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Nigel Harris


The Naxalites and the Bangla-Deshi Left

(December 1971)

From the International Socialism, Internal Bulletin, December 1971.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford, September 2012.
Marked up Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The information on both these topics is very unreliable, but for what it is worth, an outline of the known organisations and their politics is given below for the guidance of people involved either in work with Indians and Bengalis or faced with the impudent glossiness of the IMG.

The Naxalites

Virtually any form of violent opposition in India now is called ‘Naxalite’, whether it is straight banditry (dacoity) or politically motivated terrorism. This makes it difficult to assess the political significance of the Naxalite movement proper. What follows concerns one group of Naxalites, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) CPML.

This group, under Charu Mozumdar, broke away or was expelled from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPM (itself the result of the split in the CP following the Indo-Chinese border clash of 1962). The breakaway came because of the policies pursued by the CPM as part of the United Front Government of 1967. Early in 1967, CPM cadres from the party’s Maoist wing, in defiance of the leadership, started a movement to seize land and physically liquidate landlords and police in an area of North Bengali Naxalbari (whence ‘Naxalite’). The movement spread through particular incidents into neighbouring States, and took up an earlier agitation (the girijan movement) in the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh. At first, the ether Left parties denounced the movement – the pro-Moscow CPI called it romantic adventurism; the CPM said it was run by CIA agents to break up India – but then, in 1969-70, they also led ‘land grab’ movements to pressurise for more radical land reform and head off the threat on their left. By December 1969, the Indian Home Ministry reported 346 major and minor movements for the forcible occupation of the land throughout India, usually led by the CPI and CPM (incidents were concentrated in Bengal and Kerala, but there were also reported activities in Assam, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Tamilnad, Orissa, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujerat, Mysore). So widespread did the movement become that students wrecking examination halls and bandits holding up peasants began to call themselves Maoists and Naxalites.

The CPML leadership rejected the argument that the dense communication network and effective armed forces of India made a creation of a Yenan base (as was done in China) impossible. The base was to be created in the minds of the peasants. Basic units of 6 to 7 cadres, led by a ‘petit bourgeois comrade’, supported by poor peasants, should carry out exemplary murders of notorious landlords or policemen with whatever weapons were to hand (viz., not guns, but choppers, spears, javelins, sickles etc.) and then persuade peasant support for further actions of the same kind. In Naxalbari as in most other areas, the police and army however were, after a time, able to put down such movements, or at least contain them. The most successful action came among the most backward people, the tribes, rather than ordinary peasants, and, in particular at Srikakulam. But even here it was very difficult, and lack of success constantly produced splits within the CPML (in any ease, it was almost impossible for the CPML to control its units in the field). From late 1969, Calcutta cadres were despatched to hold Srikakulam and to develop a ‘liberated area’ at Debra-Gopivallabpur in the Midnapore district of West Bengal. By March 1970, the West Bengal area was back under the control of the police, the CPML had an important split (with the Pratap Singh group), and Charu Mazumdar directed his cadres to return to Calcutta, ostensibly to counter the ‘white terror’ developing between the 14 parties within the new United Front government of West Bengal (within which the CPM was overwhelmingly the most important). Initially the CPML undertook hit and run assaults on the police, and then later only on ‘anti-Naxalite’ police (that is, known police supporters of the CPM). But this tactic did not succeed in creating a mass movement, and led to countless deaths (more from the attacks of the established parties’ thugs on each other than the CPML intervention) and imprisonments. 2,400 have been gaoled. A Central Government report alleges that between March 1970 and March 1971 Naxalites killed 318, and lost 168. These are almost certainly wild underestimates of the number of deaths, and wild overestimates of the role of the CPML. The toll reached its peak last August when Congress gangsters purged a whole area of Calcutta, slaughtering up to 100 people (the Baranagar-Cossipore massacre). The CPML appears to have had no perspective in this work, nor to have linked it to its rural activity. Peking, formerly ardent in its praise of the CPML, ignored the CPML working in Calcutta. Nor was the Mazundar leadership able to retain its control or its non-Bengal groups – CPML units in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Jammu and Kashmir rejected Mazumdar’s leadership. The Srikakulan unit, in November 1970, rejected the ‘annihilation’ tactic, and turned to trying to build mass rural organisations, for which it was denounced by the official CPML paper, Deshabrati, as ‘neo-revisionist’.

In March of this year, Mazumdar made a new turn and order his Calcutta cadres out of the city to build a new ‘struggle zone’ at Birbhum (a rural district).

From 1967, the CPML had links with the East Bengal Left, in particular the Toha group (cf. the next section on this). Like the Toha group, the CPML opposed the demand for an independent Bangla Desh, or even a greater degree of provincial autonomy. In April of this year, after the West Pakistan military attacked the Bengalis, CPML posters in Calcutta denounced the ‘so-called upheaval’ in East Pakistan as ‘an imperialist conspiracy against China’. Cadres did flow between East Bengal and India as the border controls weakened in February, but the degree of formal unity is not clear. Deshbrati continued to attack Mujibur Rabnan as agent of the Bengali kulaks and business, observing – correctly – that ‘the Mujibur clique does not say anything against imperialist investments in Pakistan or in favour of redistributing land among the peasants or voice any demand for better wages for workers’ (May 1st, 1971). The fact that the generals had been consistently ‘pro-China’ was a progressive factor not to be ignored – ‘Although Pakistan is associated with the imperialist block through different links, it has not yet been possible to wholly involve it in any anti-Chinese military conspiracy or power block as is the case of India’ (May 1st, 1971). Accordingly, the independence movement could be very dangerous for China – ‘as a result of Sheikh Mujibur's victory in East Bengal, the danger of (reactionary and revisionist forces) establishing a military base here against China and the liberation movements in India, Burma and south east Asia has increased’ (letter, Feb 4th). It follows that India, rather than the Pakistan military, is the main enemy since it opposes China; the July slogans in Calcutta express this – ‘India Government! Hands off Pakistan! Let the Pakistani people decide their own future’.

The East Bengal Left

The Awami League has dominated East Pakistan politics throughout much of the independence period, and established an important position in the struggle to make Bengali a national language in Pakistan in the mid-fifties. In 1957 – just before the military coup d’etat which brought General Ayub Khan to power – Maulana Bashani was the President of the Awami League. Around him he gathered much of what had been the Communist Party (banned in the early fifties). In that year, he broke with the AL after a fight within it in which he had argued that the leading member of the League, Hussein Sahid Suhrawardy (at that time, Prime Minister of Pakistan) was aiming to Americanise the country and stifle the demand for greater provincial autonomy for the East. He was opposed by Mujibur Rahman (then General Secretary of the AL) who supported Suhrawardy and rejected the demand for greater provincial autonomy – Mujib argued that because Suhrawardy, a Bengali, was Prime Minister, this was equal to 98 per cent autonomy for the East. Maulana called for a new party – and attracted the Pakistan National party (which brought support from minority groups in the West, particularly the Pathans) and Mohamed Toha’s Ganatantra Dal, along with Maulana’s base in the AL. The result was the National Awami Party (NAP). Much of the party leadership went to gaol or underground after the coup. Maulana was released from gaol in Nov. 1962 and refused to join a united front, the National Democratic Front, to oppose Ayub Khan, In 1963, he visited Peking, and returned to praise Ayub Khan’s China policy and the general’s aim of ‘Islamic socialism’.

The Sino-Soviet split began the disintegration of the NAP. Without very clear politics, Maulana, by default, headed the pro-Peking NAP, in opposition to the pro-Moscow NAP after its best known leader in West Pakistan). But there were also increasing difficulties within the pro-Peking NAP, particularly after the outbreak of the Naxalite movement in India. Members of thi Maulana’s group began to denounce him for petit bourgeois opportunism as embodied in the notion of ‘Islamic socialism’. Then Maulana tried to expel his leading associates, and the group disintegrated. The pro-Moscow NAP participated in the general elections last December (1970) on the same programme as Mujibur Rahman and the AL. (Mujib refused a united front with this group), and won a provincial assembly seat in Sylhet (the Wali Khan NAP in West Pakistan won 6 national assembly seats – 3 from Baluchistan, 3 from the North West Frontier; this group had lost an important section of members to Bhutto’s PPP, and was in any case in disarray over the question of more autonomy for Bengal).

The main NAP disintegrated, but Maulana committed the rump still remaining to him to the aim of an independent Bangla Desh (Jan. 1971). Apart from the Maulana’s NAP, there appear to be at least seven groups operating that claim to be communist or socialist. Four of these claim to be Maoist and followers of Charu Mazumdar in West Bengal, although only one (the Shiraj Shikdar group) appears to have actually undertaken terrorist work. The groups are

  1. The best known group, led by Mohammed Toha and Abdul Huq. This group appears to be most favoured by China and to have the links with Charu Mazumdar. It claims 80 per cent of the old Communist Party membership, and is, since 1970, called the Communist Party of East Pakistan (Marxist Leninist), CPEPML. Toha is an ex-student leader, underground till 1967, then reorganised the NAP and became its general secretary (1967–8). He was also up until the split, President of the East Bengal Labour Federation. In late 1969, he clashed with Maulana over an alleged CIA document found on a dead student arguing for an Indo-Pakistan confederation against China. Huq was the secretary of the powerful East Bengal Peasant Organisation. The group has its main base in the rural areas of Jessore and Khulna district. Toha opposed Mujib as a US agent aiming to break up Pakistan as part of an imperialist plot to defeat China. He argued that the main contradiction in Pakistan ‘is not between East Bengal and West Pakistan but between feudalism and the oppressed classes in East Bengal itself’. The first task was to destroy the landlords and petty businessmen of East Bengal, i.e., the Awami League. In some ways, this was a dilution of the original first task – to build an all-Pakistan worker and peasant movement.
  2. The Dr Abdul Matin and Dr Alauddin group. Matin, son of a small landlord from Pabna, was gaoled in the 1952 land movement, a peasant organiser to 1956 in the Awami League, underground during Ayub Khan's martial law period. Alauddin, son of a rich peasant from Kusthia, was a founder member of the Communist Party. The group is mainly organised in the rural areas of Panna district, but is said to have some following in parts of Jessore district and in north Bengal. It once had a following among Chittagong workers, but lost it to the Shiraj Shikdar group (cf. 3. below) on the Bangla Desh issue. Its student organisation (Purba Banga Chhatra Union : East Bengal Students Union) is reported to have virtually disappeared; its worker organisation is: Purba Pakistan Shramik Federation (East Pakistan Labour Federation).
  3. Shiraj Shikdar-Basher group, formerly part of 2. above. This group is mainly student and youth, and the most ‘Naxalite’ in practice – it introduced military training and began the manufacture of bombs before March. It is very small, mainly in the Barisal district, but with some following in Chittagong and Khulna district.
  4. The Kazi Jaffar (or Zafar) – Rashed Khan Menon group (Zafar-Menon group). Menon is the son of a Dacca High Court judge (later Speaker in Ayub Khan’s National Assembly), and president of one of the two main student associations; originally CPEPML. The group is said to have a base among metal workers and cotton workers at the Tongi (outside Dacca) and elsewhere. It is said to have worker support in Sylhet, Khulna (at Bagherhat) and rural influence in Comilla district. Its student organisation is Biplabi Chhatra Union (Revolutionary Students Union); its labour group, Purba Banga Shamrik Federation. The group is for an ‘independent socialist East Bengal’, and co-operates with the Maulana NAP in guerilla warfare. It is the most working class and least Maoist of these.

There are three other, non-maoist, groups:

  1. The Shranik-Krishak Samajbadi Dal (Workers’ and Peasants’ Socialist Party), formed in 1969. It has mainly working class support (or so they say), particularly among jute workers. One of its leaders – Janab Abdul Mannan (elected to the National Assembly last December) split to join the new Awami League labour organisation (Shramik League). As a result, the SKSD lost much of its base, but retained some support in towns (Chanpur, Bhairab, Shila) and some rural areas (Barisal, Comilla, Noakhali districts). Its labour organisation is the Samyukta Shramik Federation (United Labour Federation); its student, Samajbadi Chhatra Jet (Socialist Students Federation).
  2. The Mali Khan NAP which now claims to be the Pakistan Communist Party. Leading members include Abdul Salam (general secretary), Mani Singh, Professor Muzaffar Ahmed (President of the Bangla Desh branch of the party). Its politics are hardly distinguished from the Awami League in Bengal. In West Pakistan, its factions are united only by the name. Its student organisation (under Mrs. Matia) was very important in the spring events.
  3. The Communist Party of Bangla Desh – mainly middle class, but claims worker support and also that of peasants in a rural area of Dacca district. It has a student organisation, Bangladesh Chhatra Union.

The first four organisations above, whatever their attitude to the struggle for an independent Bangla Desh, were deliberately excluded by the Awami League from the ‘National Liberation Front’, created last August by the AL, the Maulana NAP, the Mali Khan (or Muzzaffar Ahmed) NAP and the Communist Party of Bangla Desh. All political groups, other than the AL, were excluded from the Provisional Government set up in Calcutta.


Nigel Harris
Camden IS

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