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Book Review : Bappaditya Paul

The First Naxal

An authorized biography of Kanu Sanyal.

Bappaditya Paul

Sage Publishers

A review by Manju Kak

There still lingers an avid curiosity about the origins of the Naxalite movement amongst those who grew up in earlier decades, a time when political idealism was still something worth fighting for. These people witnessed, post—Independence, the initial seepage of corruption and malaise into our systems. In the  60’s and 70’s often an educated middle class family lost a son to the Cause. It left the family traumatized, as if they had fallen prey to some terrible disease. “Hai, hai, ladka, Naxalite ban gaya.” In turn the `Naxal’ felt Independence was  a counterfeit coin, a sentiment I dealt with it my story, “Requiem for an Unsung Revolutionary” (Ravi Dayal Publishers). That desire for purity of motive in bringing about social change has taken a strange religious and parochial turn today, be it fundamentalist Islam or the Hindu Right—wing. It stems from a desire to seek a perfect society—but what constitutes that remains debatable, be it ISIS in the Middle- east or Maoists in India’s Sonbhadra and Sunderbans,  or even the reprehensible Nazis in Europe.  

Revolutionary Kanu Sanyal ‘s life is what legends are made of. This author, from 2007,  bravely undertook writing his biography by  recording an arduous 121  interviews with the reclusive Kanu in his home environment of Hattighisha in Naxalbari. He says Kanu went through various chapters of the book (except the last which relates his suicide).  Thus its claim to be the only ‘authorized’ biography of Kanu  Sanyal, is credible.

Born in the monsoon of 1929,  at Kurseong, in the Darjeeling Hills, Sanyal’s life was one of hardship and struggle based on his Communist beliefs.  It was a journey of about eighty years, spent mostly in his beloved ‘janmbhoomi’ which also became the `karmabhoomi’  i.e.  the northern Terai region of West Bengal and the Darjeeling Hills where he first began his work 40 odd years before as a Communist Party District Organizer. He died in tragic and inscrutable circumstances, on 23rd March 2010 at Sedbella  Jote village, 25 km. from the town of Siliguri  in West Bengal. Sanyal was found by his faithful Adivasi followers in his hut, having committed suicide. Till the very end,  he remained a man of the people whose rights he worked for. What manner of conviction propelled him: this slim anecdotal work seeks to answer this.

While  the exigencies of language detract from reading pleasure—one a competent editor could have resolved– this in no way deters one from plowing through an absorbing and exciting narrative  that needed to be told, as few works on Sanyal exist.

Kanu Sanyal, along with co-revolutionaries, the ideologue Charu Mazumdar. and tribal leader Jungal Santhal formed the dreaded triad that gave birth to the Naxalbari or Naxalite  Movement.  The name is derived from the village Naxalbari in West Bengal where a section of the Communist Party (Marxist) split leading to the formation of the more radical Communist Party of India ML (Marxist-Leninist) after the violent uprising of 1967. The basic impetus of this movement was triggered by the government’s failure to implement  the 5th and 9th Schedules of the Constitution of India, that call for appropriate Tribal Advisory bodies to mandate over forests and mines in tribal lands.

Today almost 80 Indian districts remain affected by radical Communist outfits despite the adoption of the Integrated Action Plan in 2009 that called for grass –roots development in about 180 affected districts of Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh,MaharashtraJharkhandBiharUttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. The reason lies in the Indian State’s inability to  address  the issues that gave birth to the movement in the first place. Chronic hunger, abandoned tea gardens, extreme unemployment and poverty and lack of development continue to feed  revolutionary fire. Though taking up arms to redress wrongs is not the way Sanyal wanted this peasant movement to go, yet violence continues unabated with nearly half of all deaths from terrorism in India caused by the said `Maoists’. This itself is a telling tale.

For the uninitiated Wikipedia defines a Naxal or Naxalite  as a member of any of the Communist guerrilla groups in India, mostly associated with the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Naxalites are considered far-left radical communists. Ideological leadership came from Mao’s China advocating that Indian peasants and lower class tribals should overthrow the government and upper classes by force. The movement  transformed   the agrarian  and Adivasi politics of India from the peaceful force introduced by Mahatama Gandhi into the aggressive violent movement it has become today. For this Kanu Sanyal is both venerated and vilified depending on the perspective that one adopts. 

Kanu Sanyal was the son of a court clerk, Anada Govind,  and his third wife Nirmala. They lived in a traditional middle class Bengali joint family in Kurseong and Kanu’s education was completed in Siliguri/Kurseong.

His early hero was the Congress freedom fighter turned revolutionary, Subash Chandra Bose.  Since the Communist Party of India  had declared Bose to be  an enemy of the nation, Sanyal developed an early antipathy to them.  But this changed under the influence of Raghav Chaudhary,  a friend and   an activist of the CPI student wing, the AISF. By the time Kanu was 18  he’d started working as a revenue collecting clerk in Kalimpong, a career which ended abruptly in January 1950,  when  he was arrested for his  involvement in an attack on Dr.  BC Roy, the then Chief Minister  of West Bengal. Kanu’s offense was  minor—the showing of black flags. (He had earlier joined the CPI and was very active which lead to his becoming the youngest member of the CPI’s Darjeeling District Organizing Committee.)

He met Charu Mazumdar, already a leading light in Communist politics,  in the Jalpaigiri Central Jail while both were imprisoned there which laid the seeds of a long and mutually dependent political association. In 1951 he was put in charge of  the CPI office at Matigara, Siliguri. He went to nearby Naxalbari for the first time in 1952 on election duty, and  subsequently shifted there permanently.

Naxalbari was the heartland of the Adivasi tea workers and farmers in the Terai. Here Sanyal activated the CPI’s `krishak sabha’  movement that made them the powerful force they became, the backbone of the subsequently fearsome Naxalite movement. On  18th  May 1967,  the Siliguri Kishan Sabha,  under the Presidentship of  Jangal declared their readiness to adopt armed struggle to redistribute land to the landless, an action initiated by Kanu Sanyal.  A week later,  a sharecropper near Naxalbari village was attacked by the landlord’s men over a land dispute.  A police team that came to  arrest the peasant leaders was ambushed and a police inspector was killed in a hail of arrows.  Eleven peasants were killed in the incident. The killings firmed up the movement which spread to other parts of the state. Following this many Santhal tribals and other poor people joined the movement  attacking a number of  landlords that culminated in the formation of the CPI(M-L) in April, 1969.

The most interesting chapter recounts  Kanu’s visit  to China, along with  three comrades in 1967. They travelled clandestinely through Nepal.  His  meeting with Chairman Mao and  Premier Zhou en lai, and his subsequent stay and training in Beijing for some 2 and a half months,  are discussed here.

Two supposed misconceptions that the author seeks to clear on behalf of Sanyal is that Charu Mazumdar waged the Naxalite movement and Kanu Sanyal was his lieutenant. This is contradicted by Kanu, who claims, that Charu was his inspiration, but he was primarily a theorist, and did not dedicate much time to the field. Fighting and field activities were done by Kanu and his comrades mostly.  However it can be added here that it is Charu Majumdar‘s writings, particularly the ‘Historic Eight Documents‘ that formed the basis of Naxalite ideology that drew many urban elites particularly from the 60’s and 70’s onwards. This claim will generate debate and questioning even as the history of the Marxist Movement In India gets written and revised.

The second misconception is that Naxalism and Maoism were/are the same. Not so, though the latter was the inspiration of the former, as the ground realities were totally different for both.  Already by the 1970s, the movement had been fragmented into disputing factions; around 30 Naxalite groups with a membership of about 30,000, were active by 1980.

Kanu Sanyal was arrested in October 1968, and released only in April 1969 when the CPI led United Front government  in West Bengal came to power after President’s rule, and withdrew all cases against him. He then formed the CPI ML with Charu Mazumdar and others. Their violent activities again led to President’s Rule in Bengal in 1970 and Kanu was soon rearrested and jailed in Vishakapatnam. Then came the elections in 1972 when Congress had come to power under Siddartha Shankar Ray in West Bengal. By this time his fallout with Charu was complete in 1972. (Charu died in 1972). 

The Emergency promulgated by the ex-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi  saw the arrest of  Kanu and others  who were sentenced to life imprisonment in the `Srikakulam Conspiracy Case’.  In 1979 Sanyal was released from jail at the intervention of late Jyoti Basu, who had just taken over as Chief Minister of the Left Front government in West Bengal.  Finally he returned to Sedbella Jote village, Jalpaiguri.  In 1985, Sanyal and his supporters along with five other groups merged to form the Communist Organisation of India (Marxist-Leninist). At the time of his death, he was General Secretary of a new CPI (Marxist-Leninist) group. Years later, he was also to oppose the land acquisition in Singur for Tata’s cheap car project. He remained involved in the struggle of the Adivasis and poor agrarian sectors till his unfortunate suicide when he was  found hanging in his room at his residence. It is said he was suffering from age-related ailments some of which were severe. What else too can one say about a free India that has become a counterfeit coin?

Manju Kak