Shahid Bedis: Revisiting Revolutionary Moments through Public History

By Madhulagna Halder

I almost stumbled upon the account of the shahid bedis by accident in 2023, during an archival field trip. While working at the 114-year-old Rammohun Library, in Kolkata, India, I met Sunish Deb, a social worker and a former activist, who was a regular in the Library’s reading room. As we continued our chanced conversation about my doctoral research, Deb mentioned in a passing anecdote, how once, not long back, he, along with a few of his friends, went around the city, restoring dilapidated martyr memorials on a quest to breathe new life to the much overlooked history of the Naxalbari Movement and its “heroic martyrs.”

Further research led me to uncover that the story of the shahid bedis in Kolkata resurfaced in 2021.

A memorial stone celebrating the unsung martyrs, at the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal, India. This particular image is for a celebratory event marking 50 years of the movement in 2017, by the CPI (ML). Image sourced from the online archives of the CPI(ML).

The movement began when Supriyo Choudhury, a writer and a photographer, stumbled upon an almost faded out memorial stone in College Street (an arterial neighbourhood in the old part of the city) and made an appeal on Facebook for concerned friends, former activists and sympathizers to get together and start the work of restoration.

The Times of India, a popular daily, picked up on Choudhury’s call, reporting on August 28, 2021:

A neglected memorial (shahid bedi) in front of Bhabani Dutta Lane commemorating the deaths of nine young Naxalites, is getting a new lease of life with a group of people taking the initiative to restore it to its old glory. Members of the group are mostly people who were once associated with the movement. They have crowd-sourced for the renovation that will take place on Saturday.

The Naxalbari Movement (1969-1975), led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) (CPI(ML)) in the 1970s, remains one of the watershed moments in the long history of communist politics in postcolonial India. Following the call of the enigmatic leader, Charu Mazumdar (a trade unionist who was inspired by Mao’s political experiments in China) thousands of young activists joined the party to submerge themselves in “revolutionary political work.”

The party was banned by the central government as a “radical outfit” and following the death of Majumdar in 1972, the political momentum fizzled out.

Characterized by a rather indiscriminate culture of violence, those young activists who were arrested suffered police atrocities in the years that followed. Custodial torture of Naxalites and encounter killings, (a popular term for undocumented police shoot outs)  became a rather commonplace event. Oftentimes in the wee hours of the night, young men were found dead in desolate back alleys of then Calcutta, which remained as the epicentre of the movement.  “Encounters” killed several hundreds of young activists, and many were recorded as simply “missing” in official records, the total figures of these precarious deaths remain unknown till date.

The shahid bedis were constructed around the city to simultaneously mark sites of police violence and also celebrate “martyrs” as part of the political programme of the CPI(ML) in the 1980s.

Contradictory to this initial intention, Chaudhury and his group involved in the restoration work (almost 50 years later), were rather infused with a personal conviction to transform these stones as historical evidence of a revolutionary time, that presently suffers from the threat of complete erasure. They denoted the task of constructing and restoration of shahid bedis as a project to preserve history for future generations, of an exceptional time, that had witnessed the sacrifices of many of their young friends and comrades.

Members of the collective variously define the memorial stones as a “slices of forgotten histories” and relics commemorating the “sacrifices of youths for the cause of revolution.”

Abhijit Majumdar, a poet involved in the collective’s restorative work, mentioned that “the history of shahid bedis narrate the stories of [the] immortal martyrs, it continues to remind us of a revolutionary time and it is deeply personal.”

Similarly, Kallol, a Bengali musician wrote how, as a former naxal activist, he feels an unease at the fading out of these memorial stones; for him the stones reiterate the state’s attempt to “erase these people, dilute history with lies.”

These men share a resolution to make the restored bedis relics of public history and material archives, beyond their initial political character. In some cases, the new stones were also designed with more information.

This is true for the example of the bedi in Shyambazaar. The faded older stone, while commemorating an incident of prisoners killed in Howrah Jail on May 13, 1975 read:

“On May 3, 1975, Immortal martyr Pratip Ghosh, was slaughtered in Howrah Jail. Red Salute!”

The stone only named one of the activists killed in the prison, and thus failed to capture the entire story.

When the restoration work began, the collective decided that the new stone, unlike the older one should bear more details of the incident and, chose to include the names of other “martyrs.” Thus, the restored bedi (below) now reads:

“Our tribute to those martyrs killed on May 13, 1975 in Howrah Jail.  Pratip Ghosh, Shymal Chakrabarty, Tarun Das, Brahmor Mallick, Madan Das. Lal Salaam Comrades!”

These bedis, much like the martyrs they signify, serve as a “embodiment of collective memory of violence”. They are at once unique in their presence, distinguishable from all other forms of war memorials and holocaust memorials, that have become symbols of national identity and remembrance.

Essentially symbolized as a critique of the nation state at their very inception, the bedi differ from other projects of martyr memorials that receive state patronage.

What is the most interesting is as a true historical artefact, the bedi’s journey from political campaign in the 1980s to highlight brutal acts of state sponsored violence, to being transformed into symbols of collective memory during the pandemic, that motivated Chaudhury and his group towards collectivizing; the shahid bedis are a window towards and alternative, multifarious history of the political and urban life during turbulent 1970s in West Bengal, India.

Madhulagna Halder is a PhD candidate at McGill University. A longer version of this paper won the inaugural conference essay prize at Western University’s Graduate History Conference. 

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