Fighting for relevance
"THE revolution is not dead. The problem is that people see the naxalite movement as a purely violent one," says Darshan Singh Khatkar, secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) New Democracy, one of Punjab's largest naxalite parties. He is involved in reviving the naxalite movement in the State.
The movement, after breaking away from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) because it did not want to join the electoral process of a "comprador" state, soon entered what naxalite leaders call the "glorious phase of people's struggle". This phase lasted until 1969-70 and succeeded in radicalising a large section of the youth by linking itself to the students movement. However, there was a gradual shift from the agitation and resistance mode to targeted violence. In 1969, the CPI(M-L) formally adopted a policy of elimination of "class enemies". "This shift from systemic critique of the status quo towards a policy of individual armed annihilation alienated the movement from the people," says Amolak Singh, general secretary of the Lok Morcha Punjab, an open front that has ties with several naxalite organisations. Punjab's political establishment was unimpressed by the policy of annihilation, and by 1970-71, Amolak Singh says, the movement had lost 90 cadre to police action; many more were tortured and several went missing.
By 1972, the movement had changed decisively from a "glorious people's struggle" to a fringe movement. Over the years, it has spilt many times into new formations, each espousing a different formula for revolution. However, they all shared one fundamental weakness - a failure to understand the complex ground realities in Punjab. While the first phase of agitation was successful, largely owing to the rhetorical appeal of the movement, the second, which constituted structural changes, proved difficult. "The socio-economic conditions in Punjab are very different from those in the Compact Revolutionary Zone," admits Darshan Singh Khatkar. "Punjab does not, and did not, have the kind of land concentration that was seen in the rest of the country."
The land reforms of 1971-72 restricted land holding in the State to seven hectares in the case of land irrigated for two crops and 20.5 hectares in the case of dry land. The Land Ceiling Act was often flouted, but that did not create the sharp divisions necessary for a widespread uprising for land rights. Instead, local resistance was building on issues such as minimum support price and the escalating costs of agricultural inputs following the Green Revolution - issues that did not occupy central spaces in the naxalite programmes. "By adopting a policy of indiscriminate killing of landlords, the naxalites killed a lot of people who were seen as protecting peasant interests," says Balvir Parwana, a journalist with a Punjabi-language newspaper. "Most landlords were oppressive and tyrannical. Exposing their tyranny would have won the naxalites an important mass base. By killing them, the naxalites only made the landlords appear to be martyrs."
Dr. Paramjit Singh Judge, author of Insurrection to Agitations: The Naxalite Movement in Punjab, told Frontline that the movement was predominately a Jat Sikh-led one. This restricted its reach to the middle peasantry. In spite of the active presence of revolutionary Dalit poets such as Lal Singh Dil and a few Dalit leaders, Dalits, who comprise almost a third of Punjab's population and almost all of its landless tenants, were not mobilised. Under pressure from the Indian state, these internal contradictions were only accentuated, and by the late 1970s, the naxalites had lost the plot completely, he said.
In the early 1980s, the Khalistan Movement sounded the death knell for the naxalite movement. Not known for their policy of negotiation or appeasement, the Khalistanis eliminated all those who stood up to them. Acting on Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale's assertion to get rid of all those who denied the existence of God, the Khalistanis killed communists of all shades systematically. The ones who embraced the Khalistan Movement were, however, spared. Former naxalites are quick to point out that a limited number of cadre deflected, that too in their individual capacity. At least one group - the Paigam (or Veenu) group led by Malvinder Malli - joined hands with the Khalistanis on the issue of Punjabi nationalism.
Today, the naxalite movement in Punjab is a largely fragmented one, its constituents differing principally on the relationship between it and the existing political process. While New Democracy regularly fights local and State elections, other naxalite organisations prefer to distance themselves from the electoral process. These parties are also divided on somewhat cabalistic issues of intellectual debate.
The movement seems to be fighting for relevance in the State. Poverty, inequality and oppression have not been eradicated, and Punjabi society is still recovering from the trauma of militancy and state repression. In this situation, any group that suggests an armed insurrection against the state is unlikely to win a large support base.
Also, by turning their back to the existing political process, many groups have painted themselves into a corner. Since they have neither a mass base nor an armed militia, the naxalites have no real means of exerting pressure on the state. On the other hand, the groups that have chosen to fight the elections, such as the New Democracy, are yet to show any results of consequence. Party leaders, however, concede that fighting elections has brought them a degree of legitimacy they previously lacked. "We also realised that we were in no position to implement the boycott," a senior leader admitted.
While they have successfully organised village-level agitations against corrupt government officials and police intimidation, larger systemic changes seem unlikely at present. By conceding their demands, the state will only grant legitimacy to a movement that is decidedly anti-state. While "land to the tiller" and "a complete transformation of the existing system" still top the naxalite manifesto, the movement has been forced to accommodate less glamorous, yet equally important, issues such as exploitation by moneylenders and commission agents, minimum support price for farm produce, and free electricity for farmers. There is a growing realisation that for the common man, the link between small everyday struggle for work, food and security and larger issues such as the World Trade Organisation agreements and neo-liberal reforms is tenuous at best.
"Today they do not take up day-to-day issues, then how can you expect them to take up guns?" asks a cadre from the Communist Party Reorganisation Centres of India (M-L).