A People's Champion Or A Traitor? : The Complex Legacy Of Charu Majumdar

Charu Majumdar’s story is one of o ‘riches-to-rags’ as he gave up his life of privilege to align with the mass struggle.
Charu Majumdar’s story is one of o ‘riches-to-rags’ as he gave up his life of privilege to align with the mass struggle. L: Wikipedia R: Sushanta Patronomish, The Hindu

The idea is not to explore the efficacy of violence as a viable political tool but rather delve into the economic and political causes that have caused the common man to take up arms against his oppressors throughout history. This violence is different from state-sanctioned violence as the power dynamics are entirely reversed. The poor common man resorts to violence only when he can see no light at the end of the tunnel except through the barrel of a gun. Violence is always a double-edged sword and for the common working-class folks, the edge is doubly sharper as he exposes himself to the receiving end of violence, which is much more dangerous than the violence he can deliver. Even with this foreknowledge, the common poor man has resorted to violent revolutions throughout history across the globe. When we debate politics in the safety of our glass houses or Parliaments, the socio-political ground reality often eludes us.

Flipping through the bloody pages of history, we see very few revolutions having left as indelible a mark as the Naxalbari Uprising in 1967. This historic armed peasant revolt was born in the Naxalbari block of the Siliguri subdivision in the Darjeeling district, West Bengal, India. The ethos of the movement resonated with the fiery spirit of the oppressed and was led primarily by tribal communities and radical communist leaders from Bengal. What began as a localized armed struggle soon transformed into the catalyst for the widespread Naxalite movement, igniting a flame that rapidly spread from West Bengal to other states of India.

The Naxalbari uprising unfolded against the backdrop of the intense Sino-Soviet split, a tumultuous period that shook communist organizations in India and around the globe. In post-independent India, economic disparities were huge, feudal landlords exploited the working class, and the local elites exploited, harassed, and even tortured the tribal population, who were under constant threat of being expelled from their indigenous land to pave the way for mining operations and 'development projects'. In the wake of such discrimination, the working class felt alienated and exploited and their righteous anger became a ticking time bomb. The Naxalites received the most amount of support from minority communities like Dalits and Adivasis, who comprises a fourth of India‟s population and were mostly from rural India. Political radicals have always believed that a crisis presents the perfect opportunity for a revolution and by 1967, the great class war was imminent.

Although the Naxalite movement originated in rural India, it soon spread to the urban regions of Bengal. The most brilliant and educated students from the country’s premier institutions left their universities and families to join the movement. Employees, with the safety net of government salaries and privileges, sacrificed their jobs to participate in the peasant’s movement. The movement was no longer just a peasant’s movement. At the epicenter of the movement was the visionary leader and ideologue, Charu Majumdar. It was under his leadership that the uprising gained further momentum as he perceived the prevailing circumstances as ripe for launching an armed People's War in India, drawing inspiration from the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the Vietnam War, and the Cuban Revolution.

Charu Majumdar’s story is one of o ‘riches-to-rags’ as he gave up his life of privilege to align with the mass struggle. Even though he was from a progressive landlord family in Siliguri, he dedicated his entire life to championing the cause of peasants and his contributions to the Naxalite movement make him an influential figure in India’s radical political history.

As the son of an active freedom fighter, Charu Majumdar was no stranger to the injustices that plagued society. Even as a teenager, he rebelled against social inequalities and found inspiration in the ranks of the ‘petty-bourgeois’ national revolutionaries, eventually joining the All Bengal Students Association affiliated with the Anusilan group. In a bold move, Majumdar dropped out of college in 1937-38 to immerse himself in the struggle for the rights of bidi workers, first aligning with Congress and later transitioning to the Communist Party of India (CPI) to focus on their plight. It was during this time that he earned the respect and admiration of the impoverished masses in Jalpaiguri.

However, the path of a leftist activist is rarely without obstacles, and Majumdar's commitment to the cause led him to go underground for the first time in the face of an arrest warrant. Undeterred by the ban on the CPI during World War II, he continued his work among peasants and rose to become a member of the CPI Jalpaiguri district committee in 1942. Buoyed by this promotion, he organized a successful campaign to seize crops in Jalpaiguri during the Great Famine of 1943.

In 1946, Majumdar threw himself into the Tebhaga movement, spearheading a militant struggle in North Bengal that would shape his vision of a revolutionary struggle. He later shifted his focus to organizing tea garden workers in Darjeeling, where he faced personal financial crises and witnessed the erosion of the peasant movement. Yet, his revolutionary spirit remained unyielding as he continued to unite laborers, tea garden workers, and rickshaw pullers in Siliguri.

The ideological rift between Majumdar and the CPI came to the forefront after the party's Palghat Congress in 1956. The 'Great Debate' that reverberated across the communist world in the late '50s prompted him to contemplate a revolutionary philosophy tailored to the Indian context. Majumdar found himself jailed once again during the 1962 Indo-China war, as the Indian government cracked down on all activities of the Left. The CPI ultimately split in 1964 due to irreconcilable ideological differences among its cadres. While Majumdar joined the breakaway Communist Party of India (Marxist), he disagreed with their decision to postpone an armed struggle until a revolutionary situation presented itself in India.

During a period of poor health in 1964-65, Majumdar was advised to rest. However, even in jail, he used this time to delve into the study of Mao's thoughts, which profoundly influenced his vision and ideas of a mass struggle. These writings and speeches later came to be known as the Historic Eight Documents, which laid the theoretical foundation for Naxalism.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) formed a coalition United Front government with the Bangla Congress in West Bengal in 1967. However, Majumdar and other purist elements within the party accused it of betraying the revolution. On May 25 of the same year, under Majumdar's leadership, the rebels launched a momentous peasant uprising in Naxalbari, which spread like wildfire.

In the wake of the movement, like-minded comrades from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Orissa, and West Bengal came together to form the All India Coordination Committee of Revolutionaries (AICCR) within the CPI(M) in November 1967. Eventually, this committee evolved into the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries, which gave birth to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) on April 2, 1969, with Charu Majumdar assuming the position of its General Secretary. This was the beginning of the deep division within India's Communist Party. The party bifurcated into two splinters — the orthodox Communists who followed a Soviet model in contrast with the radicals who subscribed to Maoist ideology.

The authorities responded with an iron fist, launching a fierce crackdown on the ultra-leftist movement across the country, particularly in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The streets flowed with the blood of revolutionaries and the situation reached its climax during and after the 1971 Bangladesh war, leading to political assassinations and encounters of many key ultra-leftist leaders. Despite his deteriorating health, Charu Majumdar once again went underground, becoming one of India's most wanted men by 1972. According to records from the CPI(ML), he was arrested on July 16, 1972, from a hideout in Calcutta and subjected to extreme interrogation and brutal torture.

During his ten-day detention in the infamous Lal Bazar lock-up, no one, not even his lawyer, family members, or a doctor, was permitted to see him. The Lal Bazar lock-up had gained an ill reputation for its horrifying and cruel torture techniques. Tragically, Charu Majumdar met his end at 4 am on July 28, 1972, within the confines of that very lock-up, as stated in the records of the CPI(ML).

Even in death, his body was denied to his family. Accompanied by immediate family members, the police took charge of the body and escorted it to the crematorium. The entire area was cordoned off, with no other relatives allowed to witness the final rites as Charu Majumdar's body was consigned to the flames, according to the records of the CPI(ML).

With Charu Majumdar's demise, a vibrant chapter in India's revolutionary movement came to a close. The central authority of the CPI(ML) collapsed, and the peasant struggle suffered a severe setback. Although the ultra-leftist movement has witnessed numerous ideological divisions since the late 1970s, the spirit of Naxalism continues to influence a multitude of ultra-left groups across the globe; shaping the discourse on revolution and social justice.

His comrades viewed Charu’s death as a great tragedy while those from the other camp took it as a grandiose win for the government. The idea is not to ask you to pick sides in this battle but rather to introspect. A wealthy young man abandons his life of privilege only to choose a life filled with a constant fear of incarceration, tirelessly working with the exploited working class of the nation even amidst failing health and eventually succumbing to barbaric torture and undignified death. Was his method justified? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Was his revolution successful? History suggests otherwise. Was he a champion of the masses or a traitor to the state? This writing is not propaganda and so it is not my place to answer that question but rather for you to decide.

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