Between the Lines Book Club: The History Behind The Lowland

between the lines book club logoIn this month’s Between the Lines Book Club selection, The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about two brothers who react very differently to turbulent political times in Calcutta. One leaves for America, where he goes to university. The other becomes a member of the Naxalite movement. It’s obvious from the context of the book what’s going on. Clearly the character is involved in a political movement driven by young people that is concerned with social injustice and that is willing to use violence. But the full history of the movement is fascinating. While I can’t give it full justice, here’s a brief overview.

“Naxalites” refers to members of several different Communist groups in India. They have a Maoist ideology and continue to be active today in both legal and illegal forms. The term “Naxalite” comes from the West Bengali village of Naxalbari. In 1967, a group split off from the Communist Party and initiated an uprising in Naxalbari with the goal of redistributing land to the landless. Initially, the group attracted Indian peasants and urban intellectuals. They took much of their guidance form “The Historic Eight Documents”, written by Charu Majumdar. Their goal was to overthrow the Indian State. They were no fans of the Soviet Union, believing that the Soviet Union had lost track of true communism. In the 1970s the group split into factions, but remained active.

The segment of history most relevant to this month’s book club pick, The Lowland, involves Naxalite activity in West Bengal in the early 1970’s. From my old pal, Wikipedia (I’m not proud):

Around 1971 the Naxalites gained a strong presence among the radical sections of the student movement in Calcutta.[20] Students left school to join the Naxalites. Majumdar, to entice more students into his organisation, declared that revolutionary warfare was to take place not only in the rural areas as before, but everywhere and spontaneously. Thus Majumdar declared an “annihilation line”, a dictum that Naxalites should assassinate individual “class enemies” (such as landlords, businessmen, university teachers, police officers, politicians of the right and left) and others.[21][22]

The chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress Party, instituted strong counter-measures against the Naxalites. The West Bengal police fought back to stop the Naxalites. The house of Somen Mitra, the Congress MLA of Sealdah, was allegedly turned into a torture chamber where Naxals were incarcerated illegally by police and the Congress cadres. CPI-M cadres were also involved in the “state terror”. After suffering losses and facing the public rejection of Majumdar’s “annihilation line”, the Naxalites alleged human rights violations by the West Bengal police, who responded that the state was effectively fighting a civil war and that democratic pleasantries had no place in a war, especially when the opponent did not fight within the norms of democracy and civility.[15]

Large sections of the Naxal movement began to question Majumdar’s leadership. In 1971 the CPI(ML) was split, as the Satyanarayan Singh revolted against Majumdar’s leadership. In 1972 Majumdar was arrested by the police and died in Alipore Jail. His death accelerated the fragmentation of the movement.

In July 1971, Indira Gandhi took advantage of President’s rule to mobilise the Indian Army against the Naxalites and launched a colossal combined army and police counter-insurgency operation, termed “Operation Steeplechase,” killing hundreds of Naxalites and imprisoning more than 20,000 suspects and cadres, including senior leaders.[23] The paramilitary forces and a brigade of para commandos also participated in Operation Steeplechase. The operation was choreographed in October 1969, and J.F.R. Jacob was enjoined by Govind Narain, the Home Secretary of India, that “there should be no publicity and no records” and Jacob’s request to receive the orders in writing was also denied by Sam Manekshaw.[24]

Thousands of people have died as part of Naxalite insurgency or during Naxalite-sponsoered assassinations or other violent actions. Most Naxalite groups are considered terrorist groups. Like many such groups, they continue to appeal to the most marginalized, impoverished members of society. Brittanica.com sums up the situation today:

Naxalite groups generally have claimed to represent the poorest and most socially marginalized members of Indian society (notably tribal peoples and Dalits [formerly untouchables]) and to adhere to the Maoist doctrine of sustained peasant-led revolution. For decades they have waged guerrilla warfare against such targets as landlords, businesspeople, politicians, and security forces, and they have disrupted infrastructure by damaging transportation, communication, and power lines. In the process, they often have been able to establish bases of operation in remote forested areas. Naxalite groups have come to control large territories in many of the states of eastern India—notably Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal—and their influence has spread even wider beyond those areas. Often Naxalite groups have taken over governing functions and provided social services within areas under their control, although they also have been accused of using harsh enforcement tactics.

If you are in the Sacramento area, be sure to join us on June 27, 2015 at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM for coffee, pastries, and discussion about The Lowland, a book that eloquently and compassionately describes why a intelligent and well-educated man might devote his life to this cause, without flinching from the violence practiced by the group or from the violence of the Indian State at the time. 

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