Heart To Heart
- Fifty years ago, in 1967, the first successful human to human heart transplant took place. South African cardiac surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the operation on a 53-year-old patient named Louis Washkansky at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town on December 3.
This year we mark the centenary of the Champaran peasant satyagraha and the fiftieth anniversary of the Naxalbari peasant uprising. It may seem strange to mention these two landmark events of 20th century Indian history in the same bracket. Champaran is a recognised chapter of the anti-colonial movement that everybody likes to invoke and champion while Naxalbari remains an ominous nightmare for the entire establishment. Yet, on a closer look, we can clearly discern the thread linking these two landmarks of history.
The Champaran satyagraha underlined the crucial importance of the peasantry and the agrarian question in the anti-colonial awakening, but what is officially recognised as the mainstream of India’s freedom movement took a different trajectory. The history of post-Chamaparan agrarian struggles largely became a history of the Communist movement in India, with the Tebhaga agitation in Bengal and the Telangana insurgency in Andhra marking the two high points as India embarked on the road to post-colonial transition amidst an unprecedented communal bloodbath.
The post-colonial state did adopt a grand vision of industrialisation and modernisation, but the agenda of agrarian transformation once again remained utterly neglected. The state talked about abolition of landlordism, and passed laws to this effect, but well-entrenched feudal interests in the bureaucracy, legislatures and even judiciary effectively nullified the agenda, while some saintly souls tried to reduce the entire discourse of land reforms and land rights to appeals to landlords for land donation or ‘Bhoodaan’.
Ironically enough, even the Communist movement failed to respond adequately to this huge betrayal and the agenda of agrarian revolution remained relegated to the background. Naxalbari happened precisely against such a backdrop, resurrecting the spirit of Tebhaga and Telangana and lighting a prairie fire that rapidly engulfed vast swathes of rural India. Like Champaran in colonial India, Naxalbari too illustrated the centrality of agrarian transformation to any real vision of modern democratic India in the post-colonial era.
Charu Majumdar (left) and Kanu Sanyal
Naxalbari of course did not happen overnight. It was preceded by years of sustained and comprehensive Communist work among the peasantry in the region. The neighbouring districts of Jalpaiguri and Dinajpur had been the epicentre of the Tebhaga agitation in the 1940s, when the oppressed peasantry of undivided Bengal had defied the combined power of feudalism, communalism and colonialism to wage a heroic battle for the rights of sharecroppers. Two decades later, with the Congress having been ousted for the first time in West Bengal as in eight other states, and with powerful and militant mass protests rocking the state demanding food and livelihood, conditions were ripe for a militant peasant uprising, and Naxalbari became its stage. For the architects of Naxalbari—Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal, Jangal Santhal, Khokan Mazumdar and their numerous comrades—the idea, however, was not just to create a second wave of Tebhaga but to launch a full-scale agrarian revolution that would serve as the axis for a comprehensive democratisation of Indian society.
It was this revolutionary zeal that made the message of Naxalbari resonate in almost every corner of the country. Naxalbari was organised by revolutionary activists in the CPI(M) which had by then emerged as the leading Communist organisation in West Bengal and was also the biggest contingent in the United Front government that had replaced the Congress. Even as the party disowned and denounced the uprising and the government unleashed severe repression to try and crush it at the inception, Naxalbari won the support of Communist revolutionaries across the country and inspired a whole new generation to plunge into the Communist movement. Within two years, Naxalbari led to the foundation of a new Communist party, the CPI(ML). The new party did not however get a chance to consolidate itself. Within three years of its formation, many of its founding leaders, including Charu Majumdar and Saroj Dutt, were killed and thousands of activists were either massacred or subjected to imprisonment and torture.
But despite this severe repression, Naxalbari and CPI(ML) succeeded in striking deep roots in large parts of the country. The repression let loose on the Naxal movement did not stop at custodial killings, fake encounters and massacres of CPI(ML) activists. It did not take long for this brand of repressive extra-judicial statecraft to grow into a full-scale internal emergency, with the entire framework of constitutional democracy remaining suspended for nearly two years. The resurgence of democracy in 1977 also witnessed a resurgence of radical activism in many spheres and much of it was inspired by Naxalbari. From the defence of human rights to the study of ‘subaltern’ history, and celebration of the culture of resistance through art, literature, music, theatre and films—Naxalbari manifested itself in diverse spheres of life.
Naxalbari has also become the moving spirit behind a range of people’s struggles. It inspired a new praxis and paradigm of class struggle where the aspirations of the oppressed rural poor, unorganised and informal sector workers, Dalits, adivasis and women, and the issues of the people displaced by environmental degradation and corporate aggression in the name of ‘development’ have come to occupy centrestage within a vibrant Communist politics. The determined assertion of the oppressed rural poor for their basic rights to land, wages and social dignity, and now increasingly for housing, education and healthcare; the fusion of campus activism of students with the whole range of ongoing democratic struggles in society; the assertion of women in spaces defined by family, community and workplace against the fetters of patriarchy; the unionisation of construction workers, sanitation workers, contract workers—the imprint of Naxalbari is today writ large across the entire spectrum of people’s movements.
Moving on from the customary boycott of elections, the CPI(ML) entered the electoral arena in the 1980s, and since then this has proved to be more of a headache for the establishment than the tactic of poll boycott. The first victory of a ‘Naxalite’ in the parliamentary arena (Rameshwar Prasad from Ara, Bihar, in 1989) was won on the strength of the first mass exercise of the franchise by Dalits. The rural poor have had to pay a heavy price for their struggle to exercise their franchise, and for their victories, in the form of serial massacres by state-sponsored private armies of the landed gentry. In Jharkhand, when the lone CPI(ML) MLA Mahendra Singh emerged as the most vocal opposition to the BJP government, we found him silenced by the assassin’s bullet just after he had filed his nomination in the 2005 assembly elections.
Party office of the CPI-ML Liberation in Siliguri, April 10, 2017
How does Naxalbari relate to the present juncture? There is of course a certain fundamentalist interpretation of Naxalbari which does not look at it in terms of any specific situation or given conditions. In this view, Naxalbari just means the application of the Chinese revolution model in India regardless of the specificity of our conditions. Such an ahistorical approach negates the very spirit and essence of Naxalbari. The architects of Naxalbari were very much alive to the dynamics of the situation. What is central to Naxalbari is the urge to sweep away the vestiges of feudal power and build a new India on the basis of a thoroughgoing democratisation of society. Fifty years later, we are again hearing the talk of ‘new India’, but this time from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, a ‘new India’ where big corporations will dominate the economy and lynch mobs will rule the streets and the government of the day will facilitate this unmitigated disaster by combining the two with the rhetoric of ‘development’ and ‘nationalism’.
Did we never have any forewarning about how things could come to this? For sure, we did. To take a most categorical expression of warning, it is instructive to recall what Dr Ambedkar had said repeatedly in the course of the drafting and adoption of India’s Constitution. In his address at the concluding session of the Constituent Assembly, he talked about entering a new phase of contradictions. The contradiction between the political equality enshrined in the ‘one vote, one value’ principle and the inequality entrenched in our society, the graded social inequality reinforced through the caste system and the economic inequality intrinsic in capitalism. Between the top dressing of constitutional democracy and the underlying undemocratic social soil of India. The contradiction between the goal of nation-building and the anti-national institution of caste without whose annihilation there could never be any real national integration. The contradiction between an aggressive majority and marginalised minorities.
In other words, even as Ambedkar gave us the Constitution of free India and called for developing a new politico-administrative culture based on constitutional morality, he warned us about the fatal contradiction between the constitutional framework of liberty, equality and fraternity and the undemocratic social soil of casteism, communalism and a highly unequal order. Naxalbari had sought to resolve this contradiction by democratising that social soil. And what we are witnessing today is just the opposite—an outright attempt to subvert the Constitution, reverse democracy and tyrannise the republic. Naxalbari did not succeed in turning the 1970s into the decade of liberation for the Indian people. But Naxalbari is very much alive as a great source of inspiration and strength in waging today’s battle for democracy and freedom.
Dipankar Bhattacharya, General Secretary, CPI (ML), Liberation