For progressive Indians with a sense of history, 2017 will rekindle two great historical memories. 25 May 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Naxalbari uprising, and 7 November will mark the centenary of the Great November Revolution. Naxalbari did not succeed in achieving what it had set out to achieve – the decade of the 1970s did not turn into the decade of liberation for oppressed Indians, in fact it experienced a brutal crackdown on the revolutionary communist movement followed by a massive suppression of democracy for nearly two years before witnessing a historic defeat of the Congress amid a broad restoration of parliamentary democracy. The November Revolution on the other hand was the first victorious socialist revolution in world history, giving rise to a new socialist country which went on to unleash the power of social transformation and become the second biggest politico-military as well as economic power in the world, yet all that melted into thin air well before the 20th century drew to a close.
In a way, remembering these two great events of the last century, the first a landmark of world historic significance and the second a turning point in Indian history, may thus appear to be an act of just celebration of nostalgia. Of course, we know that the struggle of the people against power also entails the struggle of memory against oblivion. Remembering and learning from the past is therefore a conscious act of struggle for every quest for justice, social transformation and human emancipation. But worldwide as country after country is faced with a new juncture of disruption, with hints of rupture in the established pattern and trajectory of capitalism and bourgeois democracy, November and Naxalbari evoke a different kind of resonance.
While remembering November Revolution we are now reminded of the eventual collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union. This is surely the most current truth regarding the eventual denouement of the Soviet Union that confronts communists the world over. But it is no less remarkable that the fledgling socialist power that had emerged victorious in the midst of a world war had gone on to consolidate itself and defeat the world’s most notorious fascist power till date in the subsequent world war and hold on for as many as seven decades. Equally noteworthy is the fact that it took no less than 70 years for the revolutionary idea as enunciated in the Communist Manifesto to get validated in practice. In the onward march of human history decades are but moments and revolutionary ruptures are punctuation marks.
The Communist Manifesto had identified the basic faultlines within capitalism and indicated the broad outlines of a communist future, a future that was expected to emerge from within the contradictions of capitalism. By the time the November Revolution happened, history however had to make several concrete amendments to these broad outlines. Revolution happened not in the advanced capitalist world and not after exhausting the possibilities of capitalist development, but in a backward capitalist country weighed down by considerable feudal survivals. While the emergence of the Soviet Union did initially demonstrate the tremendous potential of socialism in contrast to a US capitalism reeling under the Great Depression or a European capitalism coping with the devastation wrought by two successive world wars, global capitalism eventually managed to win the competition by trapping the Soviet Union in an unsustainable arms race. The Soviet Union succumbed to a slow internal decay and bureaucratic degeneration, losing all its economic dynamism, social support and political legitimacy to disappear from the world map leaving the posterity with the challenge of a future resurrection of socialism on a higher plane of participatory democracy and economic prosperity. China has of course managed to display a much stronger economic resilience but in the process it has had to make extensive adjustments with capitalism rendering Mao’s words about the protracted and undecided nature of the contention between socialism and capitalism increasingly prophetic.
Naxalbari had happened fifty years after the Russian and nearly twenty years after the Chinese Revolution. Despite significant differences in the composition of the state and society in India in comparison to pre-revolutionary Russia and China, in terms of economic content, India of the 1960s did have considerable similarity with the semi-feudal pre-revolutionary China. That was also the period of the Great Debate in the international communist movement. Worldwide, communists were taking sides in the great polarisation between the Soviet camp and its policy of peaceful transition in the third world, ostensibly with Soviet support in terms of foreign aid and foreign policy, and the Chinese example of reliance on internal class struggle, especially revolutionary peasant war, as the key. But Naxalbari was no flash-in-the-pan attempt to apply the Chinese model in India.
True, revolutionary communists in India had long felt quite strongly about the greater relevance of the Chinese experience for the Indian countryside than the so-called Russian path. During the Telangana peasant war, Andhra communists had successfully demonstrated the applicability of much of the Chinese experience in advancing the agrarian revolution in India, but the communist leadership withdrew the Telangana struggle and moved away from anything remotely resembling the peasant guerrilla war of China to embrace an effectively parliamentary path more on the lines of the European communists and social democrats. Undivided Bengal had its own precursor to Telangana in the form of the militant mobilisation and assertion of sharecroppers that came to be known as the Tebhaga movement. Comrade Charu Mazumdar and many of the Naxalbari pioneers were veterans of the Tebhaga movement and the Terai region where the spring thunder of Naxalbari first announced its arrival was a major centre of the Tebhaga agitation in the 1940s.
To understand the genesis of Naxalbari we should also recall the political situation of that period and the developments within the Indian communist movement. Nehru had passed away within two years of the war with China. Lal Bahadur Shastri, his successor too died just after the India-Pakistan war of 1965. Indira Gandhi had just taken over the reins of governance, but the economy was reeling under the pressure of two successive wars and the country was in the grip of a major economic crisis which could be felt most acutely in the agricultural arena, particularly on the food front. No wonder the 1967 elections witnessed the weakest showing of the Congress till date, with non-Congress governments coming to power in as many as nine provinces. Meanwhile, the CPI had been experiencing a major inner-party ideological-political churning leading to the formation of the CPI(M) in 1964, but with the CPI(M) settling for a centrist position, the debate continued within the CPI(M) and the larger communist ranks in the country. The food movement of the mid 1960s and the rise of the Left as the leading electoral force in West Bengal lent a new spirit and sense of urgency to generate a high tide of class struggle. Years of revolutionary communist work among the poor peasantry and sharp ideological struggle against class compromise and capitulation gave rise to the peasant uprising of Naxalbari.
Naxalbari was however not just another peasant uprising in the glorious history of peasant and adivasi revolts in colonial and post-colonial India. Naxalbari had elevated the agenda of land and crop rights to the question of state power. And even though the revolutionary agenda was consciously introduced from without, the revolutionary work was so intense, the ties of the party – the architects and activists of Naxalbari were still working within the CPI(M) – with the masses were so deep, and the situation so ripe for a revolutionary offensive that the dream and call of revolution soon captured the imagination of the people. It was one of those revolutionary sparks that indeed lit a prairie fire across rural India.
What started originally as a peasant-worker uprising – tea workers of adivasi origin played a key vanguard role along with local peasant activists – in an obscure locality of North Bengal inspired a powerful revolutionary awakening among students and the intelligentsia. A wave of militant peasant struggles swept the country attracting advanced sections of workers and communist ranks and became the founding platform for a new revolutionary centre of Indian communists. In April 1969, the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries formed in the wake of Naxalbari took the next step of founding the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).
The CPI(ML) thus came into being not in the way the CPI(M) had emerged through a vertical split in the CPI. The pioneers of Naxalbari were mostly district level organisers of the CPI(M), yet when the new party took shape it effected a major division in the CPI(M). Unlike the Telangana experience when the undivided CPI leadership formally withdrew the struggle before participating in the first general elections of independent India, the CPI(ML) was formed on the basis of the Naxalbari uprising, with an explicit mandate to spread the fire of the movement across the country. And with peasant guerrilla war becoming the topmost immediate priority, the CPI(ML) called for a boycott of elections. In the ensuing showdown with the Indian state, the party suffered a huge setback, virtually being crushed through severe state repression.
The repression was especially brutal in West Bengal. The reign of terror unleashed by the notorious regime of SS Ray, the precursor to the subsequent countrywide Emergency of 1975-77, witnessed the application of all those counter-insurgency measures in the book that would later become standard technique in Punjab, Andhra, Chhattisgarh, Manipur and Kashmir. Noted poet and columnist and member of the CPI(ML) polit bureau, Comrade Saroj Dutt was eliminated on 5 August 1971 (officially it is still a case of disappearance) and Comrade Charu Mazumdar was killed in the Lalbazar police lock-up in Kolkata on 28 July 1972.
This brutal crackdown could not however kill the spirit or message of Naxalbari. The official vocabulary of the Indian ruling classes today has reduced Naxalism to a dreaded brand of terrorism. A stream of the communist movement for which Naxalbari has been all about forms and slogans has also got stuck in militarism. But the message of Naxalbari has continued to reverberate in the resistance of the oppressed people and in the assertion of the student community and the radical intelligentsia against an aggressive and intrusive state and against the offensive of the forces of social reaction. And the party born in the fire of Naxalbari has demonstrated unprecedented resilience to rise from the ashes, taking every defeat and repression in its stride to chart a bold and determined course of advance for the revolutionary quest of the Indian people to win justice and democracy in every sphere of life.