The First Naxal – A Review of Kanu Sanyal’s Biography

December 1, 2014


[Book Review of The First Naxal: An Authorised Biography of Kanu Sanyal by Bappaditya Paul (Delhi, Thousand Oaks: Sage), pp. xiv+249.]

By Jayanta Bhattacharya

The book under review makes the supposedly robust claim that Kanu Sanyal, one of the key personalities who pioneered the uprising of Naxalbari, was the “First Naxal”. Sage publications being the publisher, the book should gain a wider audience than any Bengali book written on this subject. Moreover, particularly in this era of “de-politicization” of students’ politics as well as a palpably vacuous social milieu inscribed by pragmatism, this text (perhaps no text being an exception) should be critically and carefully read. One can regard it as a human document too, with political notes and overtones heavily inscribed.

In his now classic essay – The Death of the Author – Roland Barthes reminded us, “We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.” We find this insight at work throughout the “authorized biography of Kanu Sanyal” by Bappaditya Pal, who took interviews of Sanyal 121 times or more over a period spanning more than three years, beginning in 2007. Following these interviews, the author recreates a history of the peasants’ struggle in Naxalbari in general and the Naxalbari uprising and its aftermath in particular.

The Beginnings

Almost at the outset, Pal claims Kanu Sanyal to be “the founder of the Naxalite movement” (p. 2). Anyone who has some acquaintance with the Naxalbari movement may be surprised at this assertion. Such a declaration seems to mangle some historical facts as well as the ontological character of a revolution which reconstituted Indian society, psyche, administrative programs, state functioning and, moreover, academia forever. It became a referent. To quote Samar Sen, “Naxalbari exploded many a myth and restored faith in the courage and character of the revolutionary left in India… Indeed the upheaval was such that nothing remained the same after Naxalbari. People had to readjust their position vis-à-vis every aspect of the system: political, administrative, military, cultural.” (Naxalbari and After: A Frontier Anthology, Vol. 1, Foreward)

Even with this argument in mind, we should not miss an important aspect of Kanu Sanyal’s life. In Bappaditya Pal’s words, “Enmeshed in political quest, Sanyal appeared for the ISc exam in 1948 only to come unsuccessful. He failed in chemistry.” (p. 12. Emphasis added) It may be seen again as a quest for an honest political person (in tune with Sanyal’s terms) as well. Long ago, in Greece, we know about the mythical figure of Diogenes (of Sinope) who searched for an honest man, with a lantern in broad daylight.

Before his initiation into communist doctrines, Sanyal was inclined towards the politics of the Congress party. It came out of the environment he was nurtured in. But after the provincial government of West Bengal clamped a ban on the Communist party in 1948, he was bewildered – “why on earth a political party would be banned in Independent (sic) India, which now free from the clutches of the British?” (p. 26)

His new association and journey with the Communist party – from CPI to CPI (M) to CPI (ML) – started. His most important days, as it transpires from the book, were during the making and burgeoning of the Naxalbari movement. It is quite interesting to learn how he overcame the dilemma of choosing between the struggle to find a job for the survival of a lower middle class family and becoming an all time whole timer for the Communist Party without caring for any sort of personal gain or material incentive. This fact becomes acutely true in an age of aggressive homogenization of a heterogeneous world, reverberating with the “hymn” of success, benefit and profit.

Importantly, throughout this journey, neither Sanyal nor the author ever completely leaves the topography and terrain of North Bengal. Sans his incarcerations for a few occasions in jails outside the region, like Kolkata and some other places, Sanyal never did move beyond Naxalbari and its vicinity. Neither was he in the mood for doing so. I would dare to call it a sort of the myopic vision of agrarian movements in India. I strongly suspect the book has never transcended this myopic handicap and unfortunately, it charts out a rather simple and, sometimes, naïve, trajectory of Sanyal’s life from his childhood to his demise. Moreover, an umpteen number of gross historical and even grammatical as well as syntactical errors are splattered throughout. The “authorised biography”, I think, could have been conceived and framed in a better way to give a more illuminative understanding of an important leader like Kanu Sanyal who passed through a chequered course throughout his life.

According to the author, the Second World War “broke out in 1934, with Great Britain leading the Allied forces against Adolf Hitler’s Germany.” (p. 11) Again, panchasher manwantar (পঞ্চাশের মন্বন্তর) or the great Bengal Famine of 1943 has been referred to be in the period 1940-41 – “During 1940-41, a massive scarcity of food and clothing hit the entire Bengal province. The crisis spelled onto the Darjeling hills as well.” (p. 11)

At this juncture, one may take into account two or three issues. First, how does one reconcile these infantile errors and lapses in a book so intimately intertwined with a series of stubbornly turbulent changes arising out of society, culture, economics, history and people’s uprising? Second, the Bengal Famine of 1943 was not simply “a massive scarcity of food and clothing”, it was much more beyond this simple statement. People and the State confronted each other. The Communist Party of India etched out a very significant role during this period and their acceptance in public perception came to fruition. The omission of all these facts does not make any proper sense of the succeeding preparatory premise of Naxalbari movement. Third, as stated by the author, when the crisis spelled onto the Darjeeling hills it became an object of Kanu Sanyal’s. Does this meaningfully constitute Sanyal as a primordial figure, as the founder of the Naxalbari movement? Contrarily, from a more objective standpoint, he should be better designated as a very dedicated organizer and leader of the Naxalbari movement. Consequently, there remains an epistemological hiatus between the portrayal of Sanyal as “the founder” or the leader and organizer of the Naxalbari movement.

[An aside: throughout the book “Oraon” people has been written as “Oran”. I do not think it proper as Oraons are inhabitants of Naxalbari and tea garden areas for many generations and they are spelt always as Oraon, not Oran. ]

Kanu Sanyal the Pragmatist?

In Sanyal’s reminiscence, “Truly speaking, the series of actions throughout 1954-55 had laid the actual foundation for the landmark Naxalbari uprising of 1967.” There is nothing to argue against this statement. But simplistic observations of this nature should be substantiated by a more detailed analysis of economic, political, social as well as national and international happenings of the time.

Let us take a quick view. The agrarian crisis of the late 1950s and the failure of the Nehruvian program of self-sufficiency and so many other factors accrued to give birth to the Naxalbari uprising. It was the period when the first agreement on deliveries of American farm surpluses to India under PL 480 was enacted. It was an agreement “which compelled India to finance indirectly the Indian private sector and American firms operating in India, in exchange for the foodgrains.” (In the Wake of Naxalbari, Sahitya Samsad edn, p. 79) By 1955, India was bound to the USA and other American dominated international organizations like the World Bank, by an outstanding debt of Rs. 1,185 million. At the same time, American private investments in the Indian economy had increased from Rs. 179.6 million in 1948 to Rs. 474.9 million in 1955. (Ibid, p. 80)

While looking back to the 1960s, Sanyal seems to attach more importance to the peasant movement of 1959 than that of Naxalbari – “In fact, in my opinion, 1959 had more potentials than 1967 when the Naxalbari movement actually broke out.” Unfortunately, as in the case of 1954-55, he does not mention any national or international background which could have led to the more promising nature of 1959, as he claims. The first communist government took over power in Kerala in 1957. It was dismissed by the Congress Central government in 1959. The dire crisis of food grains led to massive mass movements across India. Moreover, although the money earnings increased from 139 in 1966 to 160 in 1968 (base 1961 = 100), real earnings fell from 95 in 1966 to 94 in 1968 (base 1961 = 100). (In the Wake of Naxalbari, p. 51) By the end of the sixties there still existed an estimated 65,000 acres of surplus land (owned by tea estates) and about 19,000 acres of Khas (private land belonging to jotedars) and vested land in the Naxalbari area. It was this land that provided the focal point of the violence of 1967 in Naxalbari, Kheribari and Phansidea. (Maurius Damas, Approaching Naxalbari, p. 124) Obviously enough to give rise to a seething social mood.

Prior to it, on 29th August 1959, 80 people were killed by police firing in Calcutta. It ignited a fiery response among the cadres of the Communist and general populace as well. Internationally, a significant number of Euro-American academia came out on the street –
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets! (Pablo Neruda, “I’m explaining a few things”) They valiantly confronted and fought police and army. In Vietnam, the peoples’ struggle sustained every conceivable or inconceivable as well as the most brutal American onslaughts over common people. Without yielding to the onslaughts, they relentlessly marched forward to crush American aggression and their every possible maneuver.

It is hard to guess why Kanu Sanyal does not mention anything about these historical phenomena. He reins his accounts of the period limited merely to Naxalbari experiences. This is just what a myopic vision and truncated analysis of events may lead to. Retrospectively thinking, it may be a reason that in the later period, despite all his efforts to build up an all India revolutionary Communist party, he failed time and again. He seems to lack in broader vision as well as dynamic capabilities to incorporate aspirations of all assorted sections of people under the canopy of the organization. To me, Kanu Sanyal appears to be prone to pragmatic thinking, often having a sharp rupture with a theoretical way of conceptualizing. I wonder if it made him submerge in the quagmire of pragmatism.

Throughout the book, we find one Kanu Sanyal, who is moderate at his education, almost preternaturally devoted to his work among poor people, almost never openly or seriously countering arguments of his senior comrades.

But his psyche and personal characteristics do not end there. Throughout his reminiscences he often becomes harsh and unsympathetic to the extent of not mentioning even the brutal killing of Saroj Datta. Saroj Datta should not deserve such disregard and contempt from one of his leading comrades. The only “offense” Datta might have done was by offering his sole loyalty to Charu Mazumdar and armed uprising of the peasantry. Moreover, Sanyal draws attention to a few simple issues with a serious note. Dr. K. N. Chatterjee had donated three bicycles to the CPI Siliguri subdivisional committee. Charu Mazumdar, Biren Bose and Atin Bose used to visit the tea gardens on those bicycles. He laconically remarks, “But it was more of a joyride for them than anything else.” Could anything be more damaging than depicting the whole affair as a joy ride? Was it a preamble to negating the contributions of Charu Mazumdar as the main architect of the Naxalbari uprising? Charu Mazumdar’s role in the making of Naxalbari is a historical phenomenon which cannot be ignored or erased summarily. For further appraisal, one may go through numerous books (including In the Wake of Naxalbari by Sumanta Banerjee, Naxalbari and After: A Frontier Anthology, Charu Mazumderer Katha by Souren Basu, Approaching Naxalbari by Marius Damas, to name a few) and innumerable articles published especially in Economic and Political Weekly and Frontier.

Kanu Sanyal and the Charu Mazumdar Line

In his own statement, “Before coming to Visakhapatnam (jail), I was under the impression that the majority of the anti-revisionist Communist leaders in India were in conformity with the strategies of Charu Mazumdar and that was the prime reason why I never dared to challenge his strategies in public.” (p. 163. Italics added) Interestingly, again in Visakhapatnam jail, there occurred the recovery of Sanyal’s identity (? Somewhat akin to Ashis Nandy’s “loss and recovery of self”) – “I started venting out my criticisms on Charu Da’s flawed policies, which made me assert my own identity independent of Charu Da’s shadow.” (p. 162. Italics added)

How did this shadow begin to cast its spell on Kanu Sanyal’s personality and life? In his own words, “Many legends – some fictitious and some true – were in circulation about Charu Da’s extraordinary genius. These included his reported ability to make an exact forecast about his exam score in college days; being able to complete huge voluminous books overnight; leaving his opponents awestruck with logical arguments on any topic under the sun; daredevil attitude and so on and so forth. He was also well revered in the Communist circle for his role in the Tebhaga Movement of 1946.” (p. 34. Emphasis added) All these taken together along with his Historic Eight Documents may be a pointer to the fact that Mazumdar, though not even a member of the Central Committee of the CPI (M), became the secretary of the CPI (ML).

As an aside, here and there we find Sanyal’s personal rapport with jail superintendents at least on three occasions, which made his life in jail more tolerable and provided some amenities too. Moreover, regarding his arrest Sanyal makes a sinister hint at Charu Mazumdar – “The circumstances leading to my arrest was quite a mystery.” (p. 91)

Chapter Fourteen is written solely for “Off to China and Meeting Mao Tse-tung”. The tit-bits of this journey may not be very palatable or of much interest to all groups of readers. One important event to mention is that during his meeting with Mao Tse-tung he never did mention the Historic Eight Documents, or the name of Charu Mazumdar. It caused a rift between Deepak Biswas and Sanyal. In Sanyal’s statement, “since Charu Da was not personally involved in the Naxalbari uprising, I did not find any immediate context to make reference to him. But Deepak was not satisfied with my clarification and this created a rift between us.” (p. 124)

As we pointed out earlier, it is pragmatism, not theoretical or intellectual conceptualizing, that carries much import to Kanu Sanyal.

We should recollect what Charu Mazumdar had to say in his Eight Documents regarding the struggle of 1959 and afterwards –

From 1959, on every democratic movement of India, the government has been increasingly launching violent attacks. We have not given leadership to any active resistance movement against these violent attacks. We gave the call for passive resistance in the face of these attacks, like the mourning procession after the food movement, among such instances. We shall have to remember Comrade Mao Tsetung’s teaching: “Mere passive resistance against repression drives a wedge in the fighting unity of the masses and invariably leads to the path of surrender.” So, in the present era during any mass movement, an active resistance movement will have to be organised. The programme of active resistance has become an absolute necessity before any mass movement. Without this programme, to organise any mass movement today means to plunge the masses in despondency. As a result of the passive resistance of 1959, it was not possible to organise any mass rally on the demand for food in Calcutta in the years 1960-61. This organisation of active resistance will arouse a new confidence in the minds of the masses and the tide of struggle will arise. What do we mean by active resistance? First, preservation of cadres. For this preservation of cadres, proper shelters and a communication system are necessary. Secondly, teaching the common people the techniques of resistance, like lying down in the face of firings, or taking the help of some strong barrier, forming barricades, etc. Thirdly, efforts to avenge every attack with the help of groups of active cadres, which has been described by Comrade Mao Tsetung as “tit for tat struggle.” At the initial stage, in proportion to their attacks, we shall be able to avenge a few attacks only. But if even a little success is- gained in one case, extensive propaganda will create new enthusiasm among the masses. These active resistance struggles are possible in cities and in the countryside, everywhere. This truth has been tested in the Negro resistance movement in America.

– (Carry on the Struggle Against Modern Revisionism – from Eight Documents, 1965-67)

Souren Basu observed, “Charu Mazumdar had drafted his political thinking distinctly and as a continuous journey through the Second to the Fifth Document. These documents did bring forward definite political and organizational programs, which served as the pivot for the Naxalbari peasant struggle as well as the formation of the CPI (ML).” (Charu Mazumderer Katha, p. 86)

It is not much evident from the book how Kanu Sanyal being released in June 1966 could be able to determine the course of the struggle in Naxalbari. Mazumdar’s documents had begun to be practiced since early-1965. Sanyal was in jail from 4 December 1964 to June 1966. It may also appear to be shady to learn about Sanyal’s encounter with Mazumdar, “No revolution can achieve success and sustenance by remaining isolated from the masses. The formation of small combat groups and the conspiratorial individual killing, which you are prescribing, would only push us towards a wrong direction.” (p. 86. Emphasis in original) In Sanyal’s own words, he began to come out of allegedly overarching “Charu Da’s shadow” only in 1975 in Vishakhapatnam jail. One may wonder how could he enunciate such a harsh criticism of Mazumar in 1967?

Damas lets us know that the police in Naxalbari and Siliguri area responded by adding six to their existing three patrol post and using ‘dragnet’ operations to capture retreating guerrilla bands – “The main guerrilla force split itself into three main groupings under the leadership of Kanu Sanyal, Jangal Santhal and Mujibur Rahaman.” (Approaching Naxalbari, p. 86) Additionally, Kanu Sanyal was the person to declare publicly the birth of the CPI (ML) at a mass meeting in Calcutta on the 22nd April 1967. Like a number of leaders of the pre-CPI (ML) AICCCR (All India Coordination Committee of the Communist Revolutionaries) era, if he could assert his definite ideological position on Naxalbari the revolutionary course of the Communist movement in India could have taken a different locus.

However, the book provides a number of rather anecdotal information to our received understanding of the emergence and spread of the Naxalbari movement not only throughout India but also to adjacent countries of South Asia. We come to realize how the embers of the Naxalbari movement were being made relevant (sometime appearing to the extent of hoodwinking) to the changing socio-economic-political scenario of India by different organizations, including one of Sanyal’s.

It may be of some relevance to know that in his early years of communist life Kanu Sanyal failed to grasp the Bengali translation of Stalin’s The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union even after repeated attempts. Despite such gross academic and intellectual shortcomings, he remained most comfortable within the peasantry. It is intriguing to know why he actually never trod beyond this point. It may be one of the reasons that he could not sincerely honor undaunted struggle and unfathomable sacrifice of the students and workers, not to mention of middle class people, at least as glimpsed through the book.

Almost at the end of his mortal and political life, on being questioned “Would you support a ban on the CPI (Maoist) in West Bengal” he gave an ambiguous as well as swerving reply – “State oppression can never be the answer for tackling any sort terrorism. You ban one outfit today and another would crop up tomorrow. Thus the need is to alienate them by going closer to the poor people address their grievances first.” (p. 185) We should remember that it was the ban on the Communist party in 1948 that was instrumental in the making of Kanu Sanyal a communist forever.

After Naxalbari

Sanyal and Souren Basu were in Vishakhapatnam jail in 1975. The jail term had offered him “the opportunity to get a wholesome idea of Communist Movement in India.” (p. 163) Moreover, before being lodged there he held the idea that “majority of the anti-revisionist Communist leaders in India were in conformity with the strategies of Charu Mazumdar” and that was “the prime reason, why I never ever dared to challenge his strategies in public.” (Ibid) During this period T. Naggi Reddy who parted with the AICCCR in 1968 approached Sanyal. Both of them converged primarily on three basic issues – (1) CPI (M) as a revisionist party, (2) the call of election boycott and the line of annihilation are to be discarded, and (3) unlike CPI (ML), the role of mass organizations is to be strongly upheld. But they could not unite on the question of the nature of the Indian bourgeoisie. While Reddy (his organization being APCCCR – Andhra Pradesh Coordination Committee of the Communist Revolutionaries) was in favor of seeing the Indian bourgeoisie as their international counterpart, Sanyal “proposed tagging them as compradors in nature, less harmful than the absolute compradors.” (p. 174) As a result of this difference (I am little convinced how much important it might be with respect to India peasantry, workers, youth and middle class people), they fell apart and never united.

Prior to Sanyal’s release from jail, like-minded comrades formed the organization OCCCR (Organising Committee for the Communist Revolutionaries). The first West Bengal conference of OCCCR was held in February 1980. Kanu Sanyal became the secretary. Since its beginning, it excluded the groups “pursuing the Charu Mazumdar line; it was deemed futile to talk to them as they were adamant to carry forward the annihilation line and belittled the utility of mass organizations.” (p. 173) By 1984, as a result of Sanyal’s ceaseless efforts and his fellow comrades, a favorable milieu for “consultations and negations” was in the offing. But, unfortunately, though these groups upheld many political thinkings on a similar line the unification committee “did not meet ever again”. In 1985, six Naxalite groups including the OCCR (by then diminished by one C) merged to give birth to a new organization – COI-ML, the Communist Organistion of India (Marxist-Leninist). Sanyal was elected its general secretary and jubilantly noted, “I was feeling for the first time post-1967 that we were capable of doing something big. We are in a position to bring about a paradigm shift in the Indian Communist struggle.” (p. 176. Emphasis added)

However, the euphoria was not a lasting phase. “By 1991, the COI-ML got split into two camps – one led by Kanu Sanyal and the other headed by the Karnataka based leader M. H. Krishnappa. The reasons for the split were more to do with operational aspects of the party; ideological issues secondary.” (p. 176. Emphasis added) By the late 1990s innumerable Naxalite groups and factions came up, sometimes with fierce infighting among them. In author’s note, “Kanu Sanyal continue to strive for a visibly important target – the unity of the Indian Communist revolutionaries.” We come to know that as a result of his persistent efforts, the COI-ML and the Central Organizing Committee of CPI (Marxist-Leninist)-Janashakti faction merged. On 17 January 2003, they assumed the name of the CPI-ML.” (p. 179) In January 2005, the CPI-ML Red Flag headed by K. N. Ramachandran of Kerala merged with the CPI-ML.

After all these mergers and divisions in succession, there exists at present at least 12 active Naxalite parties, as the book informs us. Despite being bitterly antagonistic with Charu Mazumdar’s line of election boycott and upholding the slogan of parliamentary path, the CPI-ML of Kanu Sanyal is yet to have a berth in the state assembly or parliament. “In 2009, the party only had one elected gram panchayat member at the old bastion of Naxalbari.” (p. 180)

How to reconcile such visible failures of a party with its total commitment to parliamentary path and general elections since its birth as well as outright rejection of the “path of Charu Mazumdar”? Notably, “In sharp contrast to the complete disarray state of the CPI-ML (Kanu Sanyal) … the Communist Party of India (Maoist) … is rising from strength to strength with the every passing day.” (p. 181) Contrarily, Kanu Sanyal “instead accused the Maoists of practicising left adventurism” (p. 182) We can juxtapose this statement with reply regarding the “ban” of this outfit, as I have discussed before.

Ending Thoughts

“He was one of the very few prominent personalities, who had extended an open support to the Singur and Nandigram agitations without a political equation in mind.” (p. 183) One may quip – did he have that enough strength and acceptability to people to make out any “political equation?” In my opinion, Sanyal had again overread a situation and made his statement bereft of any economic, political and social analysis, “Nandigram can excel Naxalbari.” (p.183) Prospective readers of the book would judge these swings and shifts in one’s cognitive world. Perception can never substitute cognition, I assume.

Despite all this, the author rightly points out, “There are not many political leaders be it in India or abroad, whose private and public life is synonymous.” This “authorised biography” of Kanu Sanyal reveals this particular aspect of a leader’s life. It is so rare now!

As a cautionary note, the mere presence of rarity of personal attributes does not add luster or glorify its ontological nature and epistemological fissures. To comprehend this narrative and trajectory, one should go through this book on Kanu Sanyal. It may provide some clues to the present day’s predicament.

The author can be reached at drjayanta [at] gmail [dot] com

1 Comment »

One Response to “The First Naxal – A Review of Kanu Sanyal’s Biography”

  1. Sthabir Dasgupta Says:
    January 15th, 2018 at 23:15

    The last paragraph of this review is most notable.However, does the reviewer really believe that this book ‘may provide some clues to the present day’s predicament’? The very tenor of his review sounds otherwise!

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