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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

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May 24, 2020

The beginnings of the Naxal insurgency

On 24 May, 1967, in West Bengal, dozens of laborers and tribals armed only with bows and arrows attacked a force of 50 police officers, killing their commander. The resulting uprising across the state would grow into the larger Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in India. Since then, the Naxals have aimed to violently overthrow the Indian state and replace it with a Communist government on Maoist lines. The resulting conflict has claimed some 15,000 lives since 1996.

Uniquely for its time, India’s far-left uprising wasn’t a response to a right-wing government. The economic Right in India was nonexistent as a political force, lingering only through the occasional magazine or think tank; exactly two years after the Naxalbari uprising, in 1969, The Economist referred to India’s ideological spectrum as ‘left, lefter, leftest’ where economic policy was concerned. The question at hand in West Bengal - and all over India, was not “Should India be socialist?” so much as “What kind of socialism?”

The Nehru years, in particular, embodied a conflict between Gandhian and Nehruvian visions of socialism. Gandhi, opposed to what he saw as Western materialism, had hoped for the village to be the center of Indian social and economic life. Nehru, on the other hand, had been inspired by the centralised, planned economy and industrialisation of the Soviet Union. To be fair, Nehru made significant gestures towards Gandhi’s vision in India’s early years; the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution, for instance, included clauses making it easier for the government to redistribute land from wealthy zamindar landowners to landless peasants and farmers. As the years went by, though, Nehru’s government grew increasingly preoccupied with large-scale economic development through the Five-Year Plans dreamt up by the Planning Commission of India.. Less and less attention was paid to zamindars, predatory rural moneylenders, and the problems of landless and poor farmers.

So what happened in West Bengal in 1967? Amidst a worsening rural economy, the Bengal Leftists found themselves split in two. The mainstream Left looked for an electoral solution, hoping to vote into power the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and other socialist parties with an agenda of centralised, institutional solutions to the many problems facing rural West Bengal. In March 1967, a coalition of Communist and Socialist parties, the United Front, dislodged the Congress government of West Bengal for the first time since Independence; ‘Left’ had been beaten by ‘Lefter’. The United Front, however, was itself fracturing – far-left elements pushed for more radical redistribution, using the organized strikes and violently-imposed shutdowns known as gheraos to underscore their point. These people - the ‘Leftest’ - included labor organizers, unionists, tribal activists and student revolutionaries who felt that neither the Congress nor the United Front were doing enough. As the government grew less and less tolerant of their activities, tensions began to rise between local police forces and the villagers and tribals they dealt with. On 24 May 1967, a group of peasants and far-left organizers set out to publicly plough a plot of government land. A force of 50 local policemen set out to arrest them. As they approached, the activists - armed with bows, arrows, and slings - attacked them, killing their commanders and driving them back. The next day, with tensions running high, a better-armed police group fired on a large peasant demonstration nearby, killing nearly a dozen. These two events set the stage for a violent uprising across the state, the so-called Naxalbari Uprising that, over the following decades, would shift its base from West Bengal to Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana. The insurgency continues to plague India to this day.

In many ways, what happened on 24 May was merely history repeating itself. Many of the men and women who attacked the police were from the Santhal tribe, which gained notoriety under the British Raj for leading a ‘hool’, a large-scale revolt against the colonial government - one triggered by the same land issues that sparked the 1967 uprising. Ironically, the Congress appropriated the rhetoric of the Santhals during the freedom struggle, only to have that same rhetoric turned against them in West Bengal. As the historians of the subaltern studies collective have often pointed out, insurgencies in independent India cannot be understood without studying peasant uprisings in colonial India. The same pattern of central governments neglecting rural and tribal interests has always repeated itself.

Sahaj Sankaran

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