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The ’70s REBELS

Posted by Admin on October 10, 2009

15left2When Maoist ideologue Kobad Gandhy was arrested by the Delhi police last month, his elite background left everyone confounded – there was even

some facetious second-guessing in the press about what could have possibly made a wealthy Parsi from Mumbai abandon his creature comforts for the jungle of the Naxal movement.

What, indeed? Unthinkable as it may appear to Gen Now and the postliberalisation press, there was a reason: a long-forgotten word called idealism. Kobad’s was an idealism that swayed many youngsters of the 1970s, and spurred them to abandon the comfort of their elite cocoons to struggle for the less privileged.

Those were both heady and difficult times, recall former and current comrades. In Kolkata, where the Naxalite movement had begun in 1967, the police hunted down young people night after night – students who’d left their homes and studies to fight for the landless, to work in factories so that they could organise the workers. “They beat us like a dhobi beats clothes,” recalls one of them. “At one stage both my legs were in plaster and I had 20 stitches on my head.”

These were the Naxalites then making headlines. Prof Shoma Sen, now a reader in Nagpur University, remembers that when her father explained to her as a schoolgirl who the Naxalites were, she was so moved that “I wanted to go to Presidency college and look for Naxalites” . Years later, she was to follow that road. Marriage to a worker, life in a chawl. It was difficult initially, she admits , but what helped, apart from the romanticism, was the concern for those worse off. “The best years of my life were the ’70s and ’80s,” she says. “Everyone was anti-establishment . To agitate was accepted, and to oppose commercialisation and nouveau-riche culture was the thing to do.”

Today, the establishment is in; to conform is cool. In the ’70s, however, the East was Red. The Vietnam war was on its last legs; Mao’s Cultural Revolution was on; Charu Mazumdar, founder of the Naxalite movement, had died in police custody.

Dr Radha D’Souza , reader in law, Westminster University, cannot forget that day. “They had shut down Elphinstone College because Charu Mazumdar was killed and I still remember the words of a student: ‘To be hunted down and shot like an animal for what? For defending the peasants?’,” she says.

Like others in Elphinstone, Radha spent weeks with famine-affected villagers in Maharashtra, “a life-changing experience” . On her return, she left Elphinstone for a more middle-class college so that she could work in a trade union. She moved to a factory job – “terrible, yet inspiring” – and eventually married a worker and moved into a chawl.

“The factory paid Rs 70 a month,” recalls Beena Mahajan, who worked in a plastic chappals unit, “and on pay day we would treat ourselves to beef kababs – the cheapest meat available.” Beena had just come out of the proctective world of a boarding school, yet, such was the excitement of living with comrades that she never felt a sense of deprivation . “Marxism seemed the most exciting thing. Looking at the world through a different lens, getting the answers to questions about inequality that had always made me uneasy.”

Anger at inequality – that’s what drew most of the well-off ’70s generation to Naxalism. For others, the Emergency was the turning point. Vrijendra , a professor, who goes by only one name, witnessed the fallout of the bloody demolition at Turkman Gate and gave up his childhood dream of becoming an IAS officer when he saw Jagmohan, then vice-chairman of DDA, “following Sanjay Gandhi like a puppy” . Radha gave up her factory job to become a lawyer to defend the large number of Leftists jailed during the Emergency. Her family was thrilled, expecting that she would help move them out of their lower middle class background. Instead, she decided to fight only workers’ cases.

Post-Emergency , recalls advocate Susan Abraham, the atmosphere was vibrant. A scribe, she joined the workers’ struggle after a lock-out was declared in her newspaper.

Brought up in an affluent family in Africa, Susan left Mumbai to live and work in Chandrapur without knowing either Hindi or Marathi. Even a two-month stint in jail didn’t break her resolve.

Not everyone made such radical choices. But the choices they made changed their lives forever. Vrijendra left a cushy corporate job in Hong Kong to return to India to teach in a college, much to his parents’ horror. And Radha’s first steady job came at the age of 48.

“My life would have been poorer without Left politics,” says Vrijendra. “I regret the costly mistakes we made,” says Beena, “but not our commitment. I feel sad that our kids don’t live in the exciting times we did.” TOI


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