For Bengalis, the unrest between 1967 and 1972, which began in the village of Naxalbari and has lent itself to the ongoing Maoist insurgency in several parts of the country, is woven into our collective memory as a reminder of what state repression looks like.
In my home in Bengal, the terms ‘Naxal’ and ‘Maobadi’ are similar to ‘petni’ and ‘shakchunni‘. The first two are far-Left rebels, and the last two refer to female ghosts.
Our inheritance of familial anecdotes included stories of my grandmother hiding young boys from the neighbourhood during ‘chiruni tallasi’ – or combing operations – where police forces would line up young boys they suspected of being part of the movement and shoot them. My father vividly remembers peeking out the window slats and seeing a man’s head being crushed against a pavement by an army boot.
The maobadi-nightmare is an inherited title that crosses party-lines. In 2010, Swapan Dasgupta, editor of Peoples March, a pro-Maoist magazine, was booked under the UAPA by the CPI(M) government. Four months later, Bengal received the distinct dishonour of being the first state where someone booked under UAPA died in police custody.
In 2012, our current chief minister, who ousted the 32-year old Leftist regime in Bengal, walked out of a press conference, yelling “They are all Maoists!” at a student who asked her a difficult question. And now, ahead of the 2021 assembly elections, Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh claims Mamata Banerjee’s party All India Trinamool Congress is inviting ex-Maoist leaders to her party.
Like an unappeased ghost, ‘Maoist’, our eternal ‘jujuburi’ (the Bengali folklore version of the boogeyman) lives on.
But, among all this, knowledge is forgotten, propaganda is on the rise, and here is a difficult question: Who is a Maoist/Naxal?
When I was in the first year of my graduation, I took up a course called ‘cultures of protest’ and chose to write my first term paper for it on narratives from the Red Corridor.
In the piles of books my sister had left behind, I found Gautam Navlakha’s In the Heartland of Rebellion, signed and addressed to my sister with the words, “Read my book with a critical insight.”
That is where I began.
For the first time, I found out, among the basic demands of Maoist insurgents are clean drinking water and education for children. An uncomfortable thought crept into my head – people have gone to war for far worse.
In the book, Navlakha writes,
“There is also more than one side in a war. To claim that only one warring side has the right to propagate its views whereas the other does not because they are projected as ‘enemy’ makes even less sense in a situation of internal war where both sides comprise our own people.”
Nandini Sundar, a Delhi-based sociologist known for her grassroots research in Bastar, filed a PIL in the Supreme Court which led to the dissolution of the Salwa Judum. Her work in Chhattisgarh apparently formed a major portion for Amit V. Masurkar’s research to make the film on democracy in Chhattisgarh that went on to get an Oscar nomination – Newton (2017). The same year, the Chhattisgarh police sought to implicate her in a murder case of a local Adivasi man by the Maoists. The case was dismissed three years later.
Anand Teltumbde remains in custody, again under the UAPA. Teltumbde is Dalit rights activist who is one of the OG ‘urban naxals’. His work Persistence of Caste and the report on Khairlanji massacre are primary readings in understanding caste-based violence. Teltumbde is married to Rama Teltumbde, the granddaughter of the man who wrote the Annihilation of Caste and the Indian constitution – B.R. Ambedkar.
Teltumbde, who is almost 70, is in jail without bail during a pandemic.
There is an entire sea of literature about the Maoist insurgency, atrocities on Dalits, Adivasis, the poor and disenfranchised that has been penned by writers and activists. What binds it all together is the suppression of their voices – arrests, false cases, murder charges that were later dropped, sedition cases that took nearly 17 years to clear. The voices were unearthing stories that ran contrary to popular belief.
And through them all, wielded with impunity, the UAPA or the Unlawful Activity Prevention Act, 1967 – a colonial era law for curbing dissent in India. It has been called many things – black law, draconian law etc – but is actually lifted directly from the universe of George Orwell’s 1984 with the intent of stopping a very real crime that Big Brother called a “thought crime”.
“‘Political Prisoner’ is a category of criminal offense that sits most egregiously in any civilised society, especially in countries that call themselves liberal democracies. It is a thought crime: the crime of thinking, acting, speaking, probing, reporting, questioning, demanding rights, and, more importantly, exercising one’s citizenship. But these inhumane incarcerations do not just target private acts of courage, they are bound together with the fundamental questions of citizenship, and with people’s capacity to hold the State accountable.”
Here’s a fun fact – in 2010, the ministry of home affairs declared through a press note that anyone found supporting Maoists could be prosecuted under Section 39 of UAPA. The note also stated that the general public must be “extremely vigilant of the propaganda of CPI(Maoist)” and “not unwittingly become a victim of such propaganda”.
“It is brought to the notice of the general public that under Section 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, any person who commits the offence of supporting such a terrorist organisation with inter alia intention to further the activities of such terrorist organisations would be liable to be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or with fine or with both. General public are informed to be extremely vigilant of the propaganda of CPI (Maoist) and not unwittingly become a victim of such propaganda.”
When Dr Binayak Sen was arrested in 2007, the chief evidence against him was that he possessed ‘Maoist literature’. As of May 11, 2020, with the arrest of Bittu Sonowal in Assam, NIA considers the use of phrases like ‘lal salam’ and ‘comrade’ as proof of Maoist connections.
Who is a Maoist then? How do we know, if we conflate those who are, with those who write their stories, and increasingly, those who read those stories?
Sudeep Chakraborti, a seasoned journalist who has written extensively on the insurgency, once said, “Understanding of conflict and conflict resolution must come from knowing ground realities and not propaganda.”
Yet those who seek out that reality are jailed. What then could be the logical path out of this mess?
This piece isn’t about those activists who now face captivity as the reward for a lifetime of hard work. No words I write could help bring them back. Those who are wiser and stronger than me are trying. I hope they succeed before it’s too late.
This article is for those of us who, growing up, realised there was a world behind the glossy curtain of incredible India. Those of us who amassed books, but more often PDFs, of activists and scholars who walked with those left out of the great Indian dream, and sent their stories flying in the wind for us to catch and etch into our memories.
It’s not my story, even if I choose to tell it. It’s the story of a Bengali girl who has azaadi tattooed on her finger and cried on August 5, 2019.
It’s the story of my classmates who were detained for protesting, for my university which was brutalised, for the women we saw around us who were dragged away under UAPA laws while the police who beat them roamed the streets.
It’s the story of everyone who has walked in a protest, fought with their relatives and parents as the saffron wave kept coming and coming.
We’ve done it armed with the words of these men and women. And today, reading the letters the activists wrote before their arrest, suffocating in a careening economy with something that can be akin to survivor’s guilt, I cannot but wonder, where do we go from here?
Recently, a stranger who disagreed with me wrote in a comment, “Of course your words have no logic, you are a Bengali.”
The truth is, there is no logic anymore. And in this world, where the clear stream of reason has long lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit, I do what on Tagore, the original illogical Bengali, taught us to do – I read, and I write. And in my heart, I know,
“Nothing debases the word:
In the blazing furnaces of time
Under the plummeting hammer clangs,
This as the fittest moment,
I go on forging expressions.”
– Varavara Rao
Sreemoyee Mukherjee is building a fortress of words in her home in the abyss.