By Shoma Sen, professor at Nagpur University. Published in Economic & Political Weekly, May 2017.
In the 50 years since Naxalbari, women have made a significant contribution to the growth of the Maoist movement, breaking free from many of the shackles that bind women down in Indian society. This article discusses the role of women and the question of patriarchy in this stream of the Naxalite movement on the basis of the literature available.
In an unpublished letter, “An Open Letter to Krishna Bandyopadhyay,” written to Krishna Bandyopadhyay in 2008 (1), Nishita (probably a pseudonym) expressed her affinity with Krishna and then argued why, in spite of the prevailing patriarchy within the Naxalite movement, she (Nishita) chose to stay and fight, claiming that women have succeeded in occupying almost half of the Maoist sky. Krishna herself had ended her article published in this journal by saying,
But today I feel that if all of us had continued and sustained it, we women would have stood side by side with the men and had an equal say in decision-making. Perhaps the history of the Naxalbari movement would have been written differently then. (Bandyo- padhyay 2008: 59)
Nishita has expressed her regret that women activists of her generation never met the inspiring Krishna and others who sparked that initial prairie fire. If they could have met, she says, “then we would have been spared some of the battles which we had to wage inside the party.” Fifty years after that Spring Thunder, nine years after Bandyopadhyay’s article, and Nishita’s letter, where do women stand in the Naxalite/Maoist movement?
The Communist Party of India (Marxist– Leninist) (CPI(ML)), formed in 1969, splintered into various factions, some of which are still active and have their own women’s organisations comprising the broader ML or Naxalite movement. Since 2004, when the CPI(ML) (People’s War) [CPI(ML)(PW)] and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) joined to form the CPI(Maoist), the activities of this party and the mass organisations close to it have been generally referred to as the Maoist movement. This article discusses the role of women and the question of patriarchy in this stream of the Naxalite (Maoist) movement on the basis of literature available. Due to strategic reasons, as well as state repression, this movement was pushed into being based largely in tribal areas, in the deep forests, with some work in plain areas and urban areas where women have also been active in student organisations, trade unions or women’s organisations.
Bhattacharyya (2016) points out how the story of Naxalbari begins with women. Policeman Sonam Wangdi was hit by an arrow shot by a tribal woman at Naxalbari on 24 May 1967. On the next day, of the 11 peasants who were gunned down by the police, eight were women, two holding their babies. Reviewing the literature of the 1970s, Bhattacharyya finds that though the programme of the CPI(ML) asserts that the people’s democratic state would “guarantee equality of status to women,” the party did not feel the need to form separate women’s organisations. Women actively participated in the peasant struggles that spread across Telangana and central Bihar and in the squads of Srikakulam, bearing immense difficulties, falling to police bullets for one cause: new democratic revolution.
In the 1980s, a consciousness of sectional movements made the ML parties think deeply about strategies regarding caste, gender and the nationality question. Women sympathetic to one of the ML factions, the Chandra Pulla Reddy group, that later evolved into the Janashakti party, began the first women’s organisation with ML leanings in the 1970s — the Progressive Organisation of Women (POW). In the 1980s, in Bihar, the Party Unity group of the CPI(ML) that worked mainly among peasants had Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Samiti and a Nari Mukti Sangram Samiti. The MCC began an organisation for women called Nari Mukti Sangh that is still active, mostly amongst tribal women of Jharkhand. Several women organisations with sympathies towards CPI(ML)(PW) were also formed in many urban centres in Andhra Pradesh (AP) between 1985 and 1995.
A women’s magazine in Telugu called Mahila Margam was started in 1989 in AP by women with a revolutionary ideology. It has been running for the past almost three decades. In 1995, the CPI(ML)(PW) formed Viplav Mahila Sangham (VMS) in the villages of the areas where armed peasant struggle was going on. In the tribal areas of AP, this was called Adivasi Viplav Mahila Sangham. In AP, the POW organised the women bidi workers in Karimnagar, Nizamabad and other districts. The VMS took up land struggles as well as those against feudal forms of sexual and labour coercion that was traditionally prevalent in the area. Working along with the Rythu Coolie Sangam (RCS or Peasant Workers Association), they occupied huge tracts of land illegally owned by landlords and marked with red flags, as their own:
It is a decision of RCS and VMS that when lands are taken over and distributed, women should also be given titles to the lands independently and this is also being implemented wherever the revolutionary movement is being able to give titles to the land. (Ghandy 2011: 217)
In 1980, the CPI(ML)(PW) sent its first squads into the forests of central India, called Dandakaranya, and started forming peasant organisations there. As many tribal women work in agriculture and tendu leaf collection, they too became active in these struggles for higher wages and land to the tiller. In 1986, the Adivasi Mahila Sanghatan (AMS) was formed and later in 1991, it was renamed as the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (KAMS) after it was consolidated at the division level in Gadchiroli.
An account of its history has been published in Telugu and also translated into English but not yet published. From this account, it becomes evident that it is a huge women’s organisation. Just as it identifies the class issues, it is also intensely aware of how patriarchy affects this society though it bemoans that it cannot always fight this kind of patriarchy. This document claims that 50,000 acres of forestlands were seized by Adivasis and tilled. Women played a key role, “more crucial in this struggle than men” (Kurpu 2010: 23). It traces the history of how upper-caste landlords had migrated from the West Godavari district of AP and from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to the areas of Bastar, married Adivasi women to acquire land, and where sexual exploitation of women was rampant. The presence of the KAMS and the Naxalite squads countered this practice. Apart from the sexual exploitation by “outsiders,” the KAMS writer describes the “internal patriarchy” of Gond tribal society like forced marriages, polygamy, kanyasulkam or bride price, etc. At the economic level, daughters cannot inherit land. They are not allowed to sow seeds, or to enter the granary. They cannot thresh the grain. Superstitions about menstruation make it necessary for women to sit outside the home or in huts where food is brought to them.
In Gadchiroli, married women used to be forced to stop wearing blouses. The KAMS began a takkelladu lon hodiya (let the girls enter the granaries) campaign (Kurpu 2010: 32). They also tried to burn the korma lon (huts for menstruating women) but it was not well accepted by the tribal society. KAMS activists feel that they need to make the people understand things better before taking such decisions.
As there are many kinds of marriage practices amongst Gonds, the KAMS decided to encourage one of them called lon hodiya (entering the home). In this custom, if a girl likes a boy she is supposed to enter his home and start living with his family.Thentheparentswouldtalktoeach other and their marriage would be fixed. In an open public meeting on 8 March in a village, KAMS activists encouraged an open declaration of love by asking couples who wanted to marry to come forward and hold hands. KAMS also intervenes in cases of forced marriages, domestic violence, witch-hunt and divorce, holding “people’s courts” to openly discuss these issues and take collective decisions, making the “personal into the political.”
One of the important institutions of Gond society is the gotul. This used to be a centre for youngsters to learn their tra- ditional knowledge, to relax after a hard day’s work, interact, sing, dance and en- joy themselves. It was also a place for the boys and girls to seek out partners. Pre-marital sex is not looked down upon and even if a boy or girl does not want to marry the one with whom he or she has had sex, s/he is encouraged to look for another partner. However, the KAMS document feels that in the present times, the gotul has become a place where young men dominate, deciding who will sleep with whom, do not take up responsibility for a girl who may get pregnant and make the girls do the work like fetching fire- wood, etc. The KAMS wants to turn the gotul into more of a place where learn- ing is encouraged along with discussion and decision-making, where the focus is on gender equality. Many Gond women have demanded that gotuls should be closed down because they are forced to dance and have sexual relations in these places (Kurpu 2010: 36).
The leadership of KAMS feels strongly that they should fight the internal patri- archy of tribal society, like inheritance of land and regarding agricultural practic- es. In the areas where, they claim, the janatana sarkars (people’s governments) are ruling, and women have been given responsible higher posts, the KAMS en- couraged Gond women to go against their community’s superstitions and sow the seeds. The document says that fortu- nately, the weather bore with them and there was a bumper crop!
The KAMS also takes up political issues like the attack on Iraq by the United States, army atrocities in Kashmir, commemorating 6 December as Anti-Hindu-Communalism Day, torchlight procession and burning of ministers’ effigies when Thangjam Manorama was raped and killed in Manipur, etc. They have been publishing two magazines since 1996: Poru Mahila in Telugu and Sangharshrat Mahila in Hindi, and stated that they ought to publish more in Koya, the language of the Gonds. It is in this context that one can see how the Salwa Judum targeted women leaders, since the old feudal forces amongst the tribal people do not want these changes and have aligned with the state to unleash the most heinous forms of repression in Chhattisgarh.
Undoubtedly, a movement that is seen as “terrorist” by the Indian state will have faced severe repressions. Much of the published literature of the Maoists is based upon the lives of such women who had been martyred to the cause. The foreword of a booklet called Women Martyrs of the Indian Revolution, hails the sacrifices of Panchadi Nirmala, Snehlata, Padma, Rajitha, Aruna and others.
Many questions are raised in the context of armed insurgency and women’s involvement regarding their agency in these movements. Are they predominantly male groups and parties which are “using” women’s power in this violent struggle to fulfil their own ends? If this question was to be applied to the Naxalite movement, one would find ample evidence in the literature accessible in the media to say that, by and large, women go through a consciousness raising process so that they generally understand what they are doing and why they are struggling.
A small report by two urban activists, Latha and Sujata, who had attended the conference of KAMS in 1991, observed that 40 delegates representing 1,000 village units of KAMS had come for the conference. There were tribal women in- volved in all aspects of volunteer work like cutting down trees and making benches, levelling the ground, etc. There was a great deal of dancing and singing, sometimes all through the night. The observers felt that the Naxalite squads had a major role in initiating the women’s groups. As the women spoke in the conference, they seemed to generally begin their narrations with “The squad came into our village, then…”.
Initially, the male squad members took it for granted that the Adivasi women would cook for them and would participate along with menfolk in the tendu patta struggles. But there were commu- nist revolutionaries who were women in the squads and they began meeting the Gond women separately to form a women’s organisation. Though initially the tribal men did feel threatened by separate women’s organisations, the confe- rence report observes that “they have also succeeded in gradually eradicating the patriarchal attitudes prevailing in their own men” (Latha and Sujata 1991: 7). It was the Adivasi women who chal- lenged the protective patriarchy of the early squads and fought to join them as if to say that if they could fling an arrow, they could also wield a gun.
The seminal document outlining the Maoist party’s understanding on these issues is called “Our Approach to the Women’s Question.” Bhattacharyya uses the documents of the CPI(ML)(PW)/Maoist to discuss the attitudes of this party towards the women’s question and patriarchy such as “the approach of our party in building a revolutionary women’s movement” (Bhattacharyya 2016: 308). The 2001 Circular, “Fight against Patriarchal Thinking within the Party and Promote Proletarian Culture” clearly shows that the Maoist party acknowledges the existence of patriarchy within its ranks.
As per the report of the Ninth Congress held in 2007, the Maoist party accepted the prevalence of patriarchy as one of its shortcomings and decided to resolve this problem. A question was also sometimes raised about whether women could rise to the leadership in the Maoist party. One has read of two women, the late Anuradha Ghandy and a recently freed political prisoner, Sheela Didi, an Adivasi woman, as being the two women members of the central committee, while a number of state committees and divisional committees have women. Thirty percent of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army comprises women and there are some military formations like squads and platoons which are exclusively made up of and led by women. Some of the recently released political prisoners who held important positions in the party prior to their arrest have shared with me, in interviews, their experiences that do speak of their difficulties in leading men and all male committees in some areas. Others, like Nishita, avow that they have worked with “excellent men comrades who can be called the best human beings to have existed on this earth with regard to women.”
In her book, Srila Roy (2012) has talked about the glorification of the heroism of the Naxalite movement in the memories of women, where sacrifice is seen as the greatest virtue. In this vein, I can recall a conversation with a woman activist, who was a wonderful mass leader, who hated housework and everything feminine and joined the movement in her young days because it allowed her a reversal of gender roles. But circumstances pushed her into the underground movement where she had to live in the guise of an “ordinary woman” to avoid suspicion and practise a backward gender reversal.
Bhattacharyya also mentions about a 1999 Circular which says, “Let us cast away the alien class tendencies regarding sex, marriage and family from our party!” He finds it as “unique” and “most valuable” because these are the areas which political parties and groups prefer to remain silent upon, or they follow the prevailing traditions (Bhattacharyya 2016: 308). That a circular would be written to encourage women to rebel against the domination of their male partners or leaders if there is a wrong trend; that the circular lashes out against men for belittling women and criticises women for undermining themselves; that it also works out norms for marriage, divorce and re-marriage is indeed unusual. Being meant largely for those involved in guerrilla warfare, for whom discipline and concentration is a way of life; the circular prohibits pre-marital and extra-marital sex; encourages self-choice marriages with the knowledge of the experienced and leading group members; and warns against the jealousy of male activists towards their female partners. It also feels that live-in relationships and casual relationships are anarchic, causing confusion and emotional disturbances that the disciplined life of revolutionaries cannot accommodate. In the past year, a section of students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, who worked in a student organisation sympathetic to Maoist politics, broke away from this group criticising the leadership of the RDF that subscribes to Maoist ideology of having feudal patriarchal views.
Thus, the above-mentioned circular and the norms it prescribes have come under criticism from a section of young radicals. Similarly, the Maoist party and women’s organisations close to it have been campaigning against the consumption of liquor among the rural people making it a norm for its activists to avoid drinking. This again is a matter of debate in urban areas or among urban students, where young men and women smoking and drinking or living together are becoming more prevalent. However, the question does arise whether the norms that prevail in metro cities can be used to generalise on issues of morality and ethics in rural areas. Similarly, norms that hold good in tribal areas do not hold water in mainstream rural society. This is the view of a recently released political prisoner and woman activist B Anuradha, who says, “Marxist ideology gives utmost importance to concrete analysis before generalising and both have a dialectical relation.” (2)
Urban Women’s Movements
The Naxalite movement, and Marxism–Leninism–Maoism, the ideology guiding it, has had a far-reaching impact on the people of India and abroad. In India, many urban women who were thus motivated had become activists. They might have worked amongst the working class, students, white collar unions or civil liberties groups as well as in women’s organisations. Many of these women’s organisations were not organically linked to any Naxalite faction or Maoist party, but some of its members sympathised with this ideology. Such women’s groups took up many struggles pertaining to rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, acid attacks, sex-selective abortions, Hindutva and women, commodification of women in beauty pageants, globalisation and the issues of women workers, the special economic zones as well as state repression on tribal women as in Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh or Sendra in Jharkhand, women political prisoners, women killed in false encounters, etc.
The issues of displacement in the present model of development in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and West Bengal as in Nandigram, Singur and Lalgarh and repression of such movements were also taken up. Believing in the unity of all women’s organisations, these groups worked with the Autonomous Women’s Movement, hosting one of its conferences in Tirupati in 1991. Women activists participated in the cultural movement with skits, songs and dances based upon folk forms and had recorded these popular songs written and performed by women in CDs and cassettes. Women’s magazines in various languages have been published, sold in offices, colleges and community settlements, bringing the discourse of women’s liberation to the ordinary small-town women and giving them a space for their own views. Writers, poets and cultural activists of both sexes, part of revolutionary politics have had seminars and debates on women’s issues. One such seminar was held in Patna in 1992, organised by the All India League of Revolutionary Culture, where a hot debate for and against feminism in the context of revolutionary politics enriched the understanding of activists. A struggle between a patriarchal mentality, based upon middle class morality, and a revolutionary outlook sharpened by a feminist axis took place in this seminar where I was myself present.
However, in the last decade, there has been a sharp decline of this kind of urban women’s movement which mushroomed in the 1990s probably due to a massive crackdown on Naxalites, Marxists, Dalits and democratic spaces as well. In urban areas, some women activists have felt stifled by a patriarchal attitude amongst the male activists, especially those of an older generation. Women have been told that feminism is an ideology that divides the working class and should be avoided. Rather than seeing feminism as an anti-patriarchal axis sharpening the gender question within broader philosophical trends like liberalism, Marxism, Gandhian or Ambedkar thought, some activists tend to see feminism and Marxism as incompatible. The Indian Maoist movement seems in denial of issues pertaining to queer issues, like same sex relations, transgender or intersex people. By accessing the internet, one can see that the Communist Party of Philippines (Maoist) has conducted gay marriages of their squad members and research scholars have worked upon the topic of how this party has grappled with the question of homosexuality, but there seems to be no discourse on this subject in the Maoist movement in India.
In the years since Naxalbari women have made a significant contribution to the growth of this movement, breaking free of many of the shackles that bind women down in Indian society. In the words of an insider, Nishita:
As a woman comrade, I can confidently say that women in the party and army have made rapid and genuine advances, winning their rightful place in the revolution as leaders of the whole party and the people … Women comrades are not dependent on men comrades nor do they look to them for decisions. They are part of the decision-making process. It is their revolution, it is their party which they had built up and which they will defend, preserve, lead and continue.
Due to my reading, observations and various conversations I have had with women activists over the years, I would tend to conclude that there has been a sea change in the approach towards and participation of women in the Naxalite movement in both understanding and practice. First, unlike women in non- government organisations or even some Dalit women’s organisations, the Maoist movement has always emphasised on the link between patriarchy and class. Without class struggle and overthrowing the ruling class, patriarchy cannot be challenged because every type of class society perpetuates patriarchy in different forms. In most parliamentary parties, including the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the women’s wing is just another organisation that will mobilise women for the political issues, just as the trade unions, student organisations, peasant organisations do. But, from my interviews with Hisila Yami of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist–Centre), with women’s activists of Philippines and Anuradha Ghandy from India, I have realised that these parties see women as half the struggle. In other words, they are (or should be) half of the party, half of the military formations, half of the students’, peasants’ and workers’ organisations and half of the alternate people’s power structures like janatana sarkar, etc, playing a leading role in all these spheres.
Another change in understanding is similar to that regarding caste: that caste and gender are part of both the base and the superstructure. Women will not get equality automatically after the revolution but have to concretely fight against the cultural, social and economic practices which discriminate against them throughout the struggle. This is why it is heartening to see the Adivasi women of central India and Jharkhand boldly defying their own patriarchal norms. The very act of joining an organisation that challenges the entire system and wants to shake it by its roots is an anti-patriarchal act, for every woman activist of such a movement knows the sacrifices she has to make and the danger involved. As Nishita writes, “The fight against patriarchy is, in essence, class struggle.” To catch the bull by both horns is what women in the Maoist movement are attempting to do.
(1) Bandyopadhyay (2008) appeared in EPW. Probably, it would be the first time a woman activist had openly spoken out and published her experiences of patriarchy in the Naxalite movement of West Bengal in the 1970s. I recently came across an open letter to Bandyopadhyay written by another activist, calling herself Nishita. The letter was written in 2008, which she might have sent to EPW but was not published. She reviews the situation, locating herself in the Naxalite movement of the first decade of the 21st century, probably in Andhra Pradesh or Dandakaranya.
(2) Personal interview, 2017.
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