02 March, 2013

Calcutta in the early Seventies

Subimal Misra began writing in the late 1960s. He was a witness to the nightmare of violence and killings that Calcutta lived through during 1970-71. Several of his stories engage with this context. Hence I was keen to know more about this period. I was fortunate to come across the book, Shottorer Dinguli (The Seventies) by Debashis Bhattacharya. I am translating this book now.

During the months of March, April, May and June of 1971, killings were the order of the day. However, it was in south Bengal, and especially in Calcutta and the neighbouring districts where most of this occurred. At that time there were about 200 killings a month. Of these 200, the police committed 130 murders. All naxalites used to be killed. 50 killings were by the naxalites. Of these, 20 were policemen, 20 were police informers, and 10 were CPI(M) workers. The CPI(M) killed 20 a month. Of these 20 murders, 15 were naxalites, and 5 belonged to the CPI. In some cases the principal Congress-man of a neighbourhood was also killed.

Things came to this pass as a result of launching “action” in the cities, following Charu Mazumdar’s dictum, and the spread of “red terror”. Charu-babu used to say that one was not a communist until and unless one’s hands were coloured with the class enemy’s blood. He said, don’t be afraid to sacrifice yourself! The Congress’ goon squad had not yet entered the field. Congress leaders smiled wryly observing the situation in early 1971.

Going through a report of the state home department, one finds that in 1968 there were 9 political murders in West Bengal. In 1969 there were 109. Between 1 January and 31 December of 1970 there were 435. During the four months between 1 January and 30 April of 1971, there were 401. Killings by the police and killings of policemen were not included in these figures. Only killings by and of political party workers had been counted. During the 365 days of 1970, all told, 1247 people were killed in Calcutta. And 1067 people had been killed in the districts.

Between the end of March 1970 and the end of March 1971, there were 142 incidents in the state of seizing of guns and revolvers by naxalites. But between 1 April and 15 May of 1971, within these 45 days, there were 146 incidents. During this period, guns and rifles used to be snatched everyday in Birbhum district. The guns of bank guards were snatched. In April 1971, a squad of naxalites threw chilli powder in the eyes of a Nepali durwan guarding a wealthy person’s house in Alipore in Calcutta, and snatched away the khukri on his waist.

Between March and December of 1970, about eight and a half thousand naxalites were arrested in the state. Of this number, only one person was sentenced by the court. Refusing legal redress, bail, and the various facilities due to prisoners that had been earned after many battles, the naxalites converted the prisons too into arenas of struggle. In the CPI(ML) party’s almost-monthly mini-paper, Deshabrati, writing under the pseudonym, Sasanka, the state committee’s secretary, Saroj Dutta, wrote: The revolutionary prisoners have declared their loathing for the prison walls.

On 14 May 1971, "action" was launched in Dum Dum Jail, and 45 naxalite prisoners escaped. Later, prison officials and police jointly beat and killed 32 naxalite prisoners. More than 90 persons were injured. And on 15 May 1971, 5 naxalite prisoners were killed in Howrah. What was the key to the success of the escape attempt? A comrade wrote a letter to Charu Mazumdar after his escape. He wrote: It’s only because I had learnt to hate and annihilate the centrists that I was able to escape. If the prisoners in all the jails read CM’s tract on centrism, and then try to escape, they will surely be successful.

Today, many of those who broke out of Dum Dum Jail that day get irritated at the very mention of the word ‘politics’.