Title: India after Naxalbari
Author: Bernard D’Mello
Publisher: Aakar Books
Price: Rs 995
This is an important book, not just because of its relevance to a challenging topic and set of concerns that sprawl across India and which continue to defy political solution. It is relevant not just because the focus of D’Mello’s work hits the headlines with regular intensity, with accounts of battles against the State (the latest is an incident in Dantewada in which a Doordarshan cameraman and three policemen were killed, and which was filmed by lighting assistant Mor Mukut Sharma) as well as coercive , oppressive measures by state governments and their agencies and the harm that befalls innocents caught between official power and the left-wing forces opposed to them.
It is important for the simple reason that there are few detailed accounts, nay, contemporary histories, which bring together ideological roots, pugnacious narratives and academic research which make no bones about where the author is coming from, or about his ideological persuasions and beliefs. One does not have to agree with D’Mello’s perspective to understand the deep distress and exploitation to which the Adivasi and other significant as well as smaller tribal groups and vulnerable populations have been subjected for many decades.
D’Mello sets this substantial book in a framework, informed by a strong Marxian review of the Indian economy. In the first part of India after Naxalbari, he cites Paul Baran’s The Political Economy of Growth, where he draws a comparison between “Japan’s independent capitalist development after 1868 and India’s dependent capitalist underdevelopment with native compradors as junior partners.” He shows the failure of the Congress Party after Independence to live up to its own proclaimed convictions of ending inequality because it was too afraid of offending landed interests, business, merchants and moneylenders, and though “anti-imperialist by background, it is courting favours from foreign capital.”
This ideological mooring resonates through the various phases of the book and is well articulated in a succinct Introduction that spans not just the Naxalbari movement’s structure but also draws upon D’Mello’s passionate espousal of the rights of ordinary people, especially the oppressed. He speaks without fear and with acute determination about the present as history — this principle and perspective has guided his writing.
It is his own words: “Revolution didn’t happen but it forced reform… I have put myself in their (revolutionaries’) shoes to feel their rage, fury, revulsion, moral indignation directed against the powers that be, their empathy and compassion toward the oppressed both in the face of the terror and the inhumanity of the counterrevolution.” The poor have risen, because the oppressed “have no choice” but to challenge the structured violence against them.
Weaving a narrative hewn out of Marxist logic, interspersed with the predictable and repetitive prose of that ilk, he takes a different path by weaving Naxalite poetry and folk songs into his story. He knows that the struggle is nowhere near won for the Maoist cadres and their units are but small guerrilla armies “operating on the margins of Indian society”. Ponderous at times, the author’s purple prose with reference to the fighting Naxalite units in India after Naxalbari is not much to get excited about.
Yet, D’Mello combines the searing honesty of his own feelings and ideas with the compelling stories of the lives, deaths, sexual abuse, trauma, poverty and torture that the fighters, their families and their friends faced. He does not hesitate to attack traditional Marxists who connived with capital to undermine the Maoists, and, eventually, produced a situation in West Bengal that resulted in the rise and rise of Mamata Banerjee. He says that Maoists today see the value of protecting those who suffered at their own hands and not just at the hands of state agencies. “Pray, how can anger and indignation, empathy and compassion, this in the face of terror and inhumanity, be considered out of place? Are not passion and rage the stuff that drives revolutionaries to make them what they are?” he asks.
D’Mello nuances the fighting as well as the infighting and betrayals in depth and enriches the book with extensive end notes, drawing on published and unpublished material as well as interviews. He writes graphically at times, drawing on large sources of material, whether it is of the various ambushes of paramilitary convoys, the life and brutal death of Kishenji in West Midnapore (one account says that “there is no part of the body where there is no injury”) or the factionalism within the CPIML-PW, or the manner in which the Salwa Judum functioned. This last episode is fast fading from public memory, although the harm it did to the poor tribal groups that the Judum claimed to represent has left a lasting mark.
The State’s traditional efforts to divide, absorb, buy out or intimidate groups opposed to it are well established; this ‘traditional’ process is well known both in the Northeast and other parts of the country which have seen prolonged conflicts.
While the chapters are filled with detail, reflecting the writer’s access to extensive material related to the Naxalite movement across the country, D’Mello acknowledges that the “Maoists are nowhere near winning over the majority of the oppressed and the exploited in rural India.” Yet, it is his belief that the growth of semi-fascist forces and the Hindutva agenda will trigger a rise in Dalit and OBC liberation.
This is a major contribution to help us understand the Naxalite movement and the literature around it, even though we may not agree with Mr D’Mello on a number of issues.