When an Uprising Challenges the Dominant Narrative- The Saga of Naxalbari

A popular adage claims that the history of the world would have taken a different discourse had it been penned down by women, tribals, blacks and the colonised. Over a period of time after plethora of initiatives and struggle by various academicians, activists and the interested section of the society, there has been a substantial space created, though inviting ire of the majority, to share the voice of the unknown and their version of the narratives. The contributions of Feminist movements, Subalternism, Black history, Oral narratives have gone a long way in highlighting what previously remained hidden under the dominant narratives conveniently created by the majority all over the world.

India is not far behind in establishing such dominant narratives over the course of the entire post-independence period. No political party, in this respect, can claim to be on a high moral ground when it comes to articulating narratives that conveniently suits the agenda of their polity. Although things have improved, but much remains to be done in terms of emphasising narratives and stories from people at various levels to draw a picture which is not only complete but also honest.

Naxalbari stands testimony to a side of the story which involves the landless and the poor and their struggle for life and dignity. When 2017 marks the 70th anniversary of Indian Independence, we have to keep reminding ourselves that it is also the 50th year of the rise of the events at Naxalbari (May 1967), a conspicuous village in the district of Siliguri, West Bengal which suddenly rose to fame and caught attention of the popular imagination. Although there exists a qualitative chasm between the struggle at Naxalbari and the kind of fighting going on in the central parts of India in the name of Left Wing Extremism today. However, one cannot deny the fact that it is this struggle which facilitated the interest of the people towards a subject which had hardly ever been imagined to be so grave and unfortunate. The protagonists of the subject are the landless, tribals, lower caste and all those whose Constitutional rights have been persistently denied by the privileged few with the sole objective of preventing sharing of resources and the status quo lest it blocks the elites from remaining in power, as described by Vilfredo Pareto in his Circulation of Elites theory. Every time a society suffers from collective moral degradation and convenient amnesia – events like Naxalbari happens to remind us of the predicament of those unknown actors whose individual voices have been crushed and whose collective voices become difficult to ignore. And therefore, Naxalbari cannot be denied its rightful place in the history in terms of its contribution to bringing the hidden stories of the landless- their plight, their relentless torture at the hands of the landlords, lack of basic amenities, anecdotes of their lost dreams and the hope of a better future- to the forefront. The very fact that we are still writing about them speaks volume of the significance of this uprising.

What followed thereafter is a wave of critical thinking (not theoretically speaking) and the courage to question the system that has let a vast section of the society down after the much promised independence. There has been a lot of academic debate on the strategy adopted by Charu Majumder specially on the ‘annihilation of the class enemies’ which eventually failed to sustain for long due to the absence of simultaneous awakening of political consciousness. The questions came from within the foot soldiers of the movement, which has been beautifully picturised in Mrinal Sen’s film Padatik, the Guerrilla fighter wherein the tussle between structure of the political ideology and agency of the individual makes the protagonist question the very basics of the struggle.

Having said that, the spontaneous call inspired thousands of young blood to sacrifice their individual future for a collective better. It might be difficult to remember the Cossipore-Baranagar massacre in 1971 which reeks of the strategy adopted at Jallianwala Bagh to tackle the questioning populace. It is also difficult to find evidence of operation Steeplechase planned by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in West Bengal to use army and police simultaneously in 1971 to stop the uprising once and for all. People might hardly remember the solidarity of those who risked their lives to pay homage to their leader Charu Majumder when he was being taken for his last rites after he died in police custody in 1972. But one may safely proclaim that those five years, 1967-1972 (till the death of Charu Majumder), helped in raising the collective consciousness of a population who had become complacent of their status quo and had been basking in the glory of a freedom struggle established as a dominant narrative.

Suparna Banerje, Doctoral student, Centre for Development Research, University of Bonn, Germany. Email: [email protected]


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