Comrade Vinod Mishra speaks about his turbulent college days when
events at naxalbari set most colleges in West Bengal on fire.
The Life and Struggle in Regional Engineering College, Durgapur
1966 to 1970
I came to Bengal as a student in RE College, Durgapur, in the middle of 1966 at the age of 19 years. The College had a system of enrolling upto 50% of students from among those who had qualified in IIT entrance exams, and thus there was a fair share of non-Bengali students from different corners of India.
My father was a clerical employee in a defense enterprise and we lived in a labour colony of Kanpur. Ours was a lower middle class family having no connections with landed property. Beginning from a rationalist-theist position at a tender age, I had a short stint with Sarvodaya movement in the early '60s, and by the middle of '60s under the influence of workers' struggles and by nature of living contacts with them, was drawn towards communism. Kanpur then had a communist MP in SM Bannerjee and MLA of our area too was a communist trade unionist, Sant Singh Yusuf.
The college atmosphere was quite oppressive and students were forced to live a regimented barrack life. No political or student union activities were allowed.
Once when the authorities came to know that a student was reading Marx's book in his hostel room, a thorough search was conducted and the student was threatened with rustication. Only once in 1965 some students had tried to organise a strike and it had simply collapsed. This had led to further hardening of attitude on the part of the authorities.
Annual elections were held for the Gymkhana body, which was supposed to continue itself in routine cultural activities as approved by the authorities representatives there. Broad majority of students were not interested in politics, they were only concerned with their career and with the petty-bourgeois ways of life. Actually the students of RE College were highly disliked by the local working class population mainly because of the ruffian activities of a section of students outside the college campus.
This was the state of affairs in a college in the heart of West Bengal, which was otherwise bursting with the left upsurge.
In the humanities class when we were asked to write a piece on rupee devaluation that had just taken place, in my section Ravichandran and myself wrote it condemning the US pressure and were branded as only leftists by the teacher.
Ravichandran, a bright student from Tamilnadu, later on became a Party wholetimer and spent a few years in West Bengal jails. Afterwards he rejoined studies and while doing his M. Tech. at Kanpur came under the influence of CRC. At present he is working in some research institute in Bangalore and I don’t know his present political stand. Anyway, he was a close comrade of mine in college days.
Despite authority's presence, seven or eight of us joined together and made plans to contact the CPI (M) outside, of course, secretly.
There existed a big gap between Bengali and non-Bengali students; rather a tension prevailed among them, and I, being a non-Bengali had obvious disadvantages to begin with. I quickly learned the language and in a short period my friends circle was mainly composed of Bengali students. Some Bengali students who nurtured a hatred towards non-Bengalis, in course of time, became my bosom friends.
While speaking of non-Bengali comrades I must refer to Com. Omswaroop. A research fellow in our college who joined the movement and became a Party whole timer, he was murdered in cold blood by CPI(M) goons in 1971 at Durgapur in a most cowardly manner. He was a bright intellectual and the best among us in communist qualities.
Then there was Brij Bihari Pandey, my childhood friend. He joined the college and the Party along with me in similar circumstances. At present he is an important Party functionary of ours.
To resume, just when we had established primary contacts with the CPI(M), Naxalbari occurred and overnight we all turned into 'Naxalites'. At this stage we conducted secret revolutionary propaganda among students and could influence a tiny minority. Side by side, we established contacts with worker comrades outside who had come out of CPI (M), addressed host of GB meetings of workers in the township and engaged in fierce debates with CPI (M) leaders and cadres.
Before I proceed, let me tell you about student comrades from earlier batches who joined the Party and played an important role in the 'Naxalite' movement. Shanti Chatterjee was one who was the Party incharge in Tripura during 1971-72. I have never met him and I don't know his present whereabouts. Probol Roy, a quite sober and sincere comrade, from whose house CM was arrested, too belonged to our college. I was quite close to him but I am in dark about his present stance. Ashish Das Gupta was a year senior to me. He didn’t take much interest in college affairs. He was very knowledgeable and promising Marxist scholar. I haven't met him for a long time but as far as I know, he is associated with Shanti Pal group of CPI (ML).
It was 1968. Gymkhana elections were round the corner and we decided to contest and utilise this forum for our political aims. Though we didn't have much political support among students, in our individual capacity we were quite popular. We won the elections capturing all the vital posts of office bearers. I too was elected a member, the only non-Bengali student to do so.
We started changing the orientation and complexion of the cultural programs. Still the authorities could not sense anything. We changed the name of the college magazine to 'Vanguard' and its first issue (brought out keeping the teacher incharge, in dark) carried references of Chairman Mao and scientific socialism etc in its editorial. With the distribution of the magazine all hell broke loose. We had fired the first salvo and were prepared to face the consequences.
The Principal called the Gymkhana members and threatened them of rustication. Some members, who were not our men, retreated; but Devashish, Asit, myself and others owned their responsibility. Devashish was a good singer and a cultural artist who later on became a Party wholetimer and worked in the countryside for a few years. Asit was an important Party organiser and worked for many years in the countryside.
On the students front, general students too could not digest this sudden heavy dose of politicisation and basing on their apathy and disapproval, anti-communists among the students organised a protest demonstration that culminated in burning the copies of 'Vanguard' at a central place. We were just five or six comrades and hence could not offer resistance to them. But we raised counter slogans in support of Mao and China while the procession was going on. On their way back the processionists raided our hostel and we were beaten up.
Anyway, this was the first open political move and an open defiance of authorities. We were awaiting our rustication orders when an event changed the whole course.
For lack of required percentage of attendance, the authorities prepared a blacklist of students who were not permitted to take the examinations. The list contained the names from both the camps and thus it became a common student issue. Students in general had pent up grievances for a long time and this issue took it to a flash point. A students strike was called and it was a complete success. All threats and intimidation on the part of the authorities failed to break the strike. Movement had reached a stalemate and one day when the entire teaching staff was holding a session we organised a gherao. It continued from morning 10 am to late in the night. At 3 am when a very few students were left the gherao, the teachers broke the cordon and went away. At this point, the movement took a violent turn. In no time hundreds of students, armed with sticks and rods, came out of their hostels and marched towards the staff quarters. Houses of the authorities were attacked. Police was called but ultimately the panick-stricken authorities conceded to all our demands, which apart from withdrawing the blacklist included a sort of students' representation in running the college affairs etc. and college was closed sine-die.
During those days we were quite influenced by the ongoing movement of French students. Characterizing the contradiction between the authorities and the students as that between bourgeoisie and proletariat, ideas like controlling the campus, running a parallel administration by students etc. were very much in vogue in our circles. Our comrades did take full initiative and attempted to impart an ideological orientation to it on the lines mentioned above, but on the whole, the movement was more of a spontaneous nature and no such recognizable set of leaders or a definite ideology could claim to have guided it.
This marked the end of the first phase of students' movement in our college and thereafter the authorities went into a defensive position. Our college was thus put into the mainstream of student and political activities of West Bengal.
Our rustication issue got buried down in the thick of the movement. However, at the persistence of circle of students close to us, the content of the next issue of 'Vanguard' was considerably toned down.
Full fledged and open political activities began in the college. In the beginning of 1969 we organised protest marches in township throughfares against police firing on Kashipur and Ichhapur workers, and organised progressive cultural functions etc. Students were mobilised to express solidarity with workers' struggles in townships. Advanced comrades continued addressing GB meetings of workers. In addition, we started a night school in a bustee area where college students visited and provided education to poor children. This was taken as a means for interaction with the people.
Our conflicts with the CPI (M) outside were confined to debates with their leaders and cadres where Lenin's 'State and Revolution' was our favourite weapon in silencing them down. However, CPI (M) was getting quite worried over our activities particularly because it had no foothold in the college.
Within the college, contradictions with anti-Communist lumpen type students became quite acute as they could not tolerate our activities. During a progressive drama function they attacked us and we had planned to pay them back immediately after examinations. By that time several of us had made up their minds to give up studies and work as Party wholetimers.
However, again an unexpected event occurred.
On 1 June, two college students were arrested by the police from a nearby square as they were protesting the beating of an innocent truck driver by the traffic policeman. When the news came to the college, hundreds of students armed with rods ransacked the nearby police post, beat up all policemen who came into sight and blocked the GT Road demanding unconditional release of the arrested students. Armed police forces started arriving on the scene threatening to fire but students refused to move. When the inspector came for talks he was immediately surrounded and virtually dragged inside the college campus. We behaved well with him and lectured him on Mao's thought. Message was sent to police authorities that the inspector will be released only after the students were released. By evening, the administration released the students and we in turn, released the inspector unharmed. Students were full of joy over the victory, but later we realised that it was just the beginning.
The next day morning, hundreds of armed policemen encircled the college from all sides. Within fifteen minutes hundred or so of us came out and started throwing stones. Without any warning whatsoever, the police opened fire killing a student, Prakas Poddar, and then they marched into the college where examinations were in progress. From ten in the morning to four in the evening, they beat up anyone they caught hold of, smashing the doors of the rooms where students had hidden themselves. Over a hundred students, teachers and other staff members were injured and admitted to hospital. Frantic telephone calls to the district administration and the Home Ministry by the college authorities went in vain. Their pet reply was that the police had rebelled and your students were responsible for it. At 4 pm with the arrival of EFR, the policemen left the place.
That was my first ever experience of facing a police firing and witnessing police brutality at such a large scale. I remember having taken a pledge with closed fists to take revenge, and once and for all, that was the end of all my hesitation to join the revolutionary movement as a professional revolutionary.
Well, it was a left front Government, then headed by Mr. Jyoti Basu. Students of Presidency College and Jadavpur University organised protest demonstrations condemning the police firing. Our protest in front of Jyoti Basu's residence was again lathicharged.
"Statesman" wrote an editorial titled 'Red Star over Durgapur'. From the form of the 1 June incidents, CPI (M) too felt that Naxalites had gained considerably in the college and thus allowed the so-called police rebellion to teach us a lesson. In reality, these were exaggerated readings of the situation. The whole struggle was a struggle of general students arising out of their natural urge to protest against injustice, and their wrath against the police. In the forefront of the struggle stood, apart from us, those students too with whom we were in a state of antagonism. The two arrested students were general students as was Prakash, and it was a spontaneous outburst of the student community. Instead of teaching us a lesson, this event antagonised the students against the CPI(M) and it really turned the college into a red bastion of ours. Our ranks swelled to a great extent and we emerged as the leaders of the students as a whole.
At this point, certain lumpen type of elements who could no longer resist us on their own, established contacts with CPI (M) outside and the CPI (M) in its bid to get a foothold in the college started harbouring them. These elements though isolated from the students, started creating trouble with the backing of a large number of CPI (M) activists from outside. Finally, when it crossed all limits of tolerance, we gave them a good drubbing. CPI(M) with its hundreds of activists and supporters which included large number of workers, attacked us in retaliation and in order to avoid a blood-bath we made a retreat.
Some fifteen of us were, however, caught by them, beaten and kept in confinement at workers' quarters for two days. We engaged into sharp debates with the CPI(M) leaders, and resorted to a hunger strike demanding our release. Quite strangely, I found that the workers and a section of the CPI(M) cadres didn’t like all this confinement. They very sympathetically attended to our injuries and with tears in their eyes, requested us to break the hunger strike. Ultimately, the leadership released us unharmed.
In the college campus, in the mean time, the lumpen section created white terror by mercilessly beating up even our distant sympathisers. We continued our preparations secretly and after two months or so launched a swift counter attack beating up the hoodlums and ending the reign of white terror. Hundreds of students came out cheering on the streets. The CPI(M) attacked from outside but after hours of bombing made a retreat. Police rounded up over 500 students to arrest the leaders but our comrades had already made good their escape. Since then the college campus was completely controlled by us. We established what we then called the 'red terror'. The CPI (M) stopped meddling and the ring leaders just fled away.
Thus began the third and the last phase of our movement.
We organised a political strike against US aggression on Cambodia and it was a total success. A campaign was organised against obscene and cheap literature. All rooms were searched and such literature was burnt at open places. Students were told to behave properly with the local population and scores of batches of students went to the workers colonies to do political propaganda.
Red flag was hoisted atop the college building in a political gathering of over 2,000 students. Whenever we came to know about any workers' struggle, hundreds of students joined in support.
It was perhaps May or June of 1970. By that time several of our cadres had left for the countryside or for other working class areas. I had taken the mantle of party leader and apart from looking after the college affairs, had to oversee the general work of Durgapur Party organisation too.
Com. Dhurjatee Buxi was one senior comrade who had left the college as a Party wholetimer and at present he is an important Party functionary of ours.
In the college, Gautam Sen was another leader who was a good orator and had the best leadership qualities amongst us. We did have certain differences occasionally but we would always resolve them through discussions. Latter on he became a Party wholetimer. At present, as per my information, he is running a group 'Mazdoor Mukti' and a magazine of the same name from Calcutta.
During the reign of 'red terror' we inflicted varying degrees of punishment on reactionary and lumpen elements, in particular, against those who were ringleaders during the 'white terror'. This process reached its climax when Madhusudan, the main ringleader, returned offering an apology. He had earned deep hatred of students and was beaten to death by a mob of students. That was the end of our 'red terror' as the police intervened and the college was closed for an indefinite period. I had already outrun my period as a student leader and thereafter there was no going back.
In retrospect, I feel that during the period of 'red terror' we committed some excesses and the blame should primarily lie on me. Madhu, after all, was a student and had come back for pursuing his studies, I could not imagine that he will die after the beating. Often I repent his death because had I tried, I could have dissuaded my militant comrades and saved him.
Four years back, I accidentally met a class fellow of mine during a train journey. He is now an engineer in Jessop Factory. During college days he was in the opposite camp just next to Madhu on our hit list. While recalling the old days, in friendly discussion I told him that I feel sorry for the excesses in those days. In response he consoled me back saying that you people did many good things and actually we did many wrong things and deserved the punishment. With great passion he told me 'Mishra, I feel proud of you'.
Did he sum up the present feelings of the then generation of students? I don't know. Dark clouds over the years have overshadowed the 'The Red Star'. The general disgrace which our movement suffered in West Bengal at the hands of our political opponents, the powerful media, the tribe of ex-Naxalites and our own undoings, had made it difficult to sort out the specific practices and achievements in particular cases.
On our part we worked for breaking the regimented life of a 'professional' education system and for bringing forth students' voice and their participation in running the college affairs; we did all in our capacity to foster a revolutionary progressive culture among students; we strove for educating in communist ideology and revolutionary politics a specific category of students who had nothing but the individual career as their life-mission; we did our best to integrate students with the life and struggles of workers and working people; we roused them in struggles against injustice, against anti-social activities, and against police atrocities.
In the process, apart from Prakash and Omswaroop, Comrades Tapan Ghosh and Ananda, two of the college students and professional Party cadres who were murdered in cold blood in Asansol jail in 1972, laid down their lives.
Myself, Dhurjati Buxi, Brij Bihari Pandey, Ashish Das Gupta and Gautam Sen are still continuing with the struggle for a revolutionary social change in ways we deem proper.
We did commit mistakes and excesses but we always based ourselves on broad students' support. We retained our distinct identity but at the same time we remained as an integral part of general students, always upholding their issues and remaining at the forefront. Actually here lay our strength and that is why, be it authorities or CPI(M) or police, none succeeded in crushing us and every time we came beck.
We neither advocated nor practiced Che's theory of urban guerilla actions, nor did any 'Kaka'-style super hero emerge from among us. We always remained loyal to the Party mainstream and though we did engage in intensive debates, we had no factions amongst us. We a paid lot of attention to reading wide range of Marxist literature and on doing political propaganda. At a juncture, nearly 100 students volunteered to become Party wholetimers and scores of them did go to work in the countryside. Four worker comrades who became wholetimers in the interaction with us in those periods and are still working in our party in responsible positions and good number of workers and their families still retain the fond memories of R.E. College, Durgapur. The rest is history.
Well, I wrote down all that I could recollect. I must not bother you more with my journey down the memory lane.