Hearts on Fire: Arundhati Roy on the Women Rebels of India
Posted by redpines on March 1, 2011
The support of women has been essential to the continued strength of India’s CPI(Maoist). The following excerpts from Arundhati Roy’s groundbreaking piece of literary journalism, Walking with the Comrades, describe the role of women in the formation of the party and also provide a glimpse into the lives of female party members and some of the state-sponsored repression they face.
Excerpts from Arundhati Roy
Jungle post arrives. There’s a biscuit for me! It’s from Comrade Venu. On a tiny piece of paper, folded and refolded, he has written down the lyrics of a song he promised he would send me. Comrade Narmada smiles when she reads them. She knows this story. It goes back to the ’80s, around the time when people first began to trust the party and come to it with their problems—their ‘inner contradictions’, as Comrade Venu put it. Women were among the first to come. One evening an old lady sitting by the fire got up and sang a song for the dada log. She was a Maadiya, among whom it was customary for women to remove their blouses and remain bare-breasted after they were married.
Jumper polo intor Dada, Dakoniley
Taane tasom intor Dada, Dakoniley
Bata papam kittom Dada, Dakoniley
Duniya kadile maata Dada, Dakoniley
(They say we cannot keep our
blouses, Dada, Dakoniley
They make us take them off, Dada,
In what way have we sinned, Dada,
The world’s changed, has it not Dada)
Aatum hatteke Dada, Dakoniley
Aada nanga dantom Dada, Dakoniley
Id pisval manni Dada, Dakoniley
Mava koyaturku vehat Dada, Dakoniley
(But when we go to market Dada,
We have to go half-naked Dada,
We don’t want this life Dada,
Tell our ancestors this Dada).
This was the first women’s issue the party decided to campaign against.
It had to be handled delicately, with surgical tools. In 1986, it set up the Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (AMS) which evolved into the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan and now has 90,000 enrolled members. It could well be the largest women’s organisation in the country. (They’re all Maoists by the way, all 90,000 of them. Are they going to be ‘wiped out’? And what about the 10,000 members of CNM? Them too?)
KAMS campaigns against the adivasi traditions of forced marriage and abduction. Against the custom of making menstruating women live outside the village in a hut in the forest. Against bigamy and domestic violence. It hasn’t won all its battles, but then which feminists have? For instance, in Dandakaranya, even today women are not allowed to sow seeds. In party meetings, men agree that this is unfair and ought to be done away with. But, in practice, they simply don’t allow it. So, the party decided that women would sow seeds on common land which belongs to the Janatana Sarkar. On that land, they sow seed, grow vegetables and build check dams. A half-victory, not a whole one.
As police repression has grown in Bastar, the women of KAMS have become a formidable force and rally in their hundreds, sometimes thousands, to physically confront the police. The very fact that KAMS exists has radically changed traditional attitudes and eased many of the traditional forms of discrimination against women. For many young women, joining the party, in particular the PLGA, became a way of escaping the suffocation of their own society. Comrade Sushila, a senior office-bearer of KAMS talks about the Salwa Judum’s rage against KAMS women. She says one of their slogans was Hum do bibi layenge! Layenge! (We will have two wives! We will!). A lot of the rape and bestial sexual mutilation was directed at members of KAMS. Many young women who witnessed the savagery then joined the PLGA and now women make up 45 per cent of its cadre. Comrade Narmada sends for some of them and they join us in a while.
Comrade Rinki has very short hair. A bob-cut, as they say in Gondi. It’s brave of her, because here, ‘bob-cut’ means ‘Maoist’. For the police, that’s more than enough evidence to warrant summary execution.
Comrade Rinki’s village, Korma, was attacked by the Naga battalion and the Salwa Judum in 2005. At that time, Rinki was part of the village militia. So were her friends Lukki and Sukki, who were also members of KAMS. After burning the village, the Naga battalion caught Lukki and Sukki and one other girl, gang-raped and killed them. “They raped them on the grass,” Rinki says, “but after it was over, there was no grass left.” It’s been years now, the Naga battalion has gone, but the police still come. “They come whenever they need women, or chickens.”
Ajitha has a bob-cut too. The Judum came to Korseel, her village, and killed three people by drowning them in a nallah. Ajitha was with the militia and followed the Judum at a distance to a place close to the village called Paral Nar Todak. She watched them rape six women and shoot a man in his throat.
Comrade Laxmi, who is a beautiful girl with a long plait, tells me she watched the Judum burn 30 houses in her village, Jojor. “We had no weapons then,” she says, “we could do nothing but watch.” She joined the PLGA soon after. Laxmi was one of the 150 guerrillas who walked through the jungle for three-and-a-half months in 2008, to Nayagarh in Orissa, to raid a police armoury from where they captured 1,200 rifles and 2,00,000 rounds of ammunition.
Comrade Sumitra joined the PLGA in 2004, before the Salwa Judum began its rampage. She joined, she says, because she wanted to escape from home. “Women are controlled in every way,” she told me. “In our village, girls were not allowed to climb trees; if they did, they would have to pay a fine of Rs 500 or a hen. If a man hits a woman and she hits him back she has to give the village a goat. Men go off to the hills for months together to hunt. Women are not allowed to go near the kill, the best part of the meat goes to men. Women are not allowed to eat eggs.” Good reason to join a guerrilla army?
Sumitra tells the story of two of her friends, Telam Parvati and Kamla, who worked with KAMS. Telam Parvati was from Polekaya village in south Bastar. Like everyone else from there, she too watched the Salwa Judum burn her village. She then joined the PLGA and went to work in the Keshkal ghats. In 2009, she and Kamla had just finished organising the March 8 Women’s Day celebrations in the area. They were together in a little hut just outside a village called Vadgo. The police surrounded the hut at night and began to fire. Kamla fired back, but she was killed. Parvati escaped, but was found and killed the next day.
That’s what happened last year on Women’s Day. And here’s a press report from a national newspaper about Women’s Day this year:
Bastar rebels bat for women’s rights
Sahar Khan, Mail Today, Raipur, March 7, 2010
“The government may have pulled out all stops to combat the Maoist menace in the country. But a section of rebels in Chhattisgarh has more pressing matters in hand than survival. With International Women’s Day around the corner, Maoists in the Bastar region of the state have called for week-long “celebrations” to advocate women’s rights. Posters were also put up in Bijapur, a part of Bastar district. The call by the self-styled champions of women’s rights has left the state police astonished. Inspector-general (IG) of Bastar, T.J. Longkumer said, “I have never seen such an appeal from the Naxalites, who believe only in violence and bloodshed.”
And then the report goes on to say:
“I think the Maoists are trying to counter our highly successful Jan Jagran Abhiyaan (mass awareness campaign). We started the ongoing campaign with an aim to win popular support for Operation Green Hunt, which was launched by the police to root out Left-wing extremists,” the IG said.
This cocktail of malice and ignorance is not unusual. Gudsa Usendi, chronicler of the party’s present, knows more about this than most people. His little computer and MP3 recorder are full of press statements, denials, corrections, party literature, lists of the dead, TV clips and audio and video material. “The worst thing about being Gudsa Usendi,” he says, “is issuing clarifications which are never published. We could bring out a thick book of our unpublished clarifications about the lies they tell about us.” He speaks without a trace of indignation, in fact, with some amusement.
Over the next few days, I meet women who work with KAMS, various office-bearers of the Janatana Sarkars, members of the Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (DAKMS), the families of people who had been killed, and just ordinary people trying to cope with life in these terrifying times.
I met three sisters—Sukhiari, Sukdai and Sukkali—not young, perhaps in their 40s, from Narayanpur district. They have been in KAMS for 12 years. The villagers depend on them to deal with the police. “The police come in groups of two to three hundred. They steal everything: jewellery, chickens, pigs, pots and pans, bows and arrows,” Sukkali says, “they won’t even leave a knife.” Her house in Innar has been burned twice, once by the Naga battalion and once by the CRPF Sukhiari has been arrested and jailed in Jagdalpur for seven months. “Once they took away the whole village, saying the men were all Naxals.” Sukhiari followed with all the women and children. They surrounded the police station and refused to leave until the men were freed. “Whenever they take someone away,” Sukdai says, “you have to go immediately and snatch them back. Before they write any report. Once they write in their book, it becomes very difficult.”
Sukhiari, who as a child was abducted and forcibly married to an older man (she ran away and went to live with her sister), now organises mass rallies, speaks at meetings. The men depend on her for protection. I asked her what the party means to her. “Naxalvaad ka matlab hamara parivaar (Naxalvaad means our family). When we hear of an attack, it is like our family has been hurt,” Sukhiari says.
I asked her if she knew who Mao was. She smiled shyly, “He was a leader. We’re working for his vision.”
I met Comrade Somari Gawde. Twenty years old, and she has already served a two-year jail sentence in Jagdalpur. She was in Innar village on January 8, 2007, the day that 740 policemen laid a cordon around it because they had information that Comrade Niti was there. (She was, but she had left by the time they arrived.) But the village militia, of which Somari was a member, was still there. The police opened fire at dawn. They killed two boys, Suklal Gawde and Kachroo Gota. Then they caught three others, two boys, Dusri Salam and Ranai, and Somari. Dusri and Ranai were tied up and shot. Somari was beaten within an inch of her life. The police got a tractor with a trailer and loaded the dead bodies into it. Somari was made to sit with the dead bodies and taken to Narayanpur.
I met Chamri, mother of Comrade Dilip who was shot on July 6, 2009. She says that after they killed him, the police tied her son’s body to a pole, like an animal and carried it with them. (They need to produce bodies to get their cash rewards, before someone else muscles in on the kill.) Chamri ran behind them all the way to the police station. By the time they reached, the body did not have a scrap of clothing on it. On the way, Chamri says, they left the body by the roadside while they stopped at a dhaba to have tea and biscuits. (Which they did not pay for.) Picture this mother for a moment, following her son’s corpse through the forest, stopping at a distance to wait for his murderers to finish their tea. They did not let her have her son’s body back so she could give him a proper funeral. They only let her throw a fistful of earth in the pit in which they buried the others they had killed that day. Chamri says she wants revenge. Badla ku badla. Blood for blood.