Women have been taught that, for us, the earth is flat, and that if we venture out, we will fall off the edge. ~Andrea Dworkin
The fiftieth anniversary of the Naxalbari movement has predictably generated mixed emotions, ranging from romantic reminiscing of left-leaning ideologues to virulent bashing from right-wing followers, who have debunked it as a humongous blunder in the least and a treacherous assault on the Indian state at worst. The ruling dispensations at the Centre or in the states, for obvious reasons, will definitely not like to have any commemorative remembrance of the event which once shook the entire nation and sent shockwaves across the world. However, the BJP president, Amit Shah, by kickstarting his party’s election campaign in West Bengal at Naxalbari, has tried to convey the message that his party is committed to development.
The anniversary has actually revived memories of those turbulent days, forcing those, not blinkered by any strong ideological affiliation, to reflect on what the movement aimed to achieve, where it went wrong, the genuineness of the revolutionary underpinning of the initiators, the brutalities they faced, their unfulfilled dreams, their frustration when the movement went haywire, the metamorphosis of the movement into the Maoist insurgency, and a whole lot of associated issues.
One aspect of the movement that deserves critical evaluation is the involvement of women, not only in the initial outburst but at every stage of its evolution and its continuation in the form of the Maoist movement. Indeed, women were involved in various capacities, as leaders of action teams, as a source of support to their menfolk, as ideologues, as perpetrators of violence, and as gamechangers through surrender. They betrayed an astonishing capacity to hold their own.
In 1967,when the nation was struggling to fulfill the aspirations of its people, when poverty and a severe food crisis threatened the existence of a huge segment of the rural populace, when peasants, particularly tribals were reeling under the oppression of the remnants of a semi-feudal order, the jotedars, landlords and moneylenders hand-in-glove with the police and administration, the idyllic village of Naxalbari in the foothill of the Himalayas in Darjeeling district witnessed something unprecedented ~ tribals fighting back their tormentors. In March 1967 when Bighol Kisan, an evicted sharecropper, armed with a court order, tried to enter a patch of land owned by a jotedar, he was thrashed by the goons of a landlord. Immediately, a volcano of anger erupted. The countryside reverberated with the slogan of langal jar jami tar (land to the tiller). Farmers started acquiring land forcefully, under the guidance of Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal. A jotedar Nagen Roychoudhury was killed by the tribals. A rattled United Front ministry, of which the CPI-M was a major partner, ordered police action.
A police subinspector Sonam Wangdi, led the force to crush the revolt. When he kicked a pregnant tribal woman in the stomach, Shanti Munda, another poor tribal, carrying her 15-day-old daughter on her back, attacked Wangdi with arrows. Shanti kept targeting the arrows till Wangdi died. Next day, a huge police contingent was mobilised to crush the trbials. The local women took charge as the menfolk by and large fled to the jungle. In the confrontation that followed, the police fired at tribals killing nine of them, including six women and two children. The first woman Naxal commander, Shanti Munda, survived the police firing and graduated to become the brain behind organizing the Naxalbari movement.
After this incident, the leaders decided to strive for the liberation of Naxalbari. Shanti Munda later spearheaded several operations against the police and paramilitary. Trained by Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Sardar, she would often flee to Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan to avoid arrest. She had a remarkable ability to handle firearms and excellent organizing skills. She was convinced that the failure of the movement was due to the dilution of ideology and infighting after Charu Majumdar’s death. She believed there was nothing wrong in a people’s court awarding the death sentence to class enemies, but felt that without the consent of the people, random violence and killings were the cardinal mistakes of the uprising.
Shanti is now 73. She tills her own land and laments, ‘farmers remain as oppressed as they were fifty years ago’.
The youth of Kolkata, inspired by the dream of creating a new India based on true freedom and equality, soon got involved in the movement. Majumdar, the principal ideologue, disapproved of women’s participation in a “people’s revolution that was aimed at dislodging the semi-feudal, semi-capitalist order”. He wrote: “Women should not be involved in action squads because women need a place to stay at least for the night”. This reflected the patriarchal mindset that was etched even in the revolutionary ethos. But women through their grit, determination and involvement, proved him wrong. The character of Madhabilata in Samaresh Majumdar’s Kalbela, set in the background of the turbulent years of the movement, indicates the enormous support provided by women to their male conrades. They never divulged information about women despite police brutalities. The women also ushered in a revolution of their own making, creating their own space, making independent decisions, taking charge of their children. The movement did fail, but it struck a blow at a decaying social order, and heralded new norms, and women were in the vanguard of these revolutionary changes.
The poignant story of a compassionate mother, trying to fathom her son’s revolutionary dreams, while grappling with the tragedy of losing him, depicted in Mahasweta Devi’s Hazar Churasir Ma is a riveting account of women’s involvement with the movement.
The Naxalbari fire was doused by severe police action, but the women retained their fighting spirit. In Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and parts of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, rural women were in the vanguard of the Maoist movement as it gave them a platform to assert their rights. In 1977 at Andhra, a Dalit labourer Lakshmi Rajam organized a play in the Dalit neighbourhood on Dusserah, a ritual which used to be performed in areas where landlords were predominant. Lakshmi openly challenged the hegemony of landlords. Infused by her brave spirit, Dalits and other landless people soon asserted themselves and took over tracts of government land either illegally occupied by the landlords or just left unexploited. Maoist groups decided to champion the cause of tribals and Dalits and the movement spread to new areas. Tribal men and women regarded the Maoist movement as a platform to fight for their existence and the right to jal, jangal and jameen. Societal maladies prompted women to flee their homes and join the movement which seemed to promise a better life.
In the guerrilla squads, capable women have been given charge of conducting guerrilla operations. Women have been taught to read and write and participate in martial training. This has given them a sense of empowerment, indeed a new-found faith to chart out the destiny of their lives.
A recent report indicates that about 60 per cent of the Maoist cadres are women who are more committed than men, more ruthless and less likely to leave the movement half-way, according to IB sources. Women are also the worst victims of counter-insurgency operations; reports from Bastar and other areas speak of rape and physical abuse of women.
In 2012, when Suchitra Mahato, Jagari Basque and Tara surrendered to Mamata Banerjee’s government, Maoist sympathizers alleged that Suchitra and her ilk have sold themselves for money and security and have betrayed the revolution. But Suchitra expressed her frustration over the increasing corruption among the leaders, and mindless violence such as the outrage on the Jnaneswari Express. Thus, from Shanti Munda to Suchitra Mahato, women’s engagement with Naxalism and Maoism is a narrative of vibrant involvement, their determination to decide their own course of action and not to meekly accept their fate, their firm resolve to avenge injustice and their yearning for freedom. Their spirit is baffling for some and exemplary for many.
he writer is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Women's Christian College, Kolkata