Much of the literature on the Naxalites has ascertained that the shift to the urban terrain considerably weakened the movement and contradicted the premises of its founding documents. Though this shift was not uniform per se, with some sporadic activity being orchestrated alongside small-scale warfare in the countryside, by the time the Naxalites focused the bulk of their energies onto Calcutta; their limited successes in rural West Bengal had considerably weakened them. In the city, Naxalite action was mostly spontaneous with little formal application of Maoist strategic principles. The most likely reason behind this improvised approach lay in the leadership’s reluctance to envision the city as a self-generating locus of revolutionary activity in itself, which resulted from the relegation of the city to the last phase of the struggle in expanding liberated zones within party literature. In the face of a number of devastating defeats in rural West Bengal this linear revolutionary trajectory, which would ideally culminate in the liberation of Calcutta, seemed increasingly less tenable. These circumstances, coupled with a lack of proper guidance from the leadership meant the lived experiences of certain urban spaces such as educational institutions, public spaces, and neighborhoods would be instrumental in shaping Naxalite practices of urban guerrilla warfare. While this resulted in a litany of novel and innovative tactics, helping the Naxalites to temporarily appropriate certain spaces within the city, these impromptu strategies neither matched the coordination of the CPI (M) in mobilizing the industrial working classes nor produced internal unification, often betraying spatially-rooted prejudices. Ultimately, the Naxalites’ failure to induce mass mobilization made them easy targets of systematic police brutality and gave quietus to first phase of the movement from 1967 to 1973.

 

Educational Institutions: Democratic Learning to Deregulation

Scholars and political analysts have alternately dismissed Naxalite activities within universities and colleges as a dilution of the programme of action instituted in the villages, and as indicators of the inherent petite bourgeois adventurism and sensationalism of the movement.[1] For the most part, such criticisms are warranted. Indeed, later symbolic actions such as the disruption of examinations, the vandalism of the offices of principals and professors, and the raising of the ubiquitous red flag over the campus buildings and walls often took precedence over efforts to mobilise students through the generation of a political consciousness which would tie the movement to the agrarian peasantry and working class in the city.[2] It is important to note however that universities and colleges were crucial entry-points for rival political parties such as the CPI (M) and Congress which regularly hosted polling booths on campuses nearing election time.[3] Hence, in accordance with Naxalite convictions in favour of electoral boycotts, the disruption of routines within university spaces was possibly tantamount to creating an unfavourable climate for electoral politics. Between March 1970 and April 1971, the Naxalites targeted three hundred and thirty one educational institutions, with fifty having to close, including the illustrious Presidency College and the University of Calcutta.[4] An interrogation of the Naxalites’ temporary appropriations of the institutionalized spaces of education for the purposes of conducting and generating revolutionary action reveals a gradual shift of tactical considerations from the initial implementation of gheraos to efforts at inducing deregulation.

I argue that such strategic shifts reflected the intersection between the ideology of the party and its experiential interpretation by the students who allied themselves with it. In the post-independence context, centres of higher learning such as Presidency College and the University of Calcutta were bounded and almost hallowed communities. As noted in an article published in December 1966, “it was only the cream of the crop of matriculation” who could hope to be accepted, with a “few exceptions made in the case of the sons of the very rich or the very influential.”[5] Lefebvre noted in his study of the May 1968 movement in France that student unrest, which took on a vocal nature within the Sorbonne, had meant “people who had never crossed (and sometimes had never before dared cross) the portals of this sanctuary consecrated to private knowledge, mysterious writings, and class-permeated scientificity” were now able to.[6] Though initially upholding such notions, for the Naxalites, attacks on educational institutions assumed a more anarchic character as the movement progressed.

Rather than undertaking efforts to recruit support for the party, democratise arcane knowledge, and counter the elitism of universities, the Naxalites increasingly emphasised deregulation and the production of ataxic conditions within the confines educational institutions as a means of contributing to their eventual closure. Four separate articles published in the party-organ, Liberation help demonstrate this shift. An April 1969 political programme on the roles of students noted that one of their responsibilities as propagandists of the cause was to engage in “uniting the backward sections [amongst their own] and inspiring them to participate in the national democratic struggle.”[7] In terms of praxis, this often involved students mobilising within unions to strike against university authorities, and distributing pamphlets and flyers with selections of Maoist aphorisms.[8] The party’s calls for integration resulted in attempts to bring workers to “schools and colleges and in the muhallas [locales] to tell stories of their struggles.”[9]  Within a few months however, Naxalite student tactics took a different turn which the Liberation then praised and reified as the theoretically proper alternative. This turn involved a series of haphazard activities including the destruction of the statues of those labelled bourgeois intellectuals, assassinations of teachers, and trade union workers, as well as bombings of the institutions themselves.[10] Far from criticising such activities, the Liberation commended them as helpful in the processes of “restoring the class outlook” and “raising the revolutionary consciousness of the people.”[11] The combined chaos that these actions produced rendered educational facilities temporarily inoperative.

Why then, did such a massive transformation in the usage of university spaces occur? Political analysts of the time offered several explanations ranging from the hijacking of the movement by the lumpen-proletariat due to the prominence of Charu Mazumdar’s infamous and often undiscriminating annihilation line, to the youthful recklessness of Naxalite students.[12] I propose in addition to these another reason, namely the delayed effort at mobilizing the working classes which remained under the control of the rival CPI (M)’s trade union. Not only did this contribute to the alienation of the workers from the movement of reclaiming university space, it also obstructed the Marxist-Leninist ideal of reciprocal action necessary between the party and the masses, thereby fostering a reliance on symbolic destruction rather than solidarity-building initiatives that would strengthen the party’s power within the city.

 

Streets and Public Spaces: Political Theater and Pathnatika

When Kanu Sanyal led a mass rally to declare the party’s separation from the CPI (M) in May 1969, he did so in the city’s largest open area, the Calcutta Maidan. Indeed, public spaces such as the Maidan and other urban parks such as the Azad Hind Park in College Square featured as the most commonly used sites of congregation and assembly prior to the illegalization of the CPI (ML).  The Naxalites also used public squares and streets for other forms of agit-prop, such as distributing leaflets quoting Mao, plastering walls with posters that announced Naxalite solidarity with Vietnam and China, and rhetorically lionizing the martyrs who had died in battle. It was perhaps within these shared spaces that the Naxalites and their supporters also employed their most creative means of mobilizing urban populations – through street theatre and performance. As the dramatist and cultural critic Rustom Bharucha wrote in his study of revolutionary theatre in Bengal, these plays were an example of an artistic attempt at “preaching revolution in such a way that the overthrow of the system [was] an imminent possibility.”[13]  Often allegorical and always didactic, street theatre had the capacity to attract and address a large and diverse audience. They achieved this by virtue of their non-institutionalized nature, as they were impromptu performances in public areas and admitted audiences free of charge. Altogether their most important function was their ability to actively engage audiences with the fundamental ideology of the movement, and to provide visualisations of the ideal proletarian hero or heroine, whose actions preempted the formation of a revolutionary society.

Pathnatika (street-theatre) had a history that predated its use by the Naxalites and their fellow-travellers. A member of the leftist Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Panu Pal was its originator, having introduced it to the group in 1949 as a challenge in spontaneity and thematic purpose. It was in this context that Utpal Dutt, who went on to become a principal figure in both the Naxalite affiliated street-theatre movement and modern Indian dramaturgy, encountered it.[14] Dutt, who had long associated himself with Marxism-Leninism, had supported the radicals within the CPI (M) when they had decided to split from the party on the basis of espousing an immediate armed insurrection. He had previously produced plays such as Ajeya Vietnam (Invincible Vietnam) in 1966, which provided a condemning criticism of the actions of American troops during the Vietnam War. In his writings, he noted that Naxalbari stirred in him a desire to produce a play that showcased peasant heroism and police brutality; hence, after a few weeks of visiting the villages of Naxalbari and Prasadujot and communicating with Mazumdar, he wrote Teer (The Arrow) in 1967.[15] Teer which dealt with the realities of rural armed struggle, served to connect the rural and urban spheres together, as per Naxalite rhetoric which stressed political integration of the working-classes and the peasantry and tribal peoples of the countryside. Performed both in alternative theatres and on the streets of Calcutta, Teer provided the audiences, which ranged from left-leaning middle-class students and intellectuals to workers, with the opportunity to “act as the catalytic agent” and envision through their support of the heroic peasant protagonist, the necessity of their own participation in the movement.[16] Such methods however, as Himani Bannerji remarks in her study of Utpal Dutt’s similarly themed historical drama Titu Mir, often served as a substitute to actual class analysis, instead positing revolution on universal terms where “exploitation or domination remain[ed] utterly non-specified or undifferentiated, making it impossible to grasp the real political process.”[17]

It is therefore difficult to deduce whether such tactics truly worked to generate a sense of class-consciousness and informed viewers of the gradations of economic exploitation within the rural context, or instead imbued audiences with romantic adventurism based on a simplistic understanding of a moralistic battle between good and evil. Nonetheless, the cultural realm was not insulated from state power, and the police released a warrant for Dutt’s arrest on November 11, 1967. Dutt evaded the police for two months, but was eventually arrested, interrogated and jailed for his activities.

 

Multi-class Neighborhoods: The Politicisation of Lived Space

The urban neighbourhood was another locus on which the Naxalites focused their attention for the purposes of recruitment and political mobilizations Scholarship on urbanity in post-colonial India has stressed a number of crucial characteristics in Calcutta’s landscape: the formation of refugee colonies after the Partition of 1947 and the Bangladeshi Genocide of 1971, the disruption of class-based spatial distinctions by informal settlements such as slums, and infrastructural neglect by both state and municipal authorities.[18] The urban anthropologist Henrike Donner argued in her study of urban activism in Calcuttan neighbourhoods, that these trends and the relationships they engendered were cumulatively responsible for informing the epistemologies, experiences, and tactics of the Naxalites.[19] By building upon her analysis, I regard the different uses of neighbourhood and domestic spaces within the Naxalite movement. As Rajnarayan Chandavarkar uncovered in his work on the emergence of Left politics in Girangaon in Bombay, the neighbourhood, with its reliance on mutual dependence, fostered a form of collective action that depended on imbuing the private “lived” space with political meaning.[20] For the Naxalites, who still predominantly had urban backgrounds, Calcutta exemplified the banality of la vie quotidienne, meaning that the non-institutionalized spaces of its neighbourhoods could host clandestine operations. As the movement progressed however, this politicization meant that neighbourhoods were transformed into zones of strict police surveillance.

For their residents, most neighbourhoods were self-contained spaces, with both somatic and infrastructural inter-linkages that often prevented external interference by the long arm of the law. This made neighbourhoods amenable to a variety of Naxalite activities, including recruitment and political mobilization, the covert storage of stolen armaments, and the establishment “underground” meeting areas, in addition to serving as impromptu areas of refuge from police persecution. The spatial structure of the neighbourhood facilitated the first of these activities. Urban geographer Sanjoy Chakravorty’s conceptual map of post-independence Calcutta reveals the syncretic existence of middle and lower income households and their placement along the fringes of the upper-middle and high income core.[21] Both Donner in Calcutta and Chandavarkar in Bombay argued that it was the mutual dependency and shared local concerns with regard to housing, water supply, and other needs fostered by such settlements, which assisted left-wing groups in mobilizing processes.[22] Mobilization on this basis, however, often reinforced notions of gendered political involvement that had been rampant in previous union politics. Growing up in a refugee colony and joining the movement in 1970, a lower middle-class woman, Krishna Bandyopadhyay, observed in a personal narrative that the “political party had grown out of our own social milieu. A party is not just a frame; it is a platform for people of various kinds to come together. And we were creatures of this very socio-economic reality… my party had never considered seriously, far less taken any stand whatsoever, on women’s liberation.”[23] Bandyopadhyay expanded upon this by stating:

We were asked to offer shelter to revolutionaries, give them tea, and carry letters and documents from one place to another. And we had one more responsibility. This was to undergo training as nurses, so that we could tend to our injured male comrades and nurse them back to health. Thanks to our care, the party could regain its comrades because the police would not usually suspect a woman.[24]

In large part, this grew out of bhadralok ideals of femininity and respectability which dictated that the roles of women within the movement be confined to their “natural” functions as nurturers within domestic spaces.

The second and third functions of neighbourhoods, as sites within which to store arms and hold clandestine political meetings, developed out of the assumption of trust between residents of a common area. As Donner argues, the decentralised mode of organisation that precipitated these particular demands of the movement, built upon pre-existing friendship and kinship networks that connected activists together.[25] It was common practice to store stolen arms within people’s houses and organise rotating meeting spots in the residences of activists. In accordance with the party’s policy, such tactics served to “erase doubtism… [that is] distrust and lack of confidence in one another, in the central revolutionary authority and in the revolutionary character of the broad masses of the people.”[26] Adding to a sense of fraternity, neighbourhoods initially offered their residents physical inscrutability from outsiders, including the police, though this would change as their political function became more apparent. The narrow, crowded and winding streets, informal housing and other deviations from the conceptual spaces of planned environment, contributed to the ability of activists to escape police persecution by virtue of their knowledge of their own lived environments. As a journalist noted in 1971,

These [slum] areas lend themselves naturally to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. The poor areas in the northern part of the city have what are called ‘jackal lanes’ so narrow that only a jackal can pass. The casbah-like agglomeration of dwelling houses help the lightly built local boy skip from housetop to housetop. The heavily accoutred policemen here and in the slums ordinarily are incapable of preventing a guerrilla getaway.[27]

This suggests that the unplanned character of lower middle and working class neighbourhoods often determined the difference between life and death. The lived knowledge of these spaces which many grew up in and the intimate connections and networks within residential communities met the demands for quick collectivised action, and afforded the Naxalites protection from repressive forces such as the police.

The police response to the calculated uses of neighbourhood spaces by activists was a manifold increase in the rigour of the surveillance mechanisms employed. The politicisation of these Lefebvrian lived spaces made them subject to the regularisation of methods of authoritarian control, including: counter-insurgent “police guerrilla squads,” undercover informers who pretended to be Naxalites, late night raids of houses suspected for harbouring subversives, and curfews which restricted movement in and out of neighbourhoods.[28]  In the absence of a large-scale effort to mobilise the working classes, Naxalites within the city were outnumbered and had to assume defensive positions to counteract attacks by the police, which signalled the dwindling of active forms of resistance.

 

Conclusion

In summation, an examination of Naxalite activities within urban spaces reveals a series of distinct patterns. As the mostly petite bourgeois cadres in the cities received little practical elucidation of the guiding plan of action suited to the urban terrain, much of their work within the city was impromptu and spontaneous, resulting from their adaptation of the everyday uses of spaces such as neighbourhoods and universities into the development of some form of revolutionary strategy. As such, their experiential use of spaces previously untheorised in party literature produced a set of political tactics customised to each spatial structure in concern, and allowed for their occupation and temporary reclamation. The absence of a clear political strategy of how to generate class-consciousness within the cities and a deviation from the previously proposed plan of rural encirclement, however, meant that the Naxalites were for the most part unable to secure the participation of the working classes. This, in combination with the spatially-embedded beliefs and practices which emerged from the social structures of middle-class cadres contributed to deficiencies in mobilisation and procuring mass support and made the Naxalites increasingly vulnerable to police repression. The neglect and failure of mass mobilisation on account of these aforementioned factors as well as the domination of CPI (M)-led trade unionism reveals a primary shortcoming in Naxalite approaches towards the city, namely that of underestimating the state’s repressive capacity within the urban terrain. Since cities unlike the villages of rural Bengal were characterised by efficient communication networks and centrally located police forces, police action was far more systematic and delivered the movement with a debilitating and ultimately fatal blow.

 

Notes

[1] See for example, Pratap Mitra and Mohit Sen’s, Communist Party and Naxalites, and Ray, The Naxalites and their Ideology.

[2] “Urban Guerrillas in Calcutta,” 1379.

[3] Statesman, March 3, 1971, as noted in Duyker’s Tribal Guerrillas, 88.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “A Calcutta Diary: Chaos on the Campus”, 702.

[6] Lefebvre, The Explosion, 119.

[7] “Draft Political Programme for The Revolutionary Student and Youth Movement,” 65.

[8] See Abhijnan Sen, “Naxalite Tactics in the Cities,” 89.

[9] For the instruction to integrate with workers see Mazumdar, “The Party’s Call to the Students and Youth,” 7. For calls to workers to instruct on tactical measures at universities see “A Few Words to the Revolutionary Students and Youth,” 85.

[10] See reports such as “The Guerillas of Calcutta,” 1958 and Chattopadhyay, “Uncompromising Hostility to Whom?” 55.

[11] “Revolutionary Youths and Students Wage a Valiant Struggle,” 65.

[12] See Ashok Rudra, “Murderers Take Over,” 1913, and “Children of the Revolution-to-be,” 449 respectively.

[13] Rustom Bharucha, Rehearsals of Revolution, xiii.

[14] Bharucha, 57.

[15] Utpal Dutt, Towards a Revolutionary Theatre, 87.

[16] Ibid., 8.

[17] Himani Bannerji, “Language and Liberation,” 139.

[18] For an explanation of the historical processes through which these characteristics developed see: Joya Chatterji, “Dispositions and Destinations,”273–304 and Sanjoy Chakravorty, “From Colonial City to Globalising City?” 200 respectively.

[19] See Henrike Donner, “Locating Activist Spaces,” 21-40.

[20] Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, “From Neighbourhood to Nation,”121-190.

[21] Chakravorty, “From Colonial City to Globalising City?” 68.

[22] See Donner, “Locating Activist Spaces,” 30, and Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, “From Neighbourhood to Nation,”135.

[23] Krishna Bandyopadhyay, “Naxalbari Politics: A Feminist Narrative,” 52-53.

[24] Ibid., 54.

[25] Donner, “Locating Activist Spaces,” 36.

[26] “A Few Words to Revolutionary Students and Youth,”14 and 84.

[27] “Urban Guerillas in Calcutta,” 1380.

[28] For examples of police surveillance methods see Ashoke Kumar Mukhopadhyay, The Naxalites Through the Eyes of the Police, (2006).

 

 

References

 

Primary Sources

“A Calcutta Diary: Chaos on Campus.” Economic and Political Weekly 1, no.17 (1966): 702 – 703.

Bandyopadhyay, Krishna. “Naxalbari Politics: A Feminist Narrative.” Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 14 (2008): 52 – 59.

Chattopadhyay, S. “Uncompromising Hostilities to Whom?” Economic and Political Weekly 6, no. 1 (1971): 55.

“Children of the Revolution-To-Be.” Economic and Political Weekly 6, no. 7 (1971): 449 – 450.

“Draft Political Programme for the Revolutionary Student and Youth Movement.” Liberation 2, no. 6 (1969): 57 – 67.

Dutt, Utpal. Towards a Revolutionary Theatre. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2009.

Mazumdar, Charu. “A Few Words to the Revolutionary Students and Youth.” Liberation 3, no. 5 (1970): 13 – 14 and 84 – 91.

Mukhopadhyay, Ashoke Kumar, ed. The Naxalites through the Eyes of the Police: Select Notifications from the Calcutta Police Gazette, 1967-75. Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing, 2006.

“Revolutionary Youths and Students Wage a Valiant Struggle.” Liberation 3, no. 10 (1970): 65 – 71.

Rudra, Ashok. “Murderers Take Over.” Economic and Political Weekly 5, no. 48 (1970): 1913 – 1914.

Sen, Abhijnan. “Naxalite Tactics in Cities.” In Naxalbari and After: A Frontier Anthology Vol. 2, edited by Samar Sen, Debabrata Panda, and Asish Lahiri, 88 – 95. Calcutta: Kathashilpa, 1978. Originally published in 1970.

“The Guerrillas of Calcutta,” Economic and Political Weekly 5, no. 49 (1970): 1953 – 1954.

“Urban Guerrillas in Calcutta.” Economic and Political Weekly 6, no. 28 (1971): 1379-1382.

 

Secondary Sources

Bannerji, Himani. “Language and Liberation: A Study of Political Theatre in West Bengal.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 15, no.4 (1984): 131 – 144.

Bharucha, Rustom. Rehearsals of Revolution: The Political Theatre of Bengal. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

Chakravorty, Sanjoy. “From Colonial City to Globalising City? The Far-from-complete Spatial Transformation of Calcutta.” In Globalizing Cities: A New Spatial Order, edited by Peter Marcuse and Ronald van Kempen, 56 – 77. Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing, 2000.

Chandravarkar, Rajnarayan. “From Neighbourhood to Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Left in Bombay’s Girangaon in the Twentieth Century.” In History, Culture and the Indian City: Essays by Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, edited by Jennifer Davis and Dave Washbrooke, 121 – 190. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Chatterji, Joya. “Dispositions and Destinations: Refugee Agency and ‘Mobility Capital’ in the Bengal Diaspora, 1947–2007.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55, no. 2 (2013): 273–304.

Donner, Henrike. “Locating Activist Spaces: The Neighbourhood as a Source and Site of Urban Activism in 1970s Calcutta.” Cultural Dynamics 23, no. 13 (2011): 21 – 40.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Explosion: Marxism and the French Revolution. New York: Monthly Review, 1969.

Duyker, Edward. Tribal Guerrillas: The Santals of West Bengal and the Naxalite Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Mitra, Pratap and Mohit Sen. Communist Party and the Naxalites. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1971

Ray, Rabindra. The Naxalites and Their Ideology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

 

 

This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol II, as part of the Coldnoon journal.

 

Debolina Majumder

Debolina Majumder

Debolina Majumder is an MA student in Geography at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her research interests include historical geographies of class-formation and nationalism, labour geography, and geographies of militarisation with an area focus on West Bengal, Kashmir and Manipur.

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