[Integration with the peasantry. Hence first Jhargram, and then Haroah, Sandeshkhali, Minekhan. Two districts at two ends of West Bengal and two different experiences.]
by Timir Basu
Frontier | Vol. 50, No.1, Jul 9 – 15, 2017
It is not enough to call that period a turbulent one; it was a period of tremendous restlessness. After entering the Presidency College, I quite naturally got involved in the student movement. I got attached with the left student movement, although in the campuses of the College and the University of Calcutta, the rightists were holding sway. When we were endeavouring to build up a leftist student organisation in the Presidency College, ‘Naxalbari’ was yet to happen. Yet we earned the stigma of ultra-left, because we had become vocal against the bureaucratic central leadership.
In the beginning I, like many others, had only a limited connception about revolution, and although I studied much about the Russian, the Chinese and the Cuban Revolutions, my knowledge of Marxism was extremely poor. ‘Naxalbari’ provided the opportunity for fresh thinking. At that time, abundant reading materials, particularly Chinese books, on Marxism and revolution were available. The ‘Beijing Review’ (the Peking Review) and “Tricontinental” published from Cuba were also coming. Earlier, we had almost no access to Mao Zedong’s writings. Although the writings of Che Guavara and Fidel Castro thrilled us, the majority of students and youths were prone to think that revolution in this country would arrive along the Chinese path. I was so influenced by the theory of agrarian revolution and encircling cities from villages that just after coming out of the university, I decided to go back to the village and actively participate in the revolution. As I went to the countryside, I realised to the bones how difficult it was to reconcile theory with practice. It was necessary to get integrated with the common rural masses, particularly with the peasantry; otherwise it was well-nigh impossible to propagate Naxalite politics. I acquired experiences of various types while trying to work in two districts of West Bengal. The environment in the Jhargram region of undivided Midna-pore was almost entirely different from that in the Haroa-Sandeshkhali area of 24-Parganas. The pattern of cultivation was also dissimilar. Jhargram was an adivasi-dominated territory, while the so-called low-caste people and Muslims formed the majority in the Sunderban region, although the number of adivasis was not insignificant. Their ancestors had come from the Chhota-nagpur region in order to clear the forests for the Sahibs.
There was a researcher known to us in the Ballugunge Science College, and through his connection I set foot at a village of the Jhargram region. The fellow who was supposed to arrange my shelter did not turn up. As a result I took the help of one who was the son of a local landlord but very much progressive in outlook. This chap arranged for my shelter in the house of the village chowkidar ( sentry). What an irony! I spent a few days there, eating muri (perched rice) and onions. Where was the imminent revolution? But the news of an unknown person staying in the house of the chowkidar did not take long to circulate. Meanwhile, the chap who had arranged my shelter stopped visiting me. Although the ‘annihilation campaign’ was yet to start in Midnapore, the infuential persons were very much panic-stricken. One morning, a man, seemingly an agricultural labourer, came riding on a bicycle and handed over a small letter. It was written, “These people are not allowing me to move out of the house. Go away from this area right now. My uncle is going with his gang. They will encircle the house, and they may well beat you to death. Local police station has also been informed about your presence. My messenger will take you to the bus-stand two miles away”.
It makes me wonder when I think how that unknown labourer took me to the bus-stand on his worn-out bi-cycle. Since I was in a hurry, I did not have the opportunity to know his name. I took tea and pakora, while waiting for the bus. That fellow was also seated beside me. As the bus came and I got into it, two policemen alighted. It seemed that they took the path towards the village where I had been. A little ahead of them was that cycle-rider. I took a train from Jhargram and came to Kharagpur, where my classmate Samarendra Bhattacharya was a research scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology. Having spent a few days in his hostel, I came back to Kolkata. Thus the first round of my ‘go to the village’ mission ended in a total failure.
Thereafter, when I went to the Sundarban region, the situation around us was much more organised and consolidated. There was a small Naxalite organisation named Bhitti (Basis) active in the Haroah-Sandeshkhali-Minekhan area. Suren alias Ratikanta Hajra, their whole time functionary, had already built up a partial organisational network there. In passing, it may be mentioned that the Dakshin Desh group (later renamed MCC) was also very much active there. I talked with Bhitti and began to work together with Suren. Owing to our disapproval of ‘individual annihilation”, we faced stiff opposition from one section of the Naxalite camp. Till my arrest in early 1970, I was in that area. Here the situation was not as disastrous as in Jhargram, since Suren had already prepared the ground.
We used to hold small group meetings, which were mostly during the night hours. In daytime too we used to contact people in many places. Villages of Bengal were not yet to turn into political citadels of reaction. Besides, police activities were also not very much in evidence. There were many bidi workers in this region, who used to make bidis at home and supply them to the contractors. We used to hold meetings with them also. But all were group meetings, not open public meetings. We were known as ‘masters’. The main themes of our propaganda were land to the tillers, agrarian revolution, renegacy of CPI-CPM revisionists etc. These areas had one time witnessed the Tebhaga movement and hence, the CPM and the CPI had considerable influence among the peasantry. Politically, our principal objective was to curb the influence of the CPM, and we partially succeeded in that.
Towards one evening, we went to a Muslim household whose occupation was farm work. It was the rainy season and there was darkness all around. The husband and the wife felt very much embarassed, because they had nothing to cook that day and even their two children had gone without food the whole of the day. We gave them some money and said, ” See if you can get some flour”. They brought flour and made chapatis, which all consumed, along with salt and green chillies, with great satisfaction. At present, the figure of that robust-built agricultural labourer comes to my mind from time to time. He blessed us by saying “farista”, because his two little children, after going the whole day without food got something to eat. These days daily agricultural wage labourers in rural Bengal are not in that hopeless situation as the Kalu Sheikhs were. They have MNREGA and 100 days work. Also, minimum wages have increased. In short rural economy is changing very fast and old slogans have become totally obsolete.
[Originally published in the Bengali daily Ei Samay, May 28 and translated from Bengali by Anirban Biswas]