On the back of his left hand, Misir Besra has a large burn mark. He has had it since childhood, when a coin was placed in a cloth and set on fire to scald him in a centuries-old Santhal tribal ceremony. “It represents a vow to fight the enemy,” said the soft-spoken Besra, 47, the highest-ranked Naxalite leader in custody in India who looked after the armed wing.
It is a vow he has kept since his days in college, leaping into the Naxal movement 23 years ago as a curious villager looking for justice, then slowly inching his way up the ranks to join the Politburo, the core Naxalite decision-making body. He was arrested one evening last September from a tea shop in a Jharkhand village.
You could say that story began with a huge jackfruit tree.
The tree stood at the centre of his Bhagnadih village in Jharkhand, then part of Bihar. It was the early 1980s. One day, Besra came back from college to find that the tree had been hacked, its thick trunk lying like a dead animal, its branches already sheared and taken away by the landlord’s men.
“I was very disturbed. I said zamindari was over — and we decided that we would not let them take the trunk away,” said Besra, short and lean, wearing a light blue T-shirt and brown trousers, a stubble on his face. “We did not let them ... That was the first time I led villagers against injustice.”
That day was preceded by years of suppressed rage. Tribals were humiliated in their everyday dealings with moneylenders, landlords and many non-tribals. They had to learn Hindi at schools, even though they wanted to study in the Santhali language. When they went to sell flowers, fruits and seeds of the mahua tree, their main source of income, they were often not paid. Moneylenders mortgaged villagers’ land on criminal terms and forcibly took it away.
“I still remember all the humiliation,” Besra said. Groups of people were showing up in the area those days — from the Naxalbari movement of communist militants, named after the place in West Bengal where it was born. In October 1985, Besra attended a cultural event of the Naxalites. He began to meet new people.
Around that time, he got to hold a gun for the first time. It was electric.