The Naxalite movement in India owes its origins to a small village in West Bengal called ‘Naxalbari’ and thus, the movement acquired its name. The year was 1967 when a small group of Communist Party of India (Marxist) members led by Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal decided to initiate an armed struggle against large landowners and forcibly take away their lands and re-distribute it amongst the landless.
Kanu Sanyal’s call for an armed struggle got its first voice of support from Jangal Santhal, who at the time was the President of Siliguri Kisan Sabha. On 18 June 1967, he gave a call for support to the armed struggle and thus began a violent period in India that continues to have its impact on the lives of many people even today.
Within a week of his call for support, on 24 May, a local sharecropper in a village near Naxalbari was attacked and killed by goons sent by the local landlord. This incident became the first trigger for a period of violence that was to rock West Bengal and other parts of India for a long time. A small police party, led by a sub-inspector was sent to follow-up on the killing. A group of local tribals led by the fiery Jangal Santhal ambushed the police party and attacked them with bows and arrows, resulting in the death of the sub-inspector.
The word of the killing soon spread and more armed tribals began to come out in support of further action. What started off as a spontaneous uprising at the local level soon began to attract the masses in rural and subsequently urban areas. Common rural folk were increasingly attracted to the far left vision of a class and caste struggle to overthrow the existing order in favour of the landless and worker class.
Government’s Failure to Understand the Reasons behind the Naxalite Movement
The initial response of the state government and subsequently, the central government, was that this was a ‘law & order’ problem and believed that the uprising would be short lived and could be crushed with force in a short period of time. The government completely failed to read the situation and this is borne out by the statement in Lok Sabha on June 13 1967, by the then Home Minister Y.B.Chavan, where he stated that this was a case of lawlessness and should be contained and crushed by the local police force.
Unfortunately, this was to remain symptomatic of all subsequent governments at the state and centre, with very little effort to address the root cause of mass discontent that drew people to join the Naxalite movement. What was thought to be a brief period of discontent has today grown into becoming Indian’s biggest threat to internal security as stated by PM Manmohan Singh in 2008.
Origins of Discontent
Extreme poverty, exploitation of lower and backward castes by the upper classes and denial of social justice and opportunity to the exploited classes were the main reasons of simmering discontent among the masses.
Since Independence, the government has focused on improving agricultural output without simultaneously addressing social disparity that was actually widening as a result of improved agricultural returns. This was not a problem restricted to Bengal but all across India. Once the government abolished the Zamindari system, what took its place were large landowners who rapidly prospered while the masses remained mostly landless and without any means of food or income.
The gap between the landowners and the landless had begun to widen, while the government has continued to focus on improving agriculture at the cost of equitable social development. In several parts of India, the poverty levels are as high as 95.8%, while several tribal areas in central, east and south east India still remain underdeveloped even after 68 years of Independence. These areas have, therefore, attracted the masses to leftist ideology with many actively joining the Naxalite movement.
Left Wing Politics Took Up the Cause of the Exploited
It was Mao Zedong’s success in organising and leading the ordinary and exploited people of rural China to overthrow the ruling elite that formed the basis of inspiration for Charu Mazumdar, who then began his own interpretation of how the class and caste struggle was to be taken forward. His ‘Historic Eight Documents’ propounded the Naxalite ideology that found many takers, in rural and urban areas.
During this period, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was a part of the ruling United Front government and therefore, it opposed the concept of armed struggle. Several party cadres rebelled against their party high command and in November 1967, they broke away to form the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR) under the leadership of Sushital Ray Chowdhury to pursue armed struggle against the ruling class.
They organised several armed actions in many parts of India, all the while gaining more sympathisers to join the movement. By 22 April 1969, AICCCR transformed into Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) – CPI-ML. All subsequent groups believing in far left and armed struggle were offshoots of CPI-ML. Over the years, groups like Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), which later merged with People’s War Group (PWG), to subsequently evolve as the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Another offshoot was led by T. Nagi Reddy who earlier had broken away from AICCCR to form UCCRI(ML) in Andhra Pradesh. Given the extensive poverty combined with exploitation of the backward communities by the upper classes, the movement found wide support and this was how the Naxalite movement got entrenched in Andhra Pradesh and later expanded to other southern states.
Naxalite Movement in Kolkata
From 1967 onwards, the Naxalite movement found strong sympathy and support amongst the youth that saw in Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal leaders who could actually fulfill their dream of overthrowing the ruling elite. By 1971, the concept of armed struggle was at its peak and spread to schools and colleges in Kolkata. Students gave up their studies to join the class struggle and initiated violence against landlords, shopkeepers, teachers, political leaders and the police, which became the norm.
This drew an armed response from the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Siddharth Shankar Ray, who with active support from the Army and Police, launched Operation Steeplechase. The result was that over a period, several active Naxalites were either killed or imprisoned. Charu Mazumdar and later Kanu Sanyal were imprisoned. Charu died in Alipore Jail in Kolkata. But the movement was far from over.
Subsequent Government Measures in Fighting the Naxalites
The government did initiate steps to correct past mistakes by launching several new laws that include:
- Chhattisgarh Special Public Securities Act, 2006
- Forest Rights Act, 2006
- Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy, 2007
The implementation of these laws has given rise to several unintended consequences that have held back development to various sections of affected people. The government must step up its investment and make a serious attempt to reach out to the local people in affected areas and include them in finding solutions that will preserve their way of life and yet offer them all the benefits of modern development like education and healthcare. Meanwhile, the fight against Naxalism remains work in progress.