Hindu Vivek Kendra
A RESOURCE CENTER FOR THE PROMOTION OF HINDUTVA
   
 
 
«« Back
 

Roles and Participation of Women in Indian Left-Wing Extremism: from ‘Victims’ to‘Victimisers’ of Violence

Author: Akanksha Narain
Publication: Jstor.org
Date: August, 2017
URL:  https://www.jstor.org/stable/26351543?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Women‟s experience in India‟s left-wing extremist (LWE) groups cuts both ways. While association with these groups has allowed women to transcend the traditional, gendered roles imposed by a patriarchal society, they have still been kept subservient notwithstanding the Naxal rhetoric of
“restructuring the society.” In other words, paradoxically, a subtle form of patriarchy exists within India’s LWE movement, which it, otherwise, rejects.

The participation of women in Indian Maoist groups1 is instructive to understand their multifaceted roles and diversified experiences as ‘victims’ and ‘victimisers’. These two dimensions are not only
understudied but also inadequately understood in war and conflict studies because of the broad binary view of women as either ‘victims’ or ‘perpetrators’ of violence. This article argues that women are
both ‘victims’ and ‘victimisers’ in conflicts rather than just being ‘victims’ or ‘perpetrators’ of violence. 2

Introduction

LWE in India draws inspiration from the Marxist ideological rhetoric of “restructuring society” into a purportedly classless one, and the Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Tse-Tung‟s art of tactical warfare.3 The movement in the country has emerged in areas where widespread socio-economic differences, poverty, social injustices and growing inequalities have adversely impacted the lives of the impoverished masses.4

The violence by the State and corporations coupled with the failure of market reforms to trickle down to the grassroots level even after 70 years of India's independence has only further expanded the LWE membership in India.5 The multiple forms of violence, include denial of land and forest rights, incursions of mining companies, unfair crop sharing agreements between landlords and farmers, caste-based violence, and physical and sexual abuse committed by certain landed-folks and State forces against the indigenous tribes (Adivasis), Dalits (lower castes/untouchables) and farmers.6

This year marks fifty years of the Naxal uprising against the landed-aristocracy, and genesis of the left-wing movement in India. In early 1967, facing economic exploitation and social oppression, a group of peasants in Naxalbari (a remote village in West Bengal) rebelled against the rich landlords and seized their lands.7 A young woman, Shanti Munda, among others, led the charge with a 15- month-old baby strapped to her back. Shanti fired the first of a slew of arrows on a policeman, an event which the forces retaliated by killing eleven peasants and tribals.8 This incident sparked India‟s five decade-long Maoist movement.

Women - whether Adivasis, peasant or Dailt - in India’s hinterland (including India’s resource-rich central plateaus and forests and tribal belts) have joined the Naxal movement to fight for their rights and justice. Besides this primary catalyst, there are other additional motivating factors. For example,
the decision to join Naxalism is also driven by the desire to seek agency and combat sexual abuse, which they face from some sections of upper caste men and security personnel (read „State‟).

Left-wing Extremism (LWE) and Women as Active Participants

Women have joined the Naxal movement, in a multitude of roles be it as cooks, nurses, couriers, spies or propagandists, to fight against violence perpetrated by the landedgentry and the State.9 The primary motivating factor to join the movement is based on the overarching experience of violence rather than gender. According to Chakrabarty et al, “A large section of women is being drawn to the political process not as „women‟ or individuals but as members of a community holding a sectoral identity.”10

‘Revenge’and ‘relationship’, as explained by Mia Bloom, are key factors that account for women’s participation in a violent movement, especially as combatants.11 A loss of dignity or attack on a close relative can galvanise a person to seek ‘revenge’.12

The arrrests and torture of male members of the society, relative deprivation, loss of dignity and poverty push women towards LWE, as they seek „revenge‟ in Naxaldominated areas. A case in point is Rebbeca, a tribal girl, and her sister who joined the movement after their brother succumbed to
death in security forces‟ custody due to severe torture. 13 Additionally, the onus of fighting in LWE-hit regions often falls on women simply because men are absent --either due to mass urban migration for better livelihood opportunities or en-mass arrests of young males by the security forces on
charges of being Naxal operatives.

Moving beyond fact that tribals, Dalits and poor farmers are denied equality, women also join Maoist groups to seek „agency.‟ Patriarchy is deep-seated in Indian society, especially in the less-developed regions. The opportunity to „fight like men‟, pick up arms, work as spies, and transport food and arms
for the groups, gives them a sense of recognition/identity which they do not receive from the society, otherwise. The intense training and harsh conditions in the forests where the Naxal cadres live, train and fight leaves no room for special treatment of women. Consequently, both men and women train as equals, giving female comrades a sense of equality.14

Within militant and insurgent groups, women have proven themselves as able members and combatants, and “are preferred as couriers of messages, money, arms and ammunition.”15 In fact, female members are considered to be more brutal than most of the male cadres.16 In the case of India, the violent persecution of police informers by female Maoist cadres is well documented.

For instance, a female Maoist militant from Orissa, Jamuni narrates the account of her professional callousness as follows: “I led the group who killed a police informer in 2009. I was the one who shot him in full public view. Before killing him, we cut his three fingers. He shouted and I laughed, daring the people standing there to come forward to rescue him . . . . You may call it cruelty but it served [a] dual purpose: one for the movement and [the] other personal. The public torture and killing of the person sent the message that if people acted against us, they will have apainful death.”17

Moreover, the involvement of women serves the tactical needs of the Maoist groups. Females are less likely to be inspected and detected by security personnel as compared to men. The fear of adverse media coverage and human rights watchdogs reduces the likelihood of forces attacking public places
and Naxal hideouts in the presence of women and children - the ideal human shields.18

The steady flow of women filling the ranks does not stem only from the desire to break free from patriarchy and the aspiration to gain respect. It is also a response to ‘real’ or ‘perceived’ sexual violence. It is „real‟ for those who have been abused sexually or witnessed their relative and friends suffer this trauma., and „perceived‟ for those womenfolk who are simply afraid of the possibility of falling victims to sexual violence by the State. A case in point is a claim by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) that the Sukma attacks carried out in April 2017 which resulted in the death of 37 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, “were in retaliation to the alleged sexual violence by security forces against tribal women in the conflict zone.”19

Gender and LWE: Reinventing Patriarchy

Notwithstanding the high number of females playing critical roles in Indian LWE, they are often portrayed as caregivers and nurturers who need to be protected. Charu Mazumdar, the Naxal leader whose eight articles (known as „Historic Eight Documents‟) formed the ideological foundation of the Naxal movement, himself wrote that women should not be among the troops “because women need a place to stay at least for the night”.20 Even when the Naxal/Maoist literature focuses on women as combatants and not as‘victims’ or persons who need to be ‘protected’, it often highlights the drastic Conditions (i.e. poverty or State and upperclass/caste violence) that create anomaliesof women ‘fighting like men’.

This suffices to show that despite the lofty rhetoric by LWE groups to “restructure society” and bring about gender equality,they paradoxically reinforce patriarchy albeit a benign one.21 The afore mentioned assertion that female cadres are often believed to be more brutal than their male counter parts, is not without its own set of problems. For instance, women have to work extra hard to prove their „worth‟ as a fighter in order to be promoted and therefore the disposition to be more violent. It is this brutality that attests a woman‟s right to be a fighter and a leader, without which upward movement is unlikely.22

Despite the unsaid rule of women having to prove their mettle more compared to male members, female comrades hardly find a seat on the front tables.23 While negotiating peace and ceasefire agreements with the authorities, women have rarely represented the Maoist groups in spite of filling up the lower ranks proportionally. During the October 2004 ceasefire agreement between the State Government of Andhra Pradesh and the LWE groups, none of the women who were part of the movement were represented.24

The issue of gender-based discrimination is not limited to such „glass ceilings‟ in Maoist groups alone. Although Dalit, Adivasi and lower caste/class women often become Naxalites to escape or avenge sexual violence, yet they face, more or less, similar experiences while serving in these groups. Rapes and sexual slavery are often legitimised in the name of boosting the “morale of the troops”. Some women quietly submit to such exploitations; those who resist are shunned by both female and male cadres.

Shobha Mandi, 25, a former Maoist, in her autobiography - Ek Maowadi ki Diary (The Diary of a Maoist) - captures the plight of female cadres and patriarchal structures within the groups. "Every woman is seen as an object which would satisfy the lust of all male cadres. The movement had lured me in 2003 by making me believe that men and women would be equal in the new order it strives to create. But what I experienced over there was horrifying, worse than the oppression that the women of rural India face”, she writes.25

Victimisation of these women, who themselves have been perpetrators of violence, does not end with them quitting or retiring from the movement. They find it difficult to re-assimilate into the society,
especially if they have been victims of sexual violence. Even though they overstepped gendered boundaries in order to fight for the rights of their communities, the communities are less willing to accept them given this transgression. They often have to leave their homes and settle in other places to start a new life. Most often, these ex-female Maoists look after the children who serving female comrades have been forced to abandon by the movement.26

Moreover, restructuring land rights does not extend to women. While Naxals continue to fight for equitable land distribution, poverty alleviation, and freedom from widespread hunger and malnutrition, the demands for equal land distribution between men and women and the right of women as coparceners in land inheritance is not central to the debate.

Conclusion

Notwithstanding claims and efforts to establish a more equitable society, the reality is far from this. No movement is immune to the social environment out of which it is born, hence resulting in the re-creation and reinforcement of patriarchal norms within Left-Wing groups. Men and women have different experiences in conflict and it is important to recognise and address the concerns accordingly.

The enforcement of binaries - solely as either ‘perpetrators of violence’ or ‘victims of Violence’ - while viewing the role of women in conflict zones eschews our understanding the multi-layered experience of women. On the one hand, the Naxal movement has given women from India‟s rural and tribal belt the opportunity to take up arms and activities that have been usually reserved for men. At the same time, the external patriarchal structures are re-created and re-imposed in the form of sexual abuse, rape, denial of seats at the high tables and falling back into gendered roles once the conflict is over. The task at hand for policymakers is to ensure that reconciliation and rehabilitation policies recognise and address this unique experience of women.

Akanksha Narain is an independent researcher and a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Anti-Terrorism Studies and Centre for Media and Strategic Studies, two India-based think tanks. She is a former graduate of the Strategic Studies programme from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS),Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She can be reached at          

 

1 Terms Maoism, Left-Wing Extremism and Naxalism are often used interchangeably. Naxalism derives its name from the confrontation that started between the landed-gentry and the peasants in Naxalbari, in West Bengal. Meanwhile, Maoism, in the Indian context, is a combination of Marxist ideals and Mao’s warfare strategy;

2 Shekhawat, Seema, and Chayanika Saxena. "Victims or Victimizers? Naxal Women, Violence and
the Reinvention of Patriarchy." In Female Combatants in Conflict and Peace: Challenging
Gender in Violence and Post-Conflict Reintegration, 117-31. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

3 Ibid.

4 In 2009, the then home minister told Parliament that around 223 districts in India were affected by
Naxalism. In March 2017, according to the current Indian Home MinisterRajnath Singh, the number of districts affected by Maoist violence has reduced from 106 to 68. Today, Naxalism has been confined to seven northeastern Indian states affecting as many districts.

5 Ramchandra, Guha . “Adivasis, Naxalites and Indian Democracy.” Economic and Political Weekly,
Aug 2007.

6 Ramchandra, Guha . “Adivasis, Naxalites and Indian Democracy.” Economic and Political Weekly,
Aug 2007.

7 Jyoti, Dhrubo, and Pramod Giri. Naxalbari@50: Maoist uprising was sparked by this tribal woman
leader. Hindustan Times . 29 May 2017.

8 Ibid.

9 Shekhawat, Seema, and Chayanika Saxena. "Victims or Victimizers? Naxal Women, Violence and
the Reinvention of Patriarchy." In Female Combatants in Conflict and Peace: Challenging Gender in Violence and Post-Conflict Reintegration, 117-31. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

10 Chakrabarty, Bidyut, and Rajat Kumar Kujur. Maoism in India: Reincarnation of Ultra-Left Wing
Extremism in the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge, 2012.

11 Shekhawat, Seema, ed. Female Combatants in Conflict and Peace: Challenging Gender in Violence and Post-Conflict Reintegration. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

12 Ibid.

13 Why women join India's Maoist groups. BBC, 20 November 20 2013.

14 Shekhawat, Seema, and Chayanika Saxena. "Victims or Victimizers? Naxal Women, Violence and
the Reinvention of Patriarchy." In Female Combatants in Conflict and Peace: Challenging Gender in Violence and Post-Conflict Reintegration, 119. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

15 Singh, Pratibha. 2015. Women in the Maoist War in India: Two Sides of the Spectrum, European
Consortium for Political Research Conference, Sweden, 11-13 June 2015. University of Uppsala:
Sweden

16 Shekhawat, Seema, and Chayanika Saxena. "Victims or Victimizers? Naxal Women, Violence and
the Reinvention of Patriarchy." In Female Combatants in Conflict and Peace: Challenging Gender in Violence and Post-Conflict Reintegration, 121. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

17 Ibid.

18 Singh, Pratibha. Women's Role in the Naxalite Movement. Center for Land Warfare Studies. 27
April 2013.

19 Dahat, Pavan. Sukma attacks in retaliation to sexual violence on tribal women, say Maoists. The
Hindu, 27 April 2017.

20 Singh, Pratibha. 2015. Women in the Maoist War in India: Two Sides of the Spectrum, European
Consortium for Political Research Conference, Sweden, 11-13 June 2015. University of Uppsala:
Sweden.

21 Singh, Pratibha. Women's Role in the Naxalite Movement. Center for Land Warfare Studies. 27
April 2013.

22 Shekhawat, Seema, and Chayanika Saxena. "Victims or Victimizers? Naxal Women, Violence and
the Reinvention of Patriarchy." In Female Combatants in Conflict and Peace: Challenging
Gender in Violence and Post-Conflict Reintegration, 121. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

23 Mann, Carol. “Women in Combat: Identifying Global Trends.” In Female Combatants in Conflict
and Peace: Challenging Gender in Violence and Post-Conflict Reintegration, 20-35. New York, NY:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

24 Shekhawat, Seema, and Chayanika Saxena. "Victims or Victimizers? Naxal Women, Violence and
the Reinvention of Patriarchy." In Female Combatants in Conflict and Peace: Challenging Gender in Violence and Post-Conflict Reintegration, 117-31. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

25 Haque, Saiful. Former Naxal commander who was raped and tortured by comrades reveals the culture of brutal misogyny in the Maoist movement. Daily Mail UK, 9 June 2013.

26 Shekhawat, Seema, and Chayanika Saxena. "Victims or Victimizers? Naxal Women, Violence and
the Reinvention of Patriarchy." In Female Combatants in Conflict and Peace: Challenging Gender in Violence and Post-Conflict Reintegration, 117-31. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

 
«« Back
 
 
 
  Search Articles
 
  Special Annoucements