The stormy period of the nineteen sixties gave birth in several countries to uprisings, movements and organisations that continue to have a lasting impact to this day. One of the most significant was the May 1967 uprising at Naxalbari in West Bengal. It symbolised the decisive ideological rupture with the revisionism of the leadership of the CPI and CPM and the firm establishment of a line of armed struggle for Indian revolution. The countrywide upheaval that it spawned and the revolutionary Naxalite movement and organisations that followed in its wake have continued, through ebbs and flows down the years, to inspire and impel progressive politics of this land. They yet offer the best hope for the revolutionary transformation of Indian society.
The upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the uprising is an appropriate moment to look back and look forward. Look back at the experiences of five decades in order to draw appropriate lessons for the movements of today; look forward in order to best leverage the present gains in order to achieve the yet unfinished tasks set by the revolutionaries of yesteryear. But before undertaking such an exercise, let us briefly look at the major points of change and continuity from the decade of the nineteen sixties to the second decade of the 21st century.
The world context
The world today is unlike the world of 1967 in many, many, different ways. But the difference that is most crucial for revolutionaries the world over is the absence of a socialist base where the proletariat holds power and which can, while providing a example, act as a bulwark against world imperialism and reaction. China, which then played such a role, is today hand in glove with imperialism in the exploitation of the world’s peoples. China then had hailed the revolt of the Naxalbari peasantry as a peal of spring thunder over India. The Naxalite movement today would not expect or even desire similar commendation from the present Communist Party of China (CPC). The Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), which was then at its peak, was an immense source of inspiration for the birth and revival of movements throughout the world, including that of Naxalbari. No comparable revolutionary movement exists anywhere in the contemporary world.
Meanwhile, the camp of international reaction remains as locked in contention as it was fifty years ago. The collapse of the Soviet Union provided only temporary respite to the US superpower. The present new American regime has almost immediately embarked on a dangerous course of war-mongering. The weakening superpower needs to recover lost ground and reclaim hegemony over the Middle East, Korea and other parts of the world. Other big powers like Russia and China are unlikely to concede without a challenge.
Countries want independence, nations want liberation, people want revolution
The principal challenge to the imperialist order however continues to emerge from the oppressed nations and people of the world. The revolutionary victories of the Vietnamese, Kampuchean and Lao people defined the nineteen seventies, and the eighties saw the Afghan resistance play a significant role in the downfall of the Soviet super power. The later decades, particularly in the new millennium, have seen USA, the sole super power, attempt to establish Empire through military occupation, only to be forced into retreat. The oppressed nations and people have time and again demonstrated their refusal to revert to the old style of direct colonial rule of the past. The truth, first expressed in the sixties – ‘Countries want independence, nations want liberation and the people want revolution’ – continues to be valid well into the twenty first century.
While imperialism manages to maintain its hold, the world is in deep turmoil. The prospects of a new round of proxy wars and even a world war are very real. Large scale war – localised or worldwide – can only weaken the world imperialist order. It will provide the space for larger sections of the ruling classes of various suppressed countries to assert their independence; for oppressed nations in struggle to move forward to liberation; and for the advance of revolutionary upsurges throughout the world.
India, meaning its ruling class, is today a staunch foot soldier of the American imperialist camp. It has successfully managed the transition from its earlier Soviet bloc allegiance to becoming an American groupie. The main business houses are also aligned accordingly. This has been accompanied by a shift to the RSS/BJP as the party of preference of the All India big bourgeoisie. This is in line with the Jan Sangh and BJP being consistently pro-American since their respective formations and the RSS having a strong pro-imperialist record since its birth.
The rise of the Sangh Pariwar has followed long years of steady saffronisation of crucial organs of the State as well as major spaces in public life. The capture of power at the Centre by the saffron party on its own steam and its consolidation and spread in many states will accelerate the process in areas which have been relatively less affected so far – education, films and popular culture, media, judiciary, NGOs. More than ever before, large sections of the ruling classes have thrown their weight behind an aggressive project of power-centralising hyper-nationalism through a narrative of Hindi-Hindu-Hindutva. It is only some regional bourgeois sections who are not completely on board, as they do not stand to gain as much as the All India bourgeoisie from a project of Brahminical fascism.
Brahminical fascism has gained support of large sections of the urban Hindu middle classes and even sections of the toiling masses. They are the active participants and supporters of the anti-Romeo and gau-rakshak lynch mobs that are increasingly taking over the streets in many parts of the country. The near future promises more of such vigilante gangs, along with more developed organisational forms where such murderous groups are provided legal sanction and incorporated into the state structure through SS and Gestapo type formations. Such forms from conflict areas, like the Ikhwan in Kashmir formed from surrendered militants and the Special Police Officers (SPOs) and District Reserve Guard (DRG) in Chhattisgarh formed from the outlawed Salwa Judum, are likely to be replicated throughout the country.
As the fascists march forward, the situation in every part of the country is getting polarised and is bound to polarise further, with the middle ground rapidly disappearing. The recent elections and the government formation by the BJP even in states where they were rejected has considerably reduced the expectations among the democratic masses that the fascist advance can be halted through the parliamentary process. Though the parliamentary opposition is talking of grand alliances there are few who expect much to come of it. The opposition has been reduced to blaming their failure on the organised manipulation of the voting machines. But the truth is that even a 30 per cent vote can give a party absolute power. And any party which has the full backing of the ruling classes and the corporate owned media can normally expect to come to power. All indicators point to a second fascist term from 2019, which may even bring changes that will render the farce of elections unnecessary.
The battles, which have seen the democratic forces being more successful in facing up to the fascists, have been the non-parliamentary ones. Just as every fascism has its own mass base, it also begets its own mass resistance. When the Brahminical forces attempted to isolate Dalit students in Hyderabad Central University they were hit by the Rohit Vemula rebellion of January 2016. It spread throughout the land, rallying not only the students, but also all democratic sections interested in opposing and annihilating caste discrimination and divisions.
Similarly, the concerted onslaught by the fascists on ‘anti-national’ students in Jawaharlal Nehru University in February 2016 and Delhi University in February 2017 met with mass student resistance that forced them into retreat. Again the movement has spread throughout the country, helping to politically expose the hollowness of the nationalism narrative of the fascists before students in a number of universities.
The revolt of the Dalit masses of Gujarat against the Una atrocities was another telling example of how mass resistance can effectively deal with the assault of the fascist gangs. It also mobilised anti-caste organisations throughout the country. Women’s movements too have, in the recent period, sprung up against Brahminical restraints on girls, particularly in universities.
The most powerful and significant battle of these times has been the upsurge in the Kashmiri people’s struggle for self-determination. The attempts by the government to suppress the Kashmiri movement by sheer military force has united the whole Kashmiri people, who have risen in mass resistance. The intensity of the struggle has been continuously rising – stone-pelting continuing despite deaths and mass blinding by pellet guns; mass support to militants during encounters; near total boycott of elections. The hold of the Indian state over Kashmir has only diminished since the BJP government came to power at the centre. There has also been no change in the situation in the North-East.
Meanwhile, despite massive increase in security forces and brutal repression, the Maoist led armed struggle in Chhattisgarh and other states has sustained and even grown in some areas in the last three years. The adivasi masses, in particular, have, through militia actions, been participating in a big way in guerrilla operations, making this a truly people’s war. Predictions of crushing the movement within four months (by the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister) and within two years by the Union Home Minister remain far from fulfilled. Despite enormous difficulties, the movement has even managed to open a new front in the Western Ghats region in this period.
Relevance of Naxalbari and Naxalites
The position then in the fiftieth year after Naxalbari is of an extremely reactionary ruling class attempting to force its Brahminical fascist agenda on the Indian masses. While it has obtained the support of sections of the middle classes and toiling masses, it is also being met with a variety of resistance from various democratic forces in various parts of the country. This then is the context within which we examine the relevance and significance of the idea of Naxalbari and the politics and organisation of the Naxalites.
Naxals and armed struggle
The first and most significant point of the Naxalite movement today is the existence, sustenance and growth of its armed struggle. There are many who would downplay and even decry this aspect about Naxalbari. But there can be no denying that the idea of Naxalbari was essentially the idea of armed struggle for the seizure of state power. This is of central importance even today.
The existence and growth of an armed struggle and a People’s army, which is able to stand up to the armed might of the state, is a major source of inspiration for the masses who are forced to face the violence of the fascist gangs and their state machinery. It is also this strength that has made the state designate Naxalism as the single biggest internal security challenge to the Indian state. With the rise of fascism with its violent onslaughts, the ability to sustain and grow this armed struggle will only become all the more important.
Rising fascism will very likely sharpen and intensify contradictions in society. This could in turn steer revolutionary situations to the point of revolutionary crisis. It is at such moments that politically conscious armed formations would be in an advantageous position to play a role of inspiring the masses in their millions to rise in revolt and change the balance of power. Naxalites and Naxalite armed bodies could play such roles, provided they are able to anticipate and prepare for changes in the political climate, and provided they possess the initiative and flexibility to act accordingly.
Naxals and mass political struggle
Individuals, groups, organisations, movements and other elements that draw their inspiration from Naxalbari and its path are very significant in the mass struggles being waged on various battle fronts throughout the country. This Naxal presence is however mostly concealed, due to the need to preserve the revolutionary forces from state action under draconian laws.
Such revolutionary forces are in the midst of the struggles of workers, peasants, students, women and various other sections. They are at the forefront of various caste-annihilation and anti-fascist movements. They are often the backbone of resistance to the destruction caused by corporate led ‘development’ projects. The presence of Naxalite revolutionaries often brings militancy and a revolutionary perspective to several of these struggles.
This pervasive Naxal presence leads the state agencies to target any resolute people’s struggle and brand its leadership as Maoist. Hundreds of struggle organisations in many states have had their names included by intelligence and anti-Naxal agencies in lengthy lists of ‘front’ organisations of the CPI(Maoist). The ground reality is however quite different and complex.
Due to the near decimation of the urban organisational structure of the CPI(Maoist), there are likely to be very few bodies outside the guerrilla zones with any direct organisational link with the party. On the other hand the influence and impact of the political and ideological line and practice of Naxalbari is widespread and takes sundry forms. Many independent groups and individuals have been known to work steadily according to what they understand to be a Naxalite path. They do so with the object of uniting one day into the main stream of revolution.
Thus, while it is true that the police have arbitrarily branded many as front persons or front organisations, it is also very true that these forces often are conscious warriors of the Naxalite New Democratic Revolution. The task however remains of providing the link that will channelize and unite this immense potential force.
Naxals and ideological struggle
The battle of ideas is always an essential part of revolution. This struggle has taken on specific dimensions at this juncture of India’s politics. For Naxalites in particular, the ideological struggle has certain aspects which must be addressed.
Crucial is the struggle against Brahminical fascism. The major part of this struggle will be in street fights and physical confrontations, for which the Naxals must, wherever feasible and acceptable, take responsibility. Simultaneously however a battle against the very ideas of Hindutva must be taken up head on, so as to win back the sections of the class friends of the revolution who have gone into the camp of fascism. The Naxalite movement has from its early years fought the Sangh pariwar organisations. It must today take the initiative in the mass ideological battle.
The Naxals have, during the past few decades, been the most militant fighters against caste discrimination and atrocities. They have also, in their areas of strength, mobilised large organisations of women against patriarchy and for revolution. Adivasis, dalits and women compose a major section of Naxalite organisations.
Despite this the movement has been deficient in its presentation of a comprehensive programme for the annihilation of caste and the end of women’s oppression. Today, more than at any time in the recent past, the situation is ripe for cultural revolutions for caste annihilation and women’s liberation. It cannot be said what exact form and shape such cultural revolutions will take, but the ideological battle against casteism and patriarchy must be intensified in order to prepare the ground. The Naxals are suitably placed for being a leading force in these cultural revolutions. They have to take the necessary ideological steps in this regard.
Naxals and the united front
The situation in the fiftieth year since Naxalbari is rife with peril as well as promise. On one hand is the spectre of fascism which, if allowed to consolidate, would herald dark times that could well last for decades. On the other hand are the forces of resistance that project the possibility of fascist defeat and a better tomorrow. This promise however primarily hinges on the ability of the revolutionary forces to knit together a coalition of the diverse elements that stand against and are ready to stand against the Brahminical fascists.
As of today resolute resistance to the fascists is restricted to certain parts – Kashmir, some parts of the North-East and the zones of guerrilla struggle led by the Maoists. In the rest of the country, the opposition to fascism is fragmented and relatively inconsistent. The Rohit Vemula movement and the JNU-DU students struggles were inspiring for the powerful challenge they threw to the powers that be. However, after the initial upsurges which brought all progressive forces together, the periods of ebb have seen widespread disunity and disarray. The Una movement has been staunchly pushing forward, but there has been no similar breakthrough outside Gujarat. The women’s movements too have not been able to spread.
However each period of upswing and each new surge has seen an ever wider variety of forces coming together to oppose the fascists. Ambedkarites and Lohiaites, feminist groups and Islamic organisations, Marxists and Gandhians, political party fronts and NGOs, have all participated wholeheartedly to stand against the present reactionary regime’s fascist onslaught. Almost all genuine forces see the need to fight unitedly. However, considering the divergent and sometimes antagonistic ideological positions, the setting up of a single formation may not happen anytime soon.
The way out would be to build a number of different fronts – area based, section based, issue based – which could at some time in the future get together on broader anti-fascist platforms. The Naxal forces, which have been active in most of the anti-fascist actions, could play a role in initiating such unity of mass-based anti-fascist fighting forces. Such unity would be a stepping stone for building the united front of democratic revolutionary forces.
The task of building of a united front however, has not only to overcome the differences between the allies, it has also to survive the efforts of the state to scuttle such unity. There have been attempts by the Maoists to build alliances with the nationality movements. However the vigilance of the state to prevent such alliances and the repressive measures taken in this regard have seen that no such alliance has matured. During the Lalgarh struggle the UF took on new forms and levels but was eventually crushed with many of the leading figures being thrown into prison.
History however proves that repression can only provide temporary respite to the ruling classes from an idea whose time has come. Naxalbari itself has been brutally suppressed several times, only to rise again like a phoenix. Soon after the initial uprising in Naxalbari, its leader Com Charu Mazumdar had written, “. . .hundreds of Naxalbaris are smouldering in India. . . Naxalbari has not died and will never die.” To many at that time, particularly those from the ruling class, this statement of Com Charu may have appeared to be a foolish daydream. But as Naxalbari continues over fifty years to be a ruling class nightmare, it is history that has proved him right.