The spring that never really came

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on September 07, 2014

Book: The First Naxal: An Authorised Biography of Kanu SanyalAuthor: Bappaditya Paul Publisher: Sage India Price: ₹550

Bappaditya Paul.jpg

Chronicling the rise and fall of Kanu Sanyal and the Naxal movement

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 and in the ensuing commotion five people were gunned down, including four women members of the communist party. The incident was gruesome enough to disturb many free-thinking individuals in West Bengal, including a 20-year-old who was suitably restless for this age.

Kanu Sanyal, who would later become the poster boy of the Naxalbari left wing revolt of the 1960s and 1970s, was a member of the pro-communist Jana Raksha Samity in Siliguri, Darjeeling. The murder of communists by Independent India’s police unsettled him so much that he decided to join the Communist Party of India (CPI). The First Naxal by The Statesman journalist Bappaditya Paul vividly captures Sanyal’s daringly dangerous journey that ended in his suicide at his office at Sebdella Jote, Siliguri, in March 2010.

Sanyal was reckless, 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. It appears he never lost that quality.

Netaji fan

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, writes Paul, that one day he visited Bose 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 famous rebel of Indian freedom movement. Sanyal was forever “charmed” by Bose. This hero worship, perhaps, was one of the reasons behind Sanyal’s dangerous liaisons with armed struggles later in his 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 Communist Party of India itself. But Sanyal later admitted that his decision to join the communist movement was not driven by “any ideological motivation”; rather, the restless youth in him yearned for “something new”.

The Bowbazar firing influenced Sanyal so deeply that in protest he organised a black flag march to a function where Chief Minister Bidhan Chandra Roy was present. The event, the first major rally organised by Sanyal, turned violent, severely injuring his friend Amal Kulacharya.

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.

Impartial narrative

Biographies of left revolutionaries offer a writer a lot of scope to create spectacularly dramatic worlds. Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life is a classic example. But Paul seems have little interest in such build-ups. Instead, he focuses on only the essentials.

While recounting the childhood and twilight years of Sanyal, Paul’s prose reads like a dull third-party diary but gains pace and perspective while retelling the turbulent days of the Naxalbari Movement. One can easily make out the meticulous research that has gone in to weave the Sanyal story.

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. “Going a step further, Charu Da declared himself a member of the Chinese Communist Party,” Paul quotes Sanyal.

What happened to the Naxalbari movement and its godfather Charu 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 Kanu 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 decipher the outcome. And it’s not an easy jobto do this.

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, as the book shows, 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.

Sanyal and his peers focused 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 CPI-ML.

What went wrong

Many books and articles have come out on the Naxal movement in India. While most of them try to address its romanticism, often staying clear of its grevious political mistakes, some, such as Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence, and Subjectivity in India's Naxalbari Movement by Srila Roy, examine its sociology more clinically.

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 the face of it. 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.


Bappaditya Paul is a senior reporter at The Statesman in Kolkata. He started with the daily in 2005 as a staff reporter in Siliguri. Paul has published several articles on issues ranging from Naxalism to the Gorkhaland movement and environmental problems. This is his first book.

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Published on September 07, 2014
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