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50 years of Naxalbari: why the new milieu it spawned is still relevant today

Ranabir Samaddar | Updated on: 27 April 2017, 20:55 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

It is generally agreed, by supporters and opponents alike, that the late 1960s were the time of the Naxalbari movement. Even current Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah admitted as much when he decided to visit Naxalbari as part of his recent tour of West Bengal.

Praised and reviled alike, Naxalbari has come to occupy a singular place of significance in the annals of radical politics in post-independence India.

Much has been written on what had happened in that remote place in North Bengal 50 years ago, why and how the politics of Naxalbari engulfed the whole of West Bengal, and quickly spread to other parts of the country, the massive participation of students and youth in the mobilisations, the movement's non-conformism, and heavy state repression.

Journalists and chroniclers have also written on how the movement, in a different form known as the Maoist movement, continues.

Yet some aspects of the time and the movement have gone unnoticed or have been taken as natural. It may be worthwhile today to look into them in some detail.

When everyone was a Red Guard

In one sense, this was a time of extreme radicalisation, which also meant extreme republicanism and egalitarianism.

The time and mobilisation erased all distinctions, hierarchies, and inequalities from the map of revolution. The revolution did not recognise any caste, or gender, or occupational distinctions. Everyone was a Red Guard. How could this happen? Perhaps besides an extreme egalitarian ideology, the spiritual ambience of the time and the movement had something to do with creating a utopia on earth.

Thus slogans like these were raised:

Amar bari, tomar bari, Naxalbari, Naxalbari (Your home, my home is Naxalbari)

Tomar nam, amar nam, Naxalbari, Vietnam (Your name, my name, Naxalbari, Vietnam)

Chin-er chairman, amader chairman (Chairman of China, Mao, is our chairman too)

Other slogans that had originated a little earlier were also popularised, like 'Jokhon-i janata chai bastra o khadya, Simante beje othe juddher badya' (Whenever people want clothes and food, war drums beat on the borders instead).

Lines from the Red Book (quotations from Mao's writings) were turned into slogans, and became the stuff of legendary posters, such as 'Women are half the sky', 'Students and youth are like the sun of eight or nine in the morning', 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun', 'Revolution is not a piece of embroidery or a piece of fine art, but the deployment of force by one class over another', etc.

These slogans, besides helping to mobilise the participants in a particular way, also created a world which challenged the very concept of politics practised then – hidebound, confined within a nationalistic and narrow imagination, parliamentary, docile, elite, chamber confabulation centric – and instead asked politics to be wide, adventurous, ethical, rebellious, and therefore, to a large extent, arrogant.

The proverbial prairie fire happened not because any god willed it, but along with the reality of unrest, these slogans and other rallying cries conjured up a world where people could think that the impossible could be made possible, heaven could be made to appear in this world.

These slogans and rallying calls carried a mix of classical ideas, rhymes and rhythms, avant garde style, and exhorting words. The mix was heady and the bare English translations of these can hardly give us a sense of the brew, lethal for the forces of order and stability.

Literary connection

The movement also had literary sensibility. It called for the past literary acts to appear before the tribune of history to prove if those acts had been in the interests of the people, or the literature produced earlier had served only the interests of the moneyed and the big gentry.

Equally significantly, it also produced avant garde literature, music, drama, paintings, and even films.

Theatre personalities like Utpal Dutt, poets like Birendra Chattopadhyay, Kamalesh Sen, well known essayists like Promod Sengupta, Amiyo Chakrabarty, story writers and novelists like Mahasweta Devi, and journalists like Samar Sen and Bhavani Roy Chaudhury made the time aesthetically sensitive in a distinct sense.

Some of the cultural productions of that time have become part of the abiding legacy for today's Bengal.

In this utopian world, which was too good to last long but was real at the same time, differences were effaced, as if the radical ranks did not suffer from any faultlines of identity of caste, gender, language, religion, etc. All were Red Guards.

Parallel journals like Now, Frontier, Anushtup, Kalpurush – all avant garde initiatives – flourished. Literacy campaigns among peasants, workers, and slum dwellers started. Jails became places of intense self-introspection and learning. They became universities.

And, make no mistake, these were not Kolkata-centric. Mofussil towns also immersed themselves in the second renaissance of Bengal.

How did politics and culture mix?

The question we must ask is this: short-lived as this heady period (1966-67 to 1970-71) was, and drowned in blood and caged in the prison houses of Bengal and outside the state too, how could politics and culture share the same space so intensely?

This is not to say that the two sat easily with each other. Politics was extreme. It was not easy for cultural repertoires to march in the same steps as politics. There were divisions.

For instance, Utpal Dutt broke ranks, some other literary activists were killed, yet some others quietly withdrew. But by and large, we may say, without the cultural repertoires, the Naxalbari movement would not have attained the glory associated with it.

But we should not be surprised. As in the time of Swadeshi, a militant nationalist movement, any kind of death wish carries with it a spiritual strain. Why should I live if life cannot be spent meaningfully? What does death mean? What is inspiration?

Questions like these, raised on the streets, did not derive their answers from politics. Aesthetic sensibility gave the answers. We may call this a kind of political spirituality.

In this way, the political subject became a subject writing own its culture, appropriate to a meaningful existence on earth.

Hence, is the all important question of repertoire. What was the role of repertoire in creating the new politics that had such a big impact on India, and specifically, Bengal?

Innovation in repertoires

If as earlier indicated, repertoires of politics changed, we must look deeply into how structures of mass politics changed in the 1950s and 1960s in Bengal, and to different extents elsewhere in India.

The cycles and tides of contention changed since the years of Sino-Indian border war of 1962, promulgation of Defence of India Rule, the India-Pakistan war of 1965, widespread hunger, near famine condition in many parts of India, particularly Bihar, and food riots in Bengal.

Mass movements created instability in the ruling party. It cracked in many places, which made possible for non-Congress governments to appear in many states for the first time.

In such a contentious time, collective claim-makings increased. Every collective actor's interest was at risk. Therefore many actors mobilised for action.

Such a period of rapid political change produced sequences of innovation in repertoires. Successive innovations largely accounted for the ebb and tide of radical activity.

Nobody willed that the Naxalbari movement would soon overflow the particular confines of a place called Naxalbari. No complex outcome ever results from the operation of a single causal mechanism.

The diffusion of the mobilisation techniques and the ascendancy of the street in politics were partly 'non-relational' – that is to say they had no direct correspondence with the actual land movement in Naxalbari.

But organisational networks of students and youth and other political cadres took up the model of confrontation, street life, and spiritual interrogation of elite institutions. These mechanisms combined into processes, processes led to new coordination. Repertoires built up as a consequence of this collective process.

Other mechanisms contributed. The appropriation of earlier radical devices, creation of new boundaries of politics, China's certification, shift in the identity of politics, and escalation – all these contributed to radicalisation.

Repertoires changed as a result. A new ground was created. It was to be a common site of peasant activists and radical students and youth, factory organisers and literary practitioners.

Yet, it is also true that a repertoire change was inconceivable without regime change. The change in political regime in the wake of Nehru’s death, currency devaluation, two wars, and emergence of non-Congress governments in some states of India formed the milieu in which political repertoires found new forms.

Relevance today

It will be worthwhile for all those interested in the fate of politics to see how a single incident can produce movements and campaigns that break existing institutional frameworks. Under what conditions do campaigns ignite broader forms of contentious politics? Again, under what conditions does a movement create new bases?

And thus, what explains the multiplicity of centres within a movement, its openness to new actors, the inability of a regime to accommodate new claims, and finally, how do all these contribute to new repertoires of politics?

Some answers to all these will not only help us to understand what happened in Bengal in 1967 or Paris in 1968 or Pakistan in 1968-70, but will also unlock many of the stalled situations today.

First published: 27 April 2017, 20:55 IST