Whose side are you on? In the time of Naxalbari and Srikakulam do you want to just blabber on about existentialism and anarchism? The street beckons you, people are calling, listen to the urge of history.
At that time, Gaddar, who later became the most popular revolutionary bard in India, was an engineering student in Warangal. It was also a time when the beggar and the prostitute were invited to release books in bus stands and cremation grounds. The smouldering anger among young people against the establishment had flared up. It raged in every language, taking the form of songs, poetry, theatre, fiction, as cultural polemics, street trials.
I too was a part of the cultural upheaval of the period that came to be called the Seventies. This is how I joined the Movement. I had come to Wayanad, Kerala, to work as a teacher in a primary school. It was soon after the police had shot A Varghese, known as Adiyorude Peruman (the Lord of the Adivasis), in a fake encounter. We, a few friends, are at a bus stand in a small town, discussing a poem that had just been published. A stranger joins our conversation. He then accompanies me to where I stay. In his shoulder bag, he has cyclostyled copies of Red literature printed on a stone press — Red Flag Over Red Fort, Make the Decade the Decade of Liberation, To Rebel is Justified…
A middle-class young man, who had started to dabble in theatre and had an interest in modernist and existentialist literature, becomes a Naxalite. Later, after imprisonment during the Emergency, he reappears in the cultural mainstream with a collection of prison poetry.
This is the story of hundreds of young men of my generation. We first engaged with Red literature, before reaching out to oppressed on the streets to learn politics.
The Seventies were not just about Naxalbari. It was a time when American campuses called out “Not Guns But Flowers” to soldiers leaving for the war in Vietnam. There was revolution in the Parisian Spring; Sartre was selling banned publications standing atop barrels. Liberation theology was gaining ground in Latin America. The Black Panthers were on the prowl. It was a time when Castro and Che rested guns under the nose of Uncle Sam, and Vietnam was forcing America to fall on its knees. A time when the global youth roared “Vive la Vietnam”, and chanted “Free Free Mandela”. A time when we all truly believed that the world will be liberated, and now. Which young man with his heart on the left side would not have become a Naxalite?
At least one young man aged between 14 and 25 was “missing” from Calcutta homes. Mahasweta Devi spoke of that time: Why is it that we can’t understand our children? Why is it that we mothers fail to spot the dreams they are chasing with hearts in their hands? Filmmaker John Abraham marked the failure of Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi, the radical cultural resistance the angry generation of the Seventies mounted in Kerala, with Amma Ariyan: “Amme? Too many sacrifices, mother. Sacrifices of dreams, lunacy, intoxication, loneliness, isolation, mother!… Of tears, sweat, blood…”
These hundreds of young men did not join the Naxalite movement after any intense political education. The men who raised the Red Star over the Winter Palace in St Petersburg had not done so after reading the Communist Manifesto. Did those who take part in the Long March have the Das Kapital under their armpits? It was so in our times too. Let Gaddar himself speak. At the start of the ’80s, I interviewed Gaddar in Madras for Distant Thunder, a magazine I was to edit. “I am sure you will edit out what I say now,” he said. “Still let me. An artist may not engage with a political movement primarily for political reasons. He may be doing so because he identifies spiritually with the Movement. It is true at least in my case. My relationship with the Maoists is spiritual,” he concluded.
Gaddar is back in news. It seems the balladeer who led thousands to martyr columns and aroused hundreds and thousands with his songs is on a spiritual quest! Others will not understand his journey, a quest he has undertaken without forsaking the revolution or wearing saffron robes.
It may not be Gaddar’s fault that the intellectual who quotes Gramsci to discuss the new spirituality revolution would usher, does not understand him. We needn’t fear that Gaddar would defeat us. No cage can tame a lion which carries a jungle within. Rather than Gaddar worry about the Maoists, the Movement ought to worry about Gaddars. Why have creative people, one after another, left it? The Maoists ought to put themselves — not Gaddar — on the dock. Fifty years after Naxalbari, it is the Movement and the ideology that is on trial. Is the revolutionary movement capable of engaging with an India, a fast globalising world that is swinging to the Right? Unless the Maoists rethink their positions on a host of issues, including the idea of State, violence, individual, class, gender-caste identities, morality, the Movement can’t go forward.
Postscript: When we arrived in prison, Comrade Madhavettan, a Naxalite of a previous phase, was waiting: Why are revolutionaries called Naxalites? he asked. Because they started out from Naxalbari, a village in Bengal, we said. What if the revolution had begun from Chokli, a village in Kerala? Ha, ha. We would have called our revolutionaries Chocolates!
(Translated from Malayalam by Amrith Lal)