Shanti Munda, 72, is a disillusioned woman. Fifty years ago, Munda — a farmer in Hatighisa village of Naxalbari — participated in a movement that changed the vocabulary of political protests in India.
Today, she says while the narrative of oppression is the same, the language has changed. “Land sharks are making poor farmers believe that they need to sell their land to lead a better life. Some are being forced to sell and ending up as manual labourers in Siliguri, Kolkata, Mumbai and Kerala,” said Munda.
Pointing out to a row of concrete houses in the middle of a paddy field right across her hut, Munda claimed these houses are like a scar on the face of Hatighisa. “Uninformed farmers are showing off new money. They have sold their land… what will they do now?” she asked.
From the early 1960s, peasants and tea garden workers in the area had started showing their dissent against the oppressive jotedari system — a feudal land-holding and taxation policy that used to prevail in rural India. “From the crops we produced, almost 80 per cent was handed over to the jotedar or landowner. A share also went to feed jotedar’s elephants, his horses… what was left was not even enough to buy us food twice a day,” said Munda.
These peasants and tea garden workers went on to find leaders in educated Marxists like Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal. They started sit-in protests on farmland across the state. On May 24, 1967, a policeman was killed by an arrow shot by farmers. In retaliation, the police open fired at a crowd the next day, killing 11 people, including eight women and two infants. “That is history now. We struggled and got people back their land. But to what avail?” asked Munda, who is still an active member of the state committee of Communist Organisation of India (Marxist-Leninist).
Right next to Shanti’s thatched hut is legendary Naxal leader Kanu Sanyal’s humble residence — who was found hanging — doubling up as the party office. Shukra Munda, 75, has taken the responsibility of guarding the office, which only has a portrait of Sanyal hanging from the wall.
This is where the 80-year-old Sanyal had committed suicide on March 23, 2010.
“Maybe he was disillusioned with what he saw,” said Shukra, who himself had a narrow escape on May 25.
“We had struggled for years to save this land. We are farmers and peasants and depend on our land. But today, our children are manual labourers in cities. My son, who works as a carpenter in Siliguri, brings home some money on some days… on other days, we go to sleep hungry,” added Sukra, who sold his land to a local property dealer about five years ago.
The whole Naxalbari belt is now in throes of an unlikely property boom. In the past decade, settlers from Manipur, Assam and Nagaland have started buying plots in Naxalbari belt because Siliguri town, which is just 25 km away, is saturated.
Sitting in his humble two-bedroom residence — bang in the middle of the bustling Naxalbari Market area — Nathuram Biswas, a leader of CPI(ML) Janashakti, a splinter group of the erstwhile CPI(ML), explained the complexity of the situation. “This area has always been an area of settlers. Primarily, it has the Rajbanshis and adivasis from Jharkhand. But over the years, Nepalis, Bengalis and Marwaris have also settled here because of its proximity to Nepal. Till very recently, it was known as the smuggling hub of the area. But now there has been a systematic clamping up of smuggling by authorities because of media attention.”
“These days, promoters have started eyeing the area to build multi-storied houses for settlers from north-eastern states, who want to settle here because of the unrest in their home states,” he added.
They use arm-twisting tactics to convince poor farmers into selling their land, claimed Biswas. “They first target the youth, telling them about the easy money they will make and turn them into agents. These youths are then given the task of convincing other farmers,” he said.
A local property broker claimed land prices in the area have gone up by almost 60 per cent. “We make about two to three deals every month,” he added.
Khokan Majumdar, prominent leader of CPI-ML Janashakti, said the situation is grim. “Most politicians are involved… I remember I had brought this family from a border town and given them land here in the 1970s. Today, the guy is a prominent leader of a rival party. His son is a property dealer,” he added.
Congress’ Sankar Malakar, the sitting MLA of Matigara-Naxalabari constituency,
said the Trinamool government has encouraged covert land grabbing.
“Ever since Trinamool came to power, agricultural land, not only in Naxalbari, but the whole state, is being usurped by land sharks. We tried to stop this but they keep luring unsuspecting farmers with the promise of quick money,” said Malakar.