Naxalbari@50: Anti-Maoist anger, Mamata minority push help RSS gain in Left citadel | india-news | Hindustan Times
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Naxalbari@50: Anti-Maoist anger, Mamata minority push help RSS gain in Left citadel

On 50th anniversary of Naxal movement, Victims of Maoist violence say deaths were in vain. This helps RSS attract youth and set up schools and shakhas, as underlined by Amit Shah’s recent visit.

long reads Updated: May 24, 2017 13:30 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti and Pramod Giri
The RSS is spreading across north Bengal through a network of schools and shakhas. Seen here, students clean a school before prayers.
The RSS is spreading across north Bengal through a network of schools and shakhas. Seen here, students clean a school before prayers.(Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

The memories are faint but the scars run deep.

Exactly 50 years ago , police inspector Sonam Wangdi was killed in Naxalbari in a peasant uprising that quickly snowballed into a conflagration singeing large swathes of India and killing hundreds. Wangi was the first casualty of what is now known the world over as the Naxal movement.

But Lhadom Wangdi, the policeman’s widow, says all the deaths including that of her husband were in vain. “ The Naxal movement cannot be justified as only innocent people got killed...my husband was unarmed, his death was a huge loss”.

What stings the 81-year-old today is how her husband’s death was reduced to a footnote in the remarkable history of the Naxalbari movement. For four decades, she collected just Rs 1,300 as his monthly pension. It has been recently hiked to Rs 3,000. “Is this not ridiculous?”

Sonam Wangdi was the first casualty of the Naxal movement. (HT PHOTO)

Lhadom, a doctor by profession, gave birth to her son in July 1967 and today lives with her two children in Darjeeling. Sonam won the President’s Police Medal but was quickly forgotten, even in the hill town where a small road is named after him. To avoid painful memories, the family left their sprawling house in Siliguri that for 30 years housed the state intelligence office, ironically coordinating strategy to vanquish the radical left ideology that killed Sonam.

Sadananda Roy Chowdhury had no such luck. The 60-year-old lives a stone’s throw away from Naxalbari, ringed by the families of the killers of his grandfather Nagen, the first landlord to be lynched by the Naxalites a month before Sonam was killed. The man who murdered Nagen died last month, and his daughter works under Sadananda in a local trade union.

“People don’t like Naxals even now, and they gave our area a bad name. I met many Naxals and asked them was the killing good? They all recognize the mistakes.”

Sadananda was 10 then but remembers how his mother fled with the children as peasants crashed through the door around 10am and captured Nagen for a “public hearing”. In his memoirs, leading Naxal ideologue Kanu Sanyal wrote Nagen tortured peasants and refused to heed to their genuine demands for more grain.

But Sadananda denies this, instead pointing out the loot of grain and valuables, and the tortuous nine-hour hiding that saved his mother and himself. When they returned home late at night, it had been ransacked, his father was dead and blood oozed everywhere.

The Naxalbari of today bears little signs of the bloody struggle that put it on the world map. Rickety but colourful buses jostle for space in the central square that is overrun with Baahubali posters, and cratered roads betray the poverty of the region.

Like every small Bengal town, many shops shut by sundown except for the scores flaunting new smartphones, and stale sweets. The Nepal border is just five kilometers away and petty smuggling has entrenched itself in recent years. A four-lane highway is coming up to divert traffic from the narrow village road where an occasional Royal Enfield Bullet or Pulsar roars by. A big block of flats is planned there.

The Beniajot high school that houses iconic statues of Left ideologues is now a regular evening hang-out for local boys. Most of them wear snazzy T-shirts. Two have coloured their hair. Which filmstar did you copy it from? “Honey Singh” Produm Singh shyly replies. Most of the others haven’t heard of the Naxals. “But they know Trinamool or BJP,” says Nripen Singh, a student at the local Naxalbari college.

By then, evening is falling and several egg-roll and chowmein stalls throng the main market, little rings of young men around each one. Do you know what Naxalbari is known for, we ask a group of Class 12 students – “Yes, some terrorists used to live here, but that’s a long time ago,” pat comes the reply.

The Naxalbari of today bears little signs of the bloody struggle that put it on the world map. (Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

This exodus of youth support proved disastrous for the Left that was swept out of power six years ago. The CPI (ML) appears to evoke little reaction in its birthplace either. But another organisation is slowly spreading its reach in the erstwhile Left citadel, scooping up hundreds of young men and women in what seems to be an addictive ideology in a region that has seen little development.

In the heart of Naxalbari stands a school run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliates that started two decades ago but has thrived in recent years. The school today has 500-plus students until Class 8 and has applied for higher secondary clearance. Its chief and RSS district in-charge Sujit Das – who was born and has lived his life in Naxalbari -- says more disillusioned youth walk into the arms of the Sangh everyday.

“There was so many years of Left rule. But people suffered. Even today, it is impossible to get medical attention for a woman in labour in Naxalbari. Hence, people have come to us.”

The soft-spoken Das is in his early thirties, and is married with two children. He alleges the RSS is the only force fighting chief minister Mamata Banerjee who has pandered to Muslims and helped their population explode. “Most districts will become Muslim majority in a few years. Bangladeshi immigrants are given illegal OBC cards.”

These charges are not new. Neither is the RSS’ draw in a region riven with poverty and caste. “We are the only organisation where a sweeper can sleep on any bed or eat anywhere. Dalits aren’t discriminated. That’s what the Sangh has taught us. We get people together.”

Morning Prayers at the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram that caters to tribals and tea-garden workers. (Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

But what is remarkable is how deftly the Sangh has maneouvered to take the pro-poor space that the enfeebled Left vacated. Top RSS leaders have camped in north Bengal for months, and a big camp for new recruits is ongoing in Malda. There are several camps and new shakhas that have sprouted across the impoverished north Bengal region , often besting official facilities on infrastructure and discipline -- Das’ school forbids students from plucking fruits and one lychee is shared by four students.

There are four such schools in the area, in addition to a tribal-focussed Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram on the outskirts of Siliguri, that houses a skill, sewing and medical centre, and caters to desperately poor tribals and tea garden labourers. The government school next door is dilapidated. “Our teachers are punctual, they go home to home to give coaching. Who else will do this? The people have rejected naxalism. The bloodsucking Left has been replaced by nationalism,” a triumphant Das says.

(This is the second of a three-part series)