Champaran100, Naxalbari50 and Today’s Struggle over History

2017 is a year of great historical landmarks. Even as Donald Trump inflicts his Hitlerite Presidency on the American people and itches to plunge the world into yet another disastrous war, progressive forces the world over are remembering the world’s first socialist revolution on its first centenary. For us in India, 2017 also marks the centenary of the great Champaran Satyagrah, a key turning point in India’s freedom movement and in the political career of Gandhi. And for those working for the goal of revolutionary social transformation, 2017 is also the 50th anniversary of the ever inspiring Naxalbari peasant uprising. But remembering history is also an act of struggle in the present – a struggle of memory against oblivion, a struggle against misinterpretation and misappropriation by the rulers, a struggle to learn from history and use it to serve the present needs of the people.

The RSS and the ideological-political precursors of the BJP have had only antagonistic relations with the great mass movement for India’s freedom. Generally speaking, they stood against the flow of the freedom movement, often finding common cause with the British colonial rulers, and even going to the extent of assassinating Mahatma Gandhi soon after the dawn of Independence. But now in power, the BJP is desperately trying to misrepresent and grab every iconic individual or event from Indian history to camouflage its vicious agenda. After reducing Gandhi to his specs in the propaganda-intensive ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign, the BJP is now trying to cash in on the centenary of the historic Champaran Satyagrah which had established Gandhi as an iconic leader of the Indian peasantry and the freedom movement. Nitish Kumar is also competing with the BJP, and Delhi and Patna are both busy deploying rival Gandhi lookalikes to reenact scenes from Gandhi’s visit to Champaran in 1917!

The irony today could not be any starker. The Champaran Satyagrah had brought the peasantry to the fore as the main force of India’s freedom movement. It was Gandhi’s first hand encounter with the slave-like conditions and acute suffering of the indigo cultivators of Champaran that shaped the contours of much of his nationalist discourse and political grammar in subsequent decades. Today, the entire official discourse revolves around foreign investment and corporate land ac- quisition; unlike Gandhi, the government of India does not reach out to the crisis-ridden peasantry; most governments routinely unleash police repression to deal with peasant grievances; and while Modi was paying lip service to Gandhi and the Champaran Satyagrah in his monthly radio talk ‘Mann ki Baat’, his arrogant government turned a deaf ear to the painful plea of the debt-stricken drought-hit peasants who came all the way from Tamil Nadu to stage an indefinite sit-in outside Parliament expecting a hearing for their grievances.

A hundred years after the historic Champaran Satyagrah, the region is still gripped by acute agrarian distress and rural poverty and injustice. The indigo plantations have given way to sugar mills (Mill has replaced Neel, as the common Champaran farmer or labourer puts it), but the plight of the people remains unchanged. Sugar mills sit over huge swathes of land, yet many of the mills are closed and owe vast sums of money to peasants and workers by way of unpaid-for sugarcane and unpaid wages. Motihari, the headquarters of East Champaran district and the constituency of Radhamohan Singh, agriculture minister in Modi’s cabinet, has a sugar mill closed since 2005. In 2014 Modi had assured his voters that the mill would be reopened and during his next visit to Motihari he would enjoy the sweetness of the Motihari sugar in his tea!

The mill remains closed till date and despite court instructions workers and cane-growers have not got their dues. During the centenary of the Champaran Satyagrah, workers and peasants got together, and fed up with the betrayal and apathy of the central and state governments, two workers Naresh Srivastava and Suraj Baitha took the ultimate step of self-immolation. The governments remain unmoved, and the show goes on with the Gandhi lookalikes deployed by the Delhi and Patna governments touring Champaran to ‘replay’ history! But the fighting peasants and workers of Champaran are not amused. On April 22, when the BJP carcade with ‘Modi’s Gandhi’ went past the CPIML-organised ‘Bhumi Adhikar Satyagrah’, thousands of participants roared in unison: ‘Fake Gandhi, go back!’, ‘Stop mocking history’, ‘Bapu, we are ashamed, those who killed you are in power’.

The BJP is of course continuing with its mission to distort and hijack history. The BJP’s war on history is being waged simultaneously on several planes. On one level, they are replacing history with mythology which does not require any historical validation or evidence. And when it comes to recent history, they resort to plain lies and systematic manipulation of facts to paint history with their favourite saffron colour. They would like to hang Bhagat Singh on 14 February so as to pit his ‘desi martyrdom’ against the ‘western import’ of Valentine’s Day, and now Viswhakarma Puja is being invoked as the real Labour Day for the Indian worker in place of May Day so that labour day can be Hinduised and divorced from the great history of the international working class movement.

In fact, the Sangh brigade has the audacity to suggest that those who are vandalizing and killing humans in the name of the cow are the true legatees of Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad! Meanwhile on 25 April, a month before the 50th anniversary of the Naxalbari peasant uprising, we saw Amit Shah visit Naxalbari to blame non-BJP governments for not fulfilling the demands of the adivasis and failing to eradicate poverty while demonizing Naxalism as terrorism and castigating the Left as a failed and outdated ideology!

In their own ways both Chamaparan and Naxalbari had asserted the pivotal place of the peasantry in the quest for freedom and in the onward march of modern India. In terms of ideology and forms and goals of peasant mobilization, Gandhi and Charu Mazumdar were surely poles apart; the historical contexts and objective conditions surrounding the two landmarks in Indian history were also profoundly distinct, but today when India faces the biggest ever corporate-communal offensive in Indian history, communist revolutionaries must celebrate both these glorious chapters of peasant assertion and people’s awakening to face today’s challenges.

In Bihar, CPI(ML) is observing the centenary of the Champaran Satyagrah as a year of intensified struggles for land rights. While remembering Gandhi’s encounter with Champaran, we must pay attention to the key role that Champaran played in the making of Gandhi, remembering alongside Gandhi, all the unsung heroes of Champaran, many of them belonging to the Muslim community, who effected that major shift in the course of India’s freedom movement from the aristocratic politics of petitions or isolated terrorist actions to mass-based assertion of peasant power. In Bihar, CPI(ML) is observing the centenary of Champaran Satyagrah as a year of intensified struggles for land rights, to bring the land question back at the heart of Bihar politics. The 50th anniversary of Naxalbari too needs to be celebrated across the country to uphold the real message of Naxalbari against the constant demonization by ruling class propagandists. Naxalbari50 beckons us to strengthen mass resistance against every oppression and injustice, expand the revolutionary alliance of workers and peasants and every oppressed and marginalized section of the people, reassert the progressive legacy of love and sacrifice for the people, and erect a powerful united barricade to defend democracy against every fascist offensive.