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An understanding of the political shift of communist revolutionaries into Sikh activists and its relevance today

As we mark fifty years of the Naxalbari uprising, there is a need to revisit the circumstances that led to the transformation of ultra leftists to Sikh activists in Punjab to understand the relationship between the current Maoist insurgency in India and other nationality movements.

Naxalbari movement was sparked by a conflict between the tribals seeking land rights and the police in a West Bengal village in May, 1967. The clash had left 11 people dead laying the foundation of an armed struggle for radical political change that widely came to be known as Naxal movement.

Ironically, this happened while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was sharing power in a United Front government in the state. The Naxal leaders were previously part of the CPI (M) and feeling deceived parted ways to start a parallel communist movement across the country to bring a revolution through armed resistance as against electoral politics which they completely abandoned.

The Naxal leaders had not only rejected India’s freedom from the British occupation in 1947 as “sham”, but dubbed it as mere “transfer of power”. From their perspective, India was still a semi colonial power. They tried to embrace all the marginalized sections of the society into their class struggle and showed their solidarity with the oppressed communities such as Dalits and the people of Kashmir and Nagaland who have been fighting for the right to self determination ever since the British left.

They vehemently opposed the domination of Hindu supremacy and discrimination against languages and cultural identities of minority groups.

The Naxal movement had reached as far as Punjab where it had maximum support among the Dalits and marginalized farmers majority of whom belonged to the Sikh faith, a minority community in India. Both Dalits and marginalized farmers felt oppressed by the bourgeois and rich landlords. Thanks to an uneven growth brought by the technological advancement in the agricultural sector during 1960s- the gap between the rich and poor farmers had grown disproportionately.

Nearly 100 Naxal activists were killed in Punjab at the hands of the police that tried to crush the movement with an iron fist.

Though the Naxal movement never really died and continue to be active in the form of Maoist insurgency in central India, it was nearly decimated during early 1970s.

Within a span of eight years, the state of Punjab witnessed the emergence of another armed movement led by a fiery Sikh preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale under similar socio-economic conditions that gave birth to the Naxal uprising in the state.

Bhindranwale was the head of Damdami Taxal – a seminary that still remains influential and gained popularity among the Sikh youth that was facing agrarian crisis and unemployment. The political conditions of that time added to their growing list of grievances against the government. Around this time, the Akali Dal- a mainstream political party of the Sikhs had launched their struggle for special rights for Punjab and the Sikhs. Some of these demands were purely economical, such as control over river water distribution system that was shared with other states to enable maximum benefit to the farmers of Punjab-whose economy is largely based on agriculture.

Other issues were religious in nature and were born out of anxiety of the minority Sikh community that feared assimilation into the Hindu majority. The Akali Dal was asking for the recognition of the Punjabi language and the independent identity of the Sikh community within the constitutional framework.

Since the central government was not listening, the following of Bhindranwale grew and many youngsters became his disciples who were ready to take arms to resist. Among them was Nachattar Singh Rode- a former Naxal activist who had been involved in several high profile political actions in the past.

It was during 1975 when the Congress government in New Delhi imposed emergency and censorship and threw all opposition leaders in jail, Rode came into contact with Akali Dal leaders. Thus a transformation began, but he eventually became a Taxal under the influence of Bhindranwale only after a bloody episode of 1978- when several Sikh activists were shot and killed by the members of the controversial Nirankari sect whose belief system conflicted with the Sikhs. The incident happened when the Sikhs tried to confront the Nirankaris who were holding a conference in Amritsar, the holiest city of the Sikhs under the patronage of the state government. This whole issue was seen as an assault on the Sikh identity by Bhindranwale.

A section of the Hindu chauvinist media openly sided with the Nirankaris and that became a turning point in the life of Rode- who decided to kill Jagat Naraian – the Editor of Hind Samachar group that was known for its pro Hindu nationalist bias.

Jagat Narain was murdered by Rode in September 1981. This was the first high profile civilian death during decade long Sikh militancy in Punjab. Rode had served life term for the murder and by the time he was released in 1997 the Sikh militancy had ended partly due to police repression and partly because it lost its support due to excesses committed by the extremists.

During this time, if people like Rode had joined Sikh militant ranks there were other Naxals who got locked in a bloody fight with the Sikh radicals. Among the prominent ones were Paash and Jaimal Singh Padda- who were murdered in 1988 by the supporters of Sikh homeland of Khalistan. They were among 300 communists who were systematically killed in Punjab by the Sikh militants. This was despite the fact that both Paash and Padda had raised their voice against state repression of Sikhs, apart from questioning the demand for a theocratic Sikh state where the future of non Sikhs would have been unsafe.After all, the Sikh extremists had killed many innocent Hindus.

Yet, Paash and Padda pulled no punches while criticizing the state for organizing violence against innocent Sikhs, particularly the one orchestrated in 1984 following the assassination of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Paash went to the extent of writing a seditious poem in protest against the anti Sikh pogrom, whereas Padda had been vocal against the constant harassment of ordinary Sikhs by the police in the name of war against terrorism.

Years later, a Sikh separatist leader whose organization was responsible for the murders of the two men had acknowledged in his diary that they shouldn’t have killed such activists who stood up against state violence. But he had no regrets for the killings of the mainstream communists, including the CPI (M) who he believed remained indifferent to the sufferings of the Sikhs and were closely aligned with the power for the sake of “unity and integrity” of India. Notably, when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs to flush out handful of extremists, including Bhindranwale in June 1984- the parliamentary communists did not come out openly against the army invasion that alienated the Sikhs from the Indian mainstream and strengthened the Khalistan movement. So much so, they either justified police violence or remained mute spectator to state repression.

Though many political pundits will argue that the two movements were not compatible as one was aimed at bringing a revolution through class war, while other was aimed at bringing a political change only for one religious group, there are some important similarities that cannot be overlooked to understand the common root cause of people’s movements and the character of real enemy.

While there is little doubt that the Naxal movement has a broader appeal as it encompasses both the class and the identity issues, the pro Khalistan struggle despite being a nationality movement with a limited scope was an outcome of the structural violence and injustice the two reasons that bred Naxalism in the first place.

Rode’s testimony helps in understanding the issue more clearly. He being a Sikh farmer with small land holding got carried away by the Naxal movement for mainly economical reasons. As the situation remained unchanged, the identity politics overwhelmed him completely when the Sikh farmers found themselves under attack both on account of their class and religious identity in a Hindu dominated India.

The time gap between the end of Naxal era and the emergence of Bhindranwale is not very long. A quick transformation was therefore very natural. That the Naxals too were supportive of right to self determination might have influenced men like Rode’s decision to join the Sikh militant ranks.

In the later years, the Khalistani militants also held parallel courts like Naxals and boycotted elections. Both targeted the parliamentary communists and other mainstream political parties through violence. They also tried to bring social reforms by the use of gun. In the end, both Naxals and Khalistanis met the same fate- forced disappearance, tortures and fake encounters.

In a nutshell the Indian state was there common enemy, but in the absence of any candid conversation on ideological differences to find out a common ground to resist against structural violence and repression of the majoritarian democracy they both turned against each other. Apart from the murders of Paash and Padda, there were occasional skirmishes between the two sides. Both sides missed an opportunity to sit down and figure out who the real enemy was.

Today when under a right wing Hindu nationalist government the attacks on the Maoist supporters and other minority nationalist groups have increased it becomes necessary to go into the depth of the issue to find a shared space for a dialogue to create a broader resistance movement that needs to focus on people’s unity over religious fanaticism or even outright rejection of identity issues bothering minority communities. For that both sides will have to honestly acknowledge their mistakes and do some soul searching and move forward with a new vision.

Revisiting the case of Rode and Taxals might have some answers to challenge the biggest internal security threat to India which is not the Maoist insurgents, as the Indian authorities are trying to make us believe but the Hindu supremacy. If the list of banned terror groups on India’s National Investigation Agency is any indication – the Khalistanis, besides Naxals and other minority nationalist struggle groups still remain the target of the Indian forces, whereas the name of any Hindu supremacist organization involved in terrorism is missing.

Gurpreet Singh is a Canada- based journalist who publishes Radical Desi- a monthly magazine that covers alternative politics.

3 Comments

  1. Jaspal Singh Sidhu says:

    The write-up has overstretched and misrepresented the nearest and known past ,sociology and ideological issues prevailed in 1960s onward and still prevailing in Punjab to fit in a pre-conceived notion of the writer–that is–to establish some sort of analogy between Naxals and Sikh militants(rhythmically put as Taxals). It is totally confused and jumbled up analysis which jig-jagged amidst two poles–sympathy with communist movement and fear or aversion against the prowling Hindutva which seamed to be storming its way from present majoritarian rule into Hindu Rashtra dispensation.
    None of the communists participated in the Sikh militancy expect a few (could be counted on fingers) those who had ceased to be communists and stopped believing in ‘class theory’ and inevitability of ‘proletarian revolution’.Less be said and discussed about Paash and Padda and their ilk is better as the first and foremost target of the communists was and still is the ‘Identity politics’ dubbing it communal or what not.The formal sort of criticism of the organized Indian State repression has been just for record-sake . Some naxals are still active and running a big group in Punjab who had secured arms from the State and they were the first to throw an open challenge to the Sikh militants.They even fought a ‘battle’ against the Sikh militants in a village near Kotkapura in 1991. That communist group lost more than a dozen comrades besides injuries to several of their other colleagues. On other side, the Sikh militants who escaped from there were killed by police later on. Nachhattar had a different story that what is oversimplified narration given in the article.This is not the space to explain that.
    Better, the Punjab situation be studied deeply keeping one free from strong perceptions spread around by so-called left nationalist intellectuals and university academicians who are copycats of the western interpretation and idiom.

  2. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The ideology of bhagat Singh is still a source of inspiration to many activists and maoists . The naxalite movement supported Punjab Sikh struggle for self determination and liberation from oppression from the ruling classes. Though there may not have been significant and historical struggles, naxalism had it’s presence

  3. Sumanta Banerjee says:

    I understand some of the points made by Gurpreet Singh – identifying the agrarian crisis in Punjab as the main source that first drew a generation of Sikh youth towards the Naxalite movement, and then some time later drove members of the same generation to the Khalistani movement from a feeling of Sikh identity crisis. But he has ignored an important factor. Bhindranwale was initially propped up by Indira Gandhi to oppose the Akali Dal in her game of playing politics in Punjab – a well-recorded fact. As usually happens with such agents, Bhindranwale acquired an autonomy of his own and turned out to be a Frankenstein threatening his one-time patron, Indira Gandhi. Did he recruit the disgruntled ex-Naxalite armed youth to serve his religio-political agenda ? This needs further investigation. Meanwhile, Gurpreet should also probe deeper into the differences between the ideological goal of the Naxalite movement to set up a socialist state and the religious goal of the Khalistani movement to set up a theocratic state. I remember – sometime in the early 1990s, during a jovial informal talk with some Naxalite-turned Khalistani activists of Punjab – I asked them: “Suppose, I want to join your movement and support your demand for Khalistan, will you accept me ?” After some hesitation, they said: “But you’re not a Sikh.” That showed up the exclusivist theocratic character of the movement…. Anyway… I congratulate Gurpreet Singh on reminding us of Punjab’s Communist poets like Paash who became martyrs while fighting the religious bigots. One name missing from his article is Gursharan Singh, the courageous theatre personality who kept up the old spirit of rebellion of the IPTA days, in the face of Khalistani fanaticism.