by Santosh Rana
Frontier | Vol. 49, No.46, May 21 – 27, 2017
About fifty years ago, in May 1967, there rose a storm of peasant struggle in the Naxalbari, Kharibari and Phansideoa areas of the Terai region of the district of Darjeeling. Locally, that struggle was directed against landlords and moneylenders. But there took place some such changes in the political life of India in the light of this struggle that transcended local considerations and assumed an all-India and international character. On one hand, Naxalbari represented a continuation of the peasant struggles that had been building up since the movement for national independence. It was the continuation of the peasant struggles of Telengana, Punapra-Bhailar and the Tebhaga movement. Going further backwards, it can be said that it was the continuation of the Santal Rebellion, Munda Rebellion, Faraji Rebellion, Indigo Mutiny and other peasant rebellions. After setting up the colonial rule, the British built up a class of landlords in India through the Permanent Settlement and other arrangements. This class of landlords represented an intermediate layer between the colonial rulers and the peasantry for the appropriation of agricultural surplus. This layer was dependent on the colonial rule for its existence and prosperity. Whenever the peasantry was driven to rebellion by the cruel exploitation of the landlord class, the British rulers suppressed them by sending their troops. Hence the target of the peasantry was inevitably the alliance between the landlord class and the colonial rulers. It might as well be called the alliance between imperialism and feudalism.
Participation in the freedom struggle made the peasantry understand that without liberation from feudal exploitation, freedom is meaningless to them. The bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie that were leading the national movement also understood that without the participation of the peasantry, the struggle for freedom would not be victorious. Hence the leadership of the national movement supported the demands of the peasantry. But they were cautious about seeing that the peasant revolts did not surpass the limits of rights to private property. For example, Gandhi supported the Moplah peasant uprising of Malabar, but when the peasant struggle of Chouri Choura crossed the legal limits, he started a hunger strike against it.
The colonial rulers too understood that agrarian grievances could not be suppressed by means of coercion and repression only. In 1940, the Floud Commission was formed in order to investigate the problems of sharecroppers. According to the findings of the Commission, 21.1 % of the cultivable land of Bengal was tilled by full-time sharecroppers and 12.2% of land by part-time sharecroppers. Cultivators used to borrow money and paddy from their landowners and repay the loan after the harvest. The rate of interest being very high, the cultivators had vey little left for themselves after meeting the obligations to the landowners. It is under these circumstances that the demand for Tebhaga was raised, which meant that the owner would get one-third of the produce and the sharecropper would get two thirds. In the Census of 1951, there were three hundred thousands of barga cultivators in West Bengal, as per the information provided by the owners. According to the information provided by cultivators, the number was seven hundred and fifty thousands of bargadars. The whole of Bengal was astir with the Tebhaga movement and it lasted even after independence. In 1950, the West Bengal Bargadar Act was passed, which somewhat increased the share of the cultivator. In 1955, the Act was further amended, and it was provided that if the cultivator paid the expenses of cultivation, he would receive 60% of the produce. Besides, some legal safeguards against eviction of the cultivator by the landowner were provided. But however good the law was, it could not change the condition of the peasants. The reason is that the agencies that were to implement the law, namely the official department and the police, invariably took the side of the owner. There was besides a structural problem. All over India, big landholders belonged to the upper castes. Barring some exceptions, the picture in West Bengal was more or less similar. Sharecroppers were mainly low-caste Hindus, adivasis and muslims. The village society was dominated by upper castes and in some places by middle-castes (sadgops, aguris, telis, banias etc). The dominant castes enjoyed political power, and the police and government offices obeyed their instructions. No bargadar could record his name without the approval of the landowner. Even in the presence of a good law, the bargadar could not take advantage of it in the absence of records to substantiate his claim.
The Land Reforms Act was passed in 1955. It stipulated the maximum amount of land to be owned by an individual at 25 acres. However, fish-tanks, orchards, forests etc and land held in the names of religious and charitable institutions was kept outside the purview of the ceiling law. 25 acres being the per capita amount, a family with four adult members could retain 100 acres. Besides, their dominant role in the rural society enabled the owners of large holdings to keep some land in the name of their attached labourers. For these reasons, the work of vesting and redistributing among the landless the ceiling-surplus lands did not advance much, notwithstanding the provisions of the Zamindari Abolition Act of 1953 and the Land Reforms Act of 1955. Owing to semi-feudal relations in agriculture, agricultural productivity was very low and there arose situations of acute scarcity of food in the country. In those circumstances, the food movements of 1959 and 1966 stirred the entire state. These movements influenced the urban working class, the middle class and the students and youths also.
In this situation, the Congress lost the assembly polls of 1967 and the United Front Government was formed. The CPI and the CPI(M) fought the election separately, but after the polls, all anti-Congress forces joined to form the United Front Government with Ajay Mukherjee of the Bangla Congress as the chief minister and Harekrishna Konar of the CPI(M) as the minister of land revenue.
When the CPI(M) was formed in 1964, there was a section within the party that thought that the party leadership was seeking to attain electoral success by using popular struggles and to tread the parliamentary path only. Those who belonged to this section campaigned for CPI(M) candidates in the 1967 polls, but they took this campiagn only as a weapon of propaganda. Small groups were formed within the CPI(M) itself, who advocated abandonment of the parliamentary path and adopting the path of armed agrarian revolution that had been tested in the Chinese Revolution. For example, in the Naxalbari area itself, Jangal Santal contested the polls as the CPI(M) candidate. He got a very small number of votes. The pattern of election propaganda of these persons was also different. The defeat of the Congress and the formation of the United Front Government gave the peasantry in the rural areas added mental strength. In many places, they started struggles for the recovery of vested lands, barga recording and wage increases. For example,peasant struggles started in some areas in the vicinity of Kolkata, e.g. Kalikapur and Dihi-Srirampore etc. The peasant struggle of Naxalbari was built up in the midst of this general situation. Its specificity lay in that the leaders of the Darjeeling district committee of the CPI(M) had been thinking of a new path for the Indian Revolution. Inspired by them, the Sliguri subdivisional krishak sabha (peasant association)issued the call to occupy vested land, abolition of usury and recapture of the barga lands from which peasants had been evicted. The conflict started over the capture of land by an evicted peasant named Bigul Kishan. That conflict spread to the three neighbouring police station areas. In many places, the struggle crossed legal limits. This landed the CPI(M) leadership into a crisis. Harekrishna Konar went to Naxalbari, met Kanu Sanyal and other leaders of the peasant movement and appealed to them to keep the struggle within legal limits. He gave the promise that peasants would not be evicted from the plots they had occupied, and occupancy rights (pattas) or the status of recorded bargadars would be given to them by eliminating the legal complications. The discussion failed because the leaders of Naxalbari refused to agree. On 25 May, as the police went to arrest the peasants, the latter resisted and a police officer was killed. The police opened fire and 13 persons including women were killed. After the incident of 25 May, police repression intensified. At that point of time, Khokan Majumdar et al fromed a squad and tried to offer some resistance. It met with little success. The peasant struggle virtually came to a standstill in the face of police repression. Leaders like Kanu Sanyal remained absconding for some time. But in 1968, they too were arrested. Before his arrest, Kanu Sanyal wrote his ‘Report on the Terai Peasant Movement’, which was published in Deshabrati. After the Naxalbari peasant struggle, there began an intense ideological struggle inside the CPI(M) all over India. Many party members and leaders in West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and above all, Andhra Pradesh stood in favour of Naxalbari and condemned the United Front Government for firing on the peasants. Many of them left, or were expelled from the CPI(M). Finally they, in order to build up a revolutionary party, formed at first the Naxalbari Krishak Sangram Sahayak Committee, the the All-India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries and at last the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Kanu Sanyal and others were released after the formatiom of the second United Front Government and on 1 May, Kanu Sanyal himself announced the formation of the new party. The Communist Party of China congrtulated the formation of the CPI(M-L) and recognized it as a fraternal party.
The formation of the CPI(M-L) was a positive step in the history of the Indian communist movement. The history of five decades have proved that the CPI(M) had become a neo-revisionist party. There was no scope of directing it along a revolutionary road through an inner-party struggle within it. In the meantime, the Soviet Union, despite a socialist structure, was metamorphosed into social imperialism. Even before the formation of the CPI(M-L), the All-India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries characterized the Soviet Union as a social-imperialist power. Above all, the CPI(M-L) supported the struggle for self-determination by the Kashmiri, Naga and Mizo people and put on record this support in its programme. The formation of the CPI(M-L) inspired peasant struggles throughout the country. In Debra-Gipiballavpur in West Bengal and Baharagora in the district of Singbhum the peasntry burst into rebellion against age-old feudal exploitation and oppression. The flame of peasant rebellion was ignited in Bihar’s Musahari, UP’s Lakhimpur Kheri and Andhra’s Srikakulam also. Alongside, Naxalbari and the CPI(M-L) created a great revolutionary ardour among the students and youths throughout the country. The revolutionary enthusiasm created among the students and youths was witnessed in the post-Naxalbari period too. As a matter of fact, a rebellious mood against the existing system was seen all over the world during that period (the later part of the 1960s). It was transmitted to India with Naxalbari as the focus. A reolutionary explosion was seen in the colleges and universities of Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Lucknow, Patna and other towns and cities. The most positive aspect of this revolt was that they felt inspired to integrate with peasants and workers, and many young men and women gave up their careers to go to villages, mines or factories, dedicating themselves to the task of building up struggles of workers and peasants in the midst of hardships. The students and youths who had joined the revolutionary movement during the struggle for independence, had retained their middle-class thoughts and lifestyle, although they did not lack the attitude of self-sacrifice. The students and youths of the post-Naxalbari period was inspired by a new ideal. They learnt that real knowledge was with those who tilled lands or lifted coal and iron from the mines, and those who had studied books must learn from these teachers. Only then they would be able to play a role in the transformation of society. A small article by Charu Majumdar entitled, “To Students and Youths” held the path to be followed by revolutionary young men. Three articles written by Mao Zedong, namely ‘‘Serve the People”, “In Memory of Norman Bethune” and “The Foolish Old Man who Removed the Mountain” set the ideological orientation of students and youths. Those who did not go to villages or factories but remained in academic or other types of jobs or those who, even after going to villages, returned to join teaching or other jobs were also influenced by this ideology. A bunch of ‘cadres’ was found in politics, teaching, administration and other spheres who felt for the people, believed that the people were the real heroes and felt glorified if found themselves able to do something for the people. For example, in 1976, some well-educated young men entered the job of kanungoes played a positive role during the land refroms of 1978. The revolt of students and youths raised questions about those luminaries who were adored like gods. Studies began to be undertaken on their roles in the anti-British and peasant rebellions. There is no doubt that there was much one sidedness and excess in such studies. But a stream of multifaceted historigraphy came to be formed from it.
Despite many possibilities, the peasant struggles could not spread to the states or the entire country in the expected manner. The reason is that although the formation of the CPI(M-L) was positive, this party was from the very beginning a victim of ultra-left deviations and after some setbacks, these deviations were further accentuated. After the Naxalbari peasant uprising, some popular leaders of the Andhra CPI(M) (T Nagi Reddy, Chandra Pulla Reddy, Kolla Venkaiya etc) stood by it. These leaders had participated in the great Telengana struggle and had rich experiences of building up mass struggles. They also joined the All-India Coordination Committe of Communist Revolutionaries. In 1969, the CPI(M-L) was formed without them. They did not agree to accept the formulation that “annihilation of class enemies is the highest form of class struggle and beginning of guerrila warfare”. Owing to the feudal domination and coercion in the countryside, any peasant struggle has to face repression. Peasant struggles cannot develop without resisting it. Some class enemies too might have to be annihilated in course of this resistance struggle. But if annihilation of class enemies is formulated as the only form of struggle, and mass struggles and mass organizations are abandoned, peasant struggles cannot develop. Yet the CPI(M-L) adopted this very line. It was a left deviation of a major type. On this question, the position of Nagi Reddy et al was correct. Excluding them, the declaration of the formation of the party in 1969 was a huge mistake. Similarly, there was a group outside the Deshabrati group in West Bengal namely the Dakhsin Desh group, which was led by Amulya Sen and Kanai Chatterjee. They were endowed with the experience of the Tebhaga struggle. They stood in favour of Naxalbari but did not endorse the line of abandoning mass struggles and mass organizations. They too remained outside at the time of formation of the CPI(M-L). Subsequently, they built up the outfit named Maoist Communist Centre( MCC). Relying on the mass struggles of Jharkhand and South Bihar, the MCC built up a much broader area of peasant struggle. Had the leaders of Naxalbari, at the time of the formation of the CPI(M-L), patiently conducted discussions with the Nagi Reddy group, Dakhsin Desh group and other groups, and not formulated immutably fixed lines on the question of forms and types of struggle, the situation might have turned otherwise.
Another deviation was the line of total boycott of parliamentary struggles. Since this did not conform to the Leninist tactics, they imported the theory of new era. They argued that it was no longer the era of Leninism or imperialism and proletarian revolution’ and rather it was the era of “final collapse of imperialism and worldwide victory of socialism” in which the Leninist tactics were no longer applicable.
Yet the world capitalist system had undergone profound changes during the period following the second world war. On the ruins of the war, the capitalist countries proceeded along the path of building welfare states through the application of Keynesian economics. The toiling people’s purchasing power was enhanced and the market for goods and services expanded. The period of thirty years from 1945 to 1975 is called the golden age of capitalism. During that period, many countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America were freed from colonial rule and the parliamentary system with universal franchise was introduced in many countries including India, it should have been understood that in the progress of human society, the parliamentary system with universal franchise was an advancement. In order to reach the consciousness that parliamentary democracy under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie cannot solve the problems of the toiling people, and that they have to proceed towards proletarian dictatorship through proletarian revolutions, the peole’s own experience is an indispensable condition. Hence in a country where the parliamentary democracy had just been introduced, imposition of the consciousness of the advanced vanguard on the people without allowing them to acquire their own experience destroys the possibility of mass revolutionary upsurge, if nothing else.
Ever since its formation, the CPI (M-L) adopted strategically the line of boycott of elections to which was added the line of boycotting mass organizations and mass struggles. Particularly pernicious was the line of boycotting trade unions. In the post-Naxalbari period, many government employees, workers of electricity supply undertakings, workers of buses and tramways, railway workers, bank and insurance employees stood in favour of Naxalbari. The line of boycott of mass struggles and mass organizations adopted by the CPI (M-L) left them with no work. Those who were very close had only the task of paying donations and sheltering the absconders. On the other hand, all those who supported the CPI(M) were branded as class enemies. This position was advantageous to the CPI(M) leadership also, because they also did not want their sympathizers to enter into discussions with the Naxalites. In consequence, large numbers of toiling people — peasants, workers, employees and left-minded people remained under the leadership of the CPl(M). The elctoral success of 1977 and the success in the first decade of Left Front rule in redistributing vested land, coupled with operation barga and success in the panchayeti system further strengthened the mass base of the CPI(M).
On the other hand, the CPI(M-L) could not rectify its mistakes. On the contrary, the party broke into several groups in the process of rectification. One section reorganizing itself as the CPI(M-L)(Liberation) and has built up a fairly country-wide organization. This outfit participates in elections and in joint movements with other leftist forces. Another major section is the CPI(Maoist), which was formed out of the merger of the CPI(M-L) (People’s War), CPI(M-L) (Party Unity) and MCC. This outfit has stuck to the line of permanent boycott of elections and leads armed squads in some adivasi-dominated areas of the plateau region of Central India. The Government of India has banned this outfit and for this reason, they, although willing, are unable to build up mass organizations or mass struggles. Other groups are CPI (M-L) (New Democracy), CPI (M-L) PCC and CPI(M-L) Red Star, who have organizations in more than one states. Besides, there are some small groups.
Fifty years have passed since the Naxalbari peasant struggle. The dream nurtured by many that the Indian revolution would be completed within 1975 was shattered. The party that was formed by holding high the Naxalbari struggle has been split into several groups and their influence too is limited to some small areas. Then, has Naxalbari failed? Not at all. Rather it has left a revolutionary legacy. Even after, fifty years, Naxalbari means revolt against exploitation, a pledge to change the society. The programme of the CPI(M-L) correctly highlighted the importance of anti-feudal struggle and made ‘Land to the tillers’ its central slogan. But Indian feudalism was different from European or Chinese feudalism, and in this system, caste played an important role. The political, social and economic power of a person was determined by its caste or varna status. Hence the struggle against the caste system was an important component against the struggle for democracy in India. The CPI (M-L) or the Naxalites in general stood in favour of oppressed castes, or it can be said that the peasant struggles organized by the CPI(M-L) had large participations of dalits and adivasis. Yet the CPI(M-L) could not set up contacts with the dalit struggles that had started under the leadership of Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar for the overthrow of the caste system. If the CPI(M-L) could use the status it then enjoyed in order to build up dalit and adivasi mass organizations and to raise its voice in favour of demands including reservation in jobs and education, it could find an opportunity to spread the movement throughout the country.
Yet it can be seen that Naxalbari enhanced the self-respect and self-confidence of dalits and adivasis, and dalit movements were built up anew. In this connection, mention may be made of the Dalit Panther movement of Maharastra. Dalits, oppressed through ages, rose in the demand for equal rights and self-respect through this movement. This movement gave rise to a revolutionary literature that altered the Marathi language.
Similarly, there was a resurrection of the adivasi movement under the impact of Naxalbari. After Jaipal Singh joined the Congress, the Jharkhand movement of South Bihar received a major setback. The Naxalbari peasant uprising infused new life into it. Later, Sibu Soren and Binod Mahato linked the movement for land with the Jharkhand movement and formed the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. After the fomation of the Jharkhand Coordination Committee in 1986, the movement acquired a new dimension and finally the Jharkhand state was formed. This was a partial success of democratic struggles.
The Indian ruling classes too could not brush aside Naxalbari. It was under the impact of the Naxalbari peasant struggle that Indira Gandhi adopted the programme of Land Reform in 1970. The Land Reform Law that was adopted during the Siddhartha Ray regime in West Bengal brought down the ceiling from 25 acres per head to 17.5 acres per family in non-irrigated and 12.5 acres in irrigated areas. The brga act was so amnded as to give the cultivator three fourth of the produce. The Congress Government however did not implement these policies. Yet peasants got an opportunity to build up movements by using these acts and some, although partial, success came to the peasant movement.
* I clearly remember the situation of 1967 when we, inspired by the ideal of Naxalbari, went to build up organizations in villages. About 70% of the rural population could not afford two meals a day, Productivity was low and the produce was squeezed by owners and moneylenders. The rural poor had no scope of protest. Now, over the last fifty years, the situation has changed a lot. Now poor people can at least obtain adequate food to fill up their stomachs, although they have many problems. Education too has spread somewhat. The Naxalbari peasant movement has a contribution to these changes.
* Besides, Naxalbari has left the memories and experiences of mass uprisings. Today or tomorrow, the Indian people will again move along the path of that mass uprising in a different situation and set up a people’s democracy in semi-colonial semi-feudal India. Menawhile, the world capitalist system has fallen in a deep crisis and sometimes, the crisis has been partially overcome to create deeper crises. Under these circumstances, the place of Keynesian economics of the 1970s is being taken by aggressive liberalism, which has aggravated inequality of wealth and national discrimination. In the advanced capitalist countries, the working class is looking for a new system. On the other hand, one section of the corporate bourgeoisie is seeking to downsize the democratic rights and establish a fascist rule. These symtoms are witnessed in India too. Particularly, the way Narendra Modi, after his ascent to power, has been moving towards the establishment of dictatorial rule and is about to destroy the democratic and secular structure of the country, raises the hope that the people will be united on the question of defending and expanding the democratic system. If who dream of a revolution play an effective role in this struggle, the question of defending democracy may in the upshot become an uprising of workers and peasants and form the basis of a new India.