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Posted at: May 25, 2017, 12:26 AM; last updated: May 25, 2017, 1:55 AM (IST)

‘Naxalbari’: Fifty years later

Pritam Singh
Today, May 25, will commemorate 50 years of the Maoist uprising of Naxalbari in West Bengal. In March, 1967, a decision was taken in Naxalbari to carry out an armed rebellion for the rights of peasants and workers. This isolated revolt led to a movement that has lasted half a century.
‘Naxalbari’: Fifty years later
Red Brigade: Statues of ideologues in Naxalbari. From left to right, these statues are of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Lin Piao, Charu Majumdar, Saroj Dutta and Sahadeb Mukherjee
ON May 25, 1967, in a village called Prasadujot in the Naxalbari block in West Bengal, a group of peasants forcibly tried to seize land from the landlords who controlled it.  The peasants had legal entitlement to the land. They were led by two left-wing activists Kanu Sanyal (1929-2010) and Jangal Santhal (?-1981), and supported by a communist ideologue, Charu Mazumdar (1918-1972). This resulted in a violent confrontation between the peasants and the police, who were supporting the landlords. This seemingly isolated revolt in a far-flung village eventually gave birth to a movement that attracted the attention of the world. An English-language journalist or commentator gave it the name “Naxalite”, and this name has stuck. It has even been adopted by the supporters of the movement. 

Fallout on Indian politics

Almost 50 years on from what seemed at first to be an isolated revolt, the fallout for Indian politics may be judged by a remark in 2010 by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He had said that the movement was the single biggest internal security threat to India.

There were three armed communist rebellions in India right after Independence in 1947. All three rebellions revolved around control over and ownership of land and produce from the land. One was in the Telangana region of the erstwhile southern state of Hyderabad in 1947; the second one was in the Tebhaga region in West Bengal in 1948, and the third one was a Lal Communist Party-led revolt in the erstwhile PEPSU region of the present state of Punjab in 1948. All three rebellions were militarily crushed by the Indian state, with large-scale human rights violations in all the three regions. 

Paradoxical as it may sound, the military suppression of these three armed rebellions spread the mass influence of the communist movement in these three states. This can be attributed primarily to the land reforms introduced by the Indian state to take the heat out of the communist movement. This ended up increasing the popularity of the communists.

The land reforms boosted communist influence because immediately after the Indian state had suppressed the armed rebellions in the three states, it initiated land reforms. These were mainly in the form of granting better propriety rights to the peasantry in order to deal with the perceived socio-economic causes of the rebellions. In the mass consciousness of the peasantry, it was not the Indian state which was seen as their main benefactor — it was the communists, whose multiple sacrifices were seen as having forced the Indian state to grant concession to the peasants and tenants. In all three states — Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Punjab —  the electoral performance of the CPI was impressive in the 1950s. This suggests that the two distinct paths in communist politics — that of armed struggle and that of parliamentary work — could be complementary. This has not been recognised either in the political perspectives of both — the armed struggle tendency and the parliamentary tendency — in the Indian communist movement, or in the academic literature on the subject. The failure to recognise this complementarity and an over-emphasis on the competitiveness between the two streams have contributed to sectarianism in the Indian communist movement.

The Naxalite movement emerged from the conflict between two tendencies in the global and Indian communist movement — the parliamentary constitutionalist path and the path of armed struggle. Its timing and political approach was also shaped by global political movements such as the 1968 radical youth upsurge. In its first phase (1967-69), the support base of the Naxalite movement was mainly among the peasants and tribal communities. In the second phase (1969-72), its main support base shifted to urban students and youth. During this second phase, it represented some of the radicalism and the iconoclasms of the wider global student and youth movements of 1968. 

After suffering a decline from mid-1970s to late 1970s, over the past three decades the Naxalite movement has re-emerged, especially since 2004. It is a powerful challenger to the hegemony of the centralist Indian state. After its revival, the movement has taken a leading role in developing social welfare, human development and educational activities in the tribal areas where it has operated for decades and where it has de facto administrative control. The Maoists-run schools, health centres, rural credit and seed bank, water-management projects and social reforms are aimed at gender equity in families and the wider adivasi society. It is an unusual insurgent movement that has a strong social welfare and egalitarian management components to it. What began in the early 1980s as a campaign against forest, revenue and police departments and money-lenders, has added social reform as a significant aspect to its political arsenal.  The social base and even the leadership profile of the movement has significantly changed from urban middle class students and intelligentsia to young tribal young men and, even more significantly, to tribal women. 

Influence on art & literature

Regarding the impact of the movement on literary and artistic productions, it is most well known in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal and Kerala. In Punjab, the poets Paash, Sant Ram Udasi and Lal Singh Dil and the theatre artiste Gursharan Singh clearly represent the impact of the movement. In Andhra Pradesh, Naxalite folk songs have become part of the mainstream and Gaddar, a celebrated Telugu poet, openly supports the movement. In Bengal, Satyajit Ray's 1971 film Seemabaddha was based on the life of an upper-class family during the Naxalite movement. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas made a critically acclaimed film, The Naxalites in 1980. In 2005, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi was set against the backdrop of the  movement. From Kerala, K. Satchidanandan, an internationally recognised poet, has been inspired by the movement.

Politically, the single-most importantthreat to the left and democratic movement in India is the rise of Hindu nationalism incorporating fascist/semi-fascist tendencies. The leadership of the Naxalite movement seems aware of this threat, how this awareness results in building wider alliances outside its restricted area of influence remains to be seen.


The writer is Professor of Economics at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK


Long-term impact of movement 

  • It has given birth to a sustainable communist tendency following the extra parliamentary path of armed struggle.
  • Led to the human rights/democratic rights/civil liberties movements in India.
  • Has produced at least two generations of academics and journalists inspired by the movement in the direction of Marxism.
  • Ripple effect of Naxalite movement felt in significant ways in varieties of creative literary and artistic productions. 

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