THE REBEL WHO NEVER RETURNED
Bappaditya Paul’s biography of Kanu Sanyal presents the evolution of the Communist rebel while also highlighting the stages of the Naxalite movement in India
Bappaditya Paul’s The First Naxal is the first authorised biography of Kanu Sanyal, one of the key leaders of the Naxalbari movement that began as a peasant uprising in the spring of 1967 in West Bengal. This informative book narrates the making of Sanyal right from his childhood to the days of the Naxalbari uprising and beyond. It goes deep into the evolution of Sanyal as a Communist rebel and throws light on the various stages of the Naxalite movement in India.
When and how did you meet Kanu Sanyal?
In 2005, I was posted in Siliguri as a staff reporter of The Statesman. Naxalbari is just 25 km away from Siliguri. I started reading about the movement and would visit the place once in a while. It was only in 2007, when the Nandigram anti-land acquisition protests were at its peak, a colleague suggested that I interview Sanyal on the topic. But when I met Sanyal, he refused to be interviewed, saying that journalists have always “twisted” his comments to suit their story. He relented when I promised to show him the draft of the interview.
How did the book come about?
He was happy with the Nandigram interview and over the next few months, a kind of trust developed between us. Before I met Sanyal, like many others, I thought it was Charu Mazumdar who had waged the Naxalite movement and Sanyal was his follower lieutenant. But after I started interacting with him, I realised that Sanyal was a political star in his own right. Then I started searching for books on his life, his journey to China and his contribution to the Naxal movement but could not find even one.
Did he authorise you write the book?
I was not the first journalist to approach him. He had turned down the earlier offers, saying that there was nothing spectacular about his life. But he accepted my proposal when I pointed out that his story was also the story of the Naxalite movement and that after him, there would be no one to throw light on its origin, evolution, disintegration and the subsequent revival. This clicked with him because several misconceptions about Naxalism had made their way into public perception and Sanyal wanted to clear the air. There is no written authorization that I am his biographer. However, during the course of the interview, he introduced me to his family and friends. By doing so, he created a con- nection between them and me. They also understood that the book had Sanyal’s consent.
Beginning 2007, over the next three years, you met him Sanyal at regular intervals. You have 121 recorded interviews with him. How did he come across as a person?
A: After he gave his consent for the book, he became very interested in the project. He had a sharp memory but sometimes he would go back to his comrades to crosscheck events and information. He collected books and documents for me to read and would often call me to know about the progress of the book. Sanyal was a great listener though not very talkative. His answers would always be straight and forthright, and he was always open to critical assessments. In fact, it was he who told me about his two alleged ‘affairs’. It was a collaborative effort. I think people like him are one in a million; he lived as he preached and not many Indian leaders are known to do that. Sanyal was a rebel who never returned home.
It is unfortunate that he did not see the final product.
Yes, that’s a pity. Seven days before he committed suicide (March 23, 2010), Sanyal called me to ask about the progress of the book. When I told him that I was doing my last chapter, he asked me twice whether I needed anything more.
The book very skilfully brings out some unknown facets about the Naxal movement: the ideological differences between Sanyal and Mazumdar and its impact on the movement; Sanyal’s adventurous journey to China and his meetings with Mao Zedong and Zhou En-lai and the fact that Mao told the Indian Naxalites not to blindly copy the tactics that brought him to power. Was Sanyal upset that the Chinese did not support the movement?
When I asked him this question, Sanyal said that he did not go to China for funds or to learn military training. All he wanted to see was how they implemented the theoretical aspect of Communism in daily life. When the Maoist issue became big news in Nepal, Sanyal told me that communists of one country should not replicate what communists of other countries do because the ground situations are different.
Did he have any regrets?
Sanyal’s biggest regret was that he did not speak up on certain issues that he felt could harm the movement at the right time. He could not do so for several reasons: one, he was a fugitive and speaking out would mean compromising with his security and the pace and direction of the revolution. He also feared that some of Charu Mazumdar’s blind supporters would harm him physically.
Kanu Sanyal, leader of Naxalbari, in a picture dated 22 August, 1996/ GETTY IMAGES
Author Bappaditya Paul