At the Epicentre: Neither Spring, nor Thunder
So, whatever happened to the peasant revolt led by Naxalite legend Charu Majumdar in the original birth place of the revolution 42 years after?
Chaman Lal Naxalbari (West Bengal)
May 25, 1967. A fierce clash took place between the West Bengal police and poor peasants. The United Front government's chief minister, Ajay Mukherjee, and home minister, Jyoti Basu, were then at the helm in Calcutta. The peasant revolt was led by none else than CPM's Darjeeling area committee, led by Charu Majumdar, who later became the top mass leader of the armed uprising and a legend of the Naxalbari uprising.
However, the original grassroots heroes who for several years painstakingly organised the poor, the landless and other farmers in the area were Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal, as described by Charu Majumdar himself on April 22, 1969, while addressing a massive public rally in Calcutta. The announcement of the formation of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist -'CPI-ML') was made at this huge mass rally - perhaps the only public rally addressed by Charu Majumdar.
Beijing Radio and Peoples Daily (China), in June 1967, had earlier hailed the revolt in Naxalbari as 'Spring Thunder in India'. China then apparently thought that India will 'make' the revolution in the next few years, as Charu Majumdar also thought. 'Naxalbari' acquired worldwide attention. The word became part of the political lexicon, it's blood-soaked memories and spontaneous rebellion still evoke deep, intense reactions, for and against. Its followers are still scattered all over the country in many groups and forms, overground, doing parliamentary/people's politics, or underground, waging an armed/class struggle.
So what is it about Naxalbari (spelled 'Naksalbari' in Bengal) that stays in essence, meaning and memory, after 42 years of the 'Spring Thunder'?
The uprising gave rise to resonating slogans: Aamar Naam Tomar Naam-Vietnam Vietnam and Aamar Bari Tomar Bari-Naxalbari Naxalbari (My name, your name, Vietnam... My home, your home, Naxalbari - bari means home in Bengali). Today, Naxalbari seems to have lost that slogan or the memory of that slogan: it is not even looking that far away.
It is located about 10-12 miles from Bagdogra airport with good road connectivity. A small town of about 30,000 thousand, it is close to Nepal's border town of Panitanki.
No incident actually took place at Naxalbari on May 25, 1967. The firing on rural poor took place in Prasadujot, a small village further towards Panitanki. There were clashes and tensions in the area since March on the land question and on May 24, 1967, a police official was killed. Next day a huge number of police fired on poor people, who were unarmed. Eight women were killed, two children of about six months were killed in the women's laps and one young man was also shot dead.
Ironically, no memorial had been built in the memory of these poor people, murdered by the police. However, a few years ago, the Naxalite faction that claims Mahadeb Mukhrejee as its leader, built the Charu Majumdar Sarani at Bengaijot village, adjoining the government primary school of the village. A small plot of land was occupied by the political group and statues of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Charu Majumdar (No Marx or Engels!) were installed.
Two more pillars stand there in the name of Saroj Dutt and Mahadeb Mukherjee, but without the busts. Saroj Dutt was a legendary intellectual who was shot dead in yet another 'fake encounter' by the police in Calcutta during those bloody days, widely known to be witnessed by great Bengali actor, Uttam Kumar, who was on a morning walk.
A pillar has also been put up in Bengali listing the names of the eleven martyrs of May 25, 1967 police firing at Prasadujot. All other statues have English and Bengali versions, but only the martyr's memorial pillar has names in Bengali. Translated as 'Our Brave Martyrs', the names include: Comrade Dhaneshwari Sek, Simashwari Mallik, Nayanshwari Mallik, Surubasa Bayani, Sonamati Singh, Shayamati Singh, Shyamsari Saibani, Parijau Saibani and the young boy, Shar Singh Mallik. The two kids have been mentioned as 'and two kids'.
Incidentally Pawan Singh, son of Dhaneshwari Sek, is now an activist of CPI-ML (Sangrami Morcha) and his son in law, Ratan Dey, is leader of this 'Charuite' group either at the 'national or regional' level. Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend the political and social 'reach' of different Naxalite groups these days. Interestingly, Pawan Singh said that they will not allow the bust of Mahadeb Mukhrjee on the pillar erected in his memory - but he approved creation of a bust of Saroj Dutt on the bare pillar.
I move to Hatigeshi village tracing legendary local revolutionary Jangal Santhal's origins. Another Naxalite legend, veteran Kanu Sanyal, lives here these days - his outfit's office is located here. Simmering wounds of the past linger in the lanes and bylanes.
I cross Naxalbari town. I can't locate a single flag or office of any ML (Marxist-Leninist group). However, the flag on the CPM office flutters, so does the flags of Congress and BJP; parliamentary elections are over but politics is still in the air, including the currently pro-BJP Gorkha politics from across Darjeeling's lovely landscape. The town looks clean. Both the central and state governments seem to have paid special attention for development work. There is the famous Nandlal Bengali High School. The Naxalbari Hindi High school also came up few years ago; now, a government degree college is being built.
There are three mosques in the town with a reasonable Muslim population. Hindu fundamentalists demolished a part of the Idgah during the 1992 Babri demolition frenzy, but the Left Front government built the Idgah and communal violence was not allowed to spread. The entire area is beautiful and lush green - full of tea gardens and green landscape.
Everybody knows Kanu Sanyal in Hatigeshi village. We met his granddaughter while looking for his house, at the fag end of the village. Sanyal's office in a kutcha hut adjoins the hut of Jangal Santhal's widow. She is old and can't communicate. However, her daughter's two daughters are around; they are studying in a convent school in Siliguri. Both their mother and father, simple folks, work hard to get good education for their daughters. Jangal Santhal contested the February 1967 assembly elections on a CPM ticket but was defeated.
Kanu Sanyal, once sturdy and strong, mass organiser par excellence, full of fire, is now 81, still stoic but sick. He narrated the tragic end of Jangal Santhal, the last days of the famous tribal hero's life, who threatened the Indian State and waged a massive peasant's uprising, who was revered by even his enemies, including those within his old party fold, the CPM. There are epic tales about him that still reverberate in the tribal and rural interiors in Bengal, and in the historical narratives of the uprising.
After coming out of jail in 1979, two year prior to the release of Sanyal himself, frustrated, tragic and lonely, Jangal Santhal became addicted to alcohol. By the time Sanyal came out, it was too late. Sanyal tried his best but he just could not discipline his comrade; his drinking habits and acute depression won't go away. Santhal was hospitalised in Siliguri. He compelled the doctors to discharge him despite the warning that he could die. Locals say that he came back to the village and drank himself to death, perhaps that very night.
There is no pillar in memory of Jangal Santhal, nor proper dates of his birth or death. Perhaps he died in 1981, just about 50 perhaps. I was told that one of his wives died, another lived in another corner of the village. His memories of great rebellion, torture and imprisonment, and tragedy and pain, is scattered all over the place.
Kanu Sanyal is general secretary of one of the CPI-ML organisations. This group has recently 'reorganised' with the merger of one faction of the T Nagi Reddy 'ML' group - the only group which refused to accept the 'annihilation line' of Charu Majumdar even in the beginning of the uprising. Through the turbulent years, it upheld the mass movement's 'massline'. This group brings out a journal called Class Struggle from Delhi - Kanu Sanyal is the editor. It also contests elections.
The leader of the rebellion, Charu Majumdar, lived in Siliguri. He came from a rich background - his father Gajender Narayan Majumdar was big land-holder and freedom fighter. Many of the shopping areas in Siliguri belonged to him. He was kind hearted, hence distributed land to the needy. Charu was indifferent to his ancestral land holdings - he gave it away to poor people. His wife was able to build a house using her own savings; the house has survived. The remaining property has been confiscated by the government.
Local narratives retell many old stories, that Charu enjoyed immense respect in the area and people loved him for his great intellect, political commitment and magnanimity - he was always a man of the masses who worked with the poorest of the poor all his life, despite being a rich man's son and communist theoretician. Every year, July 28 is observed as his martyrdom day in North Bengal.
Charu Majumdar's family still lives in his Siliguri house - all three siblings - one brother and two sisters. Charu's son, a lecturer in English at a Siliguri college, is now with the CPI-ML (Liberation), which is strong in Bihar and fights elections since it came overground in 1992. His two daughters, Anita and Madhumita Majumdar, are in the medical profession, still 'serving the poor'.
Indeed, 42 years years later, the Naxalite movement has gone through many upheavals. In journalist (late) Mohan Ram's words, the Naxalite movement has gone through multiple "split within split". The protracted idea and praxis of 'armed revolution' perhaps has progressed more authentically in Nepal and Venezuela, but India is yet on the waiting list. The end is uncertain. Especially at the epicenter of the first Spring Thunder: Naxalbari.
The writer is a professor at Centre of Indian Languages, JNU