50 years of Naxalite movement: What happened at Naxalbari on May 25, 1967?

While Jyoti Basu sat helpless in Kolkata, the village was flooded by other ministers from the communist party.

 |  6-minute read |   25-05-2017
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When on May 25, 1967, a police party shot dead eight tribal women and three tribal men in the village of Naxalbari in the Terai region of Bengal, Charu Mazumdar announced that this was the beginning of a revolution.

Standing with him in support of such an announcement were Kanu Sanyal and a local tribal leader, Jangal Santhal. This gave a new word to the Indian polity that has continued to be with us for 50 years: Naxalite - which refers to tribal peasants who pick up weapons to defend their rights.

In the elections of February 1967, Jangal Santhal had failed to get elected. He and his supporters, including Mazumdar, attributed his failure to his standing for the rights of tribals. Mazumdar opined that force was the only way tribals could get what was rightfully theirs.

Following upon this, on May 18, 1967, under the leadership of Santhal, Sanyal and Mazumdar, the tribal peasants of a few villages in the Terai region of Bengal formed a "Peasants Council".

This council resolved to forcibly take away the harvest from land on which tribal peasants were forced to work but which otherwise was owned by jotedars. Individual tribal peasants were allotted small portions of the land of local jotedars. Then they, along with people assigned by the Peasant Council, forcibly harvested crop on the jotedars' land.

Jyoti Basu, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who was home minister of Bengal at this time, found himself incapable of talking to those who insisted on the use of such force or of stopping them.

On May 23, 1967, a police party headed by inspector Sonam Wangdi entered the village called Jharugaon to arrest those involved in forcible harvesting.

The police party was surrounded by a group led by Santhal and Wangdi was killed in a hail of arrows. The rest of the police party ran away dropping their weapons. The tribals picked up the weapons and later deposited them at the police station.

While it may be said that the police was incompetent, it also needs to be noticed that this sort of violence meeting a police party was unprecedented.

In search of the killers of the sub-inspector, two days later a larger troop of police entered a neighbouring village called Naxalbari. When a crowd gathered to oppose the entry of the police into the village, the police opened fire. Here they shot dead nine tribal men and women.

Many women had children tied to their back. But the police - we have already noticed that the Bengal police was particularly incompetent - was skittish and seeking revenge. It was May 25, 1967.

naxal1_052517014458.jpgCharu Mazumdar (left) and Kanu Sanyal.

At this, Mazumdar, the young man who had been advocating tribal peasants to take possession of the crop and the land, announced the beginning of an all-round insurrection.

On June 28, 1967, Mazumdar addressed a gathering of tea plantation workers and tribal peasants and announced the plan to forcibly grab the land of tyrannical landlords for use by peasants.

Groups of tribals armed with bows and arrows attacked the property of jotedars and police stations. A few government officials, shopkeepers and landlords were lynched. This was very much in line with frequent tribal uprisings that had happened across India over many centuries.

However, there was one important addition to the uprising this time. This was China. Mazumdar and his friends insisted that their way of using violence and murdering people was justified by the ideology of Marxism as practised in China.

Sanyal would later say that he had reservations about choosing such a murderous path. But he would wait for two years before breaking away from Mazumdar.

China, ever eager to foment trouble in India, quickly announced an ideological affinity to the course of action that Mazumdar and his friends advocated. Radio Beijing came out with a long broadcast on how important it was for this insurrection to succeed and how much help China was willing to offer for its success. It offered all support, financial and weapons, to the political grouping that Mazumdar had formed.

Jyoti Basu proved entirely incapable of handling the killings and burnings that followed. The terrorised people did not know what to do.

While Basu sat helpless in Kolkata, Naxalbari was flooded by other ministers from the communist party. Among them was Harekrishna Konar. The ministers insisted on directing the police force from their camp offices inside the police station.

Effectively, this meant preventing the police from taking any action against anyone. At the same time the communist ministers made no effort to reach out to the angry tribal peasants either. This resulted in an increase in attacks on non-tribals, and those who owned property.

It was almost as if the state had dissolved in this part of Bengal.

Finally, by July, the government began to take some action. Announcements were made demanding the surrender of wrong-doers. By August, as a result of police action but mostly because many who had participated in the first flush of violence did believe that they had done wrong, some 1,000 people had been arrested.

Mazumdar, Sanyal and Biswanath Mukherjee, the three non-tribals who claimed to lead, escaped.

Such chaos lasted till 1972 when elections were held once again.

In March 1972, the people voted out the Leftists and self-proclaimed revolutionaries who were running the government and gave a majority to the Congress.

The new government was headed by lawyer Siddharth Shankar Ray. He ordered the police to take effective action against those egging on the tribals to rebel. The police resorted to various illegal measures. These included the custodial murder of Mazumdar.

Sanyal and Santhal were arrested, tried and imprisoned.

Sanyal was finally released from jail in 1977. He returned back to organising the tribal peasants and helping them fight for their rights. But this time he did not advocate armed insurrection.

He also remained at the forefront of the opposition to land acquisition for building the Tata Nano factory at Singur in 2006. On March 23, 2010, he hanged himself at his home at Seftullajote near Siliguri.

Santhal was released from prison in 1979. Life outside had changed, he discovered. No one was interested in him or his ideas of armed insurrection any more. By now he had four wives and found it difficult to manage them. He also turned alcoholic. He died in 1987, unsung.

Also read: You're a Maoist in Bastar if you dare to oppose the State


M Rajivlochan M Rajivlochan

The writer is Professor in the Department of History, Panjab University

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