Interview with Santosh Rana

Biswajit Roy

One of the much talked-about young revolutionary leaders of the undivided CPI (ML) in Bengal in the seventies and now with of PCC CPI (ML), a smaller faction of the fractured party, Santosh Rana has emerged as a major critic of the CPI (Maoist) in the wake of Lalgarh movement. For him, the popular uprising of the tribal and non-tribal poor against the police repression in the Junglemahal of West Bengal bordering Jharkhand had much potential for democratising the local and regional polity with far-reaching ramifications. But the opportunities were lost after the Maoists aped the CPM in imposing their one-party rule and killing opponents irrespective of their class background. Far from considering the wanton killings now prevalent in Lalgarh region as aberrations of Maoist revolutionary schema, Rana argued that Maoist denial of democracy to rivals and friend-turned-foes in their fiefdoms has its ideo-political roots in the Soviet and Chinese version of proletarian dictatorship and peoples’ democracy. More concerned about the self-rule or autonomy for Junglemahal, he believes democratic content of revolutionary power including guarantee for multi-party polity must be central to all future revolutions including Indian revolution. Despite his differences, he is opposed to state repression in Lalgarh and wants talks between the government and Maoists as well as other representative of people there. Biswajit Roy, a journalist based in Calcutta, spoke to him to understand his arguments.

Q: The growing strength of CPI(Maoist) in a large part of the country underlines not only the failure of mainstream Left but also other Naxalite groups. It seems Maoists have established themselves as the alternative to the parliamentary and constitutional politics of all hues. How do you look at it?

SR: Since early nineties, the LPG (Liberalisation-Privatisation-Globalisation) regimes both at the Centre and the states have been spreading the tentacles of neo-liberal global economy across the country that resulted into the concentration of wealth in the hands of 27 super-rich families. This concentration of wealth has been reflected in the country’s politics also. Never before Indian parliaments have so many crorepatis as its members. With this class background of a sizable section of the MPs, it was hardly unexpected that none of the 540 MPs had opposed the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Even the mainstream Left kept mum except feebly suggesting some cosmetic changes.

This has only reduced the democratic space with the parliamentary system. As the State and its non-State collaborators are denying people their constitutional and legal rights, they are turning towards non-parliamentary paths which can deliver in more direct, immediate and localized ways. The surge of so-called Maoists should be seen in this context.

Nevertheless, I must insist that the Maoists’ success is limited to those parts of central Indian plateau which have forested hilly terrains with concentration of tribal population. The central and state governments, run by the parliamentary parties of all hues, have sold off the mining rights of huge mineral reserve of this region to multinational and Deshi corporate groups. These capitalists have been given virtual license to plunder the country’s natural resources without caring for its adverse impact on the lives of local tribal and other marginal communities. As the State-corporate nexus is trying to crush all democratic protests in the affected regions of Chattisgarh, Maharashtra and Orissa, people turned to armed Maoists for protection of their traditional rights on Jal-jungle-jamin.

But Maoists could not spread much beyond Dandakaranya region. Even in their stronghold Dantewara, they couldn’t ensure the victory of the CPI candidate, Manish Kunjam. In Andhra, the home-ground for the erstwhile CPI (ML) People’s War, their model has failed and they are on the run. I admit they have made inroads in certain areas where democratic movements are weakest and state-corporate joint repression and denial of people’s rights are severest. But they failed to offer an alternative model for the entire country. Consider their roles in the anti-special economic zone, anti-land grab peasant movements as well as anti-eviction struggle of the development refugees across the country. From Kalinganagar in Orissa to Raigarh in Maharashtra and Nandigram in Bengal Maoists were at the fringe.

Indian State may be considering them as the biggest threat since they have attacked the state directly. But in reality, both the State and the so-called Maoists are taking complementary roles in shrivelling the democratic space.

Q. Maoists insist on their ideo-political continuity from undivided CPI (ML) led by Charu Mazumdar. But the CPM and even some of the Naxalite groups refused to accept it. What is your take on it?

SR: Differences between the original CPI (ML) and today’s CPI (Maoist) are too many. Despite our criticism of Charu Mazumdar’s line of annihilation campaign, I must point out that he never asked us for indiscriminate killings like today’s Maoists. In 1969-71, I was active in Debra-Gopiballavpur region, close to Lalgarh, now a major base of the Maoists. We killed around 120 people, most of them landlords or their henchmen. In fact, we had not killed even our class enemies till Charuda complained: Tomra dhan katcho kintu jotdar katcho na (you are engaged in forcible harvesting to ensure share-croppers and farmers share but sparing the landlords). Today, I feel most of these killings were unnecessary. But unlike the CPI (Maoist), we killed not a single tribal, Dalit and poor people in the seventies in Debra-Gopiballavpur. Even Charuda insisted not to ‘touch any tribal’, landless agri-labourers, poor and marginal peasants even if he was opposed to us. He always asked us not to carry weapons when meeting the peasants. He wanted us to kindle the poor people’s class consciousness first and depend on their initiative and the weapons they use for armed actions.

Secondly, Charuda’s focus was always on the class struggle and class issues. In the seventies, we began our work not in forest areas like Nayagram, Binpur or Lalgarh but mainly in densely populated Debra-Gopiballavpur along the bank of Subarnarekha river where class contradictions were sharp over land and wage questions. We endeared ourselves to poor peasants and landless by focusing on land issues as well as exploitation by the money-lenders. In contrast, today’s Maoists have forgotten the land questions. They have not redistributed a single bigha land to any landless so far in Belpahari-Bashpahari-Lalgarh region now under their control. For them, land reform is over in West Bengal. The Maoist-controlled People’s Committee against Police Atrocities failed to mention the land issues in their 13-point charter of demands.

Q. But then how do you explain the Maoist success in garnering the mass support in the Lalgarh area and their increasing presence in Junglemahal of western Bengal adjoining Jharkhand? Do you subscribe to the CPM’s views that the Maoists are a gang of criminals who compelled locals to follow their dictate at the point of guns?

SR: No, I don’t agree with the CPM. Before the CPI (Maoist) was born in 2004, its two constituents, MCC and Peoples War were active in different pockets of the Junglemahal for more than a decade. They have garnered support among the tribals by taking actions against the corruption and exploitation of the Kendu leaf contractors and their nexus with the forest officials. But they didn’t opt for organising sustained movements on issues relevant to the tribals and other poor people of Junglemahal.

For example, 75 per cent of the sale proceeds of commercial forest products, mainly timber go to the government exchequer under the government’s joint forest management project. Only 25 per cent of the proceeds are earmarked for the Gramrakhsa committee which comprises the villagers close to the forest. But in practice, the corrupt officials line their pockets with both the government and villagers’ money. The Jharkhand Samannaya Manch of which we are a part had offered the Maoists to join hands to launch a movement demanding the lion’s share of the proceeds for the villagers. We could have begun a movement against the corruption of panchayat bodies which now handle huge amount of government money earmarked for skews of tribal welfare and rural development projects. These are all popular issues that affect the everyday lives of millions. The gram sabhas and gram sansads, the in-built mechanism integral to the panchayati raj are aimed at public accountability and popular participation of people at the grass-root level. They are largely dysfunctional as the corruption, nepotism, clientism and narrow politicking by the CPM and other mainstream parties have alienated people. We could have begun with some innovative ideas to redeem these grass-root institutions by ensuring genuine popular control and more power to people after the CPM lost Lalgarh Panchayat Samiti and most of the gram panchayats there. But the Maoists refused to listen to us.

Nonetheless, some of the CPI (ML) groups like CPI (ML) New Democracy and different factions of the Jharkhand Party had participated in the mass uprising against the police atrocities in November 2008 and later joined in the Maoist-controlled PCPA. The explosion of people’s pent-up anger against police repression triggered a genuine mass movement. The police and bureaucracy’s attitude has hardly changed since the Raj days as they refused to treat tribal and other poor in Junglemahal as human beings and fellow citizens of Independent India. Illegal detention, arbitrary arrests, merciless beating, harassment and intimidation of women and children, nocturnal raids and search operations in villages became the order of the day since the MCC and PWG had renewed their activities in the region. The repression reached its peak after the government ordered night-raids in the villages of Lalgarh block following the Maoist attempt on chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s life on 2 November on his way back from Shalboni. Maoists detonated the popular fury.

With the wounds of Nandigram still fresh, the CPM and state administration cowered before the people’s might and the government withdrew eight police camps from Lalgarh area in mid-November. It was a great victory of the people. The movement was pregnant with many possibilities as it started spreading beyond Lalgarh. There was an opportunity to mobilise the awakened masses for establishing the organs of democratic self-rule and launching a movement for autonomy for Junglemahal, for that matter, entire Western Bengal. For seven months, there was no police in the area and the Maoist-backed PCPA ruled without any opposition. The CPM lost its base in Dharampur after the Lok Sabha polls. Angry over the corruption and high-handedness of the local CPM party satrap Anuj Pandey and his family, local people, assisted by Maoist squads, demolished Pandey’s palatial house in Dharampur. Such was the people’s fury that even the CPM leaders couldn’t defend the Pandeys. But this emboldened the Maoists so much that they flaunted their assault rifles in front of the TV cameras on the very day and made the PCPA irrelevant by announcing they were leading the movement. This only helped Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to abandon all his Left and federalist pretension and join hands with P Chidambaram in unleashing the Centre-state joint security crackdown in Lalgarh, thus unleashing another phase of state terror against the people of Junglemahal.

On the other hand, CPI (Maoist) steamrolled all the other voices in the PCPA, denied democracy to any other political force which was opposed to their schema and established their one-party rule by replacing the CPM’s version of it. They have killed around 200 since last June. Though they have not killed other Naxalites so far, they didn’t spare many of their former friends including members and supporters of different factions of the Jharkhand party.

Q. It seems to be a blame game continued among former comrades. You said Maoists killed friendly Jharkhandi leaders while they accused them of being police moles and CPM’s collaborators in killing their cadres and supporters. They particularly named Jharkhand Jana Mukti Morcha-led Gana Pratirodh Committee, one of your allies, as the part of the CPM’s version of Salwa Judum campaign in Bengal. According to them, many of the Jharkhandi faction leaders have morphed into political mafias and amassed wealth and power by collaborating with anti-tribal, anti-people forces. A mere adivasi surname can’t conceal their real class loci and save them from people’s wrath.

SR: I have no major difference with them on the analysis of class character of Jharkhandi leaders in general. We have a long relation of unity and struggle with Jharkhand factions as we have participated in the struggle for a separate Jharkhand in tune with the undivided CPI(ML)’s position to support the struggle for self-determination of nationalities in different parts of India. We have articulated the demand for an autonomous council for tribal-dominated Western Bengal which we consider the part of Jharkhand cultural sphere, historically different from rest of Bengal. The Jharkhandi groups had a presence and influence among the local people long before the Maoists became active here. It is wrong to stigmatise any Jharkhand leader or group which is opposed to the Maoist schema. In fact, Maoists have not only alienated traditional tribal social organizations and their leadership, but also humiliated them and even killed some of them.

Among the tribals, Santhals were the main force behind the November uprising but the other communities like Mundas and Mahatos also joined the struggle. The Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwah, a body of the traditional tribal headmen, was in the forefront of the movement in the beginning. The Majhi Marwah had entered into negotiation with the Bengal administration in the initial stage of the anti-police movement and agreed to withdraw the blockade after the government conceded some demands and agreed not to launch any night-raids in villages. The Maoists did not agree and criticised the Marwah leaders as sell-outs. But the terms and conditions of the later PCPA agreement with the government were more or less the same. The Maoist-led PCPA even issued a leaflet announcing the trial of the Majhi Marwah head Nityananda Hembrom in a ‘people’s court’. They also ordered those who live in the areas under the influence of Majhi Marwah to join a PCPA procession and beat up those who had defied it.

We think the differences with Majhi Marwah and other Jhankhadi forces that had joined the movement could have been sorted out in a democratic manner. The Maoists swear by Mao Tse Tung. Didn’t they learn from him on how to handle the non-antagonistic contradictions? The killing of Sudhir Mandi was another example of maiming a dissenting voice among the people by labelling him a class enemy. Mandi, a Jharkhand leader, was a poor peasant having one acre of Dahi or infertile land. Despite being a former chairman of Belpahari panchayat samiti for five years, he used to stay in a traditional kuccha house with a thatched roof. He was killed by the Maoists when he had gone for selling the Sabui grass, collected by poor people for making ropes. This killing created major split among the locals. Regarding the CPI (Maoist) complaints about our allies, JJMM had denied the charges of killing of PCPA or Maoist cadres and any relation with Gana Pratirodh Committee. The Morcha agreed to our proposal for an independent enquiry into these complaints by the civil rights and democratic movement activists. The CPI(Maoist) cold-shouldered the proposal and continued killing anybody who crossed their path.

Q. In your exchange of open letters with the CPI (Maoist) leadership, the eastern bureau of its central committee has complained that your Jharkhandi allies were actually trying to enjoy a piggy-back ride on the people’s movement to fulfill their electoral ambitions while maintaining clandestine relation with the CPM. For example, Aditya Kisku, the leader of a Jharkhand party faction whom you and two other CPI (ML) groups supported in the Lok Sabha polls in Jhargram constituency.

SR: It was the CPI (Maoist) leader like Kishenji who in his newspaper interview (Times of India, 2009) admitted having collaborated with the CPM against the Trinamul-BJP combine when both sides had been engaged in a bloody turf war in the Keshpur-Garbeta region in the late nineties. In his bid to reprimand the CPM minister and local party satrap, Sushanta Ghosh for his ingratitude, Kisenji even boasted that he had collected 5000 rounds of cartridges from the CPM office at that time. It was another matter that their brief bonhomie with the CPM ended soon after and a new relationship began with the Trinamul. Coming to the parliamentary polls in May 2009, CPI (Maoist) hinted that they might consider support if there was a single candidate against CPM. We tried to convince Chunibala Hansda of JKP (Naren) faction for a united fight but she, being the Congress ally, refused. We supported Aditya Kisku since he stood for autonomy for western Bengal for long. But CPI (Maoist) called for a vote boycott and stopped voters from casting their votes in 75 booths where Kisku had a support base. On the other hand, they asked people to vote for Congress-supported Hansda in other booths. The CPM won by 293,000 votes, the highest victory margin in Bengal despite the Left front’s worst-ever poll debacle in the state. The Maoists can claim a certain share of this achievement of the ruling party.

Q. The Maoists are describing the ruling Marxists as ‘social fascists’ and have practically declared the entire party rank and file enemies of people. They argued that CPM and the government led by it have become stooges of foreign and deshi corporate capital and an outright anti-people regime after Singur and Nandigram. Their anti-CPM virulence didn’t stop at polemics or political battles but unleashed a killing spree particularly after the Centre-state joint operation had begun. In fact, most of the victims of Maoist wrath are CPM cadres and supporters. The CPI (Maoist) politburo member Kisenji told me they corrected Mazumdar’s singular focus on annihilation of class enemies and carried the killings along with mass movement in Lalgarh and elsewhere. According to him, there is no Chinese wall between the annihilation campaign and mass movement. He denied the charge of being blood-thirsty and insisted all the death sentences were passed by the people’s court. He said he was considered soft-hearted in his party. He told me they have killed only 50 per cent of those who should have been killed and on some occasion his deputies like Bikash persuaded villagers not to award capital punishment to class enemies.

SR: This indiscriminate butchering of CPM and other political party workers is totally unacceptable. Kisenji claimed that old feudalism is extinct in Bengal and the CPM rank and file now represent the new feudal class. This is ridiculous. Majority of CPM party members in Bengal belong to the poor and toiling people by their class background. It is dangerous to declare them as class enemies on the basis of their political allegiance. It has no relation with Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse Tung thought but with Fascism. If this Fascist politics wins in Lalgarh, the future of democratic movement will be doomed. We strongly believe that political differences cannot be sorted out by killing the political rivals or evicting them from their homes. If we want to fight against the corruption, arrogance and nepotism of the CPM leaders and panchayat functionaries, their killing can’t be the solution. We too consider today’s CPM as the stooge of the forces of globalisation and the main agency of police-party joint repression on people. But to call them social fascists for the last 30 years will lead us to deny the achievement of limited land reforms and operation Barga to protect the rights of share-croppers as well as implementation of Panchayati raj. We have to admit the fact that first two Left front governments had made some democratic reforms that today’s Lalgarh would not have happened without operation Barga. Secondly, we must be objective. Unlike the mineral-rich areas of Chattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand, Left front government in Bengal so far didn’t acquire land or notify for it to facilitate mineral extraction by private corporations in Jhargram sub-division. The government allotted vested land to Jindal group’s steel plant in Shalboni. But the PCPA’s original charter of demands didn’t ask for closing up that project. They could have objected to the government’s decision to allot vest land to the corporate sector instead of distributing it to the landless or without consulting the gram sabhas and gram sansad. They didn’t. In fact, there is protest against the project in the area. We will continue to fight against CPM when it courts big capital, compromising farmers and peoples’ interests. But it is a gross mistake to consider the CPM as the enemy number one in the context of national politics. The party’s opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal is in tune to the Left position.

Q. It is clear that the Maoist project is completely different from yours. They want to establish their own power base in their liberated zones, in the process of setting up their parallel state by forcibly replacing the existing one. So their priorities are different. Kisenji complained you have lost faith in revolution and now preach a reformed bourgeois democracy, a more inclusive and publicly accountable parliamentary democracy, that’s all.

SR: I have not lost my faith in armed revolution. The existing State apparatus has to be smashed and a new State has to be established. But I differ with both the CPM and CPI (Maoist), for that matter, with many other CPI(ML) groups on the fundamental questions on the nature of the revolutionary State and role of communist party it. Both the CPM and CPI(Maoist) practices made it clear that they want to establish their own one-party rule in the name of peoples’ democracy or proletarian dictatorship. But we can’t accept it after the Soviet and Chinese experiences. The denial of democracy, both inside and outside the party, imposition of one-party state was the main reason for the Soviet debacle. Mao was one of the greatest thinkers and revolutionaries of 20th century. Even he couldn’t succeed in safeguarding proletarian dictatorship in China which has now degenerated into a capitalist heaven. Because the party dictatorship was consolidated in the name of people’s democracy. There is no reason to believe anymore that the rule of the communist party is synonymous with working class rule. For Marx, the Paris Commune was the embodiment of the proletarian dictatorship in which the representatives of armed workers and other toiling people, elected on the basis of universal franchise, replaced the existing State and exercised the revolutionary power, both legislative and executive. All power to the soviets was the fundamental call of Russian revolution. I challenge Stalinism, for that matter, the third international formulations which had replaced the rule of soviets by the communist party rule that gradually wiped out all internal and external opposition. Rosa Luxemburg was one of those few revolutionary thinkers who foresaw the dangers posed to the Russian revolution because of the denial of democracy.

Q. In that case, you are also questioning Lenin. It was he who theorised the seizure of power as the key question of revolution and emphasised the vanguard role of the communist party in establishing and securing the proletarian dictatorship. He was still the supreme leader of the Bolsheviks when the party outflanked the Mensheviks and Right social revolutionaries to ensure the passage of revolutionary decrees in the post-October second congress of soviets, rejected the results of the constituent assembly poll in which the Bolsheviks were minority, concentrated the power in the party’s hand and dumped the key allies, Left social revolutionaries. All power to the soviets became a façade to the Bolshevik rule. Rosa had debates with Lenin on the fundamental questions of Russian revolution.

SR: I stand by Lenin’s position on the key tasks of proletarian revolution as articulated in the State and Revolution. Seizure of power is the half of Marxism-Leninism. Power to whom, who will replace whom that was basic question that Lenin posed. Power to Kisenji and his party instead of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his party?

Secondly, we have to understand that no revolution in our age will be successful without addressing the question of democracy. The people of Russia and China had accepted the party rule in the name of the class since bourgeois parliamentary democracy was rudimentary or non-existent in pre-revolutionary Russia and China. The same can’t be repeated in India where parliamentary democracy, despite its all travesties, has taken roots down to the villages. Revolutionaries have to move ahead in India not by shrinking the parliamentary democracy but by expanding it. For us, the basic question should be more and more power to the people in order to make the democracy meaningful in the lives of the millions. And, our acceptance of opposition to the ruling party, freedom of minority voices must be an integral part of vibrant and participatory democracy.

Q. The activists and intellectuals close to the Maoists have pointed out that no other people than the masses of Lalgarh should decide who would lead them and it was they who had rejected the parliamentary parties and accepted the leadership of the CPI (Maoist). The rebels have set up their own version of people’s power and executing with alternative development plans with the active participation of the people. So why grudge it?

SR: There is no democracy in the so-called people's committees and people’s courts. Kisenji and his party are just aping the CPM and Trinamul fiefdoms. The Maoists squads dictate everything in the name of people. Any dissenters will risk beating, even killing. They are forcing people to join their rally, extracting tax from them, compelling the supporters of CPM and other political parties to give undertaking at the point of gun. They have turned the people of Lalgarh into cannon-fodder. Villagers faced bullets and one of them died when Maoists clashed with para-military forces on the day of the blockade of Rajdhani express. Villagers didn’t know about their plan for the blockade and landed in the soup. Maoists had to pay Rs 3 lakhs as compensation to the deceased family after the villagers confronted them. They are in fact following not only the LTTE military line but also its political line. Prabhakaran had exterminated all other Tamil groups. In the end, he got exterminated. The Maoist experiments in alternative development are all sham. They are not interested in these school, health centre or road-buildings. These are basically ideas of some city-based sympathizers, attempted half-heartedly. The region is poor. Where will the money come from for development? Why don’t they win the panchayat polls and use the government money with people’s supervision? After all, it’s the people’s money.

Q. CPM is constantly harping on Maoist-Mamata Banerjee nexus. What is your reaction to it?

SR: Both sides tried to use each other in sheer opportunism. It happened in Nandigram earlier. For rhetoric’s sake, Maoists described Mamata as the part of big-bourgeois state. But in practice, they are soft to Mamata and her party as the CPM has become their common enemy. Recently Mamata thundered against the Maoists under the pressure from the Centre and the CPM. But she offered olive branch to the Maoists few days later. Kisenji’s open letters to her and sound-bites on television also revealed the blow-hot blow-cold affair.

Q. Did you ever speak to Kisenji or other CPI(Maoist) leaders to sort out the differences?

SR: I have tried to speak to him but got no response. I spoke to some other leaders of the party and got the impression that they didn’t approve all that he had done. But the party is ultimately responsible for whatever is going on.

Q. Judging by your harsh criticism of the CPI (Maoist), it appears that you and your allies are not opposed to the centre-state joint security operation or the massive crackdown planned by P Chidambaram.

SR: In no way do we condone the state repression on the people of Junglemahal as well as on the Maoists as it will legitimise the designs of the forces of globalisation and their lackeys in India to turn India into a police state in the name of internal security and doom the democracy whatever people of India have achieved. On behalf of Jharkhand Andolan Samannaya Mancha, we have urged all sides to turn to talk table to resume democratic atmosphere in Lalgarh and adjoining areas so that Maoists, CPM as well as other forces can preach their politics without fear of police or political repression. We want all sides to focus on the development of the backward region with an elected, publicly accountable autonomous council at the helm of affairs. People must have the right to recall their representatives down to the village level.

Courtesy: Seminar, March 2010 (issue on Red Resurgence)

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