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23 May 2017

‘Exploitation over land persists, govt has replaced the landlords’

Shanti Munda
Dhrubo Jyoti and Pramod Giri 23 May 2017, NAXALBARI (WESTBENGAL) : Fifty years ago, a group of peasants and tribals rose in revolt against the oppression of landlords in the small north Bengal village of Naxalbari. Her frail frame hides her fiery past.Women who led uprising 50 years ago in the north Bengal town of Naxalbari lament a failed revolution and the continuing neglect of the region
At 74, Shanti Munda walks with a hunch and her coarse cotton saree clashes starkly with the trendy jeans and buzz cuts of her grandsons. But they hold their grandmother in awe.
Fifty years ago on May 24, Munda, then in her twenties, led an uprising for a poor sharecropper who asked for a larger share of the produce. With a 15-month-old baby strapped to her back, she fired the first of a volley of arrows that killed a policeman Sonam Wangdi, triggering a wave of violence that shaped a generation’s consciousness.
The uprising swept large parts of the country and those who took up arms came to be called Naxalites after north Bengal’s Naxalbari, a pristine region of rolling greens and tea gardens cradled by the Himalayas where the first spark was lit.
Mention the uprising and the effect is electric. “Where were the men? They were all in jail. We women patrolled the villages, undertook missions. We would often gherao the police, snatch their rifles and not let them enter our homes,” says Munda.
She still lives in her ancestral village of Hatigisha, around 10km from Naxalbari. Her mud-and-asbestos hutment stands as a testament to the decades of neglect in ground zero of India’s left revolution. “The exploitation over land still persists. The government has replaced the landlords.” The region remains desperately poor with fragmented land holdings and a crippling shortage of drinking water.
Her friend and comrade in many of the protest marches was Lila Majumdar, the wife of Charu Majumdar, the son of a wealthy landlord around whom the movement coalesced. They lived an hour’s drive away in Siliguri, a town on the foothills of Darjeeling.
For son Abhijit, Lila was a freedom fighter in her own right. “My mother’s life was very difficult. Despite the hurdles, she never once blamed my father or the movement,” he says, sitting in their ancestral house, the last remnant of a feudal family Charu was born in, and denunciated.
Charu went underground in 1969 and as the killings escalated in Calcutta and the countryside, criticism of Charu’s “annihilation line” mounted. He was arrested in July 1972. He died of a heart attack 12 days later. Police organised the funeral in secrecy, no outsiders were allowed and paramilitary forces ringed the funeral pyre. “They didn’t let my mother take the body to Siliguri and forced Hindu rituals on us,” says Abhijit. Another rebel of that time, Suniti Karmakar worked in the trenches of north Bengal to keep together a fastcollapsing movement. “We often walked miles through slush to meet comrades. We would keep vigil during the day as the men slept. We saved many lives.” Decades later, old-timers lament the failure of the revolution. Many blame the Naxalites’ campaign of ‘annihilation’ for it.
Fifty years later, Naxalbari is restive again. A local youth was allegedly picked up last week by border security guards on what villagers suspect are trumped-up charges of drug-dealing. The villagers are angry — the next time a border security person enters the village, they vow to thrash him. But they appear unsure and a mention of the scary consequences is enough to expose their desperation.
— No one is willing to listen to us, babu.

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