Fifty years after a failed revolution, Naxalbari has turned a new leaf and is ready to embrace the idea of a modern and progressive India.
What’s in a name? A lot, so would say India’s ultra-leftists who, caught in a time warp, still dream of “annihilation of class enemies” and a “revolution” to convert the country into a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. But quite like the name of the half village-half town in Bengal that the gory movement was born in, the revolution also means little or nothing today.
Naxalbari, about 40 kilometres west of Siliguri in north Bengal, defies all etymological definitions. While bari means home in Bengali, Naxal finds no mention in the lexicon of Bengali words. Or, for that matter, in the dictionary of the Nepalis, adivasis or Koch-Rajbanshis who inhabit the area. No one quite knows where the name originated from or what it means. Similarly, the movement that appropriated the name of this village also holds little political or intellectual significance today.
And what’s more, Naxalbari itself is trying desperately to live down its name. As was evident on the 25 May this year. Exactly 50 summers from that day (25 May 1967), the deaths of 11 women and children being used as human shields by belligerent peasants armed with swords, spears, bows and arrows and other weapons in police firing ignited the Naxalite movement. The day is considered to be the birthday of the movement.
In its golden jubilee year, leaders and foot soldiers of the movement – all adherents of a political ideology that has been tried, tested and proven to be vacuous and thus consigned to the dustbin of mankind’s history – congregated at Naxalbari to celebrate the movement’s golden jubilee. The residents of the fountainhead looked on in discomfort, and went about their daily lives as if determinedly trying to dissociate themselves and their village from the “movement” that has claimed thousands of lives, broken countless families, scarred and doomed entire generations and achieved nothing but misery, pain and suffering for millions.
Sometime in early 1967, landless peasants in and around Naxalbari were instigated by hardline members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to forcibly take over farmlands belonging to rich landlords. The forcible takeover, encouraged by CPI(M) radicals like Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal, sparked clashes between the landlords and the peasants and set off a spiral of killings and counter-killings. Landlords were murdered, and peasants were killed by the landlords’ musclemen. On 24 May 1967, a band of armed peasants waylaid a police party led by Inspector Sonam Wangdi that had gone to Naxalbari to arrest some peasants who had taken over a plot of land forcibly. The police party was attacked and Wangdi was killed by arrows fired by adivasi peasant leader Jangal Santhal and others.
The next day (25 May), a large police force went to Naxalbari to arrest the killers of Wangdi. The killers put hapless women and children to block the entry of the police into the village (this dastardly tactic of using women and children as human shields is still followed by Maoists today). Some arrows were shot at the police who, in self-defence, fired back. Majumdar and others then announced the birth of an armed rebellion against landlords. Two years later, Majumdar formed the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) that adopted armed struggle and killings of “class enemies” as its guiding principles.
What followed was a macabre spree of murders – beheadings, stabbings, amputations and worse of petty businessmen, landlords, rich and even middle-class farmers, policemen, judges, government employees, academics, professionals and anyone the Naxals considered a “class enemy” – that scarred and devastated Bengal. China openly expressed its support for the violence – its People’s Daily dubbed the uprising as “spring thunder over India” – and the left radicals also took the help of Pakistan’s military (which was ruling over East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) to get arms and weapons training. But the killings invited a massive state crackdown and after Majumdar died of a heart attack in police custody in July 1972, the movement collapsed. It, however, resurrected itself later in some other parts of the country and continues to this day under the banner of the CPI (Maoist) that is carrying out a pointless and losing battle against the Indian state from the forests of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra and Telangana.
Left radicals from these states journeyed to Naxalbari on 25 May in buses, a few hired SUVs and cars, and a motley group from Telangana in a ramshackle minibus. They made their way through well-paved roads lined with shops selling everything from premium Indian made foreign liquor to 4G SIMs and branded apparel to Bengaijote, the hamlet where the 11 women and children became victims of the ultra-leftists’ machinations.
On a small slice of land beside the Bengaijote Primary School stand seven concrete columns with busts of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Lin Piao (Now spelt “Biao”, he was one of Mao’s top generals, who, ironically, was condemned by the Chinese Communist Party as a traitor after his death in 1971, a year before Majumdar died), Charu Majumdar, Saroj Dutta and Mahadeb Mukherjee (the last two were close comrades of Majumdar). An eighth column is dedicated to the 11 martyrs of 25 May 1967. All the columns have been given a fresh coat of Communist red and the busts painted a sickly algae green. Interestingly, the memorials to Lenin and Stalin are the tallest, followed by those of Mao, Piao and Majumdar while the two dedicated to Dutta and Mukherjee are the shortest, thus clearly indicating that contrary to their loud proclamations, Communists don’t treat even their leaders as equals!
The visitors first offered floral tributes to the 11 at the memorial erected to them, raised their clenched fists and muttered Lal Salaam (red salute). This perfunctory ritual over, they then posed in front of the memorials to the Chinese and Soviet Communist icons. Only a few bothered to get themselves clicked in front of Majumdar’s bust; Dutta and Mukherjee were largely ignored. Many also clicked selfies with their smartphones with the busts of three of the biggest mass murderers of the 20th century – Lenin, Stalin and Mao – in the background. Photo sessions over, they chatted among themselves. A handful of their netas gave sound bites to waiting TV channel crews about how the Naxalite ideology is still relevant and how India will, one day, become a Communist state where all will live as equals!
After milling around for a respectable half an hour or so, the main body of ultra-leftists, or urban Naxals, left Naxalbari to attend a rally and a meeting the CPI (ML) Liberation – one of the factions of the CPI (ML) – had organised in Siliguri. That day, at least five different factions of the CPI (ML) organised separate programmes in Siliguri, reminding one of Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian, which includes a superb parody on the Communists’ tendency to fission.
While the comrades were offering red salutes and speaking on the relevance of their failed ideology, the residents of Naxalbari simply ignored them. Only some of the elderly among the residents remember those turbulent years. Snati Munda, 74, is one of them. She had participated in the armed rebellion and claims to have killed some people. Another is Khokon Majumdar, who was part of the Naxal mission to China. They are yet to come to terms with the fact that their movement failed miserably. And they are bitter that Naxalbari has changed. The peasants who became landowners after the government redistributed land have sold all their land to builders. They have become construction labourers. Their land holdings were too small to be economically viable; the Naxals ensured they got land, but forgot or ignored the all-important aspect of making farming an economically viable activity. They were only focused on killings, on the annihilation of class enemies.
Naturally, the post-movement residents of Naxalbari, the ones born after the mid-1970s, want to erase the memories of the bloody rebellion. Like people in the rest of India, they too have aspirations of a better lifestyle.
“We have nothing to do with Naxalism. We only want a better life for ourselves and our children. That revolution failed because nothing can be achieved by killings and bloodshed,” said Nantu Biswas, 44, who owns a small hardware store in the village.
His neighbour Ranabir Roy, a contractor, is the son of a Naxalite. But Roy is deeply religious and the red Communist flag that his father used to fly proudly over his tiled-roof house has been replaced by a saffron dhwaja (flag). The tiled-roof house has been replaced by a brick-and-mortar two-storied structure and the change of flags is symbolic of the changed character of Naxalbari: a Naxalbari that wants to jettison its past and embrace the idea of a modern, progressive India.