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Kanu Sanyal, the man who steered India’s Naxalite movement

On his 9th death anniversary, ThePrint recalls the life of Kanu Sanyal, who went from being a court clerk to driving the Naxalite uprising. 

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New Delhi: Kanu Sanyal, who was one of the architects of the Naxalite uprising, had hung himself on 23 March nine years ago at his residence in West Bengal’s Naxalbari, the epicentre of Left-wing extremism. If Charu Majumdar was the ideologue of the Naxalite movement, Sanyal was the one who steered the movement with an iron fist.

Born in 1932 in a middle-class Bengali family in Kurseong subdivision of Darjeeling district in north Bengal, Sanyal was the second youngest of his seven brothers. His father, Govinda Sanyal, worked as clerk in a court. Sanyal for a brief period took up the same job, but his political aspirations compelled him to quit.

Naxalbari movement gave meaning to Sanyal’s life

Sanyal joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) as a full-time worker in 1952. But, it was the Naxalbari movement that gave a new direction to Sanyal’s life. The movement, which was an armed uprising against big landowners, began from Naxalbari, a small village in north Bengal.

The peasants of Naxalbari had for centuries been exploited by the landowning classes. The one incident that triggered the movement was when a peasant named Bighul Kissan was attacked by a landowner. Following the incident, on 24 May 1967 when a bevy of policemen came to Naxalbari to look into the matter, a mob attacked the cops. A police officer died in the incident.

The next day, the police opened fire at a krishak sabha (farmers’ meet) and 11 people were killed. Following this, the uprising spread like a wildfire in the region with Sanyal at its helm.

Although the movement was crushed by then chief minister of West Bengal Siddharth Shankar Roy, the Naxalbari movement caught global attention. Even peasants from other states got influenced by the uprising.

Also read: EMS Namboodiripad, the communist CM who laid foundation of ‘Kerala model’

‘Movement failed due to improper party structure’

In an interview with Times of India, Sanyal said, “For us, 24 May 1967 is the Naxalbari Day. That day, the police were informed that some leaders involved with the movement were hiding in Boro Jhorojote village. There were no leaders there, but only a huge gathering of peasants and tea garden workers. One police officer was killed there. Since the peasants understood and accepted our politics and took up arms on their own, we celebrate that day as a victory of our political ideas. Other groups observe 25 May as Martyrs’ Day when 11 activists were killed.”

In the same interview, Sanyal had said that the major reason behind the failure of the movement was an improper party structure.

Trip to China

Sanyal along with three other comrades went to China in 1967, which remains one of the most fascinating bits of his life. Sanyal was inspired by Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong’s philosophy that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’.

In China, Sanyal and other comrades received training from People’s Liberation Army to strengthen their armed uprising. Kanu wrote in his report named Terai Report that, “We met Mao, Chou En Lai and the commander in chief. Mao’s advice was: whatever you learn in China, try to forget it. Go to your own country, try to understand the specific situation and carry the revolution forward.”

Influenced by Mao, Majumdar and Sanyal formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) in 1969 to launch armed uprising. According to a Frontline report, Majumdar tried to endorse his version of Naxalism unanimously and claimed that the formation of CPI(M-L) was the beginning of ‘War of Annihilation’. It was during this period when ideological differences between Sanyal and Majumdar began to crop up that later got more pronounced.

Differences between Sanyal and Charu

Sanyal first met Majumdar in jail in 1949. Sanyal was imprisoned for waving a black flag against then Congress chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy for putting a ban on the CPI in 1948. Charu at that time was the district secretariat of CPI. The duo differed on their views related to the armed uprising.

The University of British Columbia did a review on Sanyal’s autobiography written by Bappaditya Paul in which the differences between him and Majumdar were clearly mentioned.

Majumdar was against nurturing mass organisation, which he saw as a “revisionist tool that would weaken the revolutionary zeal of the comrades” and the focus should be on the formation of small combat groups that would annihilate the enemy class (landowners and high level state officials) secretly.

On the other hand, Sanyal was of the opinion that armed rebellion should take place after mass agitation, which according to him, was the primary reason behind the success of the 1967 uprising.

Majumdar in 1965 came up with his Historic Eight Documents in which he mentioned the need to revive party politics and also published his ideology of annihilation of enemy class, which was strongly condemned by Sanyal. According to Sanyal, Majumdar ‘wrongly projected the true spirit of Naxalbari movement’.

In the same interview with The Times of India, Sanyal said Majumdar’s ‘annihilation of class enemy’ line was a historical blunder and also a fundamental deviation from Marxism-Leninism and Mao’s philosophies.

His 7 years of imprisonment

Sanyal was jailed in 1970 for seven years in Visakhapatnam in connection with the Parvatipuram conspiracy case, which was a revolt against landowners of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. In 1977, West Bengal had heralded in a Communist government and its chief minister Jyoti Basu had personally intervened to ensure Sanyal’s release from the jail.

After Majumdar’s death in 1972, Sanyal along with other comrades formed the Organisation of Communist Committee of Revolution and then in 1990s he again joined the CPI(M-L) as its general secretary. He ended his political career in 2000. Sanyal then continued working for the tea garden workers.

Also read: Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the last Left chief minister of West Bengal

His death is a mystery

Sanyal’s death still remains a mystery. Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the CPI(M), had said, “Kanu Sanyal’s death is very unfortunate. Of late, particularly after Nandigram and Lalgarh, he has been saying that the line adopted by the Maoists does not conform to the revolutionary understanding that the Naxalite movement had when it started.”

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