51 years ago revolutionaries in India joined with peasants in an armed revolt against landlords and the larger social system in the country. Today this revolt, after many twists and turns, has grown into a country-wide revolutionary movement. At present the Indian government has deployed over 300,000 troops in the jungles of Central India. The area in a state of civil war. In the midsts of this war, revolutionaries are working to build a new India, one free from oppression and exploitation.
Tens of thousands gathered in the jungles of central India to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Naxalbari Revolt.
In 1967, in the village of Naxalbari, in the state of West Bengal, a militant struggle took root among the peasantry. They demanded land to the tiller, an end to onerous taxation and crushing debt, and they refused to back down from their demands, even when the state unleashed a brutal reign of terror upon the people. This struggle, although it was ultimately defeated, blazed a new path forward for the revolutionary movement in India, so much so that those who continue the struggle today are often called “Naxalites.” Naxalbari was not the first militant peasant struggle to erupt over land and demands for an end to onerous feudal exploitation, but it was the first struggle to connect the basic demands of the peasantry with a need for the seizure of political power. It demonstrated the possibility of creating zones of people’s political power in the countryside, where the armed peasantry would rule and exercise it’s will over the landlords, moneylenders, and thugs. Naxalbari itself kicked off a wave of militant peasant struggles throughout the country, and it inspired the revolutionary movement which continues to this day.
Background to the Struggle
The struggle in Naxalbari broke out during a period of intense revolutionary struggle internationally and deep domestic problems in India. In China, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution had just recently been launched by Mao and others, and students, workers, peasants, and young people all over China were rebelling against unjust authorities and creating new revolutionary ways to organize their schools and workplaces. This also launched a new wave of support in China for revolutionary movements around the world. Mao and others issued statements in support of the Black liberation struggle in the U.S., the struggle in Palestine, and many other revolutionary movements around the world. They also coordinated material support for many People’s struggles, including by supplying arms and training. The Chinese revolutionaries also worked to propagate some of the basic lessons they had learned in their revolutionary war of independence, and in the 20 years of revolutionary struggle since they liberated China. The lessons from the Chinese revolution would prove to be crucial for the Naxalite movement, and Chinese revolutionaries were also able to offer support at key moments.
During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China millions of students got involved in the political struggle to keep China on the socialist road and prevent the restoration of capitalism.
In India, the Congress party, which in West Bengal had ruled since the partition and “independence” of India in 1947, was facing new challenges to its legitimacy. Congress was initially set up under British rule to serve as a dead-end for the Indian independence struggle. The party was more than happy to cooperate with the British to ensure that India’s independence would only be a sham independence, instead of the complete break with the British which was necessary. India officially became an independent country, but all laws were carried over from the existing British administration, and the property of British capitalists was protected above all else. In the years after 1947, the year when India became independent, British capital investments in India actually increased every year. British capitalists continued to invest in factories, mines, shipping infrastructure, and more. This let them take advantage of the poverty and lack of development in India, where they could pay lower wages than in Britain. The profits they generated were owned by the British capitalists, and they left India constantly, a blatant continuation of the same parasitic relationship the British had with India before independence.
To pull off a sham independence like this, after the Indian people had been demanding independence for decades, the Congress party had to work constantly to deceive the people. For a time they were able to hold things together and maintain their rule by force and coercion. But by the late 60’s India’s impoverishment had deepened, and for the broad masses of people the situation was either the same or worse than it had been before “independence.” The situation for the peasantry, in particular, was desperate. They faced brutal feudal exploitation by feudal landlords in the countryside, and also were being displaced by land-grabs for big capitalist projects throughout the country.
The corporate plunder of India has left many peasants landless and hopeless. Some would rather die than become beggars in the city.
The Indian government had repeatedly promised to eliminate feudalism and carry out land reform to distribute land to the impoverished peasantry, but all of the state’s laws and efforts were little more than halfhearted gestures which brought about almost no change in the situation for the peasantry and the poor. The land-ceiling acts, passed in each state in the wake of Partition, totally outlawed the collection of feudal rent from the peasantry, and established a maximum amount of land that could be legally owned by a single person. Land held by landlords above the limit was supposed to be redistributed to the peasantry free of change. If this law had actually been applied it would have resulted in a massive redistribution of land, and many thousands of square miles of land would have been seized from big landlords. But this law didn’t end up redistributing almost any land, because landlords were able to dodge the law, keep their land, and maintain their dominance over the peasantry. In many areas the landlords simply split up their holdings and distributed them to their close relatives, so that although the legal owner of the land was different the landlord retained effective control. In other areas they bribed the officials, and in some areas the law was simply never enforced. The exploitation of the peasantry was becoming intolerable, and in many areas the number of peasants who had no land or not enough to support themselves was increasing.
Big capitalists also benefited from the poverty in the countryside. The poor and landless rural population were often left with no means to support themselves. They were so desperate for any way to survive that they would work for almost any wages. This large popu-lation of unemployed people started to make their way to India’s growing cities, providing a large labor pool that the capitalists could draw on. The existence of a large mass of unemployed people also provided a way for the capitalists to keep wages low, by constantly threatening to replace the workers they currently employed with the unemployed masses outside the factory gate.
Additionally, the majority of the profits made by big capital firms in India at the time were destined to leave the country, because the firms in question were either owned directly by British and American capitalists or they were indirectly controlled by them. Although a few loyal toadies of the foreign capitalists, such as the Tata family, were allowed to become very wealthy, this system of capitalist imperialist exploitation resulted in a growing impoverishment of India as a whole. The peasantry, who are the very bottom-most class in India, were hit particularly hard.
The combination of feudal exploitation and imperialist domination was hitting the peasantry very hard, and their situation was becoming more and more desperate. The promises that the Congress Party had been making since Partition, to redistribute land, support basic welfare for the peasantry, and work to increase their standard of living, were exposed more and more as the lies they were.
CPI (Marxist) leader Jyoti Basu being arrested for a protest in 1966. He would become Chief Minister of West Bengal after the 1967 elections.
Jyoti Basu meeting with Indian billionaire capitalist Ratan Tata a few years later. After betraying the people’s movement Jyoti and CPI (Marxist) became very popular with Indian capitalists and foreign imperialists.
The masses of peasants and workers were growing more and more disillusioned with the Congress Party’s leadership of the country, and many saw the need for a different path forward. In 1967, in the Indian state of West Bengal, a new coalition government was elected called the United Front. This was the first non-Congress Party government elected in West Bengal since Partition. It was a coalition between several electoral leftist parties, including the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), which played a leading role in the coalition. This new coalition government promised to enact the land reform which had been promised over and over again to the peasantry but never actually carried out. These promises took advantage of the mass outrage against the corrupt Congress Party, and the new coalition sailed to electoral victory on the strength of the people’s anger over their conditions and the inaction of the government.
West Bengal was, at the time, ruled by an alliance between rural feudal forces, big landlords, and comprador capitalists. All of these groups totally opposed land reform, the landlords because they made their living off the labor of the poor and impoverished peasants, and the big capitalists because having massive numbers of unemployed landless peasants in the countryside kept them supplied with a ready pool of cheap labor for their factories and mines. To really address the land question, and distribute excess land to the peasantry in order to guarantee a basic standard of living, the CPI(M) and the United Front government needed to be prepared to challenge these classes.
The feudal forces wielded especially immense power in the countryside, through networks of loyalty and patronage, and the rural police forces—although technically employed by the state government—often in fact played the role of a feudal enforcer for the rule of the landlords. The simple fact is that the CPI(M) leadership, while they were fine with promising land reform to the peasantry in order to get elected, was not even remotely prepared for or interested in really challenging the rule of these feudal and comprador capitalist elements in West Bengal.
The position of the CPI(M) leadership, however, was not shared by all of the members. Many in the CPI(M), especially in local organizing committees, genuinely supported the peasant struggles, and wanted to use the electoral power to support rural peasant struggles in whatever way possible. But the party leadership ended up siding with the landlords and big capitalists against the poor and oppressed people of West Bengal. They prioritized their reelection and their control of the state government over the people, and the party’s promises of land reform turned out to be no more trustworthy than those of the Congress party. When the peasants got organized, rose up against feudal exploitation and oppression, the CPI(M) failed to do anything significant to prevent the police from attacking the peasants. Those who disagreed with this path ended up leaving to form a new party, dedicated to the rural armed struggle and forged in the fires of militant peasant struggles all over India.
Charu Mazumdar was one of the leaders of the Naxalbari movement and key figure in charting a way forward for the revolution in India.
The Struggle in Naxalbari and Beyond
Just as the United Front government, with all of it’s promises of land reform, was taking power in West Bengal, a militant movement, led by local members of CPI(M), was taking off in the countryside. Across the Darjeeling area, a strip of territory bordered by Nepal to the West and Bangladesh to the East, peasant committees and armed self-defense groups were formed. Instead of waiting for the government to agree to carry out land reform the peasants and the militant CPI(M) members who joined them saw that they needed to be ready to take matters into their own hands. The government, dominated by landlords, was never going to agree to carry out land reform, so the peasants had to arm themselves, seize excess land and crops from the landlords, and redistribute it to the poor and landless peasants.
These actions, however, would not go unnoticed or unanswered by the landlords. They would use all means at their disposal to strike back at the rising tide of the peasant masses.
In many places the police were under the effective control of the landlords, and the landlords often had hired goons who would beat up or murder peasants who got out of line. The peasants needed a way to deal with the terror that the landlords would reign down upon them if they dared to lift their heads and struggle for an end to their brutal exploitation.
This question forced the leadership of the rural movement to broaden the scope of the struggle. It was not enough to just consider the question of how to redistribute land, and how to rouse the peasant masses to strike back after years of injustice by the landlords. They had to also have a plan for how to defend themselves over the long term, and to guarantee that the white terror of the landlords wouldn’t simply destroy and undo any land redistribution that they carried out.
Simply put, the leaders of the movement had to consider the question of political power. They had to create a form of people’s political power in the countryside which could effectively defend territory that it controlled from attacks by the forces of the landlords and the big capitalists. This area could also provide a base from which to launch actions elsewhere and spread the movement to new areas. This had to be built by seizing power in specific areas by annihilating or chasing out the landlord and other feudal forces. After seizing power, they had to defend the area against attacks by the reactionary forces, work to spread the struggle to other areas, and work to address the issues facing the peasantry in the areas already under control.
The success of the Chinese revolution was built on the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to mobilize the peasants in revolutionary struggle. In India, revolutionaries are following a similar path.
For carrying out all of these tasks it is essential to have the widest possible involvement of the masses in the struggle. The success of this program of area-wide seizure of power is entirely dependent on the level of support by the people. If the people do not support the struggle, the movement will flounder and waste away. But if the people support the movement and participate in it actively, the areas under control will see the development of new revolutionary forms of organization, peasants will be inspired to join the armed groups to defend their People’s government, and the revolutionary movement will be able to spread to other areas. The fundamentals of this revolutionary strategy were first developed during the Chinese Revolution by Mao and others. After a long, difficult struggle, the Chinese revolutionaries were eventually able to seize power across the whole country.
In a country like India, where the vast majority of the population is rural, it is possible to seize political power in the countryside because the state forces are relatively weak there. Even so, at first a newly-formed People’s government cannot repel a head-on assault by the police or the army. It must rely for a long time on tactics of guerilla warfare such as ambushes, and can only occasionally concentrate forces for an attack on the police forces. This means that in practice the areas of political power do not have hard borders, like a nation-state does, but are instead somewhat por-ous. The police and army forces are allowed to penetrate deep into the territory, before they are surrounded and over-whelmed when and where it is advantageous for the revolutionaries.
Before the events in Naxalbari in 1967, a section of the CPI(M) started to develop a political program of arm-ing the peasantry, carry-ing out land reform, and area-wide seizure of power. They looked to the revolutionary war of liberation in China for inspiration. A central figure in this group was Charu Mazumdar, a revolutionary leader from West Bengal who published several key articles calling for a break with electoral strategies and urging a strategy of rural revolution. Just after the election of the United Front government, a conference was held at Siliguri, a city located in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, on March 18, 1967.
The conference was called by the CPI(M) Siliguri district committee, and it brought together militant peasant activists from across the district. The conference, attended by Charu Mazumdar and other revolutionaries in the CPI(M), resolved to form peasants’ committees to seize and redistribute land from landlords, and to arm the peasants to enforce their demands and defend themselves from the retaliation of the landlords and police. This conference marked a decision to set off on a new revolutionary road, one that promised difficult struggle and sacrifice, but also one that represented the only real path forward for the liberation of the mostly rural population of India.
Shanti Munda, one of the few participants of the Naxalbari uprising still living today, explains the political reasons behind the rebellion.
Following the Siliguri conference, during March and April 1967, Peasants’ Committees and armed self-defense groups were formed in all the villages of the the whole Darjeeling area. Around twenty thousand peasants got involved, and they started to carry out the program they had decided on at the conference. They canceled outstanding debts, occupied the landlords’ lands, burnt land records, and executed particularly brutal and oppressive landlords. They also set up an administration to manage things in their villages, an initial form of People’s Power. These actions represented a huge step forward for the revolutionary movement in India. The initial resistance of the exploiters, the landlords and their goons, was broken by the militant action of the peasantry, and some of the most hated and extreme forms of oppression were attacked head-on. The peasantry’s demands for land were satisfied by redistributing land seized from the landlord, and the Peasants’ organizations and committees set up throughout the area provided ways for the peasants to start to exercise democratic control over their villages and their lives. However, these actions drew the attention of both the police and the leadership of the CPI(M), who both tried to shut down the struggle, albeit in different ways.
As soon as the CPI(M) leadership in the capital of Calcutta got wind of what was going on in the Naxalbari area they tried to convince the local leaders of the movement to break off the struggle and surrender to the police. The leadership of the party, although they had claimed to support land redistribution in order to get elected, were in fact only willing to support land redistribution done by the government. They opposed the peasants to taking matters into their own hands. Because the government land redis-tribution programs had accomplished basically nothing since the independence of India in 1947, a militant peasant movement was the only way the demand for land was going to be addressed. So for the CPI(M) leadership to say that the peasants were “going too far” amounted to a total betrayal of the peasantry and of their struggle. The leadership of the CPI(M), as part of the United Front government, enjoyed positions of power and prestige. Faced with the reality that supporting the peasants’ brave struggle in the countryside would cost many of them their political careers and comfortable positions, they chose to turn their backs on the masses and act out of their own self-interest. When they did this they sided with the reactionary feudal and capitalist ruling classes of West Bengal and betrayed the people.
After this betrayal by the CPI(M) leadership, the local leaders in Naxalbari did not give up the struggle and surrender, but instead became more resolute in their decision and condemned the actions of the leadership. Many others in the party supported the Naxalbari movement and detested the spineless actions of the leadership. An organization called the Naxalbari Peasant Struggle Aid Committee was formed in Calcutta by dissident members of CPI(M). The decisions by the leadership were discussed and debated at all levels, and many in the CPI(M) began to think that they needed to leave and form a new, truly revolutionary organization to carry forward the struggle.
Members of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) at the 2004 founding of CPI (Maoist).
There was even international criticism of the CPI(M) leadership, when Chinese radio broadcasts called the CPI(M) and the United Front government a “tool of the Indian reactionaries to deceive the people.” This be-trayal by the leadership reached its full extent in June, 1967, when the leadership failed to oppose or prevent a massacre of nine pea-sants by the police at the end of May. This police terror continued, and by July 20th all of the leaders of the movement were either arrested or driven into hiding. The movement was effectively crushed by this police repression, but its importance would stretch far beyond just the village of Naxalbari or the state of West Bengal. Naxalbari kicked off a rural revolutionary movement which, through many twists and turns, carries on the struggle today.
Although the struggle at Naxalbari was ultimately defeated it was incredibly important for the development of the revolutionary movement in India. The response of the CPI(M) leadership to the struggle exposed the electoral leftist parties, like CPI(M), for the charlatans that they were. Many peasants in West Bengal voted for the CPI(M) and other parties in the United Front government hoping that these so-called “leftist” parties would represent their interests and finally make basic concessions to improve their standard of living. This same government then went on to attack the people brutally when they raised their heads and struggled against the brutal oppression that they faced. For dissident members of CPI(M) this showed the need for a new and truly revolutionary organization. A group was formed in November 1967 called All India Coordinating Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR) which was primarily composed of members of CPI(M). They eventually left CPI(M) and in 1969 formed a new party called the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Over the next decades there were many setbacks, splits, mergers, and advances, and various groups carried on the revolutionary struggle touched off in Naxalbari. Then in 2004 the two largest Naxalite groups at the time, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Center of India, merged to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The formation of this group marked the founding of a large revolutionary organization carrying on the legacy of Naxalbari and capable of operating all across the country. It was a major step forward for the revolutionary movement and the people in India, but the formation of this new revolutionary party would not have been possible without the decades of struggle that had already taken place, and without the new revolutionary direction inspired by Naxalbari.
The Naxalbari struggle also showed how area-wide seizure of power could work in India and inspired people all over India to follow in its footsteps. Right after Naxalbari there was a wave of militant land struggles all over India, where peasants took up the demands for land redistribution. However, many of these struggles did not take up the question of political power, and just struggled against landlords and feudal goons to secure land without working to create areas of People’s political power. For many people all across India the struggle at Naxalbari was inspiring and prompted them to take action, but the importance of building People’s power in the countryside was not necessarily clear. However, the activists involved in Naxalbari itself and those who formed organizations like AICCCR and later CPI(ML) saw the People’s political power as an integral part of the struggle in the countryside. This political power both protects the gains won in the struggle and plays a key role in the development towards a revolution across the whole country.
The struggle at Naxalbari was itself short-lived. The revolutionaries and the peasant masses who came together at Naxalbari to struggle for a new society, free from feudal and imperialist domination, were betrayed by the electoral party which had promised to support them. The police were able to round up and arrest the key leaders, and the movement fizzled out after just a few short months. After that, the gains that had been won in the struggle there were rolled back, and the landlords who were expelled or who ran away quickly came back and reasserted their power. So, in one sense, the movement at Naxalbari ended in failure, and the struggle was defeated.
A recent protest in Kolkata, West Bengal. Maoists have been organizing both in the cities and the countryside in India.
But in another sense Naxalbari was an immense success. At the time, across all of India, peasants in the countryside were living under grinding exploitation and worsening poverty. The struggle at Naxalbari shone like a beacon across the whole country, showing that it was possible not just to resist momentarily or to strike out in desperation, but to come together, get organized, and force the landlords and police to obey the peasant masses. This idea spread like wildfire all across India, and inspired thousands of students, workers, activists, and intellectuals to go to the countryside and join with the struggles of the peasantry. This was the seed of the revolutionary movement which continues to this day. Today in what is called the Red Corridor there are hundreds of Janatana Sarkars or People’s Governments exercising political power in the countryside, and they are defended by the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army and the People’s Militia. The revolutionary movement in India is up against a lot of challenges, not the least of which is the all-out campaign of repression by the government, but they are steadily making progress. Millions of poor peasants and tribal people are involved in peasants’ organizations, the Janatana Sarkars, women’s organizations, and more.
These are big advances for the Indian people. The strength, courage, and conviction that the Indian revolutionaries have shown over the last fifty years of struggle shows what people are really capable of when they cast aside fixed notions of what is “possible” and decide instead to set out on the revolutionary path, the path for a better world and an end to oppression and domination. The gains made in India inspire us here, and show us the determination and bravery we will need to summon to set out on the same path ourselves. But at the same time our struggle is very different here. We will not be able to form rural bases in the countryside, and the struggles facing people daily in this country are not access to good agricultural land and feudal domination, but low wages and racist oppression. Still, we need to support the Indian Revolution in many ways, both because the Indian Revolution is part of the same overall struggle to liberate humanity from oppression and exploitation, and because if the Indian Revolution succeeds it will make it easier for revolutions to succeed all around the world. For this reason we say: