"Violence is almost inevitable," said the heavily bearded young man. "But we're now prepared to leave the first step to the ruling class. If they push the bayonet, we'll fight back."
Although the claim carried a threat, coming from a Naxalite it represented a major toning down. From its inception in 1967, during a bloody uprising in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari, the half-million-strong movement preached and practiced murder as the key to revolution. Its principal targets were rural landlords and urban police.
"This was a mistake," said another youthful Maxalite. "We thought we could solve the problems of the poor through force. Instead, we grew alienated from those we were trying to help. Now, violence is no longer our creed."
These two Naxalites were amon six I met one recent evening in the cramped apartment of Gaur Kishore Ghosh, an openly anti-Communist journalist and author. Also present at the meeting Ghosh had arranged were an elderly follower of Jayaprakash Narayan, India's foremost proponent of passive resistance, and a pro-Communist trade union leader.
All had been released from prison following the March elections that toppled Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party. One of the Naxalites had been jailed for five years. All at the meeting had been held at least 18 months.
The men all said that their prison experience had brought them together. "We've been through the pressure cooker and we've become a little fraternity," Fhosh said as he passed cups of tea. "We meet like this quite regularly."
As the discussion proceeded, however, fundamental differences outnumbered points of agreement. One Naxalite said that while the organization backedt he present government of Prime Minister Morarjidsai, "If it deviates from its promises, we'll oppose them just as we opposed the Congress" Party.
Did this mean that the Naxalites would resume their campaign of "individual annihilation?" I asked. "We'll see," he answered.
Narayan's follower stressed that under the teachings of the late Gandhi, his movement was sworn to nonviolence. The trade unionist emphasized the need to provide jobs for the millions of India's unemployed and underemployed while Ghosh noted that the new government was committed to concentrating its economic efforts on the countryside rather than the cities.
Thus, there appears to be real doubt as to how long the odd mixture of former prisoners will stick together. The cement that binds them is their opposition to the Gandhi government's repression. But as that fades, will a more positive force take its place?
According to Indrajit Roy Choudhury, a Calcutta lawyer who represents 150 jailed Naxalites, his clients indicate that their recent decision to work within the system of parliamentary politics - a handful of Naxalites are running in the state assembly elections - is a tactical rather than a strategic change. They still believe that India's problems can be resolved only through revolution."
An argument that has already risen with the new government concerns the release of all imprisoned Naxalites.Choudhury said about 1,000 of the extremists are currently detained. Some have been held since 1969 and none has been granted a trail.
The government announced a few weeks ago that it had released 550 Naxalites. Choudhury said in an interview, however, that only 300 had been released and of these 100 were immediately rearrested.
In its election manifesto, Desai's Janata Party pledged to "release all political detainees." Last Sunday, some 1,500 university students and Bengali film personalities marched through the streets of Calcutta demanding that the government immediately honor its word.
The demonstrators distributed leaflets entitled "Let the Iron Doors Open." Among those who had signed the document was the internationally known movie director Satyajit Ray.
What is blocking the release of most of the remaining Naxalites is their refusal to sign an agreement to forswear future violence. Only three prominent Naxalites have signed to date, and those others who have been released are not considered "hard core" terrorists.
Choudhury said that street demonstrations and spreading public demand would soon force Desai to release all Naxalites, "whether they sign an agreement or not. The government is slowly backing down."
Although the majority of Indians do not support Naxalite policies, widespread revulsion over what have generally come to be known as the "excesses" of the emergency has generated popular demand for fair treatment for all those who were mistreated by the Gandhi government or actively opposed it. The Naxalites fit both categories.