By the end of the 1960s, a militant movement, defying the two main communist parties, had started. Because of its origin in an armed peasant revolt in an area in north Bengal called Naxalbari, such movements are often called “Naxalite” both in Bengal and the rest of India. The usual description of the rural economy by students and intellectuals who were sympathetic to this movement largely followed the above-described “semi-feudal” debt bondage line. The leaders of the movement declared “the decade of the 70s as the decade of liberation”.

In rural areas, some land grabbing and assassinations of “class enemies” were carried out, and urban areas saw a great deal of terror and selective, though sometimes purposeless, killings. The government of the day then launched an operation of brutal repression, imprisonment, torture and killing. (I joined Ashok Rudra in donating money for the legal defence of Naxalite prisoners.) By the middle of the 1970s, the movement was largely snuffed out in West Bengal (though embers of the fire still burn in the jungles of central India).

In my Kolkata neighbourhood, I saw the movement also as a generational revolt. In some left families, while the elderly or middle-aged members had their allegiance to the traditional communist parties, the younger members (sometimes even teenagers) expressed their defiance of the older generations by being active in or sympathetic to the NaxaIite movement. And, like young people elsewhere, they had a partly romantic, partly hot-headed view of the potential for revolution.

I had a peculiar experience of meeting a group of urban youth who described themselves as Naxalites in Delhi. In the early 1970s, the eminent historian Ranajit Guha often visited us in the evenings. In the 1950s, he had left the communist party and became a major scholar of intellectual history, and, in his later life, was a pioneer in looking at Indian history from the subaltern point of view – history from the bottom or marginalised sections of society. When I met him, he was sympathetic to the Naxalite movement and had connections with some of the active youths in Delhi who were then underground. He once challenged me and asked if I’d dare meet these youths, and get acquainted with their “ground-level experience” on land relations in India. He said that this could be a “‘learning opportunity” for professors like me. I immediately agreed. So a few other academics and I were instructed to come one evening to a “secret” place in Delhi.

At the appointed hour, we gathered in a darkened room with windows tightly curtained and only a couple of candles lit. Soon we saw about ten or 12 young men marching into the room, chanting the hushed greeting of “Red Salute”. (To me, they looked like earnest young men of affluent families, possibly ex-students of St Stephen’s College.) Guha, presiding over the occasion, said that we’d have first a statement of the current land and the village revolutionary situation from those youths as they saw it. Then I, as someone who had researched the agrarian relations in India, would make a statement and later, if the other academics had anything to add they could. After that, the youths would respond and then the meeting would end.

It started with the group leader putting up a tiny map of India on the wall and pinning a little red paper flag at each of the places where “action” was currently going on. Even though India has more than half a million villages, the map was so small that ten or so red flags were enough to make the whole map look red. The leader pointed to the map as obvious proof that India was “ripe” for revolution. Then he gave his understanding of the ground reality of land and peasants. All I heard was a collection of clichés as if he was just regurgitating rhetoric he had learned from some cheap pamphlet. I had actually expected much better from these intelligent-looking young men.

Then, when my turn came, I said I agreed with them that the condition of the landless peasants of India was indeed atrocious, but the nature of exploitation and the type of agrarian relations in different areas were quite complex and diverse. I then cited some simple data from my research to illustrate my points. I ended by saying that not being aware of the complexities might actually hurt their revolutionary cause. Then, after some brief comments from the other academics, Guha invited the youth leader to respond to our comments. I braced myself for being called “reactionary”, “bourgeois”, a “class enemy”, etc., but what happened next left me aghast. The leader just repeated his initial statement in toto and nothing whatsoever in response to our points. It seemed to me that he had learned one statement by rote and used it for all occasions. Then they all stood up and left the room, marching and chanting “Red Salute”. That was indeed a learning experience for me!

The Naxalite phase in Bengal was a short, tragic chapter in politics, but in Bengal’s cultural-emotional life, its implications were deeper and reflected in its literature – most poignantly yet forcefully captured by the writer Mahasweta Devi, one of Bengal’s most powerful political novelists. Among the film directors I knew reasonably well, both Mrinal Sen and Buddhadeb Dasgupta intensively grappled with the theme, in the films Calcutta 71 and Padatik (The Guerrilla Fighter) for the former, and Dooratva (Distance) and Grihajuddha (The War at Home) for the latter. Again and again, in the 20th century, some Bengali youth were fascinated by the romanticism of revolutionary violence – as was the case in the early decades of the freedom struggle against the British (I have earlier mentioned that my maternal uncle caught in its vortex), then again in the 1940s when the sharecroppers’ movement (called “tebhaga”) was soon followed by a period of communist insurgency in 1948-50, and then in the Naxalite movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In early literature, Tagore often engaged with this theme (something already familiar in 19th-century Russian literary imagination, reflected in several novels). By temperament and political judgement, Tagore was opposed to revolutionary violence and the unthinking passions associated with it, and yet, he had a soft corner for the young people involved. This theme is dominant, for example, in his novel Char Adhyay (Four Chapters) and, in its preface, he writes about his once close friend Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, who, parting company with Tagore, joined the revolutionary movement.

In this preface, Tagore recalls the brief touching moment one evening when he came back after some years as a disillusioned man to see Tagore. (In the 1862 Russian novel Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev had a similar ambivalent attitude to the radical character Yevgeny Bazarov.) In much of the profuse literature generated by the Naxalite period, while the repressive state is in the background, there is a pining over the wastage of the lives of so many idealistic youths for a brave social justice cause – a cause that was, in my judgement, an insufficiently thought-out one.

With Ashok Rudra (who was much senior to me and yet, my most frequent co-author in this period) I shared a great deal of common interest in economic, political, literary and cultural matters, but we had some serious differences as well. One of them was on this issue of revolutionary violence. He did not quite agree with my belief that however just the cause may be, violence inevitably creates a monster that can easily spin out of control and devour the cause itself, apart from triggering the brutal counter-force of the state. Ashok Rudra had introduced me to the illustrious poet and journalist Samar Sen, who also nursed a similar penchant for the idea of revolutionary violence. I did not argue with him as I did with Rudra, but I made my views clear to him, though at his invitation I contributed some articles to the radical magazine Frontier that Sen was the founder-editor of. Many years after his death, I gave the Samar Sen Memorial Lecture in Kolkata in Bengali.

Excerpted with permission from Charaiveti: An Academic’s Global Journey, Pranab Bardhan, HarperCollins India.