“A Naxal or Naxalite is a member of any of the Communist guerrilla groups in India, mostly associated with the Communist Party of India (Maoist)” – Wikipedia
Contrary to popular belief, war has never been an exclusively male domain. Women also get drawn into war as combatants, survivors and peace makers. India’s Maoist war which seeks to overthrow the state to establish a socialist-communist society is no exception with women being impacted on both sides of the spectrum: as perpetrators and survivors.
While many of the Naxal leaders have claimed that their support base has been in its waning phase, they have also deployed a different strategy which focuses on increasing the participation of women in the Naxal cadres. Current reports suggest that sixty per cent of lower naxal cadres now comprise of women with their numbers steadily increasing. This has raised concerns amongst government quarters who see it as a method to elicit social acceptability in the tribal areas.
Mapping the movement shows that women have supported it at various levels since its inception in Naxalbari, a small village in West Bengal. In the 1960s and 70s women joined the struggle as they were influenced by their male counterparts and were determined to bring about a social change. The class struggle subverted the need for equal participation and rights since most of the women were employed to do courier tasks, provide logistical support for robberies, or stealing arms and were not entrusted with organisational work.
Several women found themselves retreating to their traditional feminine roles and observed that the movement was replete with nuanced gender blind episodes. As it progressed, some women found a constricted space to express concerns over their rights since it was subverted by the larger albeit “more important” issue of class equality. In the October 2004 cease fire agreement between the Government of Andhra Pradesh and the Naxalite leaders, none of the women were represented.
At present, the movement’s support base largely comprises of tribals who, driven by their poverty stricken conditions, see no other alternative but join the Maoists in their war against the State, mining corporations and the upper caste. In his book “Lets call Him Vasu” based on the Maoist war in Chattisgarh, Shubhranshu Choudhary has extensively highlighted the various reasons that drive women to join the war. Many pick up the gun to avenge the sexual exploitation they faced at the hands of security forces. Many find naxalism as a route to free themselves from the clutches of patriarchy and domination from the upper caste. Rebecca, a naxalite, says “state repression” drove her to take up arms and join the rebels too: “we don’t live this hard life for nothing. I had no choice but to join the revolution. Now there is no looking back,” she says defiantly.
Women’s bodies often becomes sights of war. The warring sides inflict violence upon women to avenge the treatment meted out to them. It is no different for women caught in the conflict between the State and Maoists. A naxalite woman could be raped by State forces or suffer torture at the hands of Naxalites if they quit. Rape and sexual abuse is rampant within the Maoist cadres, Shobha Mandi also known as Uma in her latest book,”Ek Maowadi ki diary”, highlights that she was repeatedly raped and assaulted by her fellow commanders”.
“We had women from 16 to 40 years of age in our group. Almost all those I knew had experienced some form of sexual abuse or exploitation when they had stepped outside their homes to work or at the hands of security forces,” says Rampati Ganjhu, a former rebel commander from the eastern state of Bihar, “these women joined us to seek revenge but things are very different now. More and more of them are disillusioned and some women in particular are being abused by the male leaders.”
The tough forest life as a Maoist guerilla saps the strength from many drop outs who suffer from kidney problems, ulcers, joint pain and reproductive tract infections. This further adds to their hardships when they want to start life afresh. The societal fabric that exists in the region rarely offers a way for women to be independent and empowered in the cultural and the financial domain. Many women have also brought to fore the mismanagement that prevails in granting rehabilitation packages for those who have quit the movement.
There is also a rapid increase in female headed household since most of the men either lose their lives in the conflict between the State or Naxalite movement or join the naxalite movement.Women find it tough to cope in the absence of socio-cultural, governmental and financial support. Kalavati, a Sarpanch leader from a Gond tribe, speaks of her difficulties in implementing the construction of roads in her village. The Maoists hinder the project claiming that it would make them more vulnerable to the Indian security forces. This also impacts other developmental and humanitarian initiatives like health, sanitation and education due to lack of connectivity. She has devised other alternatives to help alleviate the condition of women in her village like providing them with earning opportunities by cooking and delivering food with the help of government funds. However, largely women have to struggle in the absence of support mechanisms.
Partly to blame is the media which contributes towards glorifying the image of women maoists and this pattern has been observed not only in the case of women maoists in India but worldwide. Media tends to be transfixed on the image of the woman guerilla and rarely encapsulates the desperate conditions which prevail in the rural hinterlands and in turn propel these women to join the movement. In fact, there is only recent emergence of interest in studying the impact of Maoist war on Women in the rural hinterlands of India.
In order to check upon the ever increasing number of women maoists, it is imperative that the Government implements policies and introduces adequate safety measures for the women. A woman goes on to impact her entire community therefore it is extremely crucial that positive measures are taken to alleviate them from their poverty stricken conditions and at the same time weaken the Maoist support base.
Pratibha Singh is a researcher and writer on issues pertaining to women in conflict zones at the Institute for Transnational Studies. She is currently a graduate student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt, Germany.
BBC News, “Why Women join India’s Maoist Groups”, November 2013
Paul, Stella, “Tribal women leaders seek safety & innovation as Maoist insurgent conflict continues”, Women’ News Network
Ramana, P.V., “Women in Maoist Ranks”, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, August 2013
Saiful, Haque, “Wife swapping, Adultery, Rapes. Former Woman Maoist’s shocking revelations on the ultras”, India Today, June 2013
Singh, Pratibha, “Women’s Role in the Naxalite Movement”, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, April 2013
Singh, Vijaita, “Women Maoist Commanders play a big role in encounters”, Indian Express, March 2014
Picture credit: Flying Cloud