Once the epicentre of violent and godless communism, Naxalbari is today not only turning to open displays of Hinduism but also a new political identity.
Nearly 52 summers ago, a nondescript village by the strange name of Naxalbari shot to infamy by cradling a terror movement that still convulses some pockets of India. Hardline members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) instigated landless peasants to forcibly take over the farmlands they were cultivating, triggering a cycle of violence that led to the lynching of a police officer on May 24, 1967 and deaths of 11 women and children in police firing the day after. The violence soon spiralled out of control and the hardline Marxists, drawing inspiration from China’s Mao, declared an armed revolution to overthrow the Indian state and bring the country under communist dictatorship.
Naxalbari has, since then, remained a hotbed of Maoist terror and home to many red extremists. Communist flags - the hammer and sickle set in a blood-red background -used to flutter from nearly every household till even the late 1990s. Most of the people here never used to exercise their franchise in what they used to call a “sham democratic exercise”. They still held on to their archaic and regressive communist beliefs and the unattainable dream of installing a communist regime through armed struggle. There were few places of worship here, and they remained mostly shut as few professed their faith; most folks in Naxalbari were communists and, thus, atheists.
But Naxalbari has taken a dramatic about-turn and how! This bustling township is now awash with saffron and BJP flags. The whole town wears a festive look with saffron flags fluttering gaily in the runup to this weekend’s Ram Navmi celebrations. And the number of BJP flags easily outnumber those of the Trinamool and other parties by a ratio of at least 3:1. Many houses proudly have the saffron dhwaja (flag) flying from their rooftops in what can only be a firm assertion of their faith. Many new temples have come up and a number of people in the town sport saffron tilaks on their foreheads. Hindu rituals are followed, and openly. And Naxalbari has not only shed its unsavoury past, but has also made a clean break from it, embracing modernity, consumerism , dharma and, of late, the BJP!
Satyen Murmu says the transformation started slowly over the past two decades or so. “People started going out of Naxalbari and saw first-hand the conditions in the rest of the country. Many migrated to work as labourers, getting small jobs in other states, and they brought back tales of bright lights, big buildings, prosperity and progress. Television also changed perceptions and we then realised that we have been hanging on to a weird dream of communist revolution. We also started realising the hollowness and hypocrisy of communist ideology,” says Murmu, a marginal farmer.
Murmu’s small house at Bengaijote stands just beside a tiny plot of land on which seven concrete columns painted bright red bear the busts of communist leaders, many of them (like Mao, Stalin and Lenin) accused of mass murders and genocide. The busts are painted a sickly algae green and this plot of land is a pilgrimage of sorts for left radicals. A ceremony is held here every year on 25 May, where assorted men and women raise full-throated cries of “Maobadi zindabad” with their fists clenched. They are all from other states - mostly from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana - and are shunned by the locals who would like this memorial to communist icons, which reminds them of the unsavoury and gory past of Naxalbari, to go.
Dipesh Pradhan stays a couple of houses away from Murmu and runs a small shop selling potato chips, carbonated drinks and other savouries. He also owns a small plot of farmland. “We were also communists earlier. But we started realising that communism is no good from the late 1990s. My elder brother had gone to Mumbai to work as a supervisor at a construction site in the late 1980s and whenever he would come home, he would show us photographs of big buildings, cars, brightly-lit shops and life in Mumbai. He would talk of roads being laid and flyovers being constructed. Then TV came and we got a glimpse of life in the rest of the country. We started realising that the communists had made fools of us. So we all slowly turned against the communists,” says Dipesh.
The shift to the BJP, adds Dipesh, has happened recently. “The communists were voted out of power in Bengal in 2011 and the Trinamool replaced them. But the Trinamool has turned out to be worse than the communists. Under Left rule, there were no extortions at least and corruption never affected us. Since 2011, small Trinamool ‘netas’ started extorting money from even a petty trader like me on a regular basis. We have to pay bribes for everything ranging from admission in government schools and government hospitals to getting jobs. The Trinamool is a highly corrupt party. We see the BJP as the only option before us now. The BJP is clean and believes in good governance, and in progress and prosperity. The nation is safe under the BJP,” said Dipesh.
Modhu Ray runs a small tea shop near Pradhan’s house at Naxalbari’s Bengaihote hamlet. He points out that while 25 May was an important date in the calendar of most residents of Naxalbari, it is now 7 July that is much more important. On 7 July 1999, a local boy, Sepoy Suresh Chhetri, was martyred in Kargil. A statue of Chhetri stands proudly at the head of the road that leads to Naxalbari from Asian Highway 2. “Every 7 July we hold a big function in honour of Suresh Chhetri’s sacrifice for our motherland. He is our real hero, and not these people (referring to the communist leaders). We are patriots and nationalists,” says Modu proudly.
Modhu says that popular disenchantment with communism in Naxalbari has also led to the re-discovery of spiritualism here. “Our Sanatan dharma is dear to us. Yes, we had strayed away and paid a terrible price for it. But we realised that our dharma is our anchor in our lives and without dharma, we cannot attain fulfillment. We have realised that our religion and rituals bind us socially and can lead to our enlightenment. Thus, we have turned to religion and celebrate all festivals now,” said Modhu.
He has taken a lead in celebrating Ram Navami in Bengaijote and is proud of it. “Many say that Ram Navmi is alien to Bengal, but I don’t think so. Bhagwan Ram is a God to all Hindus and Ram Navmi has to be celebrated like all other festivals,” he asserts.
Pawan Singha, 78, was a leading light of the Naxal movement. His mother was one of the 11 killed in police firing on 25 May 1967. He is a frail and embittered man today. “The (Naxal) revolution failed because many amongst us strayed away from Mao’s ideology and made compromises. But I realise that in today’s India, a communist takeover of power is impossible. Things have changed,” he admits.
Singha, however, remains a dedicated Maoist and still believes in violence as an instrument to capture power. “The (Maoist-Leninist) ideology is relevant, it is the practitioners of the ideology who have failed it. Otherwise, we would have been a communist state by now,” he asserts.
But what does Singha think of the changes in Naxalbari? “What had to happen has happened. We failed the masses too and have nothing to offer to them. But their conditions have not changed at all and they still remain an exploited lot. The consumerism and religiosity that you see here now is like an opium for them. But they have adopted that way of life--mindless pursuit of wealth and petty pleasures, and a return to religion--because we have not been able to establish a communist state,” reasons Singha. He, and his family of sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren--are atheists and will not vote on 18 April (Naxalbari is part of the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat where polling is scheduled for that day).
But Singha and this family are an aberration in Naxalbari, which is right now gearing up for two festivals - one religious (Ram Navmi) and the other political (polling). The saffron and BJP flags thus fly high and merrily in this cradle of left radicalism.