Naxalbari@50: Maoist uprising was sparked by this tribal woman leader
Naxal movement started 50 years ago for farm rights . Shanti Munda was part of the first uprising. As Amit Shah’s visit grabs headlines, HT focuses on women leaders.india Updated: May 29, 2017 12:45 IST
Her frail frame hides her fiery past.
At 74, Shanti Munda walks with a hunch and her coarse cotton saree clashes violently with the trendy jeans and buzz cuts of her grandsons. But they hold their grandmother in awe.
Fifty years ago on May 24, Munda, then in her twenties, led an uprising for a poor sharecropper who asked for a larger share of the produce. She says couldn’t keep still after watching policeman Sonam Wangdi attack a woman.
With a 15-month-old baby strapped to her back, she fired the first of a shower of arrows that killed Wangdi. The next day, the forces retaliated, killing 11 peasants and tribals – triggering a violent revolution that shaped a generation’s consciousness. The uprising swept large parts of the country and those who took up arms came to called Naxalites, after the north Bengal village of Naxalbari that lit the first spark.
Mention the attempted revolution and the effect is electric. “Where were the men? They were all in jail. We women patrolled the village, undertook missions. We would often gherao the police and not let them enter homes, snatch their rifles.”
Munda joined her husband and others as a dare against her family that wouldn’t let women go to school, much less march against the state. “But I was a rebel, and would often walk 15 kilometres to Siliguri for meetings.”
She still lives in her ancestral village of Hatigisha, around 10 kilometres away from Naxalbari, a pristine region of rolling greens and tea gardens cradled by the Himalayas – in another world, this could be paradise. Till 2010, she shared a wall with one of the tallest ideologues of the movement, Kanu Sanyal, who hanged himself.
She has few possessions but has held on to a small photo of Charu Majumdar, the son of a wealthy landlord around whom the movement coalesced. Her friend and mentor, Jangal Santhal, is long dead, survived only by his penury-struck third wife who lives 10 minutes away.
Her mud-and-asbestos hutment has little furniture save for plastic chairs and beds, and stands as a testament to sluggish progress in the ground zero of India’s left revolution. “The exploitation over land still persists. The government has replaced the landlords.”
The freshly laid tar road in front of her house suddenly crumbles into a dirt track where a brood of chickens block the path of the rare car that passes. The region is still desperately poor as land holdings increasingly fragment and battles a crippling shortage of drinking water. So was it all in vain?
“We made a mistake in boycotting elections. We didn’t understand that the people would never boycott polls.” She fought assembly elections in 1982 and 1987. But it was too late. “China got its revolution but here, poor people cannot live anymore. Sometimes I feel I could die tomorrow.”
Her friend and comrade in many of the meetings and marches was Lila Majumdar, Charu’s wife who lived an hour’s drive away in the town of Siliguri, a hardscrabble town on the foothills of Darjeeling.
But for their son Abhijit, Lila wasn’t just Charu Majumdar’s wife, she was a freedom fighter in her own right. “My mother’s life was very difficult. Despite the hurdles, she never once blamed my father or the movement,” he says, sitting in their ancestral house. A big tree in one corner of a well-groomed garden is the last remnant of the feudal family that Charu was born in, and denunciated. On the far side is a wooden cottage where the family lived and where Charu wrote his famous eight documents that went on to become the ideological bedrock of the struggle.
Lila joined politics during the Bengal famine of 1943 went to jail five years later as hundreds of farmers were thrown in jail following the Tebhaga movement where peasants demanded that the share of the landlord be slashed from half to a third. When she came out, she plunged headlong into left politics but gave it up to earn for her family. She became an insurance agent, a job she held till she was 68.
“The police would often come home, and even they respected mother. She would calmly search them, count the bullets, and ask them to wait outside before informing Charu. ‘Where is Lila-di’ was a common call by party members,” Abhijit says. “She was like a mother eagle, she never let us feel the hardships, funded our education and protected us. We had some scarcities but our head was held high.”
Charu went underground in 1969. Abhijit remembers how her mother would slip out of office and undertake a labourious and furtive journey to see him, often changing several houses, vehicles and trains to fox the police trail. As bodies of policemen and civilians piled up in faraway Kolkata and the countryside, criticism of her husband’s “annihilation line” mounted. The first time she broke down, he says, is when news trickled in of his arrest in July, 1972. “Our neighbours pooled in money for a flight. It was our first time. I remember the jaundiced light in (Calcutta police headquarters) Lalbazar. Dad has shrunk. I noticed there was no oxygen cylinder despite his heart condition and angina.”
Twelve days later, he was dead of a massive heart attack. The funeral was shrouded in secrecy, no outsiders were allowed and paramilitary forces ringed the funeral pyre. “They didn’t let my mother take the body to Siliguri and forced Hindu rituals on us. My sister was temporarily paralysed for three months and had to learn how to walk again.” No one would let the family spent the night in Kolkata – the owner of a dingy hotel in cramped Sealdah took pity and let them stay. He was arrested the next day.
At the same time, Suniti Karmakar was working in the trenches of north Bengal on women and youth groups to keep together a fast-collapsing movement. But for her, the fight for women far preceded the Naxalbari movement. “We were already organising on questions of torture or molestation, and often walked miles through sludge to meet comrades. We would keep vigil during the day as the men slept. We saved many lives.”
Karmakar is now in her seventies and divides time between Delhi and Naxalbari, where she takes care of the octogenarian Khokhon Majumdar, who accompanied Charu and others to China to see Mao Tse Tung. The promised help from China never came.
Decades later, post-mortem is still on over why the revolution failed.
The question of gender and women is a vexed one for naxals and the movement battled charges of molestation in its last days. “My party had never considered seriously, far less taken any stand whatsoever, on women’s liberation,” former Naxal Krishna Bandyopadhyay lamented in 2001, blaming the focus on “short-term gains”. Others have blamed Charu’s aggressive line for the disintegration of the movement, or said the role of tribals and women was erased.
But despite that, for Munda, the gains haven’t faded away. “Had it not been for Naxals, the landlords would have still been here.”
Fifty years later, Naxalbari is getting restive again. A local youth was allegedly picked up last week by border security guards on what villagers suspect are trumped-up charges of drug-dealing. The villagers are in foment -- the next time a border security person enters the village, they vow to tie him up and thrash them. But they appear unsure and a mention of the scary consequences is enough to expose their desperation.
-No one is willing to listen to us babu.
- What about the local leaders? The Panchayat? The police?
-No one. We have no leader.
The Naxalbari uprising is history. Charu, Kanu and Jangal are all dead.And a new revolution is nowhere in sight.
(This is the first of a three-part series on 50 years of the Naxal uprising)
First Published: May 23, 2017 10:14 IST