Sunday, March 28, 2010

Curtains on the ideal communist

Asha Menon
First Published : 28 Mar 2010 11:08:00 AM IST
Last Updated : 25 Mar 2010 07:24:21 PM IST

Kanubaba, that’s what everyone called him in the village of Naxalbari, the crucible of the Naxalite movement. Kanu Sanyal, who committed suicide last Tuesday, was one of its founders along with Charu Mazumdar and Jungul Santhal — and the last survivor. He lived in Hathigisa, a snug pocket off the main road in Naxalbari, just a few hours from the tourist hub of Siliguri in West Bengal.

This is where “the spring thunder of India” began, in 1967. The Peasant Council in Naxalbari had decided that it would go forward with an armed struggle to demand land redistribution. For a short while the village became a symbol of hope, of fear, change and renewal. It even

inspired college students, who dropped out to join the movement. But then the world lurched back again into its regular rhythm, and Naxalbari went back to being another of the lakhs of villages that dot India.

There is little trace of its history today in the small town. It looks like any other place after Holi — happy drunks, people hurrying to work and stores rolling up their shutters. At the local police station the officers are enjoying a cup of tea.
The road to Sanyal’s house weaves through bamboo groves and runs over the winding Kemchi. It is a winter dream. “It is at the end of this lane,” says one man and even walks along with us, eager to help. Sanyal is popular with the tea-estate workers here. Thanks to him, they have decent wages, a water tank and electricity.

The lane bends at a one-room mud hut and I recognise the legendary leader seated on the porch. An aluminium kettle and a small packet of snuff (“my only vice”) keep him company. He wears an old blue sweater and a woollen cap that keep him warm on this cold day. The day’s routine is unvarying. He must have his morning walk and the newspapers.

“Yes? What do you want?” he asks, a little curtly. I had not made a phone call and had landed on his doorstep unannounced. If I had left then, I would have taken the memory of a frail, stern, old man, whose rage at injustice set the country ablaze. Instead I stay on to listen and find, in a wicked twist of irony, a man who has forgotten himself.

“I cannot say much. I have forgotten everything,” he says. It seems to pain him. “I had a stroke a year and a half ago. I don’t remember what I went through during the movement or what I have read.”

He is living alone despite his failing health. Comrades like Santosh Rana keep asking him to move to Kolkata where they could get him medical attention. He refuses. Sanyal insists on living amid the fragments of the dream he once had. He takes me into his one-room house, which doubles as a party office. Heaps of yellowing papers, old photographs of Lenin, Marx, Engels and Mao Zedong, a dusty dhari, and that’s it.
“I eat when my comrade (Santhi Munda) who lives nearby feeds me.” He offers to call that comrade to talk about the tea-estate workers’ agitation, since he has not been active in politics for over a year. His resignation is in striking contrast to the obstinate Sanyal that KN Ramchandran worked with. Sanyal had refused to budge from Naxalbari even when Ramachandran wanted him to move into “a political capital” like Delhi or Kolkata.

“He was polite, but dogmatic,” he says. “He would patiently listen to all that we had to say, but he would not implement our suggestions.” Ramchandran’s group merged with Sanyal’s in 2003 but split again away in 2009, due to political differences.
Sanyal had become somewhat of a political relic in his own time. Vaskar Nandy, a contemporary, remembers when he was released from jail after the Emergency in 1977. The oppressor had changed. “The landlord was no more the enemy, everything was sucked into the feudal bureaucratic structure (essentially a corrupt government). Many of the old leaders failed at that.”

He may have been out of tune with the rest but Sanyal was an ideal communist, according to his close friend Subrato Basu, who knew him for 31 years. “Kanuda was the last embodiment of communist values. He was every inch a communist and he was compassionate.”

In 1995, in Bihar’s Hajipur, comrade Ashit Sinha was seriously ill. Sanyal who was there to attend a public meeting took Sinha to Kolkata. They could not get a hospital bed for five days but all through the wait, Sanyal kept Sinha at home and nursed him.
Sanyal refused to make ideological compromises for a better life. Says Basu, “He has had offers from the CPM but he turned them down.” Once elephants ran down this rickety structure in Hathigisa. “Rich landlords offered money in many thousands. He turned down their offers.” He even kept accounts of the meagre expenses they incurred in the commune. “It is the public’s money, he would say.”


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