The Cultural Aspect of The Naxalbari Uprising

(Excerpts from an article by Pranay Krishna (translated from Hindi)
which appeared in the Deepavali Special edition of the Hindi daily Prabhat Khabar in November 2009)

The Naxalbari peasant uprising of 1967 gave birth to a new imagination that left a deep, all-India impact on art, culture and literature. The creative imagination of movements inspired by Naxalbari, and the sky of their dreams are far more vast than their geo-political scope.

For the leaders of the Naxalbari movement, it was clear that the long and glorious heritage of struggles of the country’s peasant and toiling people was the main vision behind the dream of Indian revolution. They saw themselves as links in the same chain as Bhagat Singh and the revolutionary patriots. The new party CPI(ML) saw itself as a part of India’s communist legacy that flowed from the era of the Gadar party.

Based on this, they created a new definition of ‘country’ and ‘nationalism’. As against the nationalism of the elite, it was the patriotism of the revolutionaries. It was not without reason that the best loved song of the revolutionaries of the 70s was ‘The beloved motherland will become free’ (Mukt hobe priya matribhoomi). In their view they were waging a freedom struggle for India.

Light will spread in all ten directions
Dispelling the darkness of night,
Red rays of the sun
Will bathe the motherland in luminous freedom

They wanted to make up for the failure of 1857, Bhagat Singh, and Telangana as quickly as possible, through this new war of independence for the children of the soil. In 1970-71 young people inspired by Naxalbari broke the idols of several Bengali Renaissance icons because they had opposed the great war of 1857 and many had even gone over to stand with the British. This may seem excessive today, but the swelling tide of devotion to the motherland which brought thousands of young people out on the streets was quite extraordinary. Four decades after Naxalbari, struggles inspired by it are still alive in the midst of dark repression and scattering; despite this, several people still nurture the foolish idea that the Naxalbari revolt was done at the behest of China. They should read Charu Mazumdar’s article titled “China’s Chairman, Our Chairman”, in which he writes, “The people’s democratic India is no longer a remote thing. The first rays of the red sun have touched the shores of Andhra; soon they will fill the other States too with colour. India will bathe in the light of this red sun and shine forever.” But yes, it is true that they took inspiration from the Chinese Revolution and Mao just as Bhagat Singh and all the other freedom fighters and intellectuals were inspired by the Russian Revolution. Poet Pash who was inspired by the Naxalbari movement (and who was later killed by Khalistani terrorists) wrote:


The greatest word of respect for me,
Wherever it is used
All other words become meaningless.
This word has its meanings
In those sons of the fields
Who even today measure time
By the length of the trees’ shadows;
Who have no problems other than
That of the stomach
And, when hungry,
Can eat their own limbs;
For whom Life is a tradition
And Death, freedom

For the idea of Bharat is not related
To some ‘Dushyant’
But is present in the fields
Where food is grown…

Naxalbari-inspired poets are the only ones who invert the ruling class definition of ‘country’ and ‘patriotism’. They knew the falsehood of ‘Shining India’ 40 years earlier; they do not just tell us what their beloved India is, but also what it should not be—

This valley of death is not my country
This executioner’s theater is not my country
This vast charnel-ground is not my country
This blood-drenched slaughterhouse is not my country
I will snatch my country back
I will pull the fog-kissed white kans flowers, the crimson dusks and the endless rivers
back into my chest
With all my body I shall surround the fireflies, forests burning in ancient hills,
countless crops of hearts, flowers, humans and horses from fairytales
I shall name each star after each martyr
I shall call out to the howling breezes, lights and shadows playing across the fish-eyed lakes of dawn
And Love – banished to places lightyears away ever since I was born:
I shall call it too, to join the carnival of the day of Revolution.

– Nabarun Bhattacharya

The very personality of Charu Mazumdar, the great architect of this revolt, was deeply cultural. In 1950 the young Charu Mazumdr had already taken up the reins of his political work in Siliguri and it was at his initiative that the tradition of organizing revolutionary cultural programmes on occasions like ‘Ravindra-Nazrul-Sukant-Diwas’ and the Bangla Baishakh (which is the starting of the Bengali calendar and is even today celebrated as Rabindranath’s birthday) at the main club in Siliguri town. Classical music had a strong attraction for Charu Babu and ‘Baju Band Khul Khul Jaae’ was a favourite song which remained his faithful companion during the travails of underground life. In 1964 when doctors diagnosed him with a serious heart disease and his then Party was indifferent as regards his treatment, a cultural organization called ‘Katha o Kalam’ staged performances to collect as much money as possible for his treatment. When the 1967 revolt started and national and international journalists used to frequent Charu Babu’s house, a journalist from Dharmyug asked him, “There is a photo of Rabindranath Tagore in your home; do you believe in him?” Charu Babu replied, “It is not a question of believing or not believing. It is a question of interpreting the positive aspects of a great craftsman”. He then went on to tunefully recite Rabindra’s poem ‘Mrityunjay’. Charu Babu did not go to attend the CPI’s 6th Vijayawada Congress in 1961. In those days he suddenly became interested in directing plays. He spent his time conducting rehearsals for ‘Katha O Kalam’ plays and spent hours explaining the inner meanings of Manik Bandopadhyay’s ‘Mainadweep’ to fellow artists. His friend Saroj Datta was not only a revolutionary but also an excellent Bengali poet who, like Charu Babu, died a martyr’s death in police custody. Sameer Mitra, Murari Mukhopadhyay, and Dronacharya Ghosh were also Bengali poets who took part in the Naxalbari revolt and who died martyr’s deaths at the hands of the police. Charu Babu was in favour of taking away the monopoly on violence from the hands of the ruling class, but never in favour of uncontrolled, revengeful or aimless violence. This is the reason why the revolutionary Bengali poetry of the 1980s shows brutal feudal and police repression on the poor and the working class, jail torture and fake encounter killings, but only very rarely celebrates retaliatory violence:

Beat in such a manner
That the scars of the whiplash
Endure from head to toe
And last for several days.
Beat in such a manner
That after you are done beating
I look like a striped tiger.

(From Vipul Chakravarty’s poem ‘Tumhari Pitayee ka Daur Khatm Hone Par’)

It was the scene of white terror; in the Kolkata and Bengal of the 1970s every thana had become a slaughterhouse. Even emotions like love and affection passed through the cursed environment of repression and the fire of revolution before they came out as poetry. Many people who think blind violence to be a synonym of Naxalbari are forgetting those scenes of terror. Power and the ruling classes are very violent even today towards the poor and the people’s struggles. But the difficulty increases when the Maoists who claim to take inspiration from Naxalbari often indulge in such excesses that they leave people with the wrong impression of violence regarding this great movement and actually end up pushing people towards the right wing. But many artists inspired by Naxalbari have openly condemned any mindless violence though they were not attached to any political party. Malayalam poet Satchidanandan, Telugu poet Jwalamukhi and Bengali playwright Badal Sarkar have given statements against such violence and have put down their views in writing. Hundreds of youth were martyred in Bengal, responding to the call of revolution. As such, the image of the martyred son’s mother is a recurring theme in the poetry of that phase:

Clinging to the bars of the jail,
Dispossessed of all, oh mother!
Whose face do you want to pick out
From the rest?
(From Dhurjati Chattopadhyay’s poem
Clinging to the Bars of the Jail)

Srijan Sen’s ‘Thana Garad Thheke Maa’ (From the thana jail to Mother) and Ranjit Gupta’s ‘Open Letter’ are also such poems. Mahashweta Devi’s novel ‘Hazar Churasir Maa’ is also an epic rendering of this feeling of pain. Other than the above mentioned names Vinay Ghosh, Kamlesh Sen, Partho Bandopadhyay, Virendra Chattopadhyay, Amit Das, Kesto Podel, Shobhan Som, Anindya Basu, Satyen Bandopadhyay, Tushar Chand, Sameer Roy, Arjun Goswami, Amiyo Chattopadhyay, Manibhushan Bhattacharya, Indra Chaudhury and Alok Basu left their indelible stamp on the Bengali poetry of the 70s and 80s. This tradition is still alive in Bengali poetry today. Bengali poets of today including perhaps the most talked about name Nabarun Bhattacharya write with the same passion about the killings at Nandigram, Singur and Lalgarh. Writers like Utpalendu gave a new impetus to story writing.

The performance of revolutionary street plays was of course an essential part of people’s movements arising out of the Naxalbari revolt, but even Bengali theatre did not remain untouched by it. Ashish Chatterjee of the Theatre unit and Prabal Dutt of ‘Silhouette’ were martyred in 1972 and 1974 respectively. In 1970 the famous theatre artist Utpal Dutt (whom the Hindi film world knows as a fine comic actor) wrote, “Revolutionary theatre should propagate revolution. It should not only expose the system, but also call for a violent end to State machinery.” It is no surprise that in the 70s Utpal Dutt took theatre to the rural poor through ‘Jatra’. All his plays during this phase–‘Tiner Talwar’ (’73), ‘Barricade’ (’77), ‘Suryashikar’ (’78) and ‘Dushswapner Nagri’ (’79-’80) became targets of the government’s wrath. At Curzon Park in Kolkata where Prabir Dutt was martyred during the performance of ‘Mukti Ashram’ Badal Sarkar staged his play ‘Juloos’ in his memory at the same place exactly one month later on 24 August 1974. Badal Sarkar established the third theatre, i.e. India’s rural theatre in the 70s. He invented the form of theatre which was less expensive, highly flexible and could be taken to remote rural areas. He started this new experiment with the play ‘Sagina Mahto’ in 1969. ‘Juloos’, ‘Bhoma’, ‘Basi Khabar’ and ‘Khat-Maat-King’ were other plays in this genre. The image of resistance of the 70s can be seen in this excerpt from ‘Bhoma’:
Bhoma forest. Bhoma populated. Bhoma village. 75 % of India’s population lives in villages. And we drink the blood of Bhomas and live in cities.

Every genre of creativity in Bengal was churned to the depths by Naxalbari consciousness. A generation of popular singers until the decade of the 90s hailing from the urban middle class, notably Suman Chattopadhyay, Nachiketa, Pratul and Prabir Bal, live the romance of the revolutionary 70s in their art even today. What is surprising is that many intellectuals who claim themselves inspired by Naxalbari consciousness are standing with the Trinamool today as they are against the misrule of the Left front. Naxalbari and its intellectuals endured the cruelest repressions but created an independent Left alternative to the traditional Left; they never joined hands with any capitalist Party.

Charu Babu, dedicated to revolutionary songs and drama, was against the establishment of people’s theatre organizations as he felt that these would become middle class hubs. But several cultural and literary organizations were born inspired by the revolutionary movement he led. The Srikakulam farmers’ revolt, running parallel to the Naxalbari revolt, inspired Telugu litterateurs to form organizations ‘Sahiti Mitralu’ (initiated by Varvar Rao in 1966), and ‘Tiragbadu’ (Vidrohi, 1970), which finally developed into ‘Viplava Rachayitala Sangham’ (Virasam: 1970) i. e. Revolutionary Writers’ Association. The father of modern consciousness in Telugu, poet Sri Sri, who laid the foundation for the first civil rights organization in 1965-66 against the mass arrest of Communists during the 1962 India-China war, joined hands with young cultural activists. Great freedom fighter and poet Subbarao Panigrahi was martyred in 1969. ‘Virasam’ declared Panigrahi as its source of inspiration. Sri Sri, RV Shastri, KV Raman Reddy, Cherabandaraju, Varavara Rao, C Vijayalakshmi, Jwalamukhi, Satyamurthy, Nikhileshwar, Ashok Tankasala and others brought about a revolutionary change in Telugu literature. ‘Virasam’ was intermittently banned but ‘Srijan’ magazine, the platform for bringing together writers associated with these organizations, has brought out more than 200 issues and has greatly influenced contemporary Telugu literature. In 1971 Gadar founded the ‘Jan Natyamandali’ and till today it spreads revolutionary consciousness by performing plays, songs and dances from village to village. This popular song of Cherabandaraju, zestfully sung by Gadar, kindles the spirit of revolutionary questioning in people:

By breaking the mountains, by splitting the rocks,
Projects are built by welding together brick and iron;
Whose the labour?
Whose the wealth?
By cutting through forests and ploughing the earth,
Crops are grown, irrigated by difficult waters;
Whose the rice?
Whose the gruel?

The ‘Janakiya Sanskarika Vedi’ in Malayalam literature was formed in 1980; this was not only a cultural organization but also one which led social struggles. It not only gave Kerala’s cultural world new kinds of revolutionary poetry, plays, and the ‘Prerna’ magazine but also initiated vigorous debates. Though it was later the victim of repression and also fell prey to internal fragmentation, its contribution to Malayalam literature is lasting. Kadamanita Ramakrishnan, KG Shankara Pillai, K Sachidanandan, Civic Chandran, Attoor Ravi, N Sukumaran, UG Jairaj, Thoppil Bhasi, Balachandran Chullikad and others have left an indelible stamp on poetry, drama, novel and other genres. The play ‘Nadugaddika’ staged by the Vedi in hundreds of venues is a priceless play about the victory of Communist principles which features adivasi artists and makes art invoking their own traditions.

In Punjabi, Amarjeet Chandan, Avtar Singh ‘Pash’, Lal Singh ‘Dil’, Surjeet Pathar, Sant Ram Udasi, Gursharan Singh, are poets, song writers and dramatists who are the crown of Punjabi literature and have arisen from this movement. Namdev Dhasal, Daya Pawar, and Raja Dhale, inspired by Naxalbari consciousness, gave Marathi Dalit literature a fresh impetus. Vilas Manohar’s Marathi novel ‘Ek Naxlavadya Cha Janm’ tells the story of an adivasi who takes the Naxalbari road. The protagonist of Arundhati Roy’s celebrated novel The God of Small Things is also a Naxal activist. The backdrop of Mannu Bhandari’s ‘Mahabhoj’ has echoes of this movement. Odiya, Kashmiri, Urdu, Nepali, Kannada, Asomiya and other literature also have significant works influenced by the Naxalbari consciousness. Just as the Naxalbari and Srikakulam inspiration brought about a change in consciousness in most of the poets of the ‘Digambara Kavulu’ poetic revolution, just as the Bengali ‘Kshudit Peedhi’ (Hungry Generation) was washed away in the tide of this movement, so also the ‘non-poetry’ (akavita) and ‘non-story’ (akahani) movements in Hindi ended. The first generation of poets in Hindi-Urdu influenced by the Naxalbari movement included Dhoomil, Alok Dhanwa, Kumar Vikal, Leeladhar Jagudi, Gorakh Pandey, Maheshwar, Tadit Kumar, Harihar Dwivedi, Dhruvdev ‘Pashan’, Devendra Kumar, Kumarendra Paras Nath Singh and Venugopal. The second generation poets included Neelabh, Viren Dangwal, Gyanendra Pati, Vijendra Anil, Madan Kashyap, Pankaj Singh, Balli Singh ‘Cheema’, Mangalesh Dabral and Shambhu Badal. Some important poets like Dinesh Kumar Shukla also come under the larger ambit of Naxalbari influence. The poetry of Arun Kamal from the newest generation of the progressive stream also shows the stamp of Naxalbari inspiration. Inspired by Naxal consciousness, senior progressive poet Nagarjun wrote ‘Main Tumhe Chumban Dunga’, ‘Bhojpur’, and ‘Harijan Gatha’; and Trilochan wrote powerful poetry like ‘Nagai Mahra’.

Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, leading poet of the new poetry joined Jan Sanskriti Manch in 1985 – the first organization of the Naxalbari stream in the Hindi-Urdu region. Gorakh Pandey and Gursharan Singh were elected the first General Secretary and President respectively of this organization. A very important outcome was that the revolutionary farmers’ movement in Central Bihar gave a new impetus to creativity in Bhojpuri. Poet-thinker Gorakh Pandey himself led this innovation in Bhojpuri. Strong voices in the Bhojpuri movement were those of freedom fighter Ramakant Dwivedi ‘Ramta’, Drigendra Akarim Nirmohi and many other Bhojpuri poets who drew energy from this movement. Swadesh Deepak, Zahoor Alam, Rajesh Kumar, Anil Ranjan Bhowmik, Ashok Bhowmik, Manager Pandey, Veer Bharat Talwar, Chaman Lal, Anil Sinha and Ravi Bhushan were inspired by Naxalbari consciousness to creativity in the fields of drama, painting, theatre and poetry. Notable names in the field of novel and story writing are Kashinath Singh, Maheshwar, Madhukar Singh, Vijaykant, Neeraj Singh, Sanjeev, Dhirendra Asthana, Avadhesh Preet, Shaival, Kumar Sambhav, Shrikant, Srinjay, Manish Rai, Suresh Kantak, Cyril Mathew, Shekhar, Shivkumar Yadav, Ramdev Singh, Aravind Kumar, Kailash Vanvasi and many others. In today’s phase of markets and globalization, if the tendency is to think of literature and art as areas of resistance, it is definitely in good measure due to the influence of Naxalbari consciousness. The Naxalbari stream has rejuvenated the humanistic and progressive traditions in cultural activism and Hindi and other languages. When poets speak, their ancestors also speak through them. For example, in this poem by Gorakh Pandey, Nirala’s sound-configuration and a line from a famous poem by Shamsher take on a new meaning:

Poetry, sense the pulse of the times
Africa, Latin America, every oppressed limb Asia
Pierce like a dagger
The vision of the man-eaters!

Fuelled by hate, launch yourself
At fortresses of oppressive, decitful rhyme
Pass through the tunes of angry peace,
And the pages of war!

Destroy the dispensation of inverted meanings
Connect words with gunpowder
Make every letter, every line
Be a guerilla!

– Gorakh Pandey, Kavita Yug Ki Nabz Dharo

Many films dealt with themes from the Naxalbari movement – ‘Jukti Takko Gappo’ (Ritwik Ghatak, Bangla, 1974), ‘Naxalite’ (Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Hindustani, 1980), ‘Chokh’ (Utpalendu Chakravorty, Bangla, 1983), ‘Amma Ariyan’ (John Abraham, Malayalam, 1986), ‘Piravi’(Shaji N Karun, Malayalam, 1988). ‘Veerappa Nayaka’ (S Narayan, Kannada, 1990), and ‘Mathadu Mathadu Mallige’ (Nagatihalli Chandrashekhar, Kannada, 2007) are films which engage in dialogue and debate with Gandhism from the point of view of Naxalbari’s consciousness. The Malayalam film ‘Talappavu’ (2009) is based on the life of Varghese, a martyred revolutionary from the 70s. The Malayalam film ‘Gulmohar’ (Jairaj, 2008) is also based on a Naxal theme. ‘Hazar Chaurasi Ki Maa’ (Govind Nihalani, Hindi, 1998) was also much talked about and viewed because people were already familiar with the novel by Mahashweta Devi on which the film was based. Earlier, Nihalani had made ‘Aghat’ in 1984, indicating a ‘third path’ to deal with the crushing of Leftist trade unions by goon gangs in Mumbai. ‘Lal Salaam’ (Gaganbihari Borate, 2002) and ‘Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi’ (Sudhir Mishra, 2005) have also been much talked about films.

Today, even 40 years after the Naxalbari Revolt, those who get fresh creative inspiration from it will be at once relieved and concerned by these lines from poet Viren Dangwal’s new collection, ‘Syahi Taal’:

In truth I had chosen a different road
Neither short nor easy,
An intense obsession, a firmly held belief,
I took a different road…
(Viren Dangwal, excerpt from ‘Syahi Taal’, 2009) q