The protagonist of this tale was a product of his circumstances. His baptism by fire happened early, through an incident very common during those days. In 1949, Bowbazar Street in Calcutta saw a protest march by a small group of communists. As the party had been banned in the state, the agitation met with police intervention. In the ensuing mayhem, five people were gunned down, including four female members of the communist party. The incident was gruesome enough to disturb any free-thinking individual, including a 20-year-old who was suitably restless for this age.
It is about this restless spirit Kanu Sanyal, who would later become the poster boy of the Naxalbari left-wing revolt of the 1960s and ’70s, that this engaging analytical book talks about. The broad daylight murders so shocked him that he decided to join the Communist Party of India (CPI).
Bappaditya Paul vividly captures Sanyal’s daringly dangerous journey that ended in his suicide at his office at Sebdella Jote, Siliguri, in March 2010. As has been noted, Sanyal was carefree, mischievous and dominating as a child. And these “not-so-welcome traits” made him a nuisance in the eyes of his parents, relatives and neighbours. He was neither keen on studies nor did he pay much heed to parental advice on good behaviour. That said, young Sanyal was not the “type who would always digest unjust treatment (or rather, his perception of it) in silence”, notes Paul.
Sanyal’s entry into the communist movement was neither by design nor by accident. In fact, as a teenager, he hated Indian communists for their open dislike of the ways of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Interestingly, in 1944, when the communist party set up a branch at Kurseong, Sanyal and friends destroyed the signboard of their newly opened party office. Sanyal was so fond of Bose that one day he visited the revolutionary at Giddha Pahar in Kurseong, where he was kept under house arrest by the British government. The boy even managed to get an autograph from arguably the most intriguing rebel of the Indian freedom movement. The kind of equation that developed was completely one-sided: Sanyal was forever “charmed” by Bose. This hero worship, perhaps, was one of the reasons behind Sanyal’s dangerous liaisons with armed struggle later during his eventful life.
The pro-poor, pro-farmer leanings of the communist party soon caught young Sanyal’s attention and along with a few friends he started the Jana Raksha Samity. And that eventually took him to the CPI itself. But Sanyal later admitted that his decision to join the communist movement was not driven by ideology but was a reflection of trying to arrive at a radically new and different conjuncture to view life and its angularities.
Rebellion has its own idiom. Soon enough, violence and marches became Sanyal’s frequent companions, especially after he parted ways with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) over ideological differences and floated a Maoist movement with mentor Charu Mazumdar in Naxalbari, a village in north Bengal that became synonymous with the left-wing guerrilla movement in India.
The book does not create anything spectacularly dramatic: it is in huge contrast to Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, a classic example of high romance invested in a revolutionary. Rather than building on individual and social trends, Paul focusses on only the essentials.
While recounting the childhood and twilight years of Sanyal, Paul’s prose reads like a morose and distant recap, but it gains pace and perspective while retelling the turbulent days of Naxalbari.
The strength of the book is that Sanyal comes out as neither a hero nor a villain, but a man shaped by his circumstances and the people around him. Paul dexterously assembles Sanyal’s quotes to paint a neutral portrait of Mazumdar as well, who is presented as a man with many failings. When Indian communists were in three groupings thanks to the first Indo-China war over Arunachal Pradesh in 1962 (the internationalists, the nationalists and the centrists), Mazumdar was a staunch internationalist and hence a supporter of the Chinese. This was the time when Mazumdar declared himself a member of the Chinese Communist Party.
What happened to the Naxalbari movement and its moving spirit, Mazumdar, is history now. The rebellion was successfully quashed after much bloodshed and Sanyal and his comrades were imprisoned many times. Mazumdar died in police custody in 1972. After returning from many, long stints in prison, Sanyal tried to reorganise various radical left groups, but he could not make much headway. Finally, he succumbed to despair and eventually hanged himself.
was the interaction of Sanyal and Naxalbari an exercise in dangerous adventurism? Paul does not give you straight answers. But he drops all the right hints on what went wrong with Sanyal and expects the reader to decide for himself. Paul quotes Sanyal that he “differed strongly” on the timing of the armed uprising that Mazumdar had called for. But he had to agree to it with much hesitation. Not many knew of his discontent then. The failure of the Naxal movement lies in the plain fact that it was mostly an armed rebellion without focus, which underestimated the capabilities of the State.
Also the sheer scale of the ideological differences between Sanyal and Mazumdar was a recipe for chaos. Most of the foot soldiers were kept in the dark on the infighting. While tracing the Mazumdar-Sanyal differences, Paul — who was privy to Sanyal’s unstinted support right through this biography project — tries very hard to be objective, but the effort shows.
Sanyal and his peers focussed mostly on tribal villages and stayed away from the urban poor. Mazumdar’s aversion to mass organisations prevailed. And his “individual annihilation” line drove potential sympathisers away from the CPI(Marxist-Leninist).
Many books and articles have come out on the Naxal movement in India. From Sumanto Banerjee down, several worthwhile attempts have been made to comprehend the phenomenon. While most of them try to address its romanticism, some, such as Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence and Subjectivity in India’s Naxalbari Movement by Srila Roy, examine it more clinically and dispassionately.
Paul’s work is different. It doubles up as an impartial chronicle of the radical left movement in Bengal and an enchantingly honest portrait of the man who was its face. Also, it sounds all the right alarm bells.
The relevance of this emphasis should not be lost on today’s Maoists who continue to make the same dangerous mistakes. They continue to be ignorant of the post-globalisation political economy, and hence operate at the margins. Surely, Paul’s book can make them introspect, if only they bother to read it, which they are unlikely to given their predominant attitudes