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Home > Dissident Left Archive > India: The Influence and Impact of Naxalism on West Bengal Politics

India: The Influence and Impact of Naxalism on West Bengal Politics

by Sukla Sen, 29 October

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sacw.net - 29 October 2018

[Author’s introductory note:

The following is the English version (translated by the author) of the original write-up in Bengali ’Paschim Banglar Rajnitite Naxalbader Prabhab O Protikriya’ (29.10.1970), carried by a special issue of the organ of a left student organisation, in early 1971. Special care has been taken not to “update”, while translating, with the benefit of hindsight. Hopefully, offers an interesting real time view, and assessment, of the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, while very much raging and (still) on the rise. Arguably, of a rather uncommon genre. 29.10.2018]

It was during the regime of the first United Front government, back in 1967, that under the leadership of a section of the CPI (Marxist) a peasant movement was organised in the area covering Naxalbari, Kharibari and Phansidewa in the district of Darjeeling in North Bengal. Almost with lightning speed, it could have its reverberations felt all over India and in Bengal, in particular, it was able to leave its deep imprint. As of today, in 1970, in the soil of West Bengal, it has struck even deeper roots. The sections of the Bengal society which have been shaken up most by the Naxalbari movement or, to be more accurate, Naxalite politics are the students, semi-students and non-student youth and adolescents. One can scarcely run away from the stark fact of considerable Naxalite influence on the student-youth of West Bengal. That’s precisely why those who are committed to the goal of developing healthy and vibrant student and mass movements must cast a hard and impassionate look into the dynamics of interrelations between Naxalism and the student-youth community of today.

In order to make this exercise meaningful, one needs to carefully trace the trajectory of evolution-transmutation of Naxalite politics since inception.

II

With the peasant revolt of Naxalbari-Kharibari at the epicentre and capitalising on the subsequent recognition and greeting extended by the Communist Party of China (CPC) how the Naxalite political group emerged from the womb of the CPI (M) that is by now pretty well-known. Doesn’t merit being recounted here.

If one takes a rather close look into the track record of the movement since inception, then it becomes difficult to miss the fact that over this period [of around three and a half years by now], even if the declared political objective (i.e. Agrarian Revolution) has remained quite unchanged, its actual programmes or activities are undergoing periodic shifts. In keeping with the change in programme has changed the (socio-political) profile of its adherents – the activists and sympathisers. Conversely, and quite notably, a change in the profile of adherents has triggered a corresponding change in the programme actually pursued on the ground.

Right in the very beginning, “Naxalism” had implied profound ideopolitical quest and self-introspection. During this period, many groups and individuals started breaking away from the CPI (M). Many of them came up with a variety of publications – weekly, fortnightly, monthly, to conduct political discourse and debates. Through the pages of these, myriad issues were being raised and explored. The two defining markers of this period are: (i) identification and assertion of Agrarian Revolution as the political goal and (ii) issuance of the call to outright reject parliamentary politics and urgently launch armed struggle to overrun the state. As the Naxalites inaugurated a massive wave of theoretical debates to take stock of the past follies and blunders and establish their points of view, it also triggered, partly as an instinctive self-defence response and partly from honest urges, a similar, though decidedly weaker, waves of debates and discussions within other (left) parties as well. For the first time in our political life, started a broad quest to evaluate political practices in terms of pure ideology. Of all the impacts of Naxalism on West Bengal politics, this is, beyond doubt, the brightest.

The Naxalites’ appeal to the people of West Bengal to reject outright all sorts of parliamentary and electoral practices to immediately embark on the path of armed revolution touched a deep chord with the idealist young activists of various Left parties and the CPI (M), in particular. Many of them had already become fed up with the daily grind of routine parliamentary politics. As a result, the call to Revolution directly appealed to them – they opted to join this movement. Even those who did not go all the way to come out of the party outright also got impacted. Became radicalised and more engaged in ideopolitcal debates and discussions.

In order to pinpoint the reason for the strong appeal of Naxalism vis-à-vis the workers and supporters of various Left parties one has to turn one’s gaze towards the developments of recent past. Since the break-up of the Communist Party, thanks mainly to the Left Communists, “revolution”, “class struggle” etc. became very much parts of the common vocabulary of the Bengal politics. The leaders of this party rather untiringly kept proclaiming their loyalty, in public speeches and paper statements, to these notions. Declared a crusade against all sorts of “compromise”, “reformism” and “revisionism”. Consequently, the grassroots activists of this party came to consider themselves pretty much militant. Thanks to the public speeches of the leaders, they became also firmly convinced that for the welfare of the common toiling masses it is necessary to take to the path of revolution. Parliamentary democracy is of no real use. (Even if many may be surprised on being told so, the bare fact remains that the party in its programme adopted back in its 1964 Tenali conference made an unwavering commitment to bring about social revolution through peaceful means. The common party cadres were just blissfully unaware. For them, the public speeches of the leaders commanded much greater trust as compared to the party documents. That continues even now.) “Revolution”, “struggle”, “blood” – these terms were made current with the limited objective of gaining an upper hand in factional struggle. Consequently, these terms, of course, became fairly popular but the actual implications remained rather hazy.

As a consequence, the appeal of the call to revolution, right here and now, rejecting outright the well-trodden path of parliamentary democracy, issued by the proponents of Naxalbari, capitalising on the militant peasant upsurge, further endorsed by the Communist Party of China, turned out to be sort of irresistible to the young and romantic student-activists of the CPI (M). It also focussed spotlight on the large gaps between the words and actual actions – e.g. police brutalities in Naxalbari and reluctance to go in for radical land reforms, of the leaders of various Left parties. A large section of the student activists of the CPI (M), over whom the organisational grip had been rather lax, came out declaring their unreserved loyalty to the Naxalite ideology and action programmes.

The mainstream media also played a role by disproportionately highlighting the Naxalites and their activities in order to manufacture an alibi to oust the United Front government on the ground of collapse of “law and order”. That reinforced the halo around them and helped to build up an attitude of reverence in the larger student community.

Even the middle-income service holders, already with a tilt towards leftism, got somewhat attracted. Apart from some romantic affinity towards blood-spilling revolution, the glamorous presence of a good number of students with brilliant academic track records among the Naxalite ranks also helped. In the initial phase, this reverence for Naxalism, did not denote any revulsion for the United Front. The United Front was fairly popular then.

To sum up, during the initial months, the popularity of Naxalism was essentially founded on the notion that it represents a vibrant protest against election-centric traditional mainstream leftism.

III

Starting from this beginning in early ’67 to this fag end of ’70, if we care to look closely into the trajectory of developments, we’d note that in the meanwhile much water has flown down the Ganga. Things have since changed quite a bit. Initially, Whereas Naxalism was restricted among the leftists, the student-activists of the CPI (M), in particular, despite a section of the larger student community and the middle-income service holders being somewhat reverential towards it, has, by now, spread much wider. A much larger slice of the student community in general has got itself identified with this trend. And, not only the student community, the quasi-student and non-student youth and adolescents from the lower rungs of the society have spontaneously joined this stream.

While, in the beginning, all of the Naxalite cadres were former workers and supporters of the CPI (M), as of today, only a small fraction had any leftist past.

Initially, the Naxalite activities consisted mainly of ideological/political discussions/debates and organisational works among the students. (Of course, the attempts to build up peasant organisations by moving to the villages would also start not too long thereafter.) And, today, what does Naxalism mean is graphically captured in an extract from a recent observation: “By Naxalite or Naxal line of politics everybody (these days) understands surprise bomb attacks and armed assaults on schools, colleges, universities in Calcutta and various other towns and cities of Bengal, pulling down or defacing of statues and portraits of eminent national leaders and intellectuals, vandalising some or the other government office or academic institution, forcibly hoist the red flag over a school or college building, raising slogans like - Long Live Comrade Mao, China’s Chairman Is Our Chairman, wall writing campaign promoting the move to slit throats of large rural landholders, etc. etc.” To this long list, one may also very well add – extensive bombings and surprise sundry killings.

At the very beginning of this essay, it was pointed out that over the period - stretching from ’67 to ’70, Naxalite politics is constantly undergoing a process of gradual evolution or rather transmutation. Quite naturally, the process consists of a number of distinct stages. In order to develop an appropriate and holistic understanding of the trajectory of this evolution, each stage needs be separately taken up, dissected and discussed. But, regardless, this exposition, because of restriction of space [in the publication that is to carry it], would limit its focus only on the initial and the latest phase.

No matter whether one looks upon Naxalism favourably or otherwise, whether one adores it or trashes it, the undeniable fact remains that the level of success attained by Naxalism in triggering a spontaneous wave of support among the quasi-student and non-student youth and adolescents from the middle class, lower-middle class and the poor is something yet quite unmatched by any other political trend or stream. Consequently, the issue that cannot but pop up before is what is the reason underlying? What distinct characteristics have made Naxalism so very compellingly attractive in the eyes of certain categories of our society? Is it because of the magic spell of the very name of Chairman Mao, or is it because of the perceived infallibility of the thesis of agrarian revolution, or is it because the student community of Bengal have finally come to realise, without any shred of doubt, that only an armed revolution would be able to dismantle the old and decaying socio-political order and inaugurate a new society where each and every member will have ample opportunities to lead a happy and joyful life with unhindered scope to make one’s potentials bloom. And, as because, the Naxalites have succeeded in projecting themselves as the foremost champion of such a revolution; that’s what is the real key to their huge popularity.

If we bother to take a rather closer look, we’d find that none of the above factors really offer any satisfactory explanation.

Socio-cultural life of Bengal got sucked into an unprecedented whirlpool of conflicts and tensions triggered by the World War II (1940-45). This is for the first time it got revealed before the general populace how only a handful could manage to garner enormous wealth through sheer resort to rank dishonest means. A devastating famine, without any parallel in the recent past, and an acute existential crisis compelled a large number of common people to bid adieu to their age-old deeply revered set of values. The next major event for Bengal is the Partition and the huge trauma accompanying it. Millions got brutally uprooted, had to leave behind their hearth and home in East Bengal to cross over to unwelcoming West Bengal. Only to find that life on arrival would be too difficult and painful. Their descendants would grow up in a radically different environ – an ambience in which the sheer biological urge to survive forced them to largely trash their old values. And, it did not remain restricted to only those directly affected; cast its influence much wider – over the whole society. And, that’s not the end of the story. What, however, has left the deepest imprint is the trajectory of “economic development”, post-Independence, over the last two decades or so. On the one hand, a small section of people got wealthier and wealthier, on the other, the majority had to face an intense daily grind. The process that had been set in motion by the last World War has only further aggravated over the years. If excruciating poverty has turned people intensely selfish, poisoned all human relations, then, acquisition of limitless wealth and insane hunt for such acquisition gave rise to an utterly dishonest lifestyle. Those sections of the society, for whom life is not all that tough nor the prospect of acquisition so enticing, have also been affected by the broader trends and moral values have suffered steady degenerations. Spiralling urbanisation has also brought in newer uncertainties and insecurities.

Those who saw the light of day in the post-Independence era grew up in an intensely crisis-ridden social, cultural and ethical environment. As a consequence, kids born to middle class families, inheriting some intellectual capabilities, could rather readily come to see through the reigning hypocrisy, emptiness and the yawning gap between the moral precepts routinely displayed on the signboard and the actual practices in real life. They, instead of being inspired by their elders, rather turned irreverent towards them. The most remarkable marker of today’s youth is its utter lack of faith in and reverence for all traditionally established ideals, value system, institutions and iconic figures. And those born to poorer strata had to, from the day one, suffer grinding poverty, remained deprived of proper education. Many of them, in later life, would find all the doors to earning their livelihood in a decent manner just shut tight. Had no whatever access to the brighter aspects of life. At the same time, the social turmoil made them much more aware about their own rightful entitlements. Came to vaguely perceive the inegalitarian and, thereby, unjust nature of the existing social structure. Grew up with a sense of intense and blind animosity against the existing social order, its value system and all that.

The intensified economic crisis over the last four-five years has added further momentum to this process. The failure of the United Front politics and their bitter internecine bickerings also turned the youth and adolescents even more contemptuous of traditional politics, esteemed personalities and established institutions.

With this socio-economic-political scenario as the backdrop, Naxalism made its appearance on the scene with a special appeal to the disenchanted youth. Detached from this specific socio-cultural scenario, mere political slogans on public display offer just no clue to the present day developments.

The middle class student community came to discover a strong resonance of its own attitude in the utter contempt of Naxallism vis-à-vis the social order in place, the traditional political practices, time-honoured moral values etc. etc.

Parallelly, on adoption of terroristic actions on an extensive scale in the urban areas during the last six-seven months, a large section of the youth and adolescents from the lower middle and poorer classes, who had earlier been engaged, to varying degrees, in a variety of anti-social activities, turned into active Naxal cadres.

The frustrations, disappointments and disillusionments of the middle and upper middle class student community and the hatred, rage and animosity of the youth and adolescents of the poorer classes got crystallised around the Naxalite slogans and action programmes. Not that, before Naxalism there were no expressions of these trends; the speciality of Naxalism is that those earlier unorganised, dissipated and varied expressions have now, to a very significant extent, coalesced into an organised political movement. In the process, these trends have further intensified.

It is quite natural that this proposition can in no way be accepted as an axiomatic truth. It calls for some substantiation. Let us first take up a very obvious demonstrative illustration. The Naxalite call for a broad-based peasant revolution under the leadership of the working class has just failed to make any visible impact on the urban working class and even the rural peasantry, except in some isolated organised pockets. The ideology lays down that the agrarian revolution is a revolution of the peasantry under the leadership of the working class. But the rather amusing and interesting aspect is that while this call left the, supposedly, primary actors of this “revolution” virtually untouched, it has become tremendously popular with the urban youth and adolescents. Does it not, rather convincingly, show that the key to the popularity of Naxalism doesn’t lie with the theory of agrarian revolution? It lies elsewhere. If one bothers to take a still closer look, then one would notice that the ebb and tide of popular support for Naxalism is not at all in step with that of the success of agrarian revolution in rural areas. Had the theoretical or political aspect of agrarian revolution been the key, then, that’s precisely what would have been expected. Of course, this calls for even further elaborations, but the restriction on space compels us to close it at this level.

IV

As a corollary of the foregoing discussion, the other issue that inevitably poses itself before us is that what is the future of this movement? In the coming days, what would be its shape, what would be its impact on the student movements and, also, larger mass struggles?

Initially, for quite a while, the capitalist class and the state machinery have looked upon Naxalism in Bengal as an effective antidote to the politics of the United Front. And that was the reason they backed it up in various active and passive ways. The most noticeable one was the wide favourable coverage by the newspapers. But, by and by, especially with the movement gaining accelerating momentum in urban areas, police actions against the movement turned more and more extensive and vicious. As a consequence, those from the middle class, including the so-called “brilliant” students, who had joined the Naxalite ranks, are gradually dissociating themselves from active participation in Naxalite programmes. However, nothing of that sort has happened with the youth from the poorer classes. Nevertheless, as the number of middle class activists keeps dwindling, it would become more and more difficult to maintain the structural integrity of the organisation – the organisation will turn more and more decentralised and spontaneity driven. In fact, it is not altogether inconceivable that, in the coming days, the very existence of the organisation may be in jeopardy.

Naxalite politics has brought in its wake, in West Bengal politics, as yet unprecedented fascist mentality. And, whether consciously or otherwise, other left parties have become seriously affected. “Whoever slanders our party will be just skinned alive!” That clearly implies that, wherever and whenever feasible, the political opponents will just be crushed through resort to brutal force. This slogan today is no longer a monopoly of the Naxalites, it has become a common property of all the political parties.

Together with this fascist mentality and as its pretty logical outcome, we are today confronted with a terrifying situation defined by large scale mutual killings. Even trivial political conflicts are pretty often leading to quashing of human lives. It, however, needs be stated, in no uncertain terms, that in this matter the United Front is also no less responsible. In the wake of the United Front returning back to power [in 1969], its constituent parties - the CPI(M), in particular, in the mad hunt for increasing party strength, are working shoulder to shoulder along with the Naxalites to launch this new trend of large scale killings in the politics of West Bengal. In fact, bloody clashes claiming human lives have already become a routine political activity. Whether the Naxalite organisation survives or not, that this trend of bloody violence will do and, in fact, turn even more horrifying may be taken just as a given. In the days to come, Bengal politics will turn far bloodier than in the past. The spectre of common people killing common people, on an increasing scale, is emerging as the destiny, pretty difficult to avert.

As this senseless bloody violence, involving commoners, keeps rising and rising, the student movements and the larger left movements keep getting more and more alienated from the common people, continually losing their support and sympathy. And that is laying the ground for the rise of regular fascism. And, if things keep pursuing this same track, a situation will arise when, regardless of our – a handful of left workers’, protests at the shrillest, the vast sections of common people, who remain outside the domain of any particular brand of politics, would only welcome the police raj with all eagerness.

V

While discussing the philosophy of Feuerbach, Marx in the Eleventh Thesis has enunciated: "So far the philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways. Our task is to change it." Follows from that, the foregoing discussion on Naxalism would remain entirely pointless unless it helps us in working out a meaningful action programme to be implemented in the immediate future.

In order to effectively counter the above referred ill-effects in West Bengal politics, first of all what is required is to very calmly dissect the theoretical and programmatic flaws and failings of Naxalite politics and very patiently lay these out before the student community, wider public and also the Naxalite activists and supporters themselves. All at the same time, also required is to honestly build up a current of militant politics rooted firmly in ideals. Terrorist, quasi-terrorist petty bourgeois revolutionism crops up from the soil of unprincipled political opportunism. In this context, quite noteworthy is an observation by Lenin: “Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement. The two monsters complemented each other.” ("Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder.) Consequently, if we fail in our struggle against opportunist politics, if we fail to build up a current of militant politics rooted firmly in ideals, there is just no way we how we can erase off the negative attitude of the student community and the middle class of Bengal vis-à-vis “politics”.

In order to push back the tragic atmosphere of bloody mutual violence, it is imperative to build up a strong and broad-based mass movement. And, only a widest possible united struggle of the toilers, the student-youth community and the middle class, based on the elementary democratic demands of the various sections of the suffering masses and targeted against the common enemy, can put an end to this ongoing tragic saga of bloody mutual violence and pave the path to the (overdue) social revolution in the coming days.

October 29 1970