On the back of his left hand, Misir Besra has a large burn mark. He has had it since childhood, when a coin was placed in a cloth and set on fire to scald him in a centuries-old Santhal tribal ceremony. “It represents a vow to fight the enemy,” said the soft-spoken Besra, 47, the highest-ranked Naxalite leader in custody in India who looked after the armed wing.
It is a vow he has kept since his days in college, leaping into the Naxal movement 23 years ago as a curious villager looking for justice, then slowly inching his way up the ranks to join the Politburo, the core Naxalite decision-making body. He was arrested one evening last September from a tea shop in a Jharkhand village.
You could say that story began with a huge jackfruit tree.
The tree stood at the centre of his Bhagnadih village in Jharkhand, then part of Bihar. It was the early 1980s. One day, Besra came back from college to find that the tree had been hacked, its thick trunk lying like a dead animal, its branches already sheared and taken away by the landlord’s men.
“I was very disturbed. I said zamindari was over — and we decided that we would not let them take the trunk away,” said Besra, short and lean, wearing a light blue T-shirt and brown trousers, a stubble on his face. “We did not let them ... That was the first time I led villagers against injustice.”
That day was preceded by years of suppressed rage. Tribals were humiliated in their everyday dealings with moneylenders, landlords and many non-tribals. They had to learn Hindi at schools, even though they wanted to study in the Santhali language. When they went to sell flowers, fruits and seeds of the mahua tree, their main source of income, they were often not paid. Moneylenders mortgaged villagers’ land on criminal terms and forcibly took it away.
“I still remember all the humiliation,” Besra said. Groups of people were showing up in the area those days — from the Naxalbari movement of communist militants, named after the place in West Bengal where it was born. In October 1985, Besra attended a cultural event of the Naxalites. He began to meet new people.
Around that time, he got to hold a gun for the first time. It was electric.
“When meetings were held in the night, many of us younger ones were made to do sentry duty and given guns — but we did not know how to use them,” Besra said, smiling for the first time in the interview. “I had never held a gun before in my life. A double-barelled gun.” In 1987, he began his formal involvement with the armed wing, whose smallest unit is a nine-member squad.
“I realised soon — as Mao had also said — that political power is born out of the barrel of a gun,” said Besra.
“It was a feeling of great pride, when I first held the gun in the field, as a part of our army.” The ragtag group was then hardly an army, though. “Many people marched without weapons, but many of us had whatever possible — small guns, bows and arrows, spears and axes,” he said.
Over the next two decades, he rose swiftly through the ranks. In 2003, he met Ganapathy, the top leader of the Naxalite organisation, for the first time. His face lights up as he talks about that day. “He is a very simple and a wonderful person. You cannot make out from his looks that he is the leader of the movement. He is very humble,” said Besra.
By now, the Naxal movement had spiralled. Rival Naxalite groups had united.
“Now the revolution is at an advanced stage. Our organisation has spread to 15 states — including new areas like Uttarakhand, and UP,” Besra said. Asked how many fighters the rebels had, he thought for a long time and then answered: “Between 15,000 and 20,000,” he finally said.
The Naxals use walkie-talkies but avoid modern communication equipment as far as possible to evade police interception, and use locally evolved codes — from the beat of drums to the sound of birds — to pass messages. But that, Besra said, will have to change. “As the struggle and war evolve, we cannot succeed without the internet or technological advancement. We are short of computer engineers. We have to reach out to the middle class.”
As their cadre strength soared, Naxalites have also been beset by other problems — financial and moral discipline and issues of command and control. Splinter groups are emerging — squabbling over “levies” or “taxes” that Naxalites take from traders, government contractors and large companies.
“The local-level splits are happening because of corruption — because of money. The self-contradictions are arising because of the stealing of money by people,” Besra said. In many parts of India, these splinter groups are described by officials, and often by villagers, as no better than common criminals who abduct people for ransom and extort money.
“Some mistakes have certainly been made — but they were not the decisions of the party. That is wrong, and we said so within the party,” Besra said. “If civilians are killed for no reason, we do not think that is right and we also admit our mistakes to say that this will not be repeated.” Some mid-level commanders were expelled after sexual escapades with fellow women fighters. Handling such issues is crucial to the Naxalites. A huge number of women and teenagers are part of the cadres. “About 30 to 40 per cent of the cadre are women...They come to us because of oppression,” he said.
His wife is not among them. She lives far away in a village with their two school-going children and Besra’s mother. Before his arrest, he did not meet his family for up to three years at a stretch. “It has become a habit to be away from the family. We do our work,” he said. “They have to take care of themselves.”
Besra said he has no regrets over his life. He read books in his high security cell but had given up his old passion — singing.
But even in incarceration, he is keen on fighting a new battle: all the prisoners are planning a hunger strike to demand better food at the jail.