top of page
Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič

‘Dreaming of Revolution’: Student Politics and the Radical Left in 1960s Calcutta - Meher Ali


Updated: Nov 23, 2020

I have worked on the early history of the political Left in Pakistan, specifically the short-lived existence of the Communist Party of Pakistan after Independence, and the anti-dictatorship student protests of 1968–69 in Karachi and Lahore. Those projects are what sparked my interest in exploring the histories of other youth movements in the subcontinent. Unlike the histories of the Pakistani Left, a lot has been written on the Naxalite movement in Bengal. It is a moment in the history of the radical Left that has constantly been revisited and often romanticized. It is not my purpose to try and prove, once again, its overall significance or impact. Instead, I want to revisit it as a unique moment in history in which one may find ideas and ways of thinking that have grown unfamiliar to us now. The focus on students, instead of political parties, is purposeful. The youth represent, in a way, the raw idealism of a movement. Through their actions, you can get a closer look at the roots of activism, and try to capture the cultural, emotional, and ideological features of a movement.

There is no such thing as one Left in South Asia. The term means very different things at different places and times. In Pakistan, it has been vilified as a subversive, anti-state force, which always had very little reach, let alone any kind of real power, at the state level or otherwise. When I studied the history of the Left in Pakistan, it was a history of possibilities, of unrealized dreams, of alternative conceptions and imaginings of the state which existed among only a tiny sub-section of society.

Bengal is different. There was, here, the longest-running democratically elected communist government in history. This complicates the lines between state and the ‘establishment’ on one hand, and the anti-establishment revolutionary dissenters on the other. The period that I have been focusing on—roughly 1966 to 1971—is a very interesting time because that’s when a lot of those splits were born, and the Left was trying to redefine itself. Many of my interviewees would explain this timeline to me from a macro view, describing it as a crossroads. They would refer to many different incidents, or ‘markers,’ in their timeline but over the course of several interviews a common sequence emerged: that after a surge of radical activity from the Communist Party of India, between 1948 and 1951, marked by extreme rioting and violence, there was a period of ‘quietly rising discontent’ across the country. The nationalist fervour of the independence struggle died down, but the systems and issues of the colonial era persisted. The economic failures of this period—especially continuing poverty and land-lordism in the countryside—disillusioned many with the new ruling system. In West Bengal, the decade ended in an agrarian crisis which led to food riots and a major unemployment crisis. One statistic listed the number of applications from the educated unemployed in the live registers of the employment exchanges in India at 163,000 in 1953, increasing to 917,000 by the end of 1966. All this gives some context to the rising frustration and apathy which was brewing, especially among the educated youth who had grown up on the dream of independent India but had yet to see that dream be delivered in any way. As one of my interviewees put it, ‘People had great expectation of independence. They thought it would bring happiness, prosperity, peace and security. People at that time were not as pessimistic as they are now. No defeatist spirit. They thought we have found independence, but if the Indian state is not good, we will change that state.’

This disaffection also had specific targets. Aside from bleak employment prospects, there was a sense of disgust with the whole education system: corruption, administrative failures, the devaluation of diplomas, and numerous problems at the level of infrastructure, such as hostel accommodation, transportation fees, access to books, and so on. I think it is also worth referencing the extremely rich and deep legacy of student activism in Bengal, which goes back to the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1828, the first student group of India, the Academic Association, was founded at Hindu College. A British newspaper from 1830 refers to Hindu College as a ‘breeding ground of sedition’. Throughout this era, students participated in nationalist societies like the Bengal British India Society and the Brahmo Samaj. In 1875, the Students Association was formed to propagate ideals of independence. When the Association’s leader was imprisoned, it sparked the first mass student strike in India’s history. The ties between Leftist movements and student politics run deep as well; if not always in explicit partnership, then at least in the political leanings of their leaders. Take, for example, the Bengal Provincial Students League. This group was established at the All Bengal Student Convention in 1935, and was presided over by Hiren Mukhopadhyay, a young Marxist teacher with ties to the Communist movement who went on to become a prominent politician.

It is beyond the scope of this presentation to go into a detailed background of the Left, but I will make a couple of points regarding the Communist movement’s stance on the state. It should be remembered that the CPI was the first organized political party to demand full independence for India, back in 1924, when the National Congress was still saying it would be satisfied with dominion status within the empire. On the issue of Partition, the communists went from being largely aligned with the India National Congress on a platform of Hindu–Muslim unity to supporting the demand for Pakistan in 1942 due to Lenin’s principle of national self-determination. One of the party’s pioneering members, Gangadhar Adhikari, presented a report in 1942 in which he talks about the three phases of national development, the third being when dormant nationalities rise to consciousness and make demands of their own. This conception of the nation saw it as a historical product of bourgeois evolution rather than a static or fixed entity. In this vein, the CPI even called for the suspension of the Tebhaga peasant movement here in Bengal, which they had earlier actively supported. By the end of 1947, however, they were rethinking their position, and in December that year, a more radical line within the party took hold under the leadership of B. T. Ranadive. Under this anti-reformist stance, the Party went back to calling the demand for Pakistan ‘anti-national’.

In 1951, the Party reigned in this radical line once again, and a new programme was presented which called for the ‘setting up of a people’s democracy created on the basis of a coalition of all democratic anti-feudal and anti-imperialist forces in the country’. This move towards a path of peaceful parliamentarianism sparked a long debate between the rightists, who favoured alliances with the Congress, and the leftists, who maintained the need for an anti-Congress front. This divide didn’t come to a head until the early 1960s, when both the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and the Sino-Soviet split within the party finally brought about the creation of the CPI-Marxist (CPM), at the Calcutta Congress of 1964. The Sino-Indian War is a good instance to investigate this claim of being ‘anti-national,’ as that is how those who had any sympathies for China were branded. However, right from the beginning, the CPM—although supposedly representing the more radical faction of the communist movement, the revolutionary rather than the revisionist path—stuck to the system of peaceful parliamentarianism. When, for example, the Andhra Pradesh State Party proposed an amendment demanding the right of self-determination for nationalities, and the adoption of a programme of armed struggle, its proposals were uniformly rejected by the CPM.

So to tie up these two threads, after decades of the nationalist movement which had brought the Indian bourgeoisie and the Leftists together under a common cause, the power of traditional nationalist ideology began to falter under the weight of post-Independence reality. The specific factors are varied and plentiful: the third Five Year Plan was virtually abandoned, rising inflation and unemployment, and so on. In this context, the delegitimization of nationalist feelings makes sense, especially among the hopeful and idealistic youth. I would note here, as well, that in West Bengal, many of the students who were drawn into revolutionary politics were from a lower-middle-class background. Many were from families that had crossed over from East Bengal, and were living in refugee colonies and shanty district towns. For these people in particular, Partition had mattered, and it had been a difficult transition to the post-Independence years.

Now, there are a few different moments I could point to, amid this turbulent atmosphere, to mark the beginning of a real ‘students movement’. One that stands out is the massive student involvement in the Food Movement of 1966, when there were large-scale protests in Calcutta and the surrounding districts. The main active student group was the Bengal Provincial Student Federation, or the BPSF. The food crisis was brought on by food scarcity, high prices due to crop failures, and hoarding which led to a shrinkage of the market for consumer goods and a subsequent industrial recession. Some of my interviewees mentioned the kerosene shortage in particular, for how could students study without lamplight? In the massive strikes, rallies and demonstrations that followed, there were frequent instances of police lathi charges and firing on the crowds. Cases of agitations, called instances of ‘student indiscipline’, rose from 271 in 1965 to 607 in 1966.

A subsequent movement took place in 1966 at Presidency College, which, especially then, was one of the city’s elite institutions. Here, in the 1965 college union elections, the Students Federation won an overwhelming victory. The organization worked actively in the Food Movement, and one of their leaders told me that they refused to formally become members of any party. ‘Party means pledging yourself,’ he said, ‘submitting to party discipline. And we didn’t like it. We said we’ll remain as sympathizers, but keep our independence.’ The next year, the accumulating grievances of students living in the college’s Hindu Hostel exploded into protest, and they demanded the resignation of their hostel superintendent. When the authorities cracked down, the students began a hunger strike and, after three days, were fleetingly successful for the college accepted their demands. It was, as one interviewee put it, ‘unprecedented’. But then three of the leading students who had just graduated were refused admission to the post-graduate course for no fair reason, a decision which led to strikes and clashes between the students and police. This demand for the withdrawal of their expulsion orders became such a widespread and disruptive protest that Calcutta University had to be closed sine die from 8 December, 1966, the first time ever in its 110 years of existence. The deadlock continued until January, when, finally, on the eve of elections, a compromise was reached. The expulsion orders were withdrawn, the students were given transfer certificates and classes finally resumed.

On 2 March 1967, a non-Congress, United Front government was sworn in West Bengal, a coalition dominated by the CPI, the CPM and a breakaway group from the Congress called the Bangla Congress. Not long after, on 23 May, there was the first serious clash between peasant activists and the state machinery in the small village of Naxalbari, Darjeeling District. A policeman was killed in an encounter with armed tribals, led by radical CPM leaders. Two days later, the police retaliated by sending a force and firing upon a crowd of villagers, killing nine, including six women and two children. Several peasants were arrested. Over the next few weeks, the situation escalated. Between the 8 and 10 June alone, there were 80 reported cases of ‘lawlessness’. The West Bengal Chief Minister called it a ‘reign of terror’, and by the end of June, the CPM leadership was openly coming out against the rebels.

It was at this time that the CPM dissidents—many of whom were Presidency College student leaders—formed a support committee called the Naxalbari Peasants Struggle Aid Committee. Many members left the Student Federation, seeing this as an opportunity to take the revolutionary steps that the CPM was failing to take. It bifurcated the CPM into what these youth called the sarkari communists—the government communists—and the communist revolutionaries. ‘Those who thought that governments will come and go,’ as one of them put it, ‘but the international movement should be kept alive, at any cost.’

I want to share a quote from a pamphlet, distributed by the CU branch of the CPI-ML, which captures the spirit of student involvement: ‘The educational system that the reactionary rulers have established, is basically colonial—after this came the farce of 1947. A nation which attains ‘independence’ through a compromise with the imperialists under the auspices of traitors can never have a really militant, patriotic and anti-colonial education system. For 22 years, this system fed the students and youth with the opium of careerism and taught them to go against class struggles, prevented them from standing side by side with the poor peasants and workers and fight a revolutionary war. Charu Mazumdar, the Naxalite movement’s primary ideologue, also said: ‘In a man’s life, the age between 18 and 24 is the period when he can work hardest and be most vigorous, most courageous and most loyal to his ideas,’ but students in India were ‘forced to pursue anti-people courses of study and try to pass examinations [ . . . ] it will give me the greatest pleasure if you plunge yourselves into the revolutionary here and now instead of wasting your energy in passing examinations.’ These students never wanted to be seen as dealing with economic issues, or with essentially student issues. They wanted to change society.

The Naxalite movement wasn’t organized in a traditional way; there wasn’t even a ‘party’ until two years after it began (and it splintered so quickly, one wonders if organization was somehow antithetical to its very spirit). We’re still fascinated about it all these years later precisely because it was so symbolic, and so intensely ideological. It rejected those ideals of bourgeois humanism and self-cultivation which mark youth movements of a different kind; this was anti self-cultivation, it was anti-culture, the slogans were to declassify, to destroy, etc. Many Calcutta students left for the villages, to live among, and as, the peasantry they wanted to organize. In the city, inspired in part by the Cultural Revolution in China, a mini-cultural war took place. Targets included pictures and busts of Gandhi, Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar, Vivekananda, and other ‘bourgeois’ political leaders and social reformers. The term ‘anti-disciplinary politics’, which has been used to describe other youth-led movements of the 60s era, could be employed here, defined as ‘a language of protest which rejects hierarchy and leadership, strategy and planning, bureaucratic organization and political parties and is distinguished from the traditional left by its ridiculing of political commitment.’ One could also think about the particularities of Bengal, and how that played a role. There is this idea of a regional trait which includes an inherent disrespect, or at least disregard, for the politics of the centre, and a very Bengali identity. For these radicals, it may have been easier to imagine the ‘nation’ as separate from the state and, rather, as an abstract ideal of the ‘people’: the refugees, the peasantry, the workers, all of those not being taken care of by the state.

So when I talked earlier about how the history of the Left could be a history of possibility, I think the extreme actions and ideas of these radical students, with both their idealism and their deep pessimism, embodied, briefly, a real rejection of the existing idea of the nation, and a hope for something else. There is, naturally, a lot of nostalgia for this moment of possibility. A quote from Talleyrand which I like comes to mind: ‘He who did not live in the years before the revolution cannot know the sweetness of living.’ The idea is of this dialectical relationship between progress and the future on one hand and destruction, pessimism and nostalgia on the other. That a sense of revolt is possible only as long as it is ‘before the revolution’, when the status quo can still be challenged. In a pre-revolutionary moment, it is always possible to have hope for change. This is part of how people talk about the 60s: all these global movements which failed because, by definition, a revolution can never be permanent. It is only a brief moment when a grander vision for change, a liberating spirit, becomes part of the life of a group.

Ranabir Samaddar, himself a student leader at this time, writes in his academic analysis of the movement that the revolutionary encounter can be characterized as a moral critique, rather than an outright rejection, of the nation: ‘The nation’s awareness of its own inadequacy leads to a search for revised forms of rule [ . . . ] The nation survives because it is consciously revisionist; it is adequate because of its adaptive nature.’ The idea that the ‘nation’ is inherently unfixed and revisionist suggests that the experiences and feelings that remain a powerful legacy of this movement—the dream of change, the pre-revolutionary desire—is actually part of what constitutes the nation itself.

And so in this understanding—to end on a hopeful reflection—the students and youth of the radical Left become the vanguard, the representation of the non-conformist masses. And this non-conformism, the rejection of liberalism of all kinds, the desire for revolutionary change, involved rejecting the structures of the nation, yes, but what it fought for was, in its own way, the nation itself.


Meher Ali is a Fulbright research scholar from Brown University, where she completed her BA with honors in history. Her senior thesis, entitled The Hidden Left: Communist Activity in Pakistan, 1948-1951, received the distinguished senior thesis award, as well as the Marjorie Harris Weiss memorial prize and the Samuel Lamport award for promoting international understanding.

122 views0 comments


bottom of page