Bengal Election Ground Report: Women of Naxalbari, 50 years apart

Women were at the forefront of the Naxalbari uprising against jotedars in 1967. Eight women, two children, and one man died in open firing by the police on May 25 that year. In April 2021, with Bengal days away from Phase 5 of the state Assembly elections, the women of Naxalbari are fighting a different battle.

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In 1967, the Naxalbari uprising against jotedars and zamindars claimed the lives of 8 women. The women of Naxalbari today are fighting a different battle, against a different set of jotedars and zamindars. Photo: Ananya Bhattacharya / India Today

When Moumita Das's husband left home on a late March morning in 2020, she did not know her life was never going to be the same. She was home. Her young son was playing nearby in her tin-walled home. The TV played visuals of a little-known virus somewhere in the cities. Some people were repairing the road at the end of her lane in South Kotia Sansad under Naxalbari Gram Panchayat. And then the voices from her third-hand television set announced a lockdown. She did not get an hour to understand what that word meant.

Her husband soon returned home, not realising the full impact of how that one word would disrupt and destroy their lives. His profession was unstable. 'Mela korto' - was his work. He would go around wherever there was a mela or fair and put up shops selling this and that. Whenever whatever was possible. But even in the instability of this job, one thing was stable: melas in suburban India would never stop. Melas were his sustenance.

But March 2020 had other plans.

LOCKDOWN, LOCKED OUT

Das went around the Naxalbari town, to Phansidewa, Panitanki, Matigara, even Siliguri, but there were no melas to happen. A government order had killed his livelihood. Then one day, he fell ill. His eyesight began troubling. Their three daughters are married and two of them live in nearby Siliguri and one in Kolkata. "Thank god we were able to get them married when our condition was better. We hardly have money to eat now," says Moumita Das. She is just back from her work. After her husband's illness took over, she took up the reins of the home and the world. Ghare-Baire, both. Moumita now works as a cook from 8 am to 4 pm at a house in Naxalbari town. After that, she gets to housework. There is drinking water to be fetched from the municipality tap that has water twice a day. These roadside taps are called 'time kal' - 'time tap' - in the common parlance. There's water at a stipulated time.

No gas cylinders, women in this Naxalbari village still cook on the chulha. Photo: Ananya Bhattacharya / India Today

This village in Naxalbari is yet to see pipelines at home. Just outside the village is the main road from Naxalbari to Panitanki. At Bengai Jote where the busts of Charu Majumdar and Mao Tse Tung stand by the roadside, a Time Kal sits with a broken valve. The water here flows non-stop, at the stipulated time.

'RS 3,000 FOR A WATER CONNECTION. WHERE WILL I GET SO MUCH MONEY FROM?'

Moumita's husband is dressed in a vest and lungi. He peeks out of the house to see who Moumita is telling her woes to. No politician has done anything for them, and since the timing coincides with the poll season, he steps out to see if there's any help at his doorstep. But we're hardly the movers and shakers here.

Moumita tells us that someone from the BJP - it's a BJP Gram Panchayat here - had come to collect photo IDs of the villages but they 'were only for their people'. As we prod her, she says, "Party korbo na kaaj korbo, kon? Should I enrol myself in a political party or work, tell me? I go out at 7 am and return home at 5 pm every day. Then there's so much work at home. When do I run behind the party workers to get what is my right? Look at my house. When the money came and others received two houses each, should I not have received one? The roof leaks right through monsoon. My house has knee-deep water. There are snakes. I had gone to the Panchayat asking for a tarpaulin. Some of their people got two each. This lane got none."

There has been some talk of a water connection to the houses in this village. "We have to pay Rs 3,000 one time, then Rs 30 per month. Is Rs 3,000 an easy amount? It is a huge amount for us," Moumita's husband pitches in. BJP has made piped water to every home a major election plank this time. But this is the red land, the place where Naxalism was born, the epicentre of Left.

Beauty Das stands in front of her two-room home that houses seven people. Photo: Ananya Bhattacharya / India Today

Das then takes me to the adjacent house. This house is a brick-and-cement one. Seven people stay here, in this two-room house. The matriarch is Srimati Das. 72-year-old Das says she has been here since the beginning, when there were only two or three houses in the village. Congress workers came looking for Naxal leaders in the villages back then.

Srimati Das doesn't remember much of the Naxalbari uprising, but can recall the combing operations. Photo: Ananya Bhattacharya / India Today

"They would kick our doors in and interrogate us; combing for Naxals," Srimati says, "Then the CPI(M) came into power. Of course, there is Mamata now. Our situation has been the same throughout. For the poor, they are all the same." We ask her if she has any memories of the Naxalbari andolan. "I don't remember much. It was all so many years ago..." is her answer.

'SHE RUNS THE HOUSE. NO SHAME IN SAYING WHAT IS TRUE'

The horror stories flow out non-stop, like that Time Kal in Bengai Jote. There is nothing to say. The more we talk to people, the more we realise the one truth in rural North Bengal: the fate of the poor is the same, no matter who is at the Gram Panchayat to decide their fates.

Moumita's husband then tells us, "After the lockdown and my illness, she has been running the house. Whatever money she gets from the cooking job, we make do with that. There's no shame in saying what is true."

There's no place to accommodate one extra person inside their home so we are sitting on plastic chairs outside, in the lane. The Das husband and wife won't let us go till we've had a cup of tea. We are compelled to say, "Next time."

NAXALBARI AND NAKSALBARI

At the Naxalbari railway station, where the word becomes 'Naksalbari'. Photo: Ananya Bhattacharya / India Today

From the village to the main road. We are now at the Naxalbari railway station, where another spelling of the word is visible on the boards: Naksalbari. But the stylisation with the 'x' is what stayed on in public memory. The X was lifted from Bengai Jote and taken to AC rooms in Kolkata where people still cry out the occasional clarion call: Amar Bari, Tomar Bari, Naxalbari, Naxalbari. My home, Your home, Naxalbari, Naxalbari. 'Bari' is home in Bangla. We will stick with the X.

THE WOMEN MARTYRS OF NAXALBARI

The Shahid Bedi at Bengai Jote with the names of the women and man who were killed in Naxalbari on May 25, 1967. Photo: Ananya Bhattacharya / India Today

Our search for a man who has seen Naxalbari change leads us to Comrade Nathuram Biswas. Biswas is part of CPI(M-L) Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). His son owns a huge furniture shop in Naxalbari bazar. Comrade Biswas is on his evening walk with Comrade Gaur Vaidya, who is part of CPI(M-L) Red Star. The Communists in India today are known more for their divisions than unity. At the time of writing this, Wikipedia lists 23 factions of CPI(M) in India. The village-level parties are obviously out of the purview of Wiki and Google.

Comrade Nathuram Biswas (L) and Comrade Gaur Vaidya. Photo: Ananya Bhattacharya / India Today

"Kanu Sanyal wanted to create an actual Communist Party of India after the Naxalbari uprising took away 9 comrades and Charu Majumdar died. But even he couldn't. There were just so many factions and internecine fights," says Vaidya.

Biswas takes over, "I was in school when 1967 happened. This area of Naxalbari is a disputed area. Sometimes it was under Sikkim, sometimes Nepal, and sometimes Bhutan. Back in the British era, it had also become a no-man's land. The British brought the Oraons and Mundas from Jharkhand to work in the tea estates. The locals here were Rajbongshis. The bhumiputras are Rajbongshis and Mech. The farmers were in a terrible state here... While Charu Majumdar was part of the CPM, he wrote the 8 documents and sent them to China for their suggestions. Then, in 1967, when farmers went to the Jotedar to ask why Bigul Kisan was killed, the Jotedar pulled out a gun. The police took out arrest warrants against the farmer leaders despite CPM being in power in Kolkata. Then the andolan began.

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"Police officers would go hunting for these people whose arrest warrants they had. On May 24, 1967, a group of police officers went looking for a farmer leader, and unable to find him, kicked his pregnant daughter-in-law. A rumour went around that the police officer's kick ended up killing the unborn child. Thousands of peasant workers got together with their bows and arrows. An arrow went right through the police inspector of Jharugaon.

The busts of (L-R) Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Lin Piao, Charu Majumdar, Saroj Dutta and Mahadev Mukherjee; and the Shahid Bedi at Bengai Jote in Naxalbari. Photo: Ananya Bhattacharya / India Today

"The next day, May 25, police surrounded the villages and began a combing operation. At Bengai Jote where you see the Shahid Bedi today, Dhaneshwari Devi led the women of Naxalbari, kids on their backs, to the protest against the police. The police opened fire. Eight women, two children, and one man were killed in the firing," Biswas tells us of the Naxalbari uprising in a nutshell.

The revolt started right after May 25, 1967, and continued till July the same year before the government brought in paramilitary forces to deal with the protests. Over the next years, Naxal leaders like Charu Majumdar went underground while Jongol Santhal was arrested. The Naxalbari uprising, 54 years down the line, is yet to fade from public memory. A look at this month's headlines will tell you why. The Naxal-Maoist insurgency that claimed the lives of 22 CRPF jawans just this month, all originated from this Naxalbari. From this idea of Naxalbari.

THE WOMEN OF NAXALBARI

Moumita Das with her husband in Naxalbari. Photo: Ananya Bhattacharya / India Today

In 2021, the women of Naxalbari are far removed from grand ideas of changing the world and taking up arms against the state. They are fighting their own battles every day. Life and local politicians have replaced the jotedars and zamindars of yore. The idea of Naxalbari has moved from that plot of land in Bengai Jote to English departments in Universities Jadavpur and Jawaharlal Nehru. The women of Naxalbari, this tiny village in North Bengal, have taken up arms against the hand dealt them by Fate. History might not document the struggles of Moumita Das, Promita Das, Beauty Das or Srimati Das. But the women of Naxalbari will not let the new jotedars win.

(The writer tweets as @ananya116)

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