One of the much talked-about young revolutionary leaders of the undivided CPI(ML) in Bengal in the seventies and now with the PCC CPI(ML), a smaller faction of the fractured party, Santosh Rana has emerged as a major critic of the CPI (Maoist) in the wake of the Lalgarh movement. For him, the popular uprising of the tribal and non-tribal poor against police repression in Junglemahal of West Bengal bordering Jharkhand had much potential for democratizing the local and regional polity with far-reaching ramifications. But the opportunities were lost once the Maoists aped the CPI(M) in imposing their one-party rule and killing opponents irrespective of their class background.
Far from considering the wanton killings now prevalent in Lalgarh region as an aberration of Maoist revolutionary schema, Rana argues that the Maoist denial of democracy to rivals and friend-turned-foes in their fiefdoms has its ideological-political roots in the Soviet and Chinese version of proletarian dictatorship and people’s democracy. More concerned about the self-rule or autonomy for Junglemahal, he believes the democratic content of revolutionary power, including guarantee for a multiparty polity, must be central to all future revolutions, including the Indian revolution.
Despite differences, he is opposed to state repression in Lalgarh and is in favour of talks between the government and Maoists as well as other representative of the people. Rana was among the earliest of the Naxalite leaders to rethink the question of democracy and he was the first – and last – Naxalite MLA in West Bengal from among the first-generation rebels. Biswajit Roy, a journalist based in Kolkata, spoke to him to understand his arguments.
Biswajit Roy: The growing strength of CPI (Maoist) in a large part of the country underlines not only a failure of the mainstream left but also other Naxalite groups. It seems that the Maoists have established themselves as an alternative to the parliamentary and constitutional politics of all hues. How do you look at it?
Santosh Rana: Since the early nineties, the LPG (Liberalization-Privatization-Globalization) regimes both at the Centre and the states have been spreading the tentacles of neo-liberal global economy across the country that has resulted in a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few super-rich families, a concentration equally reflected in the country’s politics. Never before has the Indian Parliament seen so many crorepatis as its members. Given this class background of a sizable section of the MPs, it was only to be expected that none of the 540 MPs opposed the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Even the mainstream left kept mum except to feebly suggest some cosmetic changes. All this has reduced the democratic space within the parliamentary system. As the state and its non-state collaborators deny people their constitutional and legal rights, they are turning towards non-parliamentary paths which can deliver in more direct, immediate and localized ways. The surge of so-called Maoists should be seen in this context.
Nevertheless, I believe that the Maoists’ success is limited to those parts of the central Indian plateau which have a forested hilly terrain with concentration of tribal population. The central and state governments, run by the parliamentary parties of all hues, have sold off the mining rights of huge mineral reserves of this region to multinational and desi corporate groups who have been given virtual license to plunder the country’s natural resources without caring for its adverse impact on the lives of local tribal and other marginal communities. As the state-corporate nexus is trying to crush all democratic protest in the affected regions of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Orissa, people have turned to the armed Maoists for protection of their traditional rights on jal-jungle-jamin.
But the Maoists have not been able to spread much beyond the Dandakaranya region. Even in their Dantewara stronghold, they couldn’t ensure victory for the CPI candidate, Manish Kunjam. In Andhra, the home-ground for erstwhile CPI(ML) People’s War, their model has failed and they are on the run. It must, however, be admitted that they have made inroads in certain areas where democratic movements are weakest and state-corporate joint repression and denial of people’s rights the severest. But they have failed to offer an alternative model for the entire country considering their role in the anti-SEZ (special economic zone), anti-land grab peasant movements as well as the anti-eviction struggles of development refugees across the country. Be it Kalinganagar in Orissa, Raigarh in Maharashtra or Nandigram in Bengal, the Maoists have been on the fringe.
Though the Indian state may consider them to be the biggest threat since they have directly attacked the state, but in reality, both the state and the so-called Maoists are playing a complementary role in the shrinking of democratic space.
The Maoists claim an ideological-political continuity with the undivided CPI(ML) led by Charu Mazumdar, but the CPI(M) and even some of the Naxalite groups refuse to accept it. What is your take on it?
Differences between the original CPI(ML) and today’s CPI (Maoist) are too many. Despite our criticism of Charu Mazumdar’s line of annihilation, I must point out that he never encouraged indiscriminate killings like today’s Maoists. In 1969-71, I was active in the Debra-Gopiballavpur region, close to Lalgarh, now a major base of the Maoists. We killed around 120 people, most of them landlords or their henchmen. In fact, we had not even killed our class enemies till Charuda complained – Tomra dhan katcho kintu jotdar katcho na (you are engaged in forcible harvesting to ensure sharecroppers and farmers share but sparing the landlords). Today, I feel most of these killings were unnecessary. Also, unlike the CPI (Maoist), we did not kill a single tribal, dalit or poor person in the seventies in Debra-Gopiballavpur. Even Charuda insisted that we should not ‘touch any tribal’, landless agrilabourer, or poor or marginal peasant even if he was opposed to us. He insisted we not carry weapons when meeting the peasants. He wanted us to kindle the poor people’s class consciousness first and depend on their initiative and the weapons they use for armed actions.
Second, Charuda’s focus was always on class struggle and class issues. We began our work in the seventies, not in forest areas like Nayagram, Binpur or Lalgarh, but mainly in densely populated Debra-Gopiballavpur along the bank of the Subarnarekha river where class contradictions over land and wage questions were sharp. We endeared ourselves to poor peasants and the landless by focusing on land issues as well as exploitation by the moneylenders. In contrast, today’s Maoists have forgotten the land question. They have not redistributed a single bigha of land so far to any landless in the Belpahari-Bashpahari-Lalgarh region now under their control. For them, land reform is over in West Bengal. The Maoist-controlled People’s Committee against Police Atrocities too failed to mention the land issues in their 13-point charter of demands.
But then how do you explain the Maoist success in garnering mass support in the Lalgarh area and their increasing presence in Junglemahal of western Bengal adjoining Jharkhand? Do you subscribe to the CPI(M)’s views that the Maoists are essentially a gang of criminals who have compelled locals to follow their dictate at the point of a gun?
No, I don’t agree with the CPI(M). Before the CPI (Maoist) was born in 2004, its two constituents – MCC (Maoist Communist Centre) and People’s War – were active in different pockets of the Junglemahal for more than a decade. They garnered support among the tribals by taking action against the corruption and exploitation of the tendu leaf contractors and their nexus with forest officials. But they didn’t opt for organizing sustained movements on issues relevant to the tribals and other poor people of Junglemahal. For example, 75% of the sale proceeds of commercial forest products, mainly timber, go to the government exchequer under the government’s joint forest management project. Only 25% of the proceeds are earmarked for the gramrakhsa committee which comprises the villagers close to the forest. But in practice, the corrupt officials line their pockets with both the government and villagers’ money.
The Jharkhand Samannaya Manch, of which we are a part, had approached the Maoists to join hands to launch a movement demanding the main share of the proceeds for the villagers. We could have begun a movement against the corruption of panchayat bodies which now handle huge amounts of government money earmarked for tribal welfare and rural development projects. These are all popular issues that affect the everyday lives of millions. The gram sabhas and gram sansads, the inbuilt mechanism integral to the panchayati raj, are aimed at public accountability and popular participation of people at the grassroots level. They are now largely dysfunctional as the corruption, nepotism, clientelism and narrow politicking by the CPI(M) and other mainstream parties have alienated people. We could have begun with some innovative ideas to redeem these grassroots institutions by ensuring genuine popular control and more power to the people after the CPI(M) lost the Lalgarh panchayat samiti and most of the gram panchayats there. But the Maoists refused to listen to us.
Nonetheless, some CPI(ML) groups like the CPI(ML) New Democracy and different factions of Jharkhand Party participated in the mass uprising against police atrocities in November 2008 and later joined the Maoist-controlled PCPA. The explosion of people’s pent-up anger against police repression triggered a genuine mass movement. The attitude of the police and bureaucracy has hardly changed since the days of the Raj as they refuse to treat tribal and other poor in Junglemahal as human beings and fellow citizens of an independent India. Illegal detentions, arbitrary arrests, merciless beating, harassment and intimidation of women and children, nocturnal raids and search operations in villages became the order of the day ever since the MCC and PWG renewed their activities in the region. The repression reached a peak after the government ordered night raids in the villages of Lalgarh block following the Maoist attempt on Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s life on 2 November on his way back from Shalboni. The Maoists detonated popular fury.
With the wounds of Nandigram still fresh, the CPI(M) and the state administration cowered before the people’s might and the government withdrew eight police camps from Lalgarh area in mid-November. It was a great victory of the people. The movement was pregnant with many possibilities as it started spreading beyond Lalgarh. There was an opportunity to mobilize the awakened masses for establishing the organs of democratic self-rule and launching a movement for autonomy for Junglemahal, or for that matter, entire western Bengal. For seven months there was no police in the area and the Maoist-backed PCPA ruled without any opposition. The CPI(M) lost its base in Dharampur after the Lok Sabha polls.
Angry over the corruption and high-handedness of local CPM party satrap Anuj Pandey and his family, the local people, assisted by Maoist squads, demolished Pandey’s palatial house in Dharampur. Such was the people’s fury that even CPI(M) leaders couldn’t defend the Pandeys. But this so emboldened the Maoists that they flaunted their assault rifles in front of TV cameras on the very day and made the PCPA irrelevant by announcing they were leading the movement. This only helped Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee abandon all his left and federalist pretensions and join hands with P. Chidambaram in unleashing the Centre-state joint security crackdown in Lalgarh, thus giving rise to another phase of state terror against the people of Junglemahal.
At the same time, the CPI (Maoist) steamrollered all the other voices in the PCPA, denied democracy to any other political force which was opposed to their schema and established one-party rule by replacing the CPI(M)’s version of it. They have killed around 200 people since June 2009. Though they have not killed other Naxalites so far, they didn’t spare many of their former friends, including members and supporters of different factions of the Jharkhand party.
There seems to be a continuing blame game among former comrades. You said that the Maoists killed friendly Jharkhandi leaders, while they in turn accused them of being police moles and CPI(M) collaborators in killing their cadres and supporters. They particularly named Jharkhand Jana Mukti Morcha-led Gana Pratirodh Committee, one of your allies, as being part of the CPI(M)’s version of the Salwa Judum campaign in Bengal. According to them, many of the Jharkhandi faction leaders have morphed into political mafias and amassed wealth and power by collaborating with anti-tribal, anti-people forces. Mere adivasi surnames can’t conceal their real class interests and save them from people’s wrath.
I have no major difference with their analysis of the class character of Jharkhandi leaders in general. We have a long relation of unity and struggle with Jharkhand factions as we have participated in the struggle for a separate Jharkhand in line with the undivided CPI(ML)’s position to support the struggle for self-determination of nationalities in different parts of India. We have also articulated the demand for an autonomous council for tribal-dominated western Bengal which we consider part of Jharkhand’s cultural sphere, historically different from the rest of Bengal. The Jharkhandi groups had a presence and influence among local people long before the Maoists became active here. It is wrong to stigmatize any Jharkhand leader or group which is opposed to the Maoist schema. In fact, the Maoists have not only alienated traditional tribal social organizations and their leadership, but also humiliated and even killed some of them.
Among the tribals, the Santhals were the main force behind the November uprising, but the other communities like Mundas and Mahatos also joined the struggle. The Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwah, a body of traditional tribal headmen, was in the forefront of the movement in the beginning. The Majhi Marwah had entered into negotiation with the Bengal administration in the initial stage of the anti-police movement and agreed to withdraw its blockade after the government conceded some demands and agreed not to launch any night raids in villages. The Maoists, however, did not agree and criticized the Marwah leaders as sellouts, though the terms and conditions of the subsequent PCPA agreement with the government were more or less the same. The Maoist-led PCPA even issued leaflets announcing the trial of Majhi Marwah head, Nityananda Hembrom, in a ‘people’s court’. They also ordered those who live in areas under the influence of the Majhi Marwah to join PCPA processions and beat up those who defy it.
We think the differences with Majhi Marwah and other Jharkhandi forces that had joined the movement could have been sorted out in a democratic manner. The Maoists swear by Mao Tse-tung. Didn’t they learn from him on how to handle non-antagonistic contradictions? The killing of Sudhir Mandi was another example of maiming a dissenting voice among the people by labelling him a class enemy. Mandi, a Jharkhand leader, was a poor peasant owning one acre of infertile land. Despite being a former chairman of Belpahari panchayat samiti for five years, he stayed in a traditional kuccha house with a thatched roof. He was killed by the Maoists when he had gone to sell sabui grass, usually collected by poor people for making ropes. This killing created a major split among the locals. Regarding the CPI (Maoist) complaints about our allies, JJMM had denied the charges of killing PCPA or Maoist cadres and any relation with Gana Pratirodh Committee. The Morcha agreed to our proposal for an independent enquiry into these complaints by the civil rights and democratic movement activists. The CPI(Maoist) cold-shouldered the proposal and continued killing anybody who crossed their path.
In your exchange of open letters with the CPI (Maoist) leadership, the Eastern Bureau of its Central Committee has complained that your Jharkhandi allies were actually trying to ride piggyback on the people’s movement to fulfil their electoral ambitions while maintaining clandestine relations with the CPI(M). For example, Aditya Kisku, leader of the Jharkhand party faction whom you and two other CPI(ML) groups supported in the Lok Sabha polls in Jhargram constituency.
It was CPI (Maoist) leaders like Kishenji who in a newspaper interview admitted to having collaborated with the CPI(M) against the Trinamul-BJP combine when both sides had been engaged in a bloody turf war in Keshpur-Garbeta region in the late nineties. In his bid to reprimand the CPI(M) minister and local party satrap, Sushanta Ghosh, for his ingratitude, Kishenji even boasted that he had collected 5000 rounds of cartridges from the CPI(M) office at that time. It is another matter that their brief bonhomie with the CPI(M) ended soon after and a new relationship began with the Trinamul.
Coming to the parliamentary polls in May 2009, the CPI (Maoist) hinted that they might consider support if there was a single candidate against the CPI(M). We tried to convince Chunibala Hansda of JKP (Naren) faction to fight unitedly, but being a Congress ally, she refused. We supported Aditya Kisku since for long he has stood for autonomy for western Bengal. But the CPI (Maoist) called for an election boycott and stopped people from casting their votes in 75 booths where Kisku had a support base. On the other hand, they asked people to vote for Congress-supported Hansda in other booths. The CPI(M) won by 2,93,000 votes, the highest victory margin in Bengal despite the Left Front’s worst-ever poll debacle in the state. The Maoists can at least claim a share of this achievement of the ruling party.
The Maoists describe the ruling Marxists as ‘social fascists’ and have practically declared the entire party rank and file as enemies of the people. They argue that the CPI(M) and the government led by it, have become stooges of foreign and desi corporate capital and an outright anti-people regime after Singur and Nandigram. Their anti-CPI(M) virulence doesn’t stop at polemics or political battles; they have unleashed a killing spree particularly after the Centre-state joint operation began. In fact, most of the victims of Maoist wrath are CPI(M) cadres and supporters.
The CPI (Maoist) politburo member Kishenji told me they corrected Mazumdar’s singular focus on annihilation of class enemies and carried the killings along with the mass movement in Lalgarh and elsewhere. According to him, there is no Chinese wall between the annihilation campaign and mass movement. He denies the charge of being bloodthirsty and insists that all the death sentences are passed by the people’s court. He said he was considered soft-hearted in his party since they have killed only half of those that should have been killed and that on occasion his deputies like Bikash persuaded villagers not to award capital punishment to class enemies.
This indiscriminate butchering of CPI(M) and other political party workers is totally unacceptable. Kishenji claims that old feudalism is extinct in Bengal and the CPI(M) rank and file now represent a new feudal class. This is ridiculous. By their class background a majority of CPI(M) party members in Bengal belong to the poor and toiling people. It is dangerous to declare them as class enemies just on the basis of their political allegiance. This has no relation with Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse-tung thought but with fascism. If this fascist politics wins in Lalgarh, the future of democratic movements will be doomed.
We strongly believe that political differences cannot be sorted out by killing political rivals or evicting them from their homes. If we want to fight against the corruption, arrogance and nepotism of CPI(M) leaders and panchayat functionaries, their killing can’t be a solution. We also consider the CPI(M) a stooge of the forces of globalization today and the main agency of police-party joint repression on people. But to call them social fascists will lead us to deny the achievement of limited land reforms and Operation Barga to protect the rights of sharecroppers as well as implementation of panchayati raj. We have to admit the fact that the first two Left Front governments had introduced some democratic reforms and that today’s Lalgarh would not have happened without Operation Barga.
Second, we must be objective. Unlike the mineral-rich areas of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand, the Left Front government in Bengal has so far not acquired land or notified it to facilitate mineral extraction by private corporations in Jhargram subdivision. The government did allot vested land to the Jindal group’s steel plant in Shalboni. But the PCPA’s original charter of demands didn’t ask for closing down that project. They could have objected to the government’s decision to allot vested land to the corporate sector instead of distributing it to the landless without consulting the gram sabhas and gram sansad. They didn’t, though there is protest against the project in the area. We will continue our fight against the CPI(M) when it courts big capital compromising farmers and peoples’ interests. But it is a gross mistake to consider the CPI(M) as the enemy number one in the context of national politics. Its opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal is in tune with the broad left position.
It is clear that the Maoist project is completely different from your’s. They want to establish their own power base in the liberated zones in the process of setting up a parallel state by forcibly replacing the existing one. So their priorities are different. Kishenji complained that you have lost faith in revolution and now preach a reformed bourgeois democracy, a more inclusive and publicly accountable parliamentary democracy, that’s all.
I have not lost faith in an armed revolution. The existing state apparatus has to be smashed and a new state established. But I differ with both the CPI(M) and CPI (Maoist), for that matter, with many other CPI(ML) groups on the fundamental questions on the nature of the revolutionary state and role of communist party in it. Both the CPI(M) and CPI (Maoist) practices make it clear that they only want to establish their own one-party rule in the name of people’s democracy or proletarian dictatorship. But we can’t accept it after the Soviet and Chinese experiences.
The denial of democracy, both inside and outside the party, and the imposition of a one-party state was the main reason for the Soviet debacle. Mao was one of the greatest thinkers and revolutionaries of the 20th century. But even he couldn’t succeed in safeguarding proletarian dictatorship in China which has now degenerated into a capitalist heaven. This happened because it was the party’s dictatorship that was consolidated in the name of people’s democracy. There is no reason any more to believe that the rule of the communist party is synonymous with working class rule.
For Marx, the Paris commune was the embodiment of proletarian dictatorship in which representatives of armed workers and other toiling people, elected on the basis of universal franchise, replaced the existing state and exercised revolutionary power, both legislative and executive. All power to the Soviets was a fundamental call of the Russian revolution. I challenge Stalinism, for that matter, the Third International formulations which replaced the rule of Soviets by Communist Party rule, gradually wiping out all internal and external opposition. Rosa Luxemburg was one of the few revolutionary thinkers who foresaw the dangers posed to the Russian Revolution because of the denial of democracy.
In that case, you are also questioning Lenin who theorized on the seizure of power as a key question of the revolution and emphasized the vanguard role of the Communist Party in establishing and securing a proletarian dictatorship. He was still the supreme leader of the Bolsheviks when the party outflanked the Mensheviks and right social revolutionaries to ensure the passage of revolutionary decrees in the post-October Second Congress of Soviets, rejected the results of the constituent assembly poll in which Bolsheviks were a minority, concentrated all power in the party’s hand and dumped the key allies, the left social revolutionaries. All power to the Soviets became a facade for the establishment of Bolshevik rule. Rosa Luxemburg debated with Lenin on the fundamental questions of the Russian Revolution.
I stand by Lenin’s position on the key tasks of proletarian revolution as articulated in State and Revolution. Seizure of power is one half of Marxism-Leninism. Power to whom, who will replace whom – that was basic question posed by Lenin. Surely not to Kishenji and his party instead of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his party.
Second, we have to understand that no revolution in our age can be successful without addressing the question of democracy. The people of Russia and China had accepted the party’s rule in the name of the working class since bourgeois parliamentary democracy was rudimentary or non-existent in pre-revolutionary Russia and China. The same can’t be repeated in India where parliamentary democracy, despite all its weaknesses, has taken root down to the villages. Revolutionaries have to move ahead in India, not by diminishing parliamentary democracy but by expanding it. For us, the basic question should be more and more power to the people in order to make democracy meaningful in the lives of the millions. And our acceptance of opposition to the ruling party, freedom of minority voices, must be an integral part of a vibrant and participatory democracy.
The activists and intellectuals close to the Maoists have pointed out that none other than the masses of Lalgarh should decide who will lead them and it was they who had rejected the parliamentary parties and accepted the leadership of the CPI (Maoist). The rebels have set up their own version of people’s power, executing it alongside alternative development plans with the active participation of the people. So why grudge it?
There is no democracy in the so-called people’s committees and people’s courts. Kishenji and his party are just aping the CPI(M) and Trinamul fiefdoms. The Maoists squads dictate everything in the name of the people. Any dissenter risks being beaten, even killed. They are forcing people to join their rallies, extracting tax from them, compelling supporters of the CPI(M) and other political parties to give undertakings at the point of a gun. They have turned the people of Lalgarh into cannon fodder.
The villagers faced bullets and one of them died when Maoists clashed with paramilitary forces on the day of blockade of the Rajdhani Express. The villagers didn’t know about their plan for a blockade and landed in a soup. The Maoists had to pay three lakh rupees as compensation to the deceased family after the villagers confronted them. In fact they are not only following the LTTE military line but also its political line. Prabhakaran had exterminated all other Tamil groups. In the end, he got exterminated. The Maoist experiments in alternative development are all sham. They are not interested in schools, health centres or road building. These are basically ideas of some city-based sympathizers, attempted half-heartedly. The region is poor. Where will the money for development come from? Why don’t they win the panchayat polls and use government money with people’s supervision? After all, it’s the people’s money.
The CPI(M) is constantly harping on the Maoist-Mamata Banerjee nexus. What is your reaction to it?
Both sides tried to use each other in sheer opportunism. It happened in Nandigram earlier. For rhetoric’s sake, Maoists described Mamata as a part of the big-bourgeois state. But in practice, they are soft on Mamata and her party as the CPI(M) has become their common enemy. Recently, Mamata, under pressure from the Centre thundered against the Maoists and the CPI(M). But she offered an olive branch to the Maoists only a few days later. Kishenji’s open letters to her and sound bytes on television also reveal the blow hot blow cold affair between them.
Did you ever speak to Kishenji or other CPI (Maoist) leaders to sort out the differences?
I tried to speak to him but got no response. I spoke to some other leaders of the party and got the impression that they didn’t approve of all that he had done. But the party is ultimately responsible for whatever is going on.
Judging by your harsh criticism of the CPI (Maoist), it appears that you and your allies are not opposed to the Centre-state joint security operation or the massive crackdown planned by the Home Minister.
In no way do we condone state repression on the people of Junglemahal as well as on the Maoists as it will legitimize the designs of forces of globalization and their lackeys in India to turn the country into a police state in the name of internal security and jeopardize whatever democracy the people of India have achieved. On behalf of Jharkhand Andolan Samannaya Mancha, we have urged all sides to resume talks in order to restore the democratic atmosphere in Lalgarh and adjoining areas, so that Maoists, CPI(M) as well as other forces can preach their politics without fear of police or political repression. We want all sides to focus on development of the backward region with an elected, publicly accountable autonomous council at the helm of affairs. People must have the right to recall their representatives down to the village level.