Posters, leaflets, graffiti — Naxalbari, a nondescript village in north Bengal, is gearing up to celebrate 50 years of a movement, a peasants’ uprising, that inspired other resistance movements in the country.
On May 25, 1967, the police opened fire on a farmers’ rally at the tiny hamlet of Prasadujyot in Naxalbari, triggering an armed revolt. Eleven persons, including two children, were killed. Trouble had been brewing from a day earlier when the police entered the village to break a farmers’ protest. In the commotion that followed, a farmer shot an arrow, killing a police officer. Then Home Minister Jyoti Basu ordered police action. The next day, under a giant banyan tree in Prasadujyot, not far from where BJP president Amit Shah recently shared a controversial meal with a tribal family, the police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration. As news of the police firing spread, the peasants, armed with bows and arrows, launched a spontaneous agitation culminating in a full-scale armed struggle.
What did the protest mean?
The peasants refused to hand over the majority of the farm produce to landowners; they not only seized the crop and distributed it but also acquired land by sticking red flags. The movement may have been put down by the administration, but it inspired other movements against wrongs and injustice and forced the government to improve the lot of the agricultural labourers and poor peasants. The Naxalbari movement split the Communist Party, with the Maoist factions teaming up to launch an armed struggle to overthrow landowners and the State. While the movement could not achieve what it intended to do — a democratic revolution — a process to democratise society was initiated. As a result, caste exploitation and economic coercion reduced.
Why did it fail?
Naxalbari failed primarily because the ideologue, Charu Majumdar, was rigid in his view that only a military line would help the peasants achieve their goals, refusing to adopt the politics of mass lines. However, the movement that was begun by peasants, landless agricultural workers, Dalits, tribals and Nepalis — and attracted the Bengali upper class — was given a theoretical grounding by Charu Majumdar, who later launched the CPI-ML in 1969. On the ground, the movement was led by Jangal Santhal, Kanu Sanyal, Khokon Majumdar, Nimu Singh and Mujibur Rehman to name a few. Women leaders Galeswari Debi, Sabitri Das, Krishnamaya Surgeon and Shanti Munda played a major role too.
The movement ended within a few years of the death of Charu Majumdar in police custody in 1972. But Naxalbari merged in spirit with the peasant struggles in Bihar and Telangana in the 1980s and 1990s. In districts in south Chhattisgarh, the military movement has survived till date much on Majumdar’s lines, perhaps the reason Naxalbari Day is still celebrated in the forests of Bastar. Security forces are told to be on high alert on May 25 every year.
What is the situation today?
Nothing much has changed in Naxalbari. It’s still a one-road village. The biggest recent story — Amit Shah launching the expansion of the BJP in West Bengal at Naxalbari — is on its walls. The rest of the walls are taken up by various Naxalite parties with slogans and graffiti to celebrate Naxalbari Day.
Party members are a busy lot. Gaur Baidya, a leader of the CPI Marxist-Leninist-Red Star, supervises what has to be written on the walls. Abhijit Majumdar, a top CPI-ML (Liberation) leader and son of Charu Majumdar, campaigns round the clock, asking people to join in the celebrations. The offices of the various CPI-ML factions are abuzz with members distributing leaflets, setting up social media platforms, painting posters in an effort to re-engage the peasants and the working class with the anniversary celebration. Scholars, civil society groups and activists from across the country are expected to participate in the event, alongside the families of those who died in the uprising.