30 Years Since Spring Thunder: The Naxalite Uprising in India
Revolutionary Worker #922, September 7, 1997
Thirty years ago--in 1967--a "Spring Thunder" of revolutionary struggle broke out in Naxalbari, India. Poor and landless peasants, tea plantation workers and tribal people in the northern part of West Bengal, near the border with Nepal, rose up against centuries of poverty, brutality and humiliation. They armed themselves with bows and spears, snatching guns when they could. And they took up the most advanced ideas--Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.
The Naxalbari uprising ushered in a new chapter in the struggle of the masses in India. And it was part of the worldwide upsurge in revolutionary struggle in the 1960s. Led by revolutionary communists, the peasants of Naxalbari rose up with the idea not just of taking land, but of taking power and changing the whole world.
Oppression in the Countryside
An Indian journalist described what the peasant rebels of Naxalbari rose up against: "The small peasants, to begin with, were gradually being pauperised. They were too poor to feed themselves, let alone the soil, which needed inputs like irrigation and fertilizers that were too expensive for the subsistence peasants. At first they mortgaged their small plots to the big landlords, and later had to sell them, reducing themselves to the position of tenants or sharecroppers.
"Dispossessed of the land, and reduced to a tenant, the erstwhile small peasant now entered an even more precarious stage of existence. In many states, his rights were not even nominally defined by law, and the rent he had to pay to the big landlord was exorbitant, ranging between one-half and two-thirds of the crop he produced. In some places, it was as high as 70-80 percent of the crop....
"Forms of exploitation of the tenants were varied. `Begar' or forced work for the landlord's private chores, and imposition of levies on the tenants to make them bear the costs of ceremonies in their employer's house on special occasions, were fairly common in the countryside.
"But at the lowest rung of the rural hierarchy were the rural laborers or landless peasants.... Besides poverty, the rural poor also suffered from social exploitation and oppression, since a large number of them also belonged to lower castes [a form of class and social division in India] and the aboriginal community.... I remember having met some landless laborers belonging to the Chamar caste, who worked the farms of the local big landlords, but were not allowed to draw water from the village well which was reserved for the upper castes. They were not even permitted to enter the compounds of the house of their employer--pukka houses made of bricks and cement, often fitted with the latest gadgets, standing in sharp contrast to the dingy hovels where the landless were condemned to live. In South India villages, lynchings and burning of low-caste peasants on the flimsiest excuses, reminiscent of the witch-hunting days of the Inquisition, were common occurrences." (From In the Wake of Naxalbari, by Sumanta Banerjee, Subarnarekha, 1980.)
Applying the Path of Maoist People's War
Before Naxalbari, the communist movement in India was dominated by revisionism (phony communism). The revolutionary internationalist journal A World to Win (1987/9) explained: "The Communist Party of India (CPI) had long before abandoned even the pretext of revolution in favour of the `parliamentary road' to power. Under the pressure of the criticism of revisionism begun by Mao Tsetung and the Communist Party of China in the early 1960s, a section of cadres and members of the CPI had split off and formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM. In West Bengal, especially, a great number of genuine revolutionaries took part in the formation of the CPM as a result of the latter's vocal criticism of the CPI revisionist leaders."
The CPM even took control of the state government in West Bengal. But as A World to Win pointed out: "It soon became apparent that the CPM itself had not really broken with revisionism. On an international plane, the CPM tried to steer a `middle road' between Soviet revisionism and the Marxist-Leninist line that was represented at the time by the Communist Party of China... On the practical front the CPM was content to uphold the necessity of armed struggle in words while making the `tactic' of participating in the parliamentary arena its actual main focus of work."
It was in this context that in 1965, Charu Mazumdar began developing a revolutionary opposition to the revisionist CPM leadership. He began training the cadre of the Darjeeling district committee of the CPM in a radically different line. In his writings, Mazumdar stressed that the revolution in India must follow the path charted by Mao for revolution in oppressed countries--the path of protracted people's war and surrounding the cities from the countryside.
The Outbreak of Armed Struggle
The result of the revolutionary line was the outbreak of armed struggle in Naxalbari in the spring of 1967. As In the Wake of Naxalbari described it: "From March 1967 to April 1967 all the villages were organized. From 15,000 to 20,000 peasants were enrolled as whole-time activists. Peasants' committees were formed in every village and they were transformed into armed guards. They soon occupied land in the name of the peasants' committees, burnt all the land records `which had been used to cheat them of their due,' canceled all hypothecary debts [mortgages], passed death sentences on oppressive landlords, formed armed bands by looting guns from the landlords, armed themselves with conventional weapons like bows and arrows and spears, and set up a parallel administration to look after the villages....
"By May that year, the rebels could claim as their strongholds Hatighsha under the Naxalbari police station, Buraganj under the Kharibari police station, and Chowpukhuria under Phansidew police station, where no outsider could enter without their permission."
For three liberating months, the old way in Naxalbari was driven out by the Spring Thunder. In 2,000 villages, revolutionary mass organization of peasants held political power, administering affairs according to their revolutionary interests under the leadership of communist revolutionaries.
The Naxalite Movement Shakes India
In July, the government's military encirclement and suppression campaign finally snatched back the political power that the masses had seized. But the Naxalbari uprising sparked a revolutionary movement that flared throughout India.
Another Indian journalist wrote: "You are not considered a man at all. Born a slave, your life is strictly tied to spade, sickle and the lord's feet. You produce everything that the lord boasts of, yet your children are drumming the aluminum plates. Everyday one landlord or the other takes away your wife and daughters... How long, you will ask yourselves, will I live like this? Is this my fate? No! And that means Naxalbari.... `Naxalite' had become, in the vocabulary of the police and landlords, a word to describe any landless or poor peasant walking with his head high and talking like a man, not as a slave." (From Naxalbari and After, a Frontier anthology, Kathashilpa, 1978.)
The Naxalite movement drew in many millions of peasants, proletarian revolutionaries who led battles in the fields and hills and in the cities, and students who went to the countryside at least a million strong. They shook India's big landowners and capitalists and the imperialists who dominate this country. They challenged everything reactionary--from the semi-feudal relations in the countryside to literature, from the moneylenders to the Soviet revisionists. When U.S. Secretary of Defense McNamara landed in Calcutta, a massive demonstration at the airport against U.S. imperialism and in support of the Vietnamese people forced this hated war criminal to take off again.
The Naxalbari struggle had a profound effect on the political landscape in India. Both CPI and CPM were widely exposed, as they openly sided with the central authorities who responded to the Naxalbari movement with massacres and terror. At the same time, young people came forward throughout the country to take up the Maoist banner and join the armed struggle. Charu Mazumdar was at the center of efforts to group the genuine revolutionary communists. And his line became the basis for the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) in April 1969.
The Indian ruling classes were able to defeat the Naxalbari movement in the early 1970s. At least 10,000 men and women gave their lives for the movement's revolutionary goals. And many times more than that were imprisoned.
In July 1972 Charu Mazumdar was arrested in Calcutta. On the night of July 27-28 he died at the hands of the police. After Mazumdar's death, serious political differences and the attacks of the enemy led to the collapse of the organized center of the party--and the revolutionary movement in India suffered a setback.
The lessons of Spring Thunder are still very much relevant in today's India.
This year marks not only the 30th anniversary of the Naxalbari rebellion, but also the 50th anniversary of the formal independence of India from British colonial rule. India is sometimes called "the world's biggest democracy." But in reality, the ruling system in India is nakedly corrupt and brutal, controlled by big capitalist and land-owning classes while about half the population lives in poverty--about the same proportion as 50 years ago. Imperialist powers, especially the U.S., continue to dominate India. The Indian rulers also act as an oppressive regional power over Nepal and other smaller neighboring countries. The further opening up of India to the world capitalist market in the past several years has brought new wealth to a small section of the privileged elite. But hundreds of millions of peasants in the Indian countryside still suffer from the heavy chains of semi-feudal oppression. And the cities are immense concentrations of poverty and misery.
As A World to Win wrote: "No proletarian internationalist can be indifferent to the development of the revolution in India. Its immense population, the intensity of class contradictions, its existence as a weak link in the world imperialist system all mean, as we pointed out in the first issue of A World to Win, `if you're talking about world revolution, you're talking about India.... It is certain that the next high tide of struggle will not be a mere repetition of the movement of the past--it must and can be deeper, richer and more powerful still. But it is also certain that when the saga of the liberation of India is finally completed the songs of Naxalbari will be among those that fill the air."
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