The Hindu : Magazine / Reflections : From Naxalbari to Nalgonda

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Sunday, Dec 05, 2004 Magazine
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From Naxalbari to Nalgonda

The word Naxalite came into use four decades ago. Kanu Sanyal and Nagabhushan Patnaik were household names — feared or adored, but never ignored. H. BALAKRISHNAN, who interviewed Patnaik in 1981, goes down memory lane.


Posters of Naxalite leaders filled the streets during the recent peace talks between the Andhra Pradesh Government and the Naxalites.

IT was 1966. Berhampur bordered Srikakulam and Koraput, two districts in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, which were to become future hotspots of Naxalite activity. I was in my teens. A Catholic church had been burnt a year earlier, and Berhampur made headlines on the BBC. Selected for a Rotary undergraduate scholarship, I set off to Calcutta for the final selection.

Calcutta was flooded with Maoist literature. Ballygunge, Ghariahat, College Street — wherever I went, I found books and booklets. Mao Tse Tung, Liu Shao Chi, Marx, Lenin. The city was Red. I came back to Berhampur, with memories of a "different" Calcutta. In a couple of years, we heard about students disappearing from colleges. They became part of the "the movement". Stories were heard of rich men being killed in a village in neighbouring districts. "Class enemies" was an often-seen phrase in press reports.

New movement

Rumblings in the communist movement in India started in 1967 after the CPI (M) won a good number of seats in the Assembly elections and decided to participate in the Government. A section of leaders — particularly from West Bengal, Orissa, A.P. and Kerala — opposed the idea. The Government did not last long. A period of uncertainty began. The radicals, meanwhile, broke away from the party.

Peasants of Naxalbari rose in revolt. Naxalite became a new word. Similar movements began in Orissa, A.P. and Kerala. Nagabhushan Patnaik and Gananath Patro (Orissa), Vempatapu Satyam and Panchadi Krishnamurthy (A.P.), Kunnikkal Narayanan and daughter Ajitha (Kerala) were well known names. Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal were the cult figures from Bengal. Most leaders went underground. Some were captured and jailed.

The CPI (M) and its allies swept the polls in 1969. It freed the arrested leaders. But the embers were far from being doused. If anything, they burned more fierily. On May Day, 1969, Kanu Sanyal announced the birth of a new party, the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), at a huge rally in Calcutta.

In the 1970s, I visited Calcutta once or twice a year. Presidency College was the hub of student activism, the jhola being a trademark. Beards a la Che Guevera had arrived. It was not uncommon to see policemen giving hot chase to young people around College Street. Many were killed. It was common to hear of someone's brother or son having been whisked away by the police for "questioning".

The early 1970s were the most turbulent period in "armed revolution". "People's Courts" gave summary judgments. Landlords, masters of all they surveyed till recently, fled from remote villages to safe towns. Pockets of "liberated areas" sprung up.

Heavy hands

Nagabhushan Patnaik.

This was also the period when the State used its heavy hand the heaviest way. "Encounters" became the order of the day in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. Meanwhile, the movement also antagonised many sections of society since innocent policemen and their families were targeted. For some, Naxalism was also a handy tool to settle old scores.

Around this time, I had a strange encounter in Koraput. Travelling by bus from Jeypore to Vizianagaram on work, a tall, fair man in his forties sat next to me at Koraput. We got talking. He said he was a doctor from Madras and had just been released from Koraput Central Jail. He told me that he had been treating patients when he was picked up and jailed. He made no secret of his communist sympathies but denied that he was an active Naxalite. Within an hour, long before Vizianagaram, he got down and went his way. It was 1981. There was hardly a ripple on the Naxalite front. The group had split into several factions. Most top leaders had been arrested, some were still underground and many were "encountered".

Nagabhushan Patnaik, who had spent 12 years in prison (including three on death-row), was released on parole. He was lodged at the Cuttack Medical College hospital, just 22 km from Bhubaneswar, where I lived. I thought, "Why not meet this unusual man?" and went on to record a 90-minute interview. Patnaik was an unbending man with firm convictions. This excerpt from that interview is worth recalling:

You said recently that individual terrorism is not in conformity with Marxism?

It is true that Marxism-Leninism brooks no individual terrorism. We are not worshippers of violence, but we do not mince words. We do not skulk away from our responsibility of launching revolutionary violence to meet counter-violence.

You don't disown your role in the violent past in the Naxalite activity. Don't you call it murder?

Definitely it was not murder. It was punishment inflicted by the masses. Though we thought that by this we would be furthering the cause of our struggle, it did not. So, we are correcting ourselves. In fact, we have to change our course from eliminating individuals to the path of agrarian revolution.

When I asked him if he did not apprehend harm from the enemies he might have made during his violent days, he said: I have no fear. We have only class enemies and no individual enemies. Class enemies as such would never dare to come upon me, because we have the vast support of the masses.

Centre of the storm

Something in the manner of the man, the flash of fire in his eyes when he said, "In India you have a one-woman rule who has scant respect for the so-called parliamentary institutions" or "what we have is sham democracy" impelled me on to the milieu that made this man.

Within a week, I decided to go to the epicentre of the storm that had apparently subsided. Once the police were satisfied that I was a neutral observer keen on knowing the people, the IG gave me a letter so that the local policemen would not make trouble. I met a few officers, some of whom were actively in from hilltop to hilltop Naxalite chase in Koraput. Here is what I gathered from them:

"For all practical purposes, the police force in a village was protecting one man against the rest. Usually, in a village, there was only one rich man with a big house and property, and he was the only one who was afraid of the Naxalites. The poor had no fear. Only sympathy and support."

"With the prevailing system of socio-economic inequity, political corruption, mounting corruption and rising prices, similar movements could erupt again. Don't be surprised if there is another eruption before you get much older."

I set off to Koraput-Srikakulam area. All buses in the State were on strike. Truck, trudge, train and rickshaw saw me in Kashinagar in 24 hours. From there, I pushed on, meeting people, talking to "surfaced" and underground extremists and taking pictures and notes for a full week. All this by bus, bullock cart, ferry and bicycle.

Meeting people

Among those I met was an elected Sarpanch of 23. Her mother's hand had been bombed out while making one. Her father was killed earlier in an encounter with the police. Another was a burly "Red Guard", unlettered but uncompromising in his convictions. I met the son of Maddi Kamesham in the cashew maze of Uddanam. Kamesham had been killed by a group of 10 Naxalites a few years earlier.

Throughout this odyssey, not one extremist threatened me or suspected my sincerity. They spoke with candour to me, a stranger. In contrast, though I showed the letter from the IG, the inspector in a place where there was no extremist activity, confiscated my film soon after I got down from a bus.

Fast forward to today. Seeing the recent reports about negotiations with the People's War Group in Andhra Pradesh, I wonder: What has changed?

People throng the guesthouse where the Naxalite leaders stayed with petitions and complaints. A picture of a policeman and an extremist standing side by side, arms on each other's shoulders, is a collector's item.

The words of that wise police officer ring in my years: "With the prevailing system of socio-economic inequity, political corruption, mounting unemployment and rising prices... ."

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