Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The First Naxal: Initial Impressions of Kanu Sanyal's Authorized Biography and a First-Person Look inside the Naxalite Revolution

It seldom happens that the story of an individual becomes so intertwined with the cause she or he stands for, that it becomes impossible to separate one from the other. Kanu Sanyal's is one such rare story. To read it is to relive the history of the Naxalite Movement (since 1965), which the Indian establishment calls "the country's biggest internal security threat", even as its poorest and fringe-marginalized desperately hang on to the same movement as their last resort.

This book narrates the making of Kanu Sanyal right from his childhood to the days of the Naxalbari Uprising (in the mid-'60s), and then traces the historical development well beyond the confines of the tumultous '60s right down to India's great foray into neoliberalism in the 1990s. Supposedly, the last great decade. It delves deep into Sanyal's evolution as a Marxist-materialist (as opposed to Bolshevik Communist) rebel and throws light on the various stages of the Naxalite Movement, starting with the Naxalbari Uprising, with relevant background information, and then continues on to trace the effects of the uprising, and the reactions to it, on the current political environment in India's untold reality. 

In short, much more than a historical retelling The First Naxal is also a brutally honest indictment of the heady subcontinental flavor of neoliberalism, aka 'India Shining', that gripped the Indian economy in the early 90s like yellow fever, leading the "sovereign socialist secular democratic" State down a path where like a thirsty vampire it sucked out the nation's core resources (its rivers, forests, mountains, and the people who depended on these natural resources) and like a sick street-dog vomited it out in its many glittering malls and supermarkets -- 'India Shining', in tinfoil wrapped American-conceived, Chinese-sweatshop executed, mass-manufactured trinkets, made out of the very flesh of an ancient land, and soaked in the blood and dreams of its poorest and disenfranchised. Unlike most works on sociopolitical commentary, however, this book does the public service of explaining the present in its proper historical context. 

The Poet once wrote,

                                                "Each slow turn of the world carries such disinherited,
                                                   To whom neither the past nor the future belong."

This book details a brave and unapologetic uprising of those disinherited who, devoid of a past and denied any future, plunged headfirst into an armed revolution against an unforgiving State Machinery in a desperate attempt to stop the civilized, moderate middle-class from stealing the last crumbs of bread off of their banana-leaves plates. And the merciless repression they faced in the form of the ire and anger of the patriarchal Indian State, and the apathy and indifference of a 'shining' moderate, liberal middle class that is so comfortable in its negative peace of "no noise" that it didn't think to blink even once as an entire race of people were, and still are, slowly being pushed to the brink of extinction. Kanu Sanyal's is a story not just of a forgotten (albeit very much alive) people's revolution, but also of the genocidal nature of a Brahminical State steeped in caste-ist bigotry and a sense of entitlement to privilege. 

Just as much it is a story of an apathetic, blissfully ignorant, media-addicted, consumption-driven, shine-fascinated middle-class that seems more and more comfortable with the idea of the aforementioned State Patriarch, so long as the State acts as the vanguard of their distorted morality. Keep the poptarts flowing into their LG microwaves, and they will happily ignore mass genocide while they Boldly watch the Beautiful on a 43 inch plasma screen television mounted on their bottle-green painted Parisian-plastered wall -- the proud sons and daughters of Friedman's loopy Free Market. Other than poptarts, microwaves and plasma screens, the story of the middle class, however, has remained the same even as the decades have rolled by. From the 60s, through the 70s and right down to the 90s, The First Naxal and the first naxal tells us of our own sad origins. We The People.

As one reads through the pages of this book -- rather ordinary use of the English language to effectively paint in words one of the most extraordinary times in recent history -- it is not hard to understand the circumstances that made a former school teacher (mastermosai, in vernacular) in one of the more rural areas of West Bengal reach the conclusion that "eliminating individual class enemies -- police officers, university teachers, bankers, and politicians from both the left and right -- in open daylight, for all the moneyed class to see" is the only way to perfect social justice. Nor is it difficult to sympathize with the urban Naxalites -- an entire generation of mostly upper-middle class, higher educated, urban youth, who dropped out of India's most elite colleges and universities, denounced paternal inheritance, and picking up arms brought to life one of the bloodiest decades in Indian history, nearly wiping out the bourgeoisie in Bengal. And just as easy is to shiver at the sheer violence with which the Indian State reacted towards its own children -- and children they really were, most naxalites. The average age of these "internal terrorists" -- in dealing with whom Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, declared "democratic niceties have no place in civil war" (Maggie Thatcher must have been proud of her former Trinity bestie), and under whose expert orders Siddhartha Sankar Roy, then Chief Minister of Bengal, unleashed the most brutal form of "torture and execute" operation in West Bengal -- was eighteen.

One wonders, reading the story of Bimal, a twenty-one year old student from Jadavpur, who was hung upside down and had a hot iron inserted in his rectum at the express order of Somen Mitra, the anti-Naxal spearhead of the Congress party in Bengal -- routine interrogation during the Naxal days in Bengal -- how many Bimals were tortured and executed by the State from 1967 to 1975? How many enemies of class war did the Bimals of the day execute? The numbers are lost somewhere between government lies and rebel re-tellings, leaving behind shattered families and a forlorn dream. And Sita Mashi (Aunt Sita) who, ninety seven years old now, still sits on her khatiya (a sort of hammock-like bed made out of wood and ropes) and tells anyone who would listen where she used to boil rice for her son, Anish, and where the police took him to be shot, behind a public urinal, and how he touched her feet before he was dragged away.

But who has time to listen? Out in the streets of Calcutta, oops Kolkata (the State wants to rewrite its colonial past, and recolonize the land on its own now), busy teenagers cross the roads absorbed in their iThings, and the malls fill up daily with boys and girls still in school uniforms. Bimal and Anish's dream, however, lives on in India's Red Corridor, where the State sponsored genocide also still continues. An endless cycle of violence; the Naxals kill cops, the cops wipe out tribal villages, the villagers blame the naxals, the naxals kill some villagers, and in Jadavpur University Paul Krugman recently gave a lecture on the Efficient Market Hypotheses. Adam Smith must be rolling around in his grave, even as the Ghost of Marx looks on in dismay, as Sita Mashi sits on her khatiya, slowly swaying back and forth, and keeps retelling old stories of Anish coming home from school, how old he would be now, and how she would rock her grandchildren on her knees if Anish was alive and married. She has never heard of Kanu Sanyal. But she remembers Anish, in his last days, used to say Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live the Revolution), and shows an old black-n-white photograph of Malcolm X to the reporters who show up once in a while, and wonders out aloud if it's a picture of  one of Anish's classmate. "He was very fond of the picture", she says.

                                     Amar chele-ta je   kothay gelo?
                                     my       son  def.art  where go
                                   Where did he run away, my son?

What is significant about this book, other than the deeply touching stories of people whose lives were forever changed by the Naxalbari Uprising, is that this is the only authorized biography of Kanu Sanyal in any language - he personally read and cleared all its chapters but the last one, which deals with his aberrant demise. On March 23, 2010, The First Naxal hung himself in his home in Seftullajote village. They say his body was broken from the three years of police torture he endured in the '70s, he suffered from a painful heart condition and was disillusioned at the murder of innocent villagers by some naxals in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh recently.

One wonders, what would Sita Mashi say, if she ever met this man who so moved her son to take up arms and sacrifice his life for a just cause (even if one debates the just-ness of his methods)? Or heard of his demise? And what ghosts haunted Kanu Sanyal in his last days? Was he wrong in calling for a revolution? He did express remorse, in his later years, for having fueled an armed rebellion without laying enough ground work. But was an entire generation wrong to dream of a fairer future? Did they have to be slaughtered like animals? (Perhaps, as Noam Chomsky would say, For Reasons of State.) Is there a cure for the neoliberal onslaught that even today threatens India's, and the world's, poorest?

The State seems determined to push the justice-minded into another Naxalbari Uprising, and the State itself is now more powerful, more fearsome in its oppressive abilities, than it has ever been. Must the roots of Progress and Development be watered with our blood? Is this the nature of Imperial Democracy -- buy one, get one free? Can we sit still, as our mountains, rivers, forests and our flesh and blood, our friends, brothers, sisters and lovers, and all of their cumulative hopes and dreams are put up for sale by the highest bidder in the Free Market? Are we to let charlatans like Steven Pinker tell us that The Better Angels of Our Nature  have come forth, that violence is on the decline in the best of ages in human history, even as we sink deeper in debt for wanting education and neoliberalism claims our very souls for its war-machine, and the State claims sole monopoly on violent methods? Are we to let Christopher Hitchens tell us to obey the Good Capitalists as they create minimum wage jobs for our children? Are we to let Sam Harris convince us that Arab commandos are terrorists, and Israeli terrorists are commandos? Is it only terrorism when it's done to them, and is it counter-terrorism when they do it to us? Are we to sit on the sidelines of history and watch our lives and future being bottled-up by Nestle, shrink-wrapped and sold in Walmart, and still not answer the call of Kanu Sanyal? 

The author Arundhati Roy once wrote:

"The irony has never really left me -- the government's genocide in India's Red Corridor is carried out in the name of Progress and Development, and the Turkish Government's special wing that carried out the Armenian Genocide was called The Committee for Progress and Development. Who is progressing? Whose development? I can never tell."

 Neither can I. Neither could Kanu Sanyal. Nor Anish, nor Bimal. Certainly not Sita Mashi. Perhaps that's what led an eminent Bengali poet to write:

                              aamar bari,  tomar  bari
                               my     home  your  home
                             sobar       bari       Naxalbari
                           everyone's home     naxalbari

We have a choice to make, I think. Kanu Sanyal, and the history of Naxalbari and the Naxals, teaches us a very important historical lesson.We can obey the State and Make America (or India, or Pakistan, or <insert name here>) Great Again. Or we can try to Make Israel Palestine Again. We can Make Kashmir Independent Again. We can Make Nagaland Naga Again. We can choose to live on our knees, or die on our feet. It is a hefty choice, to be sure, not to be made in a fit of emotional turbulence. But it is a choice, nonetheless. They made theirs -- Kanu Sanyal, Malcolm X, Bimal and Anish. Right or wrong, unlike Nixon's non-existent Silent Majority they made a loud and clear choice, they were the Vocal Minority. We must make ours.

Inquilab Zindabad

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