There really is a place called Naxalbari. It’s a small town with its own tiny railway station and state highway, straddling the route that links northern Bihar to northern Bengal, through forest, farmland and tea gardens. But the Naxalbari of revolutionary grammar is really a cluster of villages and hamlets with quirky names from nature and history: Hatighisa, after elephants; Phansideoa, literally, hanged; Bagdogra, derived from bagh or tiger. These are places on the way to Naxalbari from Siliguri.
Abhi [Abhijit Mazumdar, Charu Mazumdar’s son] and I get on to a small bus at Hospital Mor. We’re off to a place just shy of Naxalbari. From Hospital Mor all buses lead through a slice of the region known as Dooars to Panitanki – literally, water tank – at Nepal’s eastern border. A sliver meanders on to Khoribari for a dip south towards Katihar in Bihar.
It takes an age to negotiate Siliguri’s former pride and joy, Hill Cart Road, the sedate avenue of my childhood, now a smoking, honking mayhem of pedestrians, rickshaws, auto rickshaws, buses, scooters and motorcycles, and all manner of cars, sub-compact to luxury sedan.
“What’s so surprising?” Abhi snorts, when I point out expensive cars. “Siliguri was always a centre for timber, tea and smuggling. Now you have new businessmen in old businesses, and there are new millionaires in construction.” After crossing the sewer of Mahananda river that marks the boundary of Siliguri, we take a left at Tenzing Mor – to the right is the road to Darjeeling. There is a sprawling development just outside town, work in progress, neat, clean, a clone of suburban bungalows and condominiums in scores of cities across India. “Uttarayan,” a board says. “Heaven on earth in Siliguri.”
“The babus find the city too noisy and unclean,” Abhi notices my curiosity. “These used to be tea gardens, the land now converted for commercial use with government help. All the labourers of the garden lost their jobs and went away.” He laughs.
“The communist government of West Bengal has done this. You know, for us here in Bengal, the greatest enemy of the Left is the Left.”
Soon, there is unbroken expanse of tea gardens, old and new, on either side. Matigara Tea Estate, Pahargoomiah Tea Estate – where that other Naxalite icon Kanu Sanyal controls the union – Atal Tea Estate...
Then it’s time to get off.
We walk into a hut a few yards off the road. It’s broken, a patchwork of mud, straw and tile that covers an open veranda-like area, a couple of rooms and a tiny kitchen. A few hens and a rooster strut around, small potatoes are laid out on a coir-strung cot. The wall facing the open area is in disrepair, basic woodwork cracked and peeling. There is a poster on the wall of the Hindi movie star John Abraham on a humongous Yamaha motorbike. There’s another poster washed with the saffron, white and green of India’s flag. The pitch is simply worded: “Love your Country”.
Punjab-da and I shake hands as Abhi introduces us. He’s an old man in his seventies with stubble and epileptic shake, eyes awash with cataract. I sit beside him on another cot; Abhi pulls up a rickety chair. “Someone here likes motorcycles,” I offer. Punjab-da grins. “I love my country, my two sons love motorcycles.”
The door leading to the interior is open, and I can see some framed photographs on the wall. From left to right, Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and dirt marks left by a removed frame.
“The police come now and then to ask me questions. The police came a few months ago and broke it,” Punjab-da is still grinning. “It was a photograph of Mao Tse Tung.” A young boy, whom we had seen at a tiny bicycle repair shop by the road comes and stands near Punjab-da.
“Why only Mao?”
“Everyone talks of Maoists. They are scared of Maoists.” “Oh, they are really scared of Maoists,” Abhi chips in. “The border [with Nepal] being so close and porous.”
Punjab-da’s wife walks in then. Abhi and she greet each other with raised fist and “Lal salaam”. There is an offer of the inevitable laal-cha from Boudi, as Abhi calls her, elder brother’s wife.
After she leaves, Punjab-da gets a little pensive, and after a little verbal nudging from me that his name, Punjab Rao, seems a little “foreign” for Naxalbari, he says he’s originally from Amravati in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. A posting in the army brought him to these parts in the 1960s, and he married a Nepali girl and settled here after being decommissioned. They are all dead now, he tells me, his Nepali wife and the three sons they had together. “She is my second wife,” he says of Boudi, “and this is one of my two sons. They run a cycle repair shop and worship this,” he nods at the poster of John. “I still farm, do a little party work. That is not for them. Each to his own. But they have never held me back. I have been fortunate. They said, ‘You go and do what you have to, we are with you.’”
Respectfully, the boy brings a plaque wrapped in plastic from a shelf to our right that has some broken farm implements, a plate, a few stainless steel glasses. The plaque reads: “2nd All India Conference of All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha, On 9th to 11th Sep 2005, Jallandhar. Presented to Com. Punjab Rao, In Honour of His Glorious Services to Revolutionary Peasant Movement. Presented by AIKMS.”
“Did you feel proud when they gave you this?”
“No, not proud. People like us should have no place for pride. We are workers. We should work.”
The same year he travelled across the country to receive this honour, he approached a landlord near home and told him that as he had five acres of land, but really needed only four, could he spare one and settle landless peasants on that land? Amazingly, the landlord agreed. “But the panchayat, which is CPM controlled, stopped it. They were upset that they weren’t seen to be doing it. It is a strange world in this state. Left versus Left.”
Abhi and he laugh. It’s clear Punjab-da is very fond of Abhi, and seems to treat him like a son. I mention Charu Mazumdar’s name, and he places his hand to his heart. There’s a pacemaker there, Abhi tells me later, courtesy of donations from friends that cut across all ML factions, and party colleagues in CPI-ML (New Democracy). This faction is relatively safe here – for now. In Andhra Pradesh’s Khammam district, CPI (Maoist) cadres would in a few days visit Bironimadava village and beat up residents, threaten them to keep away from ML (New Democracy) folks. Extremely radical Left versus radical Left.
“Do you remember what happened on that day?” I ask Punjab-da.
He knows what I mean. “Twenty-fourth of May, 1967. Just up the lane from this house,” he points behind him, eyes alight, voice sharper. “Landless peasants had had enough.” Anger had been brewing over scarcity of food, issues of landlessness and bonded labour for a year. “There was talk of revolution, but they just wanted to assert their rights,” he recalls. “They had taken over land. Then the police came, called by the jotedar. As soon as we heard about it, we set off with whatever we had – swords, bows and arrows, spears, farming implements. The people with us, as soon as they saw the group of police and landlords, they let the arrows fly. One hit the landlord, another hit someone on the leg. The police ran away. That was the beginning.”
The police came back in large numbers the next day, though, Punjab-da recalls, and destroyed houses, broke what they could, mixed rice and lentils with dirt, destroyed all other food. By then the spark had spread to Bengaijote, just beyond Naxalbari; eleven protestors died by police firing that day.
“Naxalbari had its first martyrs,” says Punjab-da, looking at Abhi, tea forgotten. “And the Naxalbari movement was born. Bas.” Revolutionaries spoke of it in glowing terms: “Spring thunder struck all over India.” It spread to Ekwari and Mushahary in Bihar, Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh, parts of Punjab, and Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, areas of pressure-cooker rural poverty and caste discrimination. In two years, in April 1969, the CPI (ML), newly formed and energised, would be powerful enough to hold a massive public rally at Shahid Minar – Martyr’s Column, renamed from the earlier, colonial Ochterlony Monument – in Calcutta. In a matter of weeks, most leaders were underground, several were jailed, some killed.
By 1972, this edition of revolution would be pretty much over in Bengal and elsewhere, utterly steamrolled by the state. One of the worst massacres took place in August of that year in Kashipur and Baranagar areas near Calcutta, when police literally dragged out and killed known and suspected Naxals. There is no credible estimate of the numbers killed, beyond “hundreds”. Dozens disappeared, including some well-known Naxal leaders like Saroj Dutta and Sushital Roychoudhary, suave well-to-do intellectuals who looked like kindly uncles or indulgent grandfathers – as ever, revolutionaries are difficult to discern till they speak, act, or wear battle garb. Skirmishes continued well into 1973, a year when the number of Naxals in jails across India exceeded 30,000. Little remained thereafter, barring sentimental outpourings by urbane remnants before they were killed or had revolution squeezed out of them. Journalist and Naxal chronicler Sumanta Banerjee recorded such a moment:
“On 3 May 1975 five Naxalite prisoners were killed by the police in Howrah Jail, West Bengal. One among them was a 22-year-old student – Prabir Roy Choudhury, whose pet name was ‘Pakhi’ or bird. When they heard about the killing, Prabir’s comrades in Presidency Jail, Calcutta, inscribed the following lines on the wall of their cell with a piece of stone (they were not allowed the use of paper and pens):”
Here sleeps my brother.
Don’t stand by him
With a pale face and a sad heart.
For, he is laughter!
Don’t cover his body with flowers.
What’s the use of adding flowers to a flower? If you can,
Bury him in your heart.
You will find
At the twitterings of the bird of the heart
Your sleeping soul has woken up.
If you can,
Shed some tears,
All the blood of your body.”
Banerjee writes that 300 academics and writers from across the world, including Noam Chomsky and Simone de Beauvoir, wrote to the Indian government on 15 August 1974, Independence Day, asking it to take a compassionate view of matters. It was ignored. So was a call later that year from Amnesty International, when it listed in its annual report several cases of illegal detention and torture of Naxals in jails across India. The imposition of Emergency in June 1975, which led to massive censoring of news and banning of any form of public protest, brought the curtain down on Naxalbari – Maoism in India Mark I.
As Abhi and I leave, I try a lal-salaam in farewell, to see how it feels. I do it like a nervous novice—hesitant voice, heavy hand. I feel like a bad actor, but it’s oddly satisfying when Punjab-da bellows his response. Thirty-four years since his guru’s death, and this man still has religion.
As we wait for another bus to take us to Naxalbari town, I see the old movement’s alternate guru zip past riding pillion on a motorcycle, hunched against the wind, firmly gripping the back of the seat, broad pyjamas flapping in the wind.
“Kanu Sanyal,” Abhi says, pointing out the man who broke with his father, a development that many believe proved the death-knell for a faltering Naxalbari Mark I. “He’s out campaigning for elections, or could be that he’s heading on to a tea estate. He’s organising tea garden labour these days. You know that.”
Yes, I say. I hope to meet him.
[Kanu Sanyal died on March 23, 2010]
Excerpted with the author’s permission from Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, Sudeep Chakravarti, Penguin Random House India.