'I will always strive to engineer a better society'
By Sue Boland
The Indian revolutionary movement has suffered a double blow with the deaths of Vinod Mishra, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) on December 18, and Nagbhushan Patnaik, a founding leader of the party, on October 9.
More than 100,000 poor peasants, rural labourers, urban workers and intellectuals joined the funeral procession for Mishra in Patna on December 22.
A statement published by the CPI (ML) Central Committee explained the pivotal role that Mishra played in the development of the party during his 23 years as general secretary:
"It was comrade Vinod Mishra who guided the party from its underground existence when it was practically limited to pockets of struggle in the rural areas of Bihar and Bengal and brought the party to the national mainstream politics."
The CPI (ML) had its origins within the Communist Party of India-Marxist. When the CPI-M government won control of the West Bengal state government in the 1960s, the poor and middle peasants were inspired to settle accounts with the landlords and began a wave of land seizures. This movement began in the Naxalbari region of West Bengal in 1967, and became known as the Naxalite movement.
The CPI-M opposed the land seizures, fearing that the central government would dismiss the state government. When the CPI-M government bloodily suppressed the movement, killing 11 people, a section of the party formed the All India Coordination Committee of Revolutionaries (AICCCR). This committee was a precursor to the formation of the CPI (ML) in 1969.
Mishra was a student at Durgapur Regional Engineering College in West Bengal when the Naxalbari rebellion broke out. He quit his studies and plunged headlong into the struggle.
In a letter to his father, he explained why he could no longer continue his studies: "I couldn't become a mechanical engineer, but I will always strive to engineer a better society".
For the first 10-15 years, the CPI (ML) concentrated on organising an armed struggle. During this struggle, thousands of CPI (ML) comrades were killed, tens of thousands jailed and most of the central leadership arrested. Mishra was detained for 12 months under the Prevention of Violent Activities Act.
The state repression of the party and the death of the general secretary, Charu Majumdar — who was tortured to death by the police in 1972 — meant that some of the party's regional committees lost contact with each other.
In 1973, as secretary of the Burdwan Regional Committee, Mishra contacted party comrades in Bihar led by Subrata Datt (Jahar), and played a key role in reorganising the party. He became one of the three Central Committee members in 1974.
After Jahar was killed by police in 1975, Mishra became general secretary. Mishra and the rest of the party leadership realised that the concentration on armed struggle was preventing the party from intervening in the developing mass movements.
In 1974-75, there was a mass movement against Indira Gandhi's emergency rule, a mass student youth movement in Bihar and an all-India general strike.
In an interview with Links magazine in 1995, Mishra said that at that point the party had to "develop some mechanism to interact with all these big mass activities. We organised an internal rectification movement against a militarism that had developed in our party ... Later on, we realised that the possibility of an all-out armed struggle to seize power didn't exist at the moment."
Mishra explained that in the late 1960s, large sections of the working class supported the Naxalbari struggle. He said that the party had "felt it was time for the vanguard workers to give up their trade union business and go directly into the countryside and integrate with the peasants and organise armed struggles ... Some of the workers did leave their jobs and go to the countryside but many of them just could not go ... We left a big gap in the leadership of the working class movement as we were busy in the countryside with the peasant movement. Many workers were sympathetic to us but we had no programs for them and many went back to the CPI-M and their unions."
Under Mishra's leadership, the party overcame its focus on purely military tactics. This enabled it to rebuild its base among the working class.
In 1981, the party decided to launch mass movements and a national political front organisation. The Indian People's Front was launched in 1982, as well as a number of other mass organisations. The IPF enabled the party to intervene in national politics while it was still underground.
"We made our best effort in the early 1980s to reunite the left in a single party, or at least to unite sections of the left around certain programmatic actions", Mishra told Links. "We organised bilateral discussions with other left groups ... We realised that at that stage it may not be possible to unite the left into a single party, but at least we could unite sections of the left around a common minimal program in a federal-type organisation [such as the IPF]."
The party entered a new phase when it emerged from the underground in 1992. By campaigning around a wide range of popular issues, it established a wider hearing for its ideas.
Faced with attempts to implement neo-liberal policies and the rise of communalism in the 1990s at a time when much of the mainstream left had come to be identified with the squabble over parliamentary seats and ideological retreat, the CPI (ML) was able to assert itself as the most uncompromising and consistent defender of democracy and secularism.
The CPI (ML) will also miss Nagbhushan Patnaik. As a founding member of the CPI (ML), Patnaik was a link between the first generation of the party leadership and the party's newer activists.
Patnaik joined the Communist Party of India in 1961 and began organising oppressed tribal people and the rural poor in the Koraput district.
When the CPI underwent its first major split in 1964, Patnaik joined the CPI-M. In early 1966, Patnaik was jailed under the draconian Defence of India Act along with most senior CPI-M leaders. This exposed him to the ideological debates at the leadership level of the party.
When the Naxalbari rebellion began, Nagbhushan organised the Orissa branch of the AICCCR. Along with other thousands of CPI (ML) cadre, Patnaik was jailed in 1969. He escaped from prison later in 1969, only to be recaptured in 1970.
Although Patnaik was sentenced to death, public pressure forced the Indian government to commute the sentence to life imprisonment, and later to release him on indefinite parole in 1981.
Patnaik plunged into the struggle once again, becoming the chairperson of the Indian People's Front in 1984 and a member of the party's politbureau.
"The memory of Vinod Mishra and Nagbhushan Patnaik will be kept alive in the hearts and minds of all those who fight for freedom and justice, who fight to rid the world of the source of our oppression — capitalism and imperialism — and replace it with a socialist world free of exploitation, war, injustice and the destruction of our environment", John Percy, national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party, told Green Left Weekly. The DSP and CPI (ML) have developed close ties in recent years.
"Mishra and Patnaik's legacy to socialists and fighters for justice today is the 70,000-strong CPI (ML). In particular, Mishra's leadership has ensured that the CPI (ML) has developed as a party that is capable of relating to new political developments flexibly, while retaining its revolutionary socialist orientation.
"Their legacy is a party which enables workers, peasants and other oppressed people to carry on the struggle for a society which is free of oppression", Percy added.