
Naxalbari poses a few intriguing paradoxes. With one line of its ancestry in anti-colonial adivasi rebellions going back to the early 19th century, it could not be more quintessentially Indian. Its geographical location is so remote that it eludes notice of most people; even in Bengal, few knew about its existence until that fateful May of 1967. The day when nine tribal peasants demanding access to the land they tilled were gunned down on those foothills of Darjeeling, neither they nor the police, nor even mainstream Left leaders in Calcutta, would have had any inkling of what was to come. As agents of history, they would have been as unaware as Gavrilo Princip was in Sarajevo, 1914.
At another level, Naxalbari crystallised the ‘internationalist’ streak in Indian politics. Its overt inspiration came from Mao’s China. Slogans like “Chin-er chairman, amader chairman” (Mao is our chairman too), which taunted the very concept of politics being bound within nations, went hand in hand with “Amar bari, tomar bari, Naxalbari, Naxalbari” (You and I, our home is Naxalbari). That episode galvanised the cadres gathered at Prasadjote, a group more unflinching than the leadership on the land-to-the-tiller policy. From there, it spread like the proverbial “prairie fire”.
What made Naxalbari have such an impact? What attracted hundreds of urban youth to what was essentially a peasant cause? Retrospection has its own advantage—most of its young participants are well into their seventies today. A few managed a leap back from the underground to sundry elite/bourgeois professions; some are now quite the eminence grise of their respective fields. “The context of popularity is important, as it indicates the flexible nature of the unrest,” says Ranabir Sammadar, Distinguished Chair, Calcutta Research Group. There were many actors, many organisations, many modes, he adds—small rural peasantry, urban slum-dwellers, lower middle classes, school and college students. “It was not a unique show by a single party. Indeed, this plurality was crucial for the unrest to spread and engulf the whole of Bengal,” he says.
There had been major peasant revolts before too—say, Telangana (1946-51), or Punnapra-Vayalar (1946). Yet none caught on like the Naxal idea. One enabling factor was the international ferment—take Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Vietnam war, student radicalism (leading up to Paris, May ’68). There were two distinct strains. One was pacifist—the anti-war protests, the Black civil rights movement, the hippies. It was a common post-WWII sentiment—they had seen enough sickening violence, and the Cuban missile crisis of ’62 brought back apocalyptic visions. At another level, armed resistance was seen as right and virtuous. Che Guevara was alive, and fighting. Nearer home, there was Vietnam’s heroic rebuff to America. And when Martin Luther King was assassinated in ’68, the militant Black Panthers seemed to be right. It was a time of a sort of internationalism of ideas—a global reading public, disseminating and consuming material, aware of events everywhere.
Then there was the domestic context—the Nehruvian promise looked anything but bright 20 years after Independence. The devastating famine in Bihar in ‘65-66 affected a large swathe—it led to a severe food crisis in Bengal, sparking massive protests. The two wars of the 1960s further drained India’s resources, both material and spiritual. Military purchases, now deemed necessary, strained foreign reserves so much that import of oil and other essentials suffered.
Politics was in ferment too. The China war had its echo in the Communist split of 1964—with a pro-China section forming the CPI(M). On the ground, the radical sections found a fertile ground for recruitment in schools, colleges and universities, where enrolments had ballooned since ’47. Their causes gathered a new urgency and cachet. A major demand was land reforms—centred around the call for “land to the tillers”. When the United Front, with CPI(M) as a component, won the 1967 assembly elections in Bengal, it encouraged the more restless cadres to start forcible capture of excess land from rich landlords. In Naxalbari, it reached its peak.
CPI(M) leaders in government actively opposed a Naxalbari-type action and advocated caution. The intense debate that ensued forced another split—the pro-Naxalbari elements either broke away or were forced out. Their prestige among urban youth was conditioned by world events. Ever-new sectors of dissent, like feminism and environmentalism, were catalysing. An agitational, anti-establishment mood was in the air. “There was a global conflagration of protest in 1967-68, which swept up campuses and radicals in Europe, the Americas and Asia. And the model of Cultural Revolution was an important influence,” says Julia Lovell, historian at London’s Birkbeck University.
“The street fighting years”, as writer Tariq Ali says of the turbulent decade, witnessed protests as far afield as the East European countries, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, even Pakistan, which saw a massive demonstration in 1968 by students, workers and civil society against the military dictatorship. Radical students were inspired by the image of Chinese Red Guards rebelling against educational and political authority to create a “mass democracy”, says Lovell. Calcutta saw a massive student rally in December 1968 against the visit of World Bank president Robert McNamara, who had a Vietnam taint as former defense secretary to Lyndon B. Johnson. A lot of this may have been limited to more elite students—as former Delhi University philosophy professor Nirmalangshu Mukherji points out—but it’s the linking up of those strands with the unforgiving rural Indian reality that made Naxalbari.
Lovell traces India’s Maoist turn to domestic causes—it yearned to find a “single, radical model to solve India’s ills”. And the model was Maoism. “Mao was glorified as the presiding genius—the late ’60s were the apogee of the Mao cult”. Naxalites began imitating Red Guard tactics, heckling teachers, breaking statues of nationalist icons, even going to villages to ‘declass’ themselves and set up liberated zones. Mukherji says this identification of the radicals with the peasants never really worked. He narrates an episode where in a Bengal village, during a police raid, villagers actively helped identify the Naxalite hideout. The romantic imagination still hews to the myth. In reality, that “spring thunder” now presents a broken, jagged trail—hundreds of young lives lost, in police killings and fratricidal wars, and a land question that still stares at India 50 years later.