This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the “Naxalite” revolutionary peasant uprising in northern India, named for the locale in which it first appeared, Naxalbari. What follows is an interview with a prominent Bengali intellectual who recalls his youthful foray into the countryside to organize poor peasants. His unromanticized recollections have a descriptive honesty that takes them far beyond the Indian context; for example, echoes of Turgenev’s Virgin Soil (1877) are inevitable for anyone familiar with that work. It needs be pointed out that the revolutionary upsurge that began in Naxalbari has several times been nearly extinguished, as in the experience of Timir Basu recounted here. But the armed struggle has always flared back to life, and continues today. The vast misery that is the ground of the struggle continues unabated, and selfless revolutionary youth continue to “go to the people.” The political ignorance that Timur Basu and comrades encountered two generations ago has decreased, as proved by the apparently ineradicable persistence of widespread struggle in the face of hideously brutal repression; their efforts were not in vain. —Eds.
Timir Basu, editor of Frontier, a well-known radical weekly from Kolkata, India, for about 40 years, was organizing the poor peasantry during the Naxalbari-days identified as the Spring Thunder Over India. As a young professional revolutionary with a political program for radical change of the entire system Timir Basu was practicing the revolutionary ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Mao’s thoughts. Timir Basu’s and his comrades’ political struggle at grassroots level following the Naxalbari-spark enlightened them with knowledge from reality of class struggle. Now, at the 50th anniversary of the Naxalbari Uprising, Timir Basu, in this interview, reflects on the unique struggle. The interview was conducted in late-July-early-August 2017.
Farooque Chowdhury: What was the most memorable moment during your revolutionary political work among the peasantry in the 1970s?
Timir Basu: When my friend Ratikanta and I shared food with Kalu Sheikh, his wife and two children in a rainy night in an obscure village named Kripalpur in Haroa region.1 I have already mentioned the incident in my short write-up “In Search of Maoist Revolution” [Frontier, Vol. 50, No. 1, July 9-15, 2017]. Kalu was a landless daily wage laborer.
In those days, poverty in rural Bengal was stark. Starvation was as common as anything else, because job opportunities were limited, particularly in villages where poor and middle peasants formed the majority of the peasantry. In South Bengal, my area of work among the peasantry, big landlords and rich farmers were very few in number. It made things difficult for us to pursue the slogan “land to the tiller.” My days of the political-organizational work were mid-1968 to end-1969.
What was the happiest moment in your revolutionary political work during the period?
We had our base camp in a Munda tribal family in a small village named Chobre.2 Once some bad persons hatched a conspiracy by taking advantage of ill-behavior of an outsider visiting us frequently, and tried to evict us. The entire village — men and women called a meeting in a night and discussed threadbare every aspect of the incident that triggered the conspiracy by some persons disliking our presence in the locality. The outsider was also a political activist, but he belonged to a different group and we had no antagonistic relations with them.
In those days, we never divulged our separate group identity to the peasants. Nor did we try to teach the poor illiterate peasants the intricate ideological debate that was going on among different Naxalite sects. We projected ourselves as “Naxalites” and villagers too were happy to describe us as “Naxal”s. They understood the political significance of “Naxalism” not very sharply. What all they understood was that we stood for change, for social equality and against injustice. Before CPI (ML) [Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)] was organized, there was the Co-ordination Committee Communist Revolutionaries and many other small and large groups. But all were clubbed together under one camp — “Naxalite”. Things began to change after the formation of CPI (ML). They declined to accept the legitimacy of other groups that were working among the peasants under the banner “Naxalbari”. In fact, CPI (ML) was too intolerant and arrogant to allow other groups to function and propagate politics stemmed from the uprising of Naxalbari. And, it was really tragic that antagonistic relations developed with CPI (ML) in many places. Mao’s beautiful theoretical exercise On Contradiction failed to save the situation. Coming back to the village committee meeting about our expulsion, all, barring one or two, eloquently, decided in favor of our stay there. Thereafter nobody tried to evict us from our base — the Munda family. This occasion of unanimous decision by the villagers to treat us as their friends and well-wishers was the happiest moment because people reposed faith in us. We felt the power of people.
Will you, please, cite the saddest moment in your revolutionary work during the period?
Saddest moment during my revolutionary work was when I heard some of our one-time close associates felled to the bullets of police. One of them, junior to me but a promising poet, died in police firing inside Berhampore jail.
How did you and your comrades organize with the peasantry?
We used to conduct group meetings during night. Daytime was used mainly for developing contacts. Then we used to target CPM [Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M)] Local Committee members and had an opportunity to expose CPM-brand of revisionism. In Swarupnagar3 area, an entire branch committee of CPM left the party and began to identify themselves as Naxalites. They were disgusted with CPM’s status quo-ism and opportunism of one Yunus Mia, a local CPM leader. He was trying very hard to win over the dissidents who joined us. We used to take hospitality of veteran Mir Hossain. Hossain, Santosh Mallick, a medical representative, and Adhir Chaudhury, a washer man by profession and caste, were the back-bone of this branch committee.
Our line of action was to highlight the significance of the “Naxalbari uprising” and the role of peasantry in the on-going agrarian revolution. Because of backward masses we didn’t really elaborate the idea of seizure of power in detail. The futility of parliamentary election in the present situation featured prominently in every meeting. Many people realized the issue, but all were not convinced. In fact, election had tremendous influence on the villagers, and it was perhaps the easiest political discourse they could understand. That armed struggle would be the ultimate goal was our final message.
We never organised open mass meeting because of CPM vigilantes and police informers. The issue of land attracted the peasants most. We talked of vested land and land surplus of ceiling. That after revolution all peasant households would get some parcels of land was taken well by all. In course of our work, political propaganda, citing examples of China and Vietnam, peasants took very serious interest whenever we discussed “the land to the tiller” question.
How would you identify your organizing method? Did you primarily work covertly or were you explicit about building a mass movement?
We used both the covert and mass movement strategies. As for mass line, we tried to win the trust of the peasant families by participating in their field work. In Sandeshkhali,4 we literally worked as daily laborers for a tribal family without any wages. After a day’s hard work, coarse red rice and lentil soup seemed to be nectar from the heaven. In those days, communication was not easy. We used to go to Bashirhat, and then turned towards south to reach Sandeshkhali via bus and boat. There is also another route via Canning. Then, it was harvesting of jute, cutting jute stick, in Haroa region, again a very hard experience. If you call it mass line, then it was. In every locality, we had to innovate new techniques as per local conditions to keep in touch with the peasant masses and bidi5 workers. They were workers, no doubt, but attachment to land was the prime factor in their lives.
Those were the days when villagers, enthusiastic young people, used to perform Yatra6 on the occasion of Durga Puja,7 or during some other festivals. Rehearsal of Yatra during night in someone’s house provided us opportunity to address those gatherings. We helped them in our own way to select drama that could depict social reality.
What’s your observation regarding work among the peasantry during the period: borrowing from Mao, politics commanding gun or the opposite? Or, work was not to that level where gun could command?
Mao was like the Bible to us. We followed mainly Mao in propagating politics. I, myself applied many of Mao dictums to my personal life as thumb rules. I found them very useful to steel oneself into communist. For example, Mao’s sermon “fight self, fight revisionism” was very helpful. Talking about revolution is easy, but to apply communist principles in one’s own life is not that easy.
Frankly speaking, our work and influence among the peasant masses was not at that level where gun could command politics. During the time, we strongly followed the idea of “politics commanding gun”, not the opposite.
Can you give some examples of the role of the peasantry in areas of your organizational and political work?
In fact, we had very little interaction with the peasantry because of conspiratorial aspect of our method of work.
How you and your comrades used to conduct publicity work in the area you were carrying on revolutionary activities?
We used to propagate the message of Naxalbari through group meetings. Also, sometimes we used to distribute leaflets.
How did you and your comrades conduct political and educational work with the peasantry?
Not that we used to discuss very high level of political issues. It was beyond their perception. As we failed to create an advanced core group among the peasants, issues related to the on-going ideological debate, both at national and international levels, didn’t arise at all.
To be frank, ideological and political understanding of our supporters having some elementary school education was very poor. Also, it was difficult to transform “raw materials” into “sharp weapons” as they were not in any struggle. Such political jump takes place during struggles. We were not leading any struggle at the point of time; we were just preparing ground for struggle in future.
What were the difficulties you were facing in the rural areas as you with urban, middle class background went to live among the poor peasantry?
At first, they, the poor peasantry, didn’t trust us. They were a bit suspicious about our efforts to get integrated with the rural people. But slowly they realised that we were not really migratory birds. And, they began to discuss even their personal problems with us. And, to win their confidence and trust, we had to do a lot of odd things like drinking haariaa[viii] with them. Even one day, both Ratikanta and I tried rat meat with Palm taari.9 Neat result: we began to vomit after some time. The only spice they added to the rat meat was green chilli. And quite naturally, it was very oppressive for us, the first timers. But the way they hunted rats in the paddy fields after harvesting was very interesting. It was like a festival. For the indigenous people, mostly identified as tribals, rat meat was a delicacy. For us, the Calcuttans, it was a harrowing experience. We took it as a challenge: “If they can eat such things, why not we?” For one thing they appreciated our participation in their feast — it all acted in favor of our efforts to get integrated with the people we were living with.
What were the difficulties you were facing while conducting political, educational and organizational work in the rural areas?
The main difficulty was their low level of education. There were some bad people as well. Also, some CPM agents were there. They used to raise many questions that might lead to confusion among the peasants. We had to deal with them very cautiously because of police activities.
Were not you conducting village studies/investigations prior to initiating political and organizational work?
No, we didn’t conduct any village study/investigation the way the Chinese communists did as per Mao’s guideline and class analysis. Class differentiation in our areas of work was not that sharp, nor were there many big landlords baring some bheri10 owners. Rich peasants, in classical sense, were absent there.
Was there effort to organize economic activities among the poor peasantry with the purposes of widening their space, and developing management skill?
Well, the time was the late sixties and beginning of the seventies. There neither was little movement in rural economy nor were there many job avenues as there are now. Still, we tried to ask bidi workers to think over cooperative, but they didn’t take it seriously. They were comfortable with the traditional mahajan11 system.
Will you briefly narrate the way you and your comrades used to carry on struggles between two lines at local level, or to put it in a simpler way, ways of handling differences of opinions on strategic and tactical issues, which included political, organizational, forms of struggles in the area you were working?
I have already stated that we never highlighted the group identity. We just projected us as Naxalites. As for ideological and political differences, we just refuted this line or that without mentioning the groups including the CPI (ML) that was behind. For example, we vigorously opposed the idea of individual annihilation though we didn’t condemn openly the outfit that was carrying out annihilation program in the region.
What were the problems — social, cultural, political, organizational, handling of class equation, administrative — you were facing in that area?
Well, an urban background was definitely a problem. Yet, we succeeded to overcome it in course of time. We didn’t experience any caste or communal factor hindering our political work. But CPM, and in some areas, Congress posed political and administrative problems because, police was in their hands.
What were the efforts to overcome those?
We overcame those challenges by strictly following underground logistics and totally avoiding those areas where CPM and Congress were very powerful, were having a strong network of cadres.
Was there success/failures in the efforts?
Yes, there were successes and failures as well.
What was the reason(s)?
That we were numerically very few was the main reason. Another reason was the negative image of Naxalites, the image the mainstream media used to portray day in and day out. Not many people used to read daily newspapers. But rural huts, weekly market places, and market places worked as rumor mills. As a result, we had to bypass huts many a time even during our journey from one place to another.
As you look back now, how do you evaluate influence of Mao’s writings on class analysis; or Lin Piao’s Long Live the Victory of People’s War. your way of looking at the reality and working within the reality of that time?
I never questioned Mao’s writings on class analysis, village investigation, and peasant movement in Hunan as I always perceived these formulations were the true reflections of the ground reality — the Chinese rural reality.
The issue of strategic problems in revolutionary war doesn’t arise, because we were not in war during the time. In reality, we were not in a position to wage war against the state. What we were doing was to challenge the authority of the ruling establishment.
I didn’t like Lin Piao’s Long Live the Victory of People’s War. It appeared to me that he was a sycophant of Mao. At least one can easily reach that conclusion after carefully reading Lin’s book. Later it was proved that the sycophancy was actually aimed at seizing power and launching a coup.
Did you smell an approaching set back in the revolutionary initiative you were involved with?
Yes, when we were in jail, we had no doubt that we were approaching a setback, despite paying a heavy price for jumping into a grand uncertainty called revolution.
There was one yard stick. Isolation from the masses was near-total despite so many sacrifices.
When you began to get sense a setback’s?
I have already said that when we were in jail we realized our setback was complete.
What are the major lessons to be learned from the revolutionary 1970s?
Well, dogmatism must be avoided at any cost. Liberalism is bad, but dogmatism is more harmful than liberalism. The concept of united front was mechanically understood. It was never achieved. And, Maoist principles to unify broad masses of people were never applied. Also, ego of some leaders played havoc; it stood in the way of healthy growth of Marxist polemics, and finally divided the movement much to the satisfaction of the establishment. Feeling of people’s power at the initial stage of the movement actually blinded some leaders; and their arrogance at the end led to their downfall and decline of the movement that galvanized an entire generation that was ready to sacrifice and dismantle the system.
Thank you for sharing with us your knowledge, experience and wisdom.
- ↩ Haroa is about 30-35 miles north-east of Kolkata. Haroa and all other areas mentioned in the interview were under the district of undivided 24 Parganas. Today, these are under the district of North 24 Parganas.
- ↩ Chobre, about 40 miles from Kolkata, is in between Hamadama and Malatipur railway stations on the Barasat-Hasnabad railway line. Chobre is down south of this railway line.
- ↩ Swarupnagar is on the north of the Barasat-Hasnabad railway line. People in the area call it Swarupnagar Station although there is no station. Once during the colonial time, Martin & Burn Company used to run narrow gauge railway trains up to Bashirhat. Swarupnagar is on that line and it is 3/4 miles north of Chobre.
- ↩ Sandeshkhali is about 60 miles south-east of Kolkata.
- ↩ Hand-made cigarette, pronounced beeree in Baanglaa, usually the poor smoke.
- ↩ A traditional form of open air theatre with its characteristic setting and composition performed mainly in rural areas.
- ↩ The main religious festival of the Hindus in Bengal.
- ↩ Locally brewed alcohol made with rice.
- ↩ Alcohol brewed with palm juice.
- ↩ Large fish-farm.
- ↩ Traditional money lenders in the rural Bengal.