KOLKATA // They used to clear a path for men like Gautam Goswamy. "Naxalite", neighbours whispered, evoking the name of one of India's most feared revolutionary organisations. The young firebrand did not let them down. Shot, tortured, imprisoned and ever defiant, Mr Goswamy carried a gun and did not hesitate to use it. These days, it is hard to see the swaggering revolutionary in the 58-year-old grandfather, wearing a crisp, white shirt and matching trousers, in a small stone-floored room in west Kolkata.
Mr Goswamy laid down his arms more than 30 years ago, devoting his days to family and the humble Kolkata pharmacy he founded. He still lauds the movement - even if he admits the glorious revolution that began in 1967 is taking a little longer than expected. "We believed that people could change society through the leadership of their workers and farmers," he said. Naxalites have mostly faded from the West Bengal region where the movement was founded by farmers rebelling against oppressive conditions. Confined mostly to the northern states of Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, they are still known to blow up trains, incite riots and waylay motorists, waving machine guns and making off with their valuables.
This month, Naxalites, also called Maoists, chalked up one of their most impressive victories yet against their arch-nemisis - the anti-terror force known as the Greyhounds. In Orissa, a boat-full of the elite commandos, specifically created to scourge India of Naxalites, was ambushed. Raining rockets and machine gun fire down on the unsuspecting troops, the Maoists killed at least 33 Greyhounds and claimed a massive cache of weapons. Perhaps, most significantly, they dealt a humiliating blow to the government's pride.
"In the name of helping the poor, the Naxalites are murdering innocents in a manner that is nothing but barbaric," said Naveen Patnaik, Orissa's chief minister, in a magazine interview shortly after the incident. "I am confident that once modernisation seeps in poverty-stricken areas, the Maoists and their great theories of helping the poor will die a painful death." But the movement is also drawing inspiration from the newly installed Nepalese government, which openly supports Naxalism, communist groups that were born out of the Sino-Soviet split in the Indian communist movement. Last month, Baburam Bhattarai, Nepal's Maoist leader, visited Kolkata, meeting Naxalite leaders and addressing a rally.
While popular perception of Naxalites in India ranges from freedom fighters vying to overthrow an oppressive system, to terrorists who are themselves exploiting India's poor and illiterate masses to advance their cause, one thing is certain - there has been blood. And it did not take long for Mr Goswamy to wade into it. The Naxalbari uprising of 1967, which saw farmers and labourers take up arms against authorities in the small Bengali town, inspired throngs of students throughout the state - and few more passionately than the second-year commerce student at the University of Calcutta.
"Our country was run by a feudalist system, and peasants were living under very wretched conditions," said Mr Goswamy, who flocked to student rallies in Kolkata. He saw a system whereby the upper classes exploited society's lower rungs, reaping rich rewards from their sweat and toil. At the same time, labourers lived in desperate poverty. "We got freedom from the British in 1947," he said. "But we were not really free. The poor were still bound to the landlords."
So Mr Goswamy quit school, and embarked on a career as a Naxalite fighter. While he is reluctant today to recall the details of his involvement, the bullet wounds on his leg - one on his thigh, another on his calf - tell their own stories. "At the time, money was one of the problems," he said. "And it was also the answer." To raise funds for the movement, Mr Goswamy embarked on a series of lootings and bank robberies. "It's always taken in a negative aspect," he said. "But it was for the cause."
He remains coy, however, about whether he killed anyone during his marauding days. "I shot a couple of times," he said. "But I don't know if anyone got hit." In May 1970, Mr Goswamy was hiding in a remote Bihar village when the police arrived. They had been tipped off by the local landlords. Caught off guard, he fled to the surrounding jungle, only to be tracked and captured. It was not the first time, Mr Goswamy had been arrested. He reels off most of the major prisons in north-east India as his home at one point or another.
But the last incarceration would be the longest - and most brutal. Mr Goswamy maintained his underground network, even in prison, where comrades would come and go, smuggling messages and co-ordinating anti-government activities. He even managed to finish his university degree inside, graduating with his commerce degree in 1974. But he was also tortured extensively by authorities seeking information on Naxalite activities, he said.
Released in Dec 1977, Mr Goswamy underwent a revolution of his own - a domestic one. He gave up his guns, married the sister of one of his Naxalite comrades and founded a pharmacy in Kolkata's Behala district. His health never recovered from the dank confines of prison. Today, he is afflicted by asthma and he is rarely capable of leaving his childhood home. The care of the chemist is left to his only son, Anirban Goswamy - a 29-year-old, who was raised with a healthy respect for his father's Naxalite ties. "He's so dedicated to them," he said.
Not everyone agrees with the path Mr Goswamy has taken - not even some of his oldest friends. Bachu Basu was also a student at University of Calcutta during the turbulent 1960s. While he supported the Naxalites, like most students at the time, Mr Basu maintained some profound reservations. "One thing I can say at the age of 60, their politics were fundamentally wrong," he said. "We can say very easily that we want a classless society, but it can't be. If there is society, there must be some structure."
What troubled Mr Basu most, however, was the killing. The movement's founder, Chandu Majumdar, had written that Naxalites were bound to kill all "class enemies", a list that included politicians, teachers, lawyers and, most disturbingly, to Mr Basu, police officers. "They were considered a pillar of imperialism," he said. "But they could have been my neighbour or my cousin." Still, Mr Basu does admire a man who took arms to defend one of society's most vulnerable populations.
It is a life, said Samir Ghosh, another university friend, well worth dying for. Mr Ghosh was in Kolkata when the Maoist movement exploded on campus. He admired the cause, but remained in school, earning a bachelor of science, while his schoolmate got his gun. "I was scared," Mr Ghosh said. "He was very brave." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org