Hathighisa, under the Naxalbari block in north Bengal, is a one-horse town. At the mouth of the village, where a cluster of tin shops sell Wai Wai noodles and Gutka masala, everyday gossip is the hotseller. People want to know whose son was seen with whose daughter at the mall in Siliguri town, which is barely a half-an-hour drive away. People want to know whose land was sold to which promoter.
It's hard to believe that 50-years-ago, people's movement in India started in this very area. From the early 1960s, peasants and tea garden workers in the area had started showing their dissent against the oppressive jotedari system — a feudal land-holding and taxation policy that prevailed in rural India. From the crops farmer's produced, almost 80 per cent was handed over to the jotedar or landowner.
These peasants and tea garden workers went on to find leaders in educated Marxists like Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal. They started sit-in protests on farmland across the state. On May 24, 1967, a policeman was killed by an arrow shot by farmers. In retaliation, the police opened fire at a crowd the next day, killing 11 people, including eight women and two infants.
That was the birth of the Naxalbari Movement.
A year ago, when I went to Hathigisa, to cover the 2016 West Bengal Assembly Elections, I met Shanti Munda, one of the last surviving rebels of the Naxalbari movement. Munda, 73, who stays with her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren not very far from the very ground where the massacre took place, sounded disillusioned.
"This generation doesn't care for our struggles,' she said.
One the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Naxalbari, when Shanti Munda had a telephonic conversation with ScoopWhoop News, she claimed that there is very little point of recounting the past. "I have been bombarded with media interviews, but what's the point of them. This generation will never understand Naxalbari. They are all fed dreams of capitalism," says Munda.
Munda was barely in her twenties when she joined the Naxalbari movement. Then, she was a woman who wanted a better life for her children. "All our produce were taken by the jotedar. A share also went to feed jotedar’s elephants, his horses… what was left was not even enough to buy us food twice a day," says Munda.
Today, Shanti Munda feels that a lot of what she has fought for is slipping away from her fingers. "A lot of us gave our life to save this land. But today, our children are manual labourers in cities. Our sons work as a carpenter in Siliguri, they bring home some money on some days… on other days, we go to sleep hungry," says Munda.
Another thing that worries Munda is the rampant saffronisation of rural Bengal. "How can we buy into their false promises? They divide us in the religion. They are more concerned with protecting cattle than people. Why has the nation's discourse stooped to this level? Why have we become nosey parkers who need to know who is eating what?" she asks.
Yet, Munda believes there is hope. "My granddaughter is into athletics. She lost her father when she was very young but she never stopped dreaming. Every morning, she wakes up before the crack of dawn to train, then she cycles to her college in Siliguri, which is about 20 kilometers away. I know a new Naxalbari will rise, and it will rise through the efforts of people like her," she says.
To know more about the Naxalbari Movement, read our companion piece: