Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances – A Book Excerpt from India After Naxalbari

August 9, 2018

Bernard D’Mello

Although the 1967 revolutionary armed peasant uprising in Naxalbari, at the foot of the Indian Himalayas, was brutally crushed, the insurgency gained new life elsewhere in India. In fact, this revolt has turned out to be the world’s longest-running “people’s war,” and Naxalbari has come to stand for the road to revolution in India. What has gone into the making of this protracted Maoist resistance? Bernard D’Mello’s narrative in his new book India after Naxalbari: Unfinished History (New York: Monthly Review Press; Delhi: Aakar Books) answers this question by tracing the circumstances that gave rise to India’s “1968” decade of revolutionary humanism and those that led to the triumph of the “1989” era of appallingly unequal growth condoned by Hindutva-nationalism, the Indian variant of Nazism. 

What follows is an excerpt from the end of chapter 1, “Naxalite! ‘Spring Thunder,’ Phase I”

Neither the lives of the individuals who came to the fore in “Spring Thunder,” Phase I, who have been profiled here, nor their “present as history,” can be understood without comprehending both. The powers-that-be regarded these ordinary people as the greatest danger to India’s liberal-political democracy and did what was expected of them to preserve the set-up. Given the positions of the Ranjit Guptas or the S.S. Rays, or indeed, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in the institutional structure of the system, it does not seem possible that they could have been sensitized to the consequences of their actions, although, five decades on, those repercussions are still unfolding. This narrative has tried to understand “Spring Thunder,” Phase I from the perceptions of the revolutionary participants themselves, to figure out the motives and actions of the tribal- and Dalit-peasant protagonists.

Yes, there is a political intent to what I am doing but this does not mean that I cannot do it objectively. Certainly, my politics has shaped what I have written; my own experience and political participation in Indian society has influenced what I have penned. I detest the condescension of many Indian Marxists to the Naxalites, as if the Naxalites have been ignorant of Marxism, as if their politics has been nothing but “petty-bourgeois left adventurist,” and that what they needed, metaphorically speaking, was an appointment with these Marxist intellectuals to provide them with good theory, which will then, in turn, lead to “correct” practice! Sheer arrogance, this treatment of ordinary people almost as things. I can sense the manner of their contemptuous scorn when they read what I have written, as if writing with deeply felt emotions is always bereft of objectivity. 

Pray, how can anger and indignation, empathy and compassion, this in the face of terror and inhumanity, be considered out of place? Are not passion and rage the stuff that drives revolutionaries to make them what they are? Aren’t all revolutionaries emotionally charged with fury, revulsion, and moral indignation against the powers-that-be? Isn’t it the case that they cannot but raise objections and thus refuse to remain silent in the face of the myriad injustices and indignities that the poor are made to suffer, no matter the cost to themselves? Aren’t revolutionary moments precisely those when the fetters of intuitive self-preservation are thrown to the winds? Why obfuscate such matters? I am writing about “ordinary people … in extraordinary circumstances,” just like Sumanta Banerjee did [1], and I have strong opinions of the Naxalites who brought some of those ordinary people together in what became their joint radical political project. Perhaps my opinion has been shaped by the manner of the Maoist intellectuals I have known and trust, mainly those from the civil liberties and democratic rights struggle—here one comes across communists who are radical-democratic and libertarian, both qualities Marx associated with the word communist.  

The Naxalites have been people with a revolutionary Marxist commitment; their politics has been the expression of their hopes for a better world. They have had a sense of shared interests among themselves, and against the Indian state and ruling classes; they developed a revolutionary consciousness that has been radical-democratic, and this awareness has come from their own values and experience, in the course of their struggles, as they, mostly, lost against the repression and anti-democratic ethos of the Indian state and ruling classes. It was the fusion of the revolutionary romanticism of revolting middle-class youth with the class consciousness of toiling poor peasants and landless laborers that made “Spring Thunder,” Phase I what it was—both, the rebel youth and the poor peasants/landless laborers, could not have been made solely by the “vanguard” that came out of the CPM. 

That vanguard as well as the rebel youth, both of whom had given up the comforts, the safety, and the privileges that came from their middle-class social origins, chose to pitch their lot with the deprived peasants and laborers; they took up the revolutionary cause, and thus risked their very lives. Unlike the leaders and cadre of the parliamentary left parties, they were hounded by the repressive apparatus of the Indian state; many of them remained in detention without trial for years, brutally tortured in police interrogation cells; some of them were cold-bloodedly assassinated in the forests of Srikakulam or “shot like dogs under the canopy of the open sky” on the Kolkata maidan, like the communist poet and leader of the West Bengal unit of the CPI(ML), Saroj Dutta was, on the midnight of August 4/5, 1971.        

Despite the positive resolve of the leaders and the resolute support that they got in some of the areas of armed struggle, the Naxalites erred, both in the adoption of appropriate tactics and in correctly responding to the course of events. But what of the existing conditions on the ground and the context, what of the then “present as history”? What was new in India in the decade of the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s and what was part of the longer process? It is time to turn then to “‘1968’ India as History.” One aspect that needs to be kept in mind, though, about “Spring Thunder” Phase I while looking at India after Naxalbari, can be stated thus: In the failure of armed struggle and mass mobilization to come together, in the inability of the developing class consciousness and evolving revolutionary romanticism to find a common cultural home, something was lost. What and how much, I really cannot say for sure, but certainly, the Indian people and the Naxalite movement were among the losers.

Basically, the process of democratization lost what would have possibly been one of its most imaginative allies. Charu Mazumdar had encouraged urban youth, especially students—revolutionary romantics—joining the revolutionary movement to go to the countryside and “integrate with workers and poor and landless peasants [2],” learn from them and teach them, and in the process build a common cultural home. But this was not to be, at least during “Spring Thunder,” Phase I. The process had, however, begun, for instance, in Srikakulam with the guerrilla-poet Subbarao Panigrahi’s attempts to reach out to people through their own cultural forms. Some of these youngsters, not within the gaze of the “Stalinist” leaders, and hence not constricted by the fiat of the party, could allow their creative energies and those of the poor peasants and landless laborers to unfold. Both could then emerge as historical persons, responsible for their actions.       

Marx famously expressed the thought that people, in the process of changing the world, at the same time, change themselves. The poor and landless peasants—from tribal, Dalit or lower caste social backgrounds—made an attempt to overthrow their oppressors and change the class structure and institutions of Indian society. In undertaking these tasks, alongside middle-class, romantic revolutionaries in the making, their own conceptions of Indian society had begun to evolve, so also their values, their needs, their abilities, their aspirations. But abrupt defeat cut all of these short. Marx also famously said that human beings make their own history, but he was quick to add that they cannot and will not be allowed to do so in the manner of their own choosing. Nevertheless, “Spring Thunder” Phase I was an indication, a portent, of a section of the Indian people re-emerging, gathering strength once again, augmenting their forces to engage in a struggle that was going to be protracted, hard, and cruel over the years to follow.

References

[1] Sumanta Banerjee, in “Remembering My Old Comrades,” Frontier, 49:45 (May 14–20, 2017), writes about his comrade Bhabani Choudhury, of the “rumblings going on inside him—the urge for solidarity with the poor, and at the same time his love for Rabindranath [Tagore] and Bengali literature (which were dismissed as ‘reactionaries’ by the philistine leaders of the Naxalite movement)” [page 6].

[2] Charu Mazumdar, “Party’s Call to the Youth and Students”, Liberation, 2:11 (September 1969), translated from the original in Bengali, which appeared in the weekly, Deshabrati, August 21, 1969.