Archive for March, 2010


Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Mar 27, 2010

Why did Kanu Sanyal, the very first Naxalite, take his own life? Ill health? Despair? Or was he making a final statement? The most profound of all.

Revolution through the violent elimination of individuals, he came to believe, was a mockery of everything he had dreamt of.

Is it just a coincidence that Kanu Sanyal committed suicide on the date that Bhagat Singh was executed? We will never know. He did not leave a suicide note.

Kanu Sanyal, along with Charu Majumdar, founded the Naxalite movement in the 1960s. In 1967, he led the armed peasants’ movement in Naxalbari in north Bengal. He was literally the first Naxalite. I met him in 2001 at his austere home outside Naxalbari, and I can honestly say I have never met a more courteous and simple man. What impressed me most was his ability to examine and reconsider decisions and beliefs, even admit mistakes. “The peasants’ uprising was a true armed mass struggle,” he told me. “But after that, the whole movement took a terroristic path. It was like we were building a small earthen hut, and we just kicked it back to dust again.”

On 18 March 1967, Naxalbari’s Peasants’ Council announced it was ready for armed revolt to redistribute all land controlled by landlords, and end centuries of barbarous exploitation. On 23 May, sharecropper Bigul Kisan entered a patch of land with his plough and ox and was beaten up. The next day, Inspector Sonam Wangdi led in a police posse. He died in a rain of arrows.

The day after, there was a peasant meeting; 11 people died in police firing, including seven women and two children. But by this time, the dream of a Maoist revolution of peasants and workers had spread far beyond this one hamlet. An anonymous poet wrote on the walls of Calcutta: ‘Amar bari, tomar bari/ Naxalbari Naxalbari’ (My home, Naxalbari/ Your home, Naxalbari), and the violent movement sweeping Bengal had acquired a name.

In the months after the firing, angry peasants attacked and killed landlords, forcibly occupying land. They were led by men like Sanyal. Brutal police operations crushed the revolt by late 1968. But the movement had already spread across Bengal. Sanyal was arrested in August 1970, and spent seven years in jail. “Our movement failed because you can’t liberate a country by killing individuals,” Sanyal told me. “You kill a landlord, his son will come. I don’t think you become a true communist by killing a traffic policeman.”

Sanyal spent his last years fighting for the rights of tea garden workers in the area. Most estates are owned by Kolkata-based fat cats who suck out every paisa they can without investing a penny. Labour rights exist only on paper. Minimum wages are not paid. Provident funds are fictional. It is common practice to sack workers before they complete five years on an estate, lest they be eligible for gratuity. Under the law, tea workers get cheap rations. When I was there, plantation owners had unilaterally changed the rules so that if a worker was absent for a single day, he had to pay 345 per cent more for his rations. If absent for three days, he paid 1,037 per cent more, and six days, 2,074 per cent. “Revolution is not instant coffee. It may come in two years,” Sanyal said, “It may come in 30. It may spread like Prairie fire, it may be a slow process. Meanwhile, there is so much to do.”

He thought the current Maoist movement’s methods were all wrong and would end up hurting the people it was trying to empower. Maoist leaders thought Sanyal had sold out. “He is a pheriwala, a hawker,” Maoist leader Kishenji told my colleague Rahul, “He is in the pay of the CPM.” I met the man. I cannot believe that is true. “We have bought the union leaders from all parties,” the manager of a tea estate in the area told me. “But when I offered 5 kg of our best tea to Kanubabu, he said, ‘Tell me where your tea’s available, and I’ll go buy it’.”

Why did he kill himself? The official reason being cited is ill health. Or was it despair?

I do not believe Kanu Sanyal would kill himself out of despair. I would like to think his death is a statement, and the most profound one this extraordinary man ever made.

And I can only hope I am right.

Too Much Teen Spirit

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

Mar 13, 2010

There are times you just have to wonder. How much freedom do we give our teenagers?

Schoolchildren, they would have been in class XI or XII... There were about ten of them, and they were drinking. Not soft drinks, not beer, not Bacardi Breezer. They were having whisky, vodka and tequila.

At a bar in a Delhi suburb one of these evenings, there was a group of kids at a table near where we were sitting. Schoolchildren, they would have been in class XI or XII. They were celebrating the birthday of one of the girls. There were about ten of them, and they were drinking. Not soft drinks, not beer, not Bacardi Breezer. They were having whisky, vodka and tequila. They were knowledgeable enough to even choose the particular brand of tequila they wanted, something, even at my age, I have no idea of.

It was natural that my friend and I were getting increasingly disturbed as the kids went on drinking and the noise mounted. After some time, one of the girls seemed to pass out and was being cradled by one of the boys. At this point, they called one of the waiters, we noticed, for further orders, and some conversation ensued that we couldn’t hear the details of, but the clear import was that the bar was refusing any more drinks to them. Two of the boys got up and one could hear them telling the group that they were going to buy breath fresheners for everybody.

Five minutes later, as I stepped out of the men’s room, one of the girls was puking right there; the women’s room was occupied and she couldn’t hold it back any longer.

In the National Capital Region (or maybe all of India, I don’t know), it is illegal to sell alcohol to anyone under the age of 25. I personally believe this is an unreasonably high age barrier, given that one can vote in general elections at 18. But my personal views hardly count for anything in this situation; the point is that the bar was serving them, fully aware of what was allowed and what was not. And when they refused the group of kids more drinks, it was in fact an act of double cowardice. At a certain point, clearly, the manager of the bar thought that it was getting potentially dangerous, that some of these kids could even be driving home, and there could be a mishap, and the bar’s name could appear in the papers. That would be problematic.

As upper middle class or rich parents, what are the limits we impose on children? Most parents of my generation feel a sense of guilt about not having spent enough time with them while they were growing up, and the easiest (and least time consuming) way to assuage that guilt, to an extent, is to let them blow some money. The only activity that many of us can think of to please the child on a weekend when we have some time for her/him is to go shopping. Spend some cash, the child is satisfied, and our parental duty is done.

Plus, we also carry the burden of another sort of guilt. We would have liked more freedom in our teenage years, as teenagers have wanted throughout human history. And most of us feel that our parents could have been a bit more lenient towards us. Now you are a parent, and you like to believe you are ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’, and other such terms that have become de rigueurfor people of your demographics. So you don’t want to chain your child down, and you don’t know how long and elastic the chain should be, if it exists at all. And if you are too busy with your career and other worldly matters, you just hand the brat some money and get him out of your hair. And, especially in North India, you believe that if the brat does get into any trouble, you can easily pull some strings and, well, achieve clearance and closure.

I feared for these kids that I saw in the bar. And I know I should have gone up to the manager and told him what I thought of this. I did not. By evening, our urban life fatigues us, and that apathy which lies just below our skin kicks in, in full force. And I realised that that’s what’s wrong with those kids’ parents. And with us as parents.