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TAPSA: Naxalbari, Nemu Singha and the Indo-Nepal borderlands: a cross-border life-history

February 11, 2021 - 5pm

Virtual Event

Abhishek Bhattacharyya, PhD Candidate in Anthropology and South Asian Languages and Civilizations, The University of Chicago

This essay focuses on the memories of former company children who have now become adults. I argue that taking my interlocutors’ memories as a point of departure for the study of childhood in India helps circumvent some moral, methodological and epistemological issues with this category. Childhood memories illuminate an individual’s assessment of their own experience, regardless of whether it conforms to widespread normative expectations about childhood. I argue that in this case, they also suggest certain biographical periodizations more relevant to a person’s life than prevalent age categories.A 1967 peasant uprising in the plains areas (Terai) of Darjeeling district, West Bengal, India, gave the place name “Naxalbari” to a whole trajectory of radical left politics in India – the “Naxalite” movement – which includes the longest running armed insurgency in the world. And in the adjoining Terai district of Jhapa in Nepal, a 1969 peasant uprising gave the name “Jhapali” to a strand of politics whose early participants included the current Prime Minister of Nepal. How did these two revolutionary mobilisations relate to each other, across an open international border?

Weaving in information and stories shared by different participants, this presentation is structured around the life of Nemu Singha – whose aliases include Ajit Singha in the Indian Terai, and Rajen Rajbongshi in Nepal. He is local legend for having broken out of high security prisons in both India (1971) and Nepal (1978), though few have heard of him elsewhere.

While numerous monographs bear the word “Naxalbari” in their titles, the place is at best posited as a prop for a story that moves elsewhere, carrying the name. Based upon extended fieldwork in the Indian Terai between 2017 to 2020, I reorient the narratives of Naxalbari to engage with the place and its people: belonging to various minoritized communities, often with settlements across borders, in a way that allowed for particular kinds of gendered cross-border guerrilla mobility over 1967-1977. In the process, the revolt created the groundwork for what I call a subaltern local internationalism.

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