The youth rebellion is a worldwide phenomenon that has not been seen before in history… Millions of young people all over the world are fed up with shallow unworthy authority running on a platform of bullshit.
–William Burroughs, “The Coming of the Purple Better One,” Esquire, November 1968.
Once upon a time in a village named Naxalbari there lived a peasant. He was attacked by landlords and they were counter attacked by those who were later named Naxalites. So began the saga of Naxalism.
Well not exactly so. Naxalism was a manifestation of a global desire to rebel. Back then world over the educated privileged youth, behaved in a very peculiar fashion. Instead of bunking lectures and watching movies or plays or whatever was in vogue then, as is the duty of all good students, they were hanging around debating politics, Mao Zedong, revolution, organizing protest rallies, hurling bottles and brick-bats!
The 60s were a turbulent decade and a number of events in conjunction led to such behavior. The post-war era had heralded peace with eagerness. People had suffered significantly for decades. Loved ones had been lost and generations were wiped out. Contrary to this misery were the theories of communism that promised an end to all suffering.
The general mood was infused with a strong desire for and belief in an egalitarian society. The decade was characterized by decolonization and independence movements. Alongside was the civil rights movement together with Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech “I Have a Dream”. And, King’s Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee or the SNCC under Stokely Carmichael’s slogan “Black Power!” was heading towards increasingly aggressive rebellion. As such campus-based movements were popular in the Paris student revolution and the Students for a Democratic Society in the US. What’s more, feminism was also at its zenith. People from all sectors craved equality. And communism put on offer the ‘all men are equal’ rule. Consequently, rebellion was everywhere. This made the World Revolution seem imminent with the famous slogan “the East is Red and the West is Ready”.
Anti-capitalist sentiment was further fuelled by the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro and the heroic guerilla fighter image of Che Guevara. Che viewed capitalism as a “contest among wolves” where “one can only win at the cost of others.” On similar lines, Arthur Miller declared in All My Sons “You don’t love a man here [in a capitalist society], you eat him!” The idea of replacing selfishness with selflessness was contemplated with admiration. Charged with such moralistic emotions, the youth of this era leaned towards communism as opposed to the reviled capitalism.
All the disparate protest movements of this decade were combined in opposition to the Vietnam War. Prevalent anti-war sentiment was manifest in the pop-culture of the times with Country Joe’s Fish Cheer, in the 1969 Woodstock Festival that went,
Yeah, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We're gonna have a whole lotta fun.
And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it's five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain't no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we're all gonna die.
This universal hatred for the Vietnam War created a general distaste for the U.S. which was extended to its ideology –capitalism.
Such was the global scenario. Closer home post independence, Indian youth was also gripped with analogous idealistic sentiments. Nehru himself had a socialist bent with the vision to establish a Welfare-State. But the 60s youth felt betrayed, sold-out and irrevocably ruined by their elders. This was a generation that had grown up in the wake of India’s independence, coupled with the worldwide move towards self-determination and equal rights. They dreamt of changing the world. However, the emergency, the still prevalent injustices and class distinctions and the Sino-India war shattered their hopes of a socialist haven.
Osborne’s Look Back in Anger heralded the “angry young man”. This angry frustration was manifest in Indian universities as well, wherein angst driven quixotic youngsters felt that independence had not attained its true aim. Democracy had not been achieved. In the words of Kobad Ghandy, “we think the society is in a semi-feudal, semi-colonial state and there is a need to democratise it.”
Against this backdrop, Vijay Tendulkar and Adil Jussawala produced revolutionary works heavily critical of prevalent societal systems. Kobad, Anuradha, Asghar Ali Engineer and Krishnaraj set up the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights. The Progressive Youth Movement was joined by many young people. At a time Navroz Modi was editor of its magazine Lalkaar. Study circles were regularly organized. Students vigorously debated communist theories.
And post the skirmish in the village called Naxalbari, these communist youngsters headed towards it and reacted under the leadership of communists such as Charu Majumdar. Their brand of communism came to be christened as Naxalism after the village whose inhabitants triggered it. So the worldwide wave of an idealistic youth desire for equality and resultant discontent hit India as Naxalism.