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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 31 New Delhi July 20, 2019

A Naxalite of a Distinctive Strain

Saturday 20 July 2019

TRIBUTE

by Sankar Ray

“If you set your foot in Gopiballabhpur, you won’t feel you are in Bengal. The Chhotanagpur plateau meets the catchment of Subarnarekha river here. The soil texture around is red and crumbled save a few villages. Both tillers and bullocks bleed their feet when they plough their soil for seed-bed preparation. Nobody speaks Bengali excepting outsiders who dwell here for livelihood like some school teachers and employees at community development blocks and forest directorates. When someone comes from Calcutta, villagers say in their dialect, ‘Jhaney Bangali asichi’ (The stranger is a Bengali).” These were the words of Santosh Rana, a short while after he defeated the CPI-M nominee, Abani Satpathy, from the Gopiballabhpur Assembly constituency of undivided Midnapur district by a margin of 1687 votes in 1977. A dreaded Naxalite leader, he was behind bars when he fought the electoral battle as an independent candidate as the CPI-ML was not a registered a political party. He won despite having been deprived of campaigning for himself nor did anyone dare to seek votes for the armed revolutionary. He was then with the Satya-narayan Sinha group of the CPI-ML with which he had been associated as a Central Committee member until 2016. He quit it over differences on tactical line.

Rana was the undisputed Naxalite leader of Gopiballabhpur-Debra region. The region at that time retained the feel of a ‘liberated’ strip that was up in revolt in November 1969. In two days, 11 rifles were snatched from the local jotedars by the landless peasants. ‘Poverty-stricken Adivasis—Mals, Santhals, Mundas— weavers and fisherfolk from 60-70 villages harvested crops from jotedars’ holdings in a festive mood stupefying the latter and police administration,’ quipped Rana. Later, Rana, released from Midnapur Jail following amnesty for all political prisoners by the CPI-M-led Left Front Government in 1977, said, “The raids to the big landowners were revolt sans violence,” although he disclosed that some 120 of the other side of rebellious peasants were killed.

But Rana was defeated by over 20,000 votes from the same Assembly seat by a CPI-M candidate in 1982. Rana had sensed this possibility. He stated this in an interview: “I witnessed the panchayat vote in Jangalmahal in 1978. It resembled a festival. There were contests, mild quarrels...The panchayats were yet to receive funds. Later, when a gram panchayat was allocated Rs 5000, the dwellers felt a breeze of liberation. They thronged at panchayat offices with curiosity about how much money was received and how was it used, meaning that all this was for them. People felt, ‘we have achieved something’.”

That was Santosh Rana with a distinctive gene, very different from many Naxalite leaders and intellectuals who are/were conceited, arrogant and lacking the guts to delve in genuine self-criticism.

He was the first and last elected Naxalite legislator in West Bengal. He plunged into politics somewhat suddenly. After cracking first class first in M.Tech (Applied Physics) from the University of Calcutta, he began research for Ph.D at the Rajabazar campus of the University College of Science in Calcutta and simultaneously worked on a research project. The Naxalite call for ‘liberation’ was too magnetic for Santosh Rana to continue research for Ph.D, and keep working on a research project.

The rest is history.

Gopiballabhpur-Debra became a ‘liberated zone’ of Naxalites for months together under the leadership of Santosh Rana. His yearning for developing a we-feeling among the ‘wretched of the earth’ singularly contributed to this feat. A few seminars this writer participated with Rana created a distinct impression that he sought to learn from the extremely backward strata of people unlike the subaltern historians’ viewing from above.

Rana was awarded Ananda Puraskar for his autobiographical book, Rajneetir Ek Jeeban (A Life in Politics). Unexpected as it seemed to him, his first reaction was, ‘It lacks literary quality’— typically Santosh Rana-like. There he was silent about the police atrocities unlike almost all reminiscences from the Naxalite leaders. His answer reads as follows: “The Naxalite struggle was virtually reduced to a fight between Naxals and police.The picture was either Naxals were killing the police or the police were killing the Naxals, whosoever got the opportunity. But the content was quite different. I tried to state the crises that emerged, the yearning for changes thereof, for which the struggle had grown. To me, therefore, far more essential was the usury, zamindari system, feudalism and caste system that together were like a mammoth rock suppressing for 2000 years and more important to side with the masses in their effort to end the structural monolith.” Small wonder, Rana was to some political analysts in the last decades of his life a non-violent Naxalite.

He used to think and work with historical consciousness. In his last years while suffering from advanced stage of cancer, he was appealing to the Left parties to initiate a process toward uniting all those who are opposed to the Fascistic threat emanating from the BJP and its sister organisations of the RSS “whose ideology is Fascism in the mould of majoritarian communalism”. He was not pathologically opposed to the ruling All India Trinamul Congress in Bengal but in 1918 he forewarned that the propensity of the AITC would create space for the BJP.

I do not think his understanding of Marx and Marxian theories was sound. But he had the Marxian temper to learn from the people belonging to socio-economically weaker sections ever since he dived into the whirlwind of politics, something rarely found among the official Marxists in India. His mundane innings ended on June 29 at the age of 75.

He was arrested in 1972. Eminent Marxist scholar Paresh Chattopadhyay in an e-mail to this scribe wrote: “I am saddened by the demise of Santosh with whom I had ‘worked’ for a period. I liked his persona. He used to come to my house during his underground period. Later he had arranged my talks to his fellow workers. We were also arrested the same night.”

A senior journalist based in Kolkata, the author specialises in Left politics and history.

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