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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 25, June 6, 2009

The Naxalite Movement that was Not in Naxalbari

Saturday 6 June 2009, by J.J. Roy Burman

Peasant movements have drawn a lot of attention among academics and social activists. The Naxalite movement too has gained a lot of acclaim as a peasant movement. The movement at present is very active in the tribal belts of Chotanagpur, Maharashtra, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. It is active in some places of Bihar as well, where the lower castes and under-classes have been mobilised. The name ‘Naxalite’ draws its antecedence from the movement that emerged in 1967 at the Naxalbari area of Darjeeling district in West Bengal. “The term comes from Naxalbari, a small village in West Bengal, where a section of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) under the leadership of Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal led a violent uprising in 1967, trying to develop a ‘revolutionary opposition’ in opposition to the CPI-M leadership. The insurrection started on May 24, 1967 in Naxalbari village when a peasant was attacked by hired hands over a land dispute. Local peasants retaliated by attacking the landlords and the violence escalated. Mazumdar greatly admired Mao Zedong of China and advocated that Indian peasants and lower classes must follow in his footsteps and overthrow the government and upper classes whom he held responsible for their plight. He engendered the Naxalite movement through his writings, the most famous being the ‘Historic Eight Documents’ which formed the basis of the Naxalite ideology.” (Wikipedia) The Communist Party of China hailed the movement as the “Spring Thunder of India”.

It is commonly stated that “the objective of the new movement was ‘seizure of power’ through an agrarian revolution. The strategy was the elimination of the feudal order in the countryside to free the poor from clutches of the oppressive landlords and replace the old order with an alternative one that would implement land reforms. The tactics to achieve it was through guerrilla warfare by the peasants to eliminate the landlords and build resistance against the State police force.” (Internet: Asia Mass Media links). Chadha (nd) writes similarly: “On May 24, 1967, the first incident came to light when there was a clash between a poor peasant and a landlord over land which probably belonged to the peasant.... The next incident after this was a clash between guards of a tea estate and peasants.”

The Naxalite movement spread in the West Bengal State as a wildfire and particularly the urban elite youth and the bhadralok class got attracted to it. As of now the movement has attained a strong footing in many States outside West Bengal, though the movement petered out in Naxalbari within a short time.

The purpose of this paper is not to enter into theoretical polemics linked to the concept of peasantry or social movement, but to bring out the truth that affected the indigenous Rajbansi people which became apparent through the review of secondary literature and first-hand field experience. First of all, it needs to be questioned what was the background of the ‘peasants’ who got mainly involved into fights with the landlords and who were the peasant leaders? References from the secondary sources clearly indicate that the first skirmish that began in May 1967 involved no one but a Santal and a so-called Rajbansi ‘jotedar’. The next day too the mob that attacked the police party with bows and arrows and killed a police officer were mostly Santals and other tribal tea plantation labourers. (Mukherjee: 1978, Duyker: 1987, Bonner: 1990) It is not known to a majority of the scholars and the laity that the demographic composition of Naxalbari and the involvement of Santals and other tribes they mention, are in reality mostly migrants from Chotanagpur who arrived in the region when the tea plantations were established. Many of the plantation workers started cultivating on either the surplus lands within the tea plantations or on the fallow lands adjoining the plantations as owners or as sharecroppers. The original owners of these lands were usually the Rajbansi ‘jotedars’ —landlords. Rajbansis are the autochthones of the region. (Sarkar: 2006: 154) Partho Mukherjee (1978, 1987) writes that at the time of Naxalbari movement there were 32 tea gardens in the three adjoining police stations, Naxalbari, Phansidewa and Khoribari, covering 274 sq. miles, that were affected. There were 32 revenue units and 90 jotes or settlements in the area. It is also to be noted that the tribes (migrants) comprised of almost 30 per cent of the population. Sarkar (op.cit.: 2006) writes that right now there are 30 legal and 25 illegal tea estates in Phansidewa and Khoribari Blocks respectively. Ray (1988) had clearly stated that the Naxalites had taken their name from an organised uprising by tea garden labourers near Naxalbari in 1967.

Mukherjee (op.cit.) states that there was a very high percentage of share-croppers in the region. Among those owning five acres or less land, the percentage of sharecroppers in Naxalbari, Phansidewa and Khoribari were 60 per cent, 65 per cent and 50 per cent respectively. In comparison to the sharecroppers, the area had few landless agricultural labourers. It was 4.6 per cent in Naxalbari, 6.1 per cent in Phansidewa and 5.4 per cent in Khoribari. Thus the agrarian structure was not very inequatious. It is surprising that Biplab Dasgupta (Dasgupta: 1974: 13) gave credence to the support of the landless labourers. Even now there are very few landless agricultural labourers among the Rajbansis. Chattopadhyay and Ghosh (1983) have brought to light that owing to lack of irrigation facilities, cropping pattern, intensity of cropping etc., operational holdings of up to even 7.5 acres can hardly be called ‘high’ in view of the extremely low return from land.

MOST studies covering the movement and the region indict the Rajbansi landlords who exploited their ‘adhiars’ or the sharecroppers. But almost all the studies baring a few miss out that the Rajbansis were in reality a tribal community and their settlements were lineage based. Sarkar (2006) directly ascribes the Rajbansis as tribes. While in West Bengal they have been assigned the Scheduled Caste status, across the border in Assam, Hiteswar Saikia, the late Chief Minister, had recommended them to be given the Scheduled Tribe status. Most of the Rajbansi adhiars in the past were kin relations of the jotedars and the ‘jotedar’ represented a corporate entity. It is very clearly evident in the case of Rajbansis in the Duars where the jotedars collected the share from the adhiars and parcelled part of it to the Bhutan Subah—the intermediary of the Bhutan king (Karlsson: 2000). Incidences of such revenue collectors were replete all over the tribal belt of Chotanagpur. These tax collectors helped retaining the corporate character of the community. The material condition of the ‘jotedar’ and the local adhiars was hardly discernable. The situation continues to be so even now. The jotedar at the most possesses a double-storied mud house with thatched roofing as compared to the single-storied mud houses of the adhiars. A recent study by Enika Basu (2007) reveals that at Rambala village near Naxalbari (which was at the centre of the movement), while a jotedar owning 10 acres of land cultivates only six bighas of land himself, the rest 30 bighas have been shelled out to six sharecroppers. The jotedars used to be called ‘Giri’, the respected one, who had social responsibilities towards the adhiars, a majority of whom were his kinsmen. Usually the Giri and his kinsmen together occupied small mounds surrounded by agricultural plots. Such hamlets are often marked by sacred bamboo groves collectively worshipped by all.

The situation changed drastically with intrusion of the British who introduced their land revenue system and conferred proprietory right to the jotedars, ignoring the stewardship they enjoyed over land and forests. It needs to be pointed out that as compared to other areas of Bengal most of the Rajbansi jotedars were not absentee landlords and that they cultivated their lands mainly through family labour. Mukherjee (1987: 1611) states: “The structure of jotedari system was based on a patrimonial-feudal culture of the Rajbansis. It is generally accepted that the original jotedars, who are almost exclusively Rajbansis, settled down on a tract largely forest or fallow land. They possessed both working capital and fixed capital (instruments of production). They brought with them fellow caste-men who had only labour at their disposal. These were the adhiars. Initially both the jotedar and the adhiar would clear forest land and engage in settled cultivation. The jote was named after the jotedar. (This sort of system is to be found in most tribal areas where the land used to be recorded in the name of the first settling family; but the family is considered to be only a steward or custodian and not owner—the British brought in the Roman law of proprietory right and distorted the system to turn the custodians into owners.) Unfortunately the Naxalites followed this very alien law to identify jotedars among the Rajbansis. Jotedar in Bengali nomenclature usually connotes absentee landlords. But in the Terai region of Bengal they were considered to be the ones directly paying landrevenue to the government. Under the British land revenue system, this did not make them a class of substantial landholders, but in fact, admitted of considerable heterogeneity. The majority of the jotedars had holdings of moderate size.” It is only with the massive influx of outsiders that the things changed. There emerged some Marwari and upper-caste Bengali landlords who did not till the land by themselves and introduced an exploitative relationship with the adhiars. Some of the Rajbansi jotedars too became influenced by this. “Jotedari system was transformed into jotedar-adhiari system with an increasing contradiction between capital and labour.” (Mukherjee: 1978: 79) Initially, the relationship between the jotedars and his adhiars—members of the same lineage—were quite cordial. The Rajbansi adhiars used to have free access to the precincts of the Giri household. Cases of jotedars without sons bringing adhiars into their families as sons-in-law was not frequent but an institutionalised practice. Mukherjee (1987) states that prior to the emergence of the Britsh, the Rajbansis used to have a single egalitarian structure. The intrusion of the market had a disastrous effect and many erstwhile jotedars were reduced to the status of marginal peasants in bondage.

THE migrant Chotanagpur tribes gained a strong footing into the region through the Krishak Sabha and the Communist dominated Tea Garden Trade Union. “The Krishak Sabha did not contemplate bringing about structural change in the feudal system—it was merely trying to get better share of produce for the marginalised peasant a better share of the produce, and where he was being denied a share of the surplus land, it tried to give a patch of land, even if need be, by force.” (Mukherjee: 1978: 81) The question then arises who are these marginalised peasants mentioned time and again? Personal field visits while guiding research scholars proved that a majority of the so-called ‘peasants’ involved in the uprising were the migrant tribal labourers many of whom got employed in the tea gardens and did share-cropping seasonally. Some of them also acquired land permanently for cultivation.

Now the question that arises is: who are these peasants and peasant leaders who have been repeatedly praised for their active role in the movement? As already indicated, the main skirmishes that started the agitation involved tea garden labourers and migrant tribes of Chotanagpur, who dwelt on the fringes of the plantations. It will be a misnomer to term them as peasants; they were mostly plantation workers. Unfortunately, the main figures of the local movement—Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santal were similarly all immigrants. While Charu Mazumdar came from an affluent Bengali peasant background and lived in the adjoining town called Siliguri, Kanu Sanyal was a high-caste Bengali refugee. Jangal Santal too was a migrant tribal leader. All of them were trade union leaders of the tea gardens and had nothing to do with the peasantry. There were several other Bengali middle class people involved in the movement, a majority of whom too were refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan or Bangladesh. It is not that there were no Rajbansi adhiars and jotedars involved in the movement, but they were sporadic individual cases. Our field survey revealed that many of the Rajbansis who participated in the uprisal were Bangladeshi refugees. Also, many of the Rajbansi adhiars (sharecroppers) also sided with the Rajbansi jotedars during the height of the movement. No wonder Jangal Santal, the Communist leader, lost in the election from the area in 1967. The votes got polarised on ethnic lines. The Naxalbari movement created an ethnic divide similar to the Tebhaga movement in the neighbouring region where even the middle-peasants or small tribal jotedars joined the anti-landlord movement (led by the migrant tribals or adivasis), resulting in an ‘adivasi’ mobilisation on ethnic lines rather than pure class antagonism (as stated by Sharit Bhowmik: 1986). Hence it will be wrong to brand the Naxalbari movement as a peasant movement. It was an outsiders’ movement whose main intention was to grab lands of the indigenous Rajbansis. In no way was the movement based on agrarian class antagonism.

Mukherjee (op.cit.: 1987) writes that ethnic antagonism got consolidated among the tribal adhiars as they felt discriminated by the Rajbansi jotedars as compared to the Rajbansi adhiars who enjoyed close social ties with their masters and carried out many of the social activities like marriage and religious rituals together. While the Rajbansi jotedars and the Rajbansi adhiars could share water from the same well, the migrant tribal adhiars were debarred. Thus it makes it difficult to accept the Naxalbari episode as a class war or an agrarian movement as proclaimed by the Naxalites. The so called class enemies annihilated were mostly Rajbansi landowners. It rather led to a kind of ethnocide. This inherent lacuna mainly resulted in an early exit of the movement. Even the Santals realised about the fallacy of the Naxalite leaders who were trying to take advantage of their hideouts. Naturally the movement could not sustain genuine mass participation by the tribals with a sense of solidarity. (Adhikari and Bhattacharya: 1983)

Today there is hardly any trace of the movement in the area. Kanu Sanyal, a prominent leader of the movement presently lives in one of the tribal settlements close to Naxalbari and is engaged in trade union activities in the tea gardens of North Bengal. It would not be out of place to refer to Rabindra Ray (1988) at this juncture: “The first fact of this history is that it rests on a myth, namely, Charu Mazumdar’s contention (offered much later than the event, as also Kanu Sanyal’s Report) that in Naxalbari in mid-1967 poor and landless peasants had fought for political power and not for land. There is little doubt that apart from the mistrusted respect that these radicals received from the population, there were no on-going institutions of political authority.” Referring to Sumanta Banerjee, Ray also critiqued those who were reporting from the areas of struggles, viewing everything through the eyes of landless peasants.

In some quarters, tribes have been depicted as peasants. Jaganath Pathy (1984: 43), for instance, writes: “All the major tribes of India are actually peasant societies existing within the broad political economy of the state. Their existence and motion can only be understood in terms of a class analysis of the societies and the articulation of the different modes of production within their structures.” Ramchandra Guha similarly brands the Khasas of Garhwal as peasants (1989). It is feared that such a nomenclature will not be tolerated by the tribes themselves. There are very few tribes in India who operate as underclasses within zamindari system. In most agricultural areas, though some of the tribes hold larger holdings, they do not form a zamindari class. Besides, there is a substantial number of tribes who are not into agriculture. This apart, the notion of peasantry is much more constricted as compared to ethnicity or nationality. Peasants enjoy much lesser rights compared to the other categories. Bhowmik’s study on the Tebhaga movement, as already referred to, indicated ethnic mobilisations transcending class positions among the migrant tribals.

IT is a pity that none of the communist leaders raised a finger at the expropriation of the Rajbansi lands by the tea estates—they are owned by the Marwaris, big business houses and multinational companies. The tea estates also had 65,000 acres of surplus land. (Bonner: 1990) The planters are much bigger landlords than the petty Rajbansi jotedars. Sarker (2006: 160) has very clearly indicated the damage inflicted by the tea gardens in North Bengal:

(a) The tea planters of colonial and free India hardly invested any of the profits of the plantation in the development of the region.

(b) The capital formed out of the profits from the tea gardens did not in any way benefit the local market; rather it dislocated the agrarian economy of the region and crippled the purchasing capacity of the people in general and of the tribe in particular. As a cash crop, tea determined the price level of essential goods in the local market.

(c ) These capitalists neither thought of nor encouraged an alternative base of economic growth for the agrarian and toiling people of North Bengal.

Nothing has also been spoken about the vast stretches of forest lands which, were appropriated by the British during the colonial period. Also, no-body showed any concern about the large areas of land acquired by the Army, Air Force and the Border Security Force. The Bagdogra airport and Artillery Training Centre in the region too has abrogated large chunks of land. The state itself has been a much greater oppressor than the individual jotedars. No government data is available to establish the exact area under State control. A partial data of the government control in Darjeeling district as the following does provide some indication. It is apparent that more than 50 per cent of the district is under government forests and tea gardens.

In Hectares

Total Geographical area Net area under cultivation Area under forest Area Tea and others Total Population Per capita agri. land
3,25,469 1,47,986 1,24,574 52,909 7,79,576 0.19

Source: Directorate of Agriculture, Government of West Bengal (As referred by E. Basu)

It also needs to be pointed out that the urban oriented Naxalite leaders followed the same Roman laws introduced by the British in the land revenue system. They ignored the traditional corporate land tenure system of the Rajbansis who should have been recognised as Scheduled Tribes. The leaders instead stuck to the 1953 West Bengal Land Acquisition Act leading to fragmentation of the lands owned by the Rajbansis. This has turned their lives even more vulnerable and more so due to the massive influx of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan, migrants from Bihar and Nepal. A rapid study carried out by Enika Basu (op.cit.) during 2006-07 revealed that Rambala village near Naxalbari has 20 migrant households out of a total of 32– of which 12 are Santals. There are only 12 Rajbansi households. A majority of the migrants are adhiars. (Rambala was originally an exclusively Rajbansi settlement.) It is no wonder that the area, which once harboured the Naxalite movement, has turned into a hub of the ‘Kamtapur’ movement and enjoys support from Rajbansis irrespective of their class background. Hence it would perhaps not be wrong to draw a conclusion that the Naxalbari movement was more of an ethnic mobilisation than an agrarian peasant movement. Mukherjee (1978) had indicated towards the end of his article the need to undertake a thorough research to probe into the true nature of the Naxalite movement in Naxalbari. It can be sensed that he had serious doubts about branding the Naxalbari movement as a peasant movement and the outcome of a class war.

REFERENCES

Adhikari, A. and Bhattacharya, R. (1983), “The Extremist Movement: An -Appraisal of the Naxalite Movement with special References to its Repercassions Among Tribes” in K.S. Singh (ed), Tribal Movements in India; New Delhi: Manohar.
- Basu, E. (2007), “Change in Land Tenure System in Naxalbari Area since 1967: A Case Study of Rambala Village”, M.A. Dissertation, Mumbai: TISS.
- Bhowmik, S. (1986), “Tebhaga Movement in Dooars” in EPW, May 31.
- Bonner, A. (1990), “Averting the Apocalypse”, Duke University Press.
- Chadha, V. (nd), “Low Intensity Conflicts in India”, United Service Institute of India.
- Chattopadhyay, M. and Ghosh, S.K. (1983), “Tenurial Contracts in a Peasant Movement Belt: Field Survey Data on Naxalbari, Kharibari and Phansidewa Regions”, EPW, June 25.
- Dasgupta, B. (1974), The Naxalite Movement, Bombay: Allied Publishers.
- Duyker, E. (1987), Tribal Guerrillas: The Santals of West Bengal and the Naxalite Movement, New Delhi: OUP.
- Guha, R. (1989), The Unquiet Woods, Delhi: OUP.
- Karlsson, B.G. (2000), Contested Belonging: An Indigenous People’s Struggle For Forest and Identity in Sub-Himalayan Bengal, Surrey: Curzon Press.
- Mukherjee, P.N. (1978), “Naxalbari Movement and the Peasant Revolt in North Bengal” in M.S.A. Rao (ed.), Social Movements in India, New Delhi: Manohar.
- Mukherjee, P.N. (1987), “Study of Social Conflicts: Case of Naxalbari Peasant Movement” in EPW, September, 19.
- Ray, R. (1988), Naxalites and their Ideology, New Delhi: OUP
- Sarkar, I. (2006), “The Kamtapur Movement: Towards a Separate State in North Bengal” in G.C. Rath (ed.), Tribal Development In India: The Contemporary Debate, New Delhi: Sage.

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