India’s Maoist/Naxalite Movement - Village Called Prasadujot
0 comments | by Pritam Singh on April 05 , 2017
Pritam Singh Professor of Economics Faculty of Business Oxford Brookes University, Oxford UK. This is a draft paper for the conference on „Before ‟68: The Left, Activism and Social Movements in the Long 1960s‟ at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, 13-14th February 2016
On 25 May 1967, in one village called Prasadujot in the Naxalbari bloc in the West Bengal state of India, a group of peasants led by two left-wing activists Kanu Sanyal (1929- 2010) and Jangal Santhal (? -1981) who were supported by a communist ideologue Charu Mazumdar (1918-1972) I tried to forcibly seize the land from some landlords who controlled the land to which the peasants had the legal entitlement.
This resulted in a violent confrontation between the agitating peasants and the police supporting the landlords. This seemingly isolated revolt in a far flung village eventually gave birth to a movement that attracted the attention of the world, and some anglicised journalist/commentator gave it the name Naxalite‘ that has stuck to it and has even been adopted by the supporters of the movement. The word Naxalite‘ is used in India both to describe the movement as well as to characterise an individual or an organisation which is associated with the movement e.g. Naxalite guerrilla‘, Naxalite activist‘ pro-Naxalite civil rights group‘ or Naxalite sympathiser‘.
The fall out for Indian politics after nearly 50 years from that seemingly isolated revolt may be judged by an astute remark made in 2006 by Manmohan Singh while he was the Prime Minister of India (2004-2014). He said that the Naxalite movement was the single biggest internal security threat to India. This paper attempts a description and analysis of the background to the emergence of this movement; the significance of that May 1967 revolt, the immediate implications of that revolt for the left and bourgeois politics in India, and very briefly the long term implications of the rise of the Naxalite movement.
Let me state this in the very beginning that I was personally involved in this movement as a student activist/ supporter of the movement but without having been a participant in any act of violence in spite of the attempt by the party‘ leadership to get me involved in that. However, due to my activism even if it was confined to the study and dissemination of the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Tse-tung, I was arrested in 1971, tortured and narrowly escaped being killed. The movement's first phase came to an end in 1972 but it has resurfaced in a different form quite powerfully in the last decade.It does not fit strictly the criterion of pre-68 movement but it has close relationship with the over-all political culture of India and the world around 1968, and the events of 1968.
The roots of the Naxalite movement
The roots of the Naxalite movement lie in India‘s communist movement. India‘s communist movement was born shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. After the degeneration of the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of Stalinism in Russia, a very small current in the movement was sympathetic to the Left opposition led by Trotsky. The bulk of India‘s communist party went with Stalin not because of any specific admiration for Stalin or his policies but out of loyalty to the Soviet Union, considered then as the mother country of communism.
The Soviet Union‘s role in defeating Nazi Germany did endear Stalin not only to the communist party members and sympathisers but also to the broader sections of Indian society that viewed Hitler and Nazi ideology unfavourably. This broader societal attitude towards Stalin‘s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany reinforced India‘s communist movement‘s admiration for Stalin and allegiance to Soviet Union under him. The Communist Party of India (CPI) participated in the anticolonial struggle against British rule in India but also directed its criticism at the ‗bourgeois‘ leadership of the main Indian nationalist party- the Indian National Congress (INC) - led by Gandhi and Nehru. There were several other currents in Indian people‘s struggle against British colonial rule which were influenced in varying degrees by the ideals of communism. The most well-known was the group led by Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh who played a leading role in organising terrorist attacks at the symbols of the colonial establishment in India.
If Gandhi-led movement adopted a path of non-violent resistance and struggle against the colonial rule, Bhagat Singh epitomised the goal of violent overthrown of the colonial rule (Singh 2007 and 2015). This competition between peaceful and armed struggle paths to India‘s independence was to leave a permanent legacy in India‘s communist movement too. Soon after India became independent in 1947, India‘s communist party was ridden with factional conflict between two tendencies-one advocating participation in India‘s parliamentary democratic institutions set up under the framework of the constitution of the new republic, and the other advocating a path of armed insurrection.
This conflict became accentuated by the success of the Chinese revolution under Mao‘s leadership. The faction deriving inspiration from the Chinese success and advocating the path of armed insurrection gained leadership temporarily and launched an armed uprising in the Telangana region of South India. This uprising was brutally crushed militarily by the Indian government led by Nehru, the first prime minister of India. The armed insurrection attempt having failed, the constitutionalist tendency gained upper hand in the leadership of the CPI. As a result, the CPI started participating actively in central parliamentary and state assembly elections. The CPI became the main opposition party in India‘s central parliament and remained so for almost the entire decade of the 1950s. The most glorious success of the CPI was to win majority in the elections to the state assembly of the south Indian state of Kerala in 1957 and the formation of the democratically elected communist government there for the first time in India (Nossiter 1982) and second time in the world after the tiny republic of San Marino which had the world's first democratically elected communist government from 1945 and 1957 (Desai 2006: 142, Mayne 1999:59).
The success of the democratic constitutional path did not end the ideological contestation between the two tendencies in the CPI. The Sino-Soviet conflict sharpened this ideological contestation between the peaceful path supported by the Soviet Union and the armed struggle path supported by China. The Sino-Indian border conflict in 1962 brought the two contenting lines into a sharp and polarised opposite positions. The CPI formally supported the Indian national government of Nehru and accused China of launching an armed attack on India.
This decision of the CPI was opposed by a substantial, though not majority, section of the top party leadership which included some leading lights of India‘s communist movement. This section expressed solidarity with China and criticised the Nehru government for military aggression against the socialist China. This pro-China section characterised and denounced the political position of the pro-Indian nationalist leadership of the CPI as revisionist‘.
The word ‗revisionist‘ was meant to suggest that the pro-Indian nationalism leadership of the CPI had abandoned the revolutionary path and had become collaborationist with the Indian state. The pro-China section of the leadership was arrested by the Nehru government and put behind bars. The opposing tendencies in the party became so acutely polarised that the pro-China section eventually left the CPI in 1964 and formed a new communist party that was named Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CP1 (M), written more generally as CPM). The formation of the CPM coincided with a significant phase in Indian politics namely the start of the decline of the Indian National Congress that had dominated the anti-colonial struggle and had controlled power at the federal centre and in the states in the post-colonial era. Nehru who represented the dominance of the INC in both the phases died in 1964, and soon after his death in the 1967 elections in several states, the party was defeated by anti-Congress united fronts of left, right and the centre. For the communist movement, it opened new opportunities of capturing and sharing power in several states. The CPM, which while emerging out of the constitutionalist and revisionist‘ CPI had projected itself as a militant communist party keeping open the option of armed struggle path, jumped at the opportunity of using constitutionally guaranteed power through elections with the intention partly of wrecking the constitution from within‘ as a leading CPM leader and strategist EMS Namboodiripad had once put it.
However, this strategy of using the parliamentary path disillusioned the more militant cadre who had left the CPI and had joined the CPM in the hope of launching militant class struggles and, if necessary, through armed actions against the class enemies. This conflict between the parliamentary path and the armed struggle path brought the two paths in confrontation with each other on that fateful day in May 1967 when the peasants led by Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal forcibly occupied land of the landlords and forced them to flee. The West Bengal united front government in which the CPM was a major partner sent the state police to repress the rebellious peasants. The police firing led to the death of 11 peasants that included 8 women and 2 children. The Naxalite movement was born that day and the peasants killed that day became the martyrs of the movement. The CPM was further split-one section in support of the „revolutionary peasants‟ and the dominant section supporting the party against „left-wing adventurism‟ of the Naxalbari activists. Beijing Radio and the People's Daily from China hailed the Naxalbari rebellion by calling it „a spring thunder in India‟.
Communist Party of India
The formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist- Leninist) (CPI (ML)) was formally declared at an impressive rally in Calcutta on April 22, 1969 (Lenin‘s birthday). The CPI (ML) declared open allegiance to China and Mao Tse-Tung thought and announced that its aim was an overthrown of the Indian state through an armed uprising of the Indian peasantry that will liberate the rural areas from class enemies. The liberated zones will be used to create a red army that will eventually surround the cities and over take them leading to the overthrow the India state. The CPI (ML) proclaiming itself as the revolutionary party, that will lead the revolutionary march of the red army from the rural to the urban areas, denounced the CPM as neo-revisionist‘ implying that the CPM merely spoke about the revolution but in practice was following a reformist parliamentary path which it had once denounced while splitting away from the
The significance of the 1967 revolt By the words ‗the significance of the 1967 revolt‘, I mean to suggest several things which are inter-connected and perhaps even overlapping to some extent: what did this revolt represent in terms of the political culture of the time locally, nationally and globally; what were the key burning issues in India‘s post-colonial history at that point of time that were highlighted by that revolt?; what were the connections of that revolt with the 1968 radical upsurge in countries of advanced capitalism?; what was the relationship of that revolt to developments in the global communist movement?; what are the challenging theoretical issues raised for Marxist theory by that revolt?
This list of questions by way of trying to understand that revolt is not, in any way, exhaustive. This is merely a way of starting to make a sense of that revolt. As far as the question of political culture of the time locally, nationally and globally is concerned, the previous section has indicated some. At the local level or state level in West Bengal, it represented a tension in the growing militancy and strength of the communist movement in the state and the restraint being imposed on that militancy by the pressure of governance in the state where the communist parties were part of the governance. At a national level, it represented the declining importance of the Congress party in some regions of India while the party retained control at the federal-central level. At a global level, it represented the contestation between the Chinese Communist Party and the CPSU for control of the global communist movement being mirrored at this local/regional and national level. In terms of the key burning issues in India‘s post-colonial history at that point of time that were highlighted by that revolt, the most obvious seemed to be the decline of the Congress party and the emergence of the tensions in Centre State relations as a result of that. Equally important was the unresolved agrarian question of land ownership and control. Overall, it represented that the dreams and hopes that might have been raised by India becoming independent of direct colonial control, could no longer be sustained after about two decades of India‘s independence.
The period of hope and optimism of the 1950s and perhaps early 1960s was giving way to a period of disenchantment, discontentment and revolt against the established order. This change in the national mood was beginning to be seen in the themes of Indian cinema too. The revolt was certainly connected with the global radicalisation of politics around 1968. This link was perhaps not obvious in the beginning when the land question seemed to be the most obvious face of the movement but the subsequent spread of the movement among the educated youth throughout the country signalled that connection very clearly especially in cities such as Kolkata (in West Bengal) and to a lesser extent in Delhi and Chandigarh (where I was a student then). The revolt was most clearly linked with the schism in the world communist movement in the form of contestation between CPC and CPSU for control over the world communist movement.
This contestation took various forms but one form it was taking most prominently in India was the split between the parliamentary path and the armed struggle path. What was most interesting was that this split was not on generational basis as might have been expected namely that the younger members opt for armed struggle and the older ones opting for parliamentary path. For example, the most prominent Naxalite leader in Punjab Baba Bujha Singh was in his 80s and he was not the only one in the mature age group (Singh 2010) while later on the influence of the movement was mainly among students and younger school teachers. Concerning the challenging theoretical issues for Marxist theory raised by the revolt, the most demanding was the importance of peasantry in the struggle for overthrowing capitalism (or feudalism or semi-feudalism) in less developed capitalist economies in the Third World.
The Monthly Review school of thought certainly theorised peasantry as a revolutionary class in line with the Maoist theory while New Left Review (just to take an example) represented a critique of such ‗Third Worldism‘. Also important was the question of armed struggle or revolution versus parliamentary path and reforms. The immediate implications of the 1967 revolt for the left and bourgeois politics in India There were three armed communist rebellions in India, all revolving around control over land ownership and produce from the land, before the rise of the Naxalite movement. One was in the Telangana region of the erstwhile southern state of Hyderabad which coincided with India‘s independence from British colonial rule in 1947; v the second one was in Tebhaga region in West Bengal in 1948, vi and the third one was a Lal Communist Party (Red Communist Party) led revolt in the erstwhile PEPSU region of the present state of Punjab in 1948 (Josh 1979, Singh 1994). All the three rebellions were militarily crushed by the Indian state leading to large scale human rights violations in all the three regions.
The Naxalite movement in 1967 represented a re-connection with that armed struggle heritage with some participants of the earlier struggles becoming prominent participants in the new struggle (e.g. Baba Bujha Singh in Punjab). Apart from the similarity of the Naxalite movement with the 1940s/50s struggles in terms of primacy to armed struggle, there was one critical difference too. All the three 1940s/1950s struggles were localised in nature and not linked with movements in other parts of India though these localised struggles were influenced by external ideological directions from Soviet Union.
The Rise of Naxalite Movement
The Naxalite movement, in contrast, though started as a spontaneous local conflict but became very quickly an all India phenomenon spreading to Andhra Pradesh and Kerala in the South, Bihar and UP in the Hindi heartland, and Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and, to some extent, Delhi in the North. The Naxalite movement was also crushed through very severe police repression.
The scale of human rights violations was much higher and geographically more widespread than during the 1940s/50 except perhaps in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh where in the 1940s/1950s, there were mass executions especially of the Muslim peasants that have remained under reported (Anderson 2013, Singh 2014). The large scale violations of human rights violations during the suppression of the Naxalite movement that included summary executions in police custody (called „encounter killings‟), brutal torture sometimes leading to death including the death in police custody of Charu Mazumdar (Debroy 2010) and Baba Bujha Singh (Sidhu 2013), long periods of imprisonment gave birth to organisations of civil liberties and human rights that were initially focussed on the release of political prisoners. The experience of crushing the Naxalite movement have led to greater militarisation of the Indian state and using that accumulated knowledge and practices to crush other anti-Indian state rebellions in Kashmir, Punjab and the North East, and also the reinvented Naxalite movement in recent period especially in the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand in central India.
The greater militarisation of the Indian state has gone along simultaneously with the incorporation of the mainstream constitutionalist communist parties into the political culture of Indian establishment. Indian communist parties have become increasingly vocal supporters of Indian nationalism resembling the nationalism of the two major parties in India the Indian National Congress championing secular/semi secular Indian nationalism and the Bharatiya Janata Party articulating the vision of Hindu nationalism. This has led to the constitutionalist communist parties being accepted as respectable in the Indian state‘s official culture.
The rise of the Naxalite movement and also its suppression and re-emergence has had many cultural offshoots in the form of poetry, plays, fiction and films. The movement also gave birth to a new generation of left-wing academics and journalists. The long term implications of the rise of the Naxalite movement The long term implications of the rise of Naxalite movement are twofold: one, the incorporation of India‘s constitutionalist communist parties into India‘s ruling establishment and two, the emergence of a sustainable communist tendency in India wedded to the path of armed struggle. With the sustainability of the armed struggle communist tendency, a situation has emerged where there is co-existence in a strictly limited sense between this communist tendency now called the Communist Party of India (Maoists) and the Indian state.
This coexistence has assumed a specific character- the movement led by the CPI (Maoists) is contained within the most underdeveloped regions of India that are resource rich. The India state has de facto accepted that area consisting of several districts in central India as Naxalite area of influence. The specific coexistence works in this way that the CPI (Maoist) movement cannot expand beyond this contained area and the Indian state is not able to crush the movement in that area without incurring significant security force losses and massive human rights violations. This coexistence is, of course, temporary and ridden with tensions and perpetual conflict. It cannot be totally ruled out that Indian capitalist class supported by the international corporations and the Indian big business may pressurise the Indian state to launch sustained armed attack on CPI(Maoists) to wrest back the control of those regions of central India that are currently under CPI(Maoist) control. If possible, the international and national capital would want to have unhindered access to these regions for extraction of region‘s natural resources for expansion of global and Indian capitalism. If the Indian state does succumb to this pressure and is able to muster sufficient national consensus to launch armed intrusion into these regions, it will lead to a scale of human rights violations that India has not seen so far.
Such a strategy on the part of the Indian state will further strengthen the militarisation of the Indian state. Such a scenario may be considered unthinkable now but history tells us that unthinkable do happen. On one aspect, the CPI (Maoist) perspective and strategy is different not only from the constitutionalist communist parties but also from the entire gamut of centrist and right wing parties. The CPI (Maoist) does not subscribe to the idea of India as one nation and recognises the multiple nationalities in India and the right of these nations to self-determination. If the political economy of India‘s capitalist development leads to intensification of conflicts between multiple regional nationalist aspirations and the Centre representing one unified Indian nationalism, whether secular or Hindu, this may lead to the possibilities of alliance between communist and regional formations against the Centre, an alliance the Centre may not be able to crush. That historical possibility for re-imagining India‘s future still persists.
The Naxalite movement was the culmination of the conflict between two tendencies in the Indian communist movement. In its first phase, its support base was mainly among the peasants and tribal communities, and in the second phase, its main support base shifted to urban students and youth. In its second phase, it represented some of the radicalism and the iconoclasms of the wider global student and youth movement of 1968. Its long term legacy in India has been in four main areas: one, it has given birth to a sustainable communist tendency following the extra parliamentary path of armed struggle; two, it has given birth to a human rights/democratic rights/civil liberties movement in India; third, it has produced at least two generations of academics and journalists inspired by the movement in the direction of Marxism, and fourth, its impact has been seen in quite significant in varieties of literary and artistic productions.
Pritam Singh, is Professor of Economics, Oxford Brooks University.