It was getting dark as I hurried to the front door of a small corner apartment, hoping I was not too late for my interview. Fortunately, Sushma*, now a journalist in her 50s, opened the door and greeted me warmly, quelling my qualms as she sat me down on her sofa and handed me a heavily sweetened cup of tea. I always found it hard to begin an interview, never knowing the right moment to probe into the past. However, in this case, it was Sushma who reminisced into the past without any prompt. “I was about your age when my husband and I went underground”, she said as she sat down next to me.
The Naxalite/Maoist movement began as a peasant uprising in 1967 in the village of Naxalbari, West Bengal. The incident inspired many similar movements across India, leading to the formation of numerous communist revolutionary groups and youth movements, which came together in 2004 under a single country-wide organisation known as the CPI (Maoist). Banned as a terrorist organisation in 2009 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the CPI (Maoist) has seen brutal state retaliation that has forced the Party to take cover in the densely forested regions of central and eastern India, especially in Dandakaranya, where it operates as an armed guerrilla organisation. Over the course of many years, both women and men have given their lives to revolution, making the movement tangible to those even on its margins.
With a growing percentage of women joining the movement (over 40% in Dandakaranya itself) the amount of English language literature produced does not do justice to the gendered experience of the contemporary movement outside of West Bengal (see Srila Roy 2012; Mallarika Sinha Roy 2011 for studies on women in West Bengal). Thus, this article hopes to analyse how women understand their role and agency in the movement. This article uses interviews conducted during the summer months of 2018 in the city of Hyderabad, thus most of the narratives are from an urban perspective limited to party members from Telangana.
Before entering my field of study, I reviewed Marxist and Feminist literature on the movement to provide a base for my analysis. This literature, I found, heavily critiqued the Naxalite Movement for its internalised patriarchy and oppression of women. Sinha Roy (2011) pointed out that Left politics at the time of Naxalbari rejected feminist arguments for women’s rights deeming feminism a “bourgeois ploy”. In Srila Roy’s (2012) analysis of the movement, women’s rights were limited to the sphere of violence where, beyond the uptake of arms, the implication of violence on gender equality was not considered.
Further critics have argued that the movement perceives women as sexual beings who were upholders of norms, traditions and morality. This is evident in a first-hand account by Krishna Bandyopadhyay (2008) who poignantly narrates a distressing reality for women in the movement. Here she recounts instances of sexual harassment, sexual repression, being ostracised for remarrying and not being allowed the same opportunities her male comrades enjoyed. “…My party”, she writes, “had never considered seriously, far less taken any stand whatsoever, on women’s liberation.” Hence, I went into the field with a sense of apprehension and a set of questions focused on a patriarchal environment that, I presumed, my interviewees must have endured.
Much to my surprise, Sushma talked about a life quite different to that illustrated in the literature. Sushma had been part of CPI (Maoist) for two years before going underground. During these years, she wrote for the local party magazine and her husband worked as a regional party administrator. Despite having to live under the guise of orthodox societal norms where the woman stayed at home and the husband went out to work, Sushma took pride in the fact that she would never wash her husband’s clothes and that all household chores were shared equally between the two.
In similar vein, Vandana, who was part of a women’s organisation in Jharkhand, talked to me about campaigns promulgated by the party for women’s rights. These included a year-long anti-patriarchy campaign, separate rations for women comrades during menstruation (including jaggery, peanuts and extra soap), and fortnightly reflection and self-criticism sessions where men and women identified patriarchal characteristics and attempted to correct them within themselves and others. “Why would we let our male comrades misbehave with us when we are armed?” was something I repeatedly heard.
The dichotomy I faced between my own data and the literature can be explained by the fact that the literature I had read was rooted in the initial moments of Naxalbari in the late 60s and 70s. Over the course of the last 51 years, with the rise of feminism, the movement has transformed in many ways. This change has been highlighted by Nishita, a female comrade from the party. In response to Bandyopadhyay’s article, Comrade Nishita wrote a letter, Open letter to Krishna Bandyopadhyay, in 2008 (surfaced in 2017) which vehemently argued that things have improved with regard to women’s equality in the movement, in particular, she highlights the equal role of women in all decision making. However, like in most of the literature I read, Nishita pointed out that “Many women intellectuals (except a few exceptions) … had written that we are ‘victims’ of patriarchy in the party and that we follow the men leaders. They did not even think for a moment that what they are actually doing was ‘insulting’ us as women.”
Whether accounts like Nishita’s, Sushma’s or Vandana’s are true reflections of women’s roles and agency within the movement is beyond the point of such a study. Rather, what should be underlined is that female comrades like them are willing to maintain this argument with such passion and conviction, and it is this voice that we should listen to. Why is Nishita imploring intellectuals to pay more attention to women in the movement? And why do these women feel like they have something to prove to the outside world in defence of their movement? These are the questions we should be asking.
That is not to say that there were no signs of patriarchy in the data I collected. Despite a large percentage of women in the movement, female leaders in higher committees are still only a handful. The Politburo has no female leaders and the Central Committee has had only two in the past, Anuradha Ghandy and Comrade Narmada. This makes one question the extent of gender equality within the movement and whether these numbers illustrate a reproduction of traditional ideas of male leadership. For Sushma, regret came in the form of an unwilling abortion. In the movement, couples are discouraged from having children due to the violent and precarious nature of the struggle. As a result, Sushma had had two abortion in her lifetime. Yet, it was not the abortions that pained her but the fact that her husband got a vasectomy without her knowledge. “He did not think it was important to discuss such a big decision with me. That too is patriarchy”, she said in a resigned tone.
A gendered study of the movement still has many facets waiting to be explored, probably many aspects also to be critiqued. What is salient here is that, like any other movement, the Naxalite movement is ever evolving and studies of the initial Naxalbari moment should not be the singular benchmark used to analyse gender in the present-day movement. Each woman’s story has value and truth to it, and we need to understand the importance of these narratives that were oft forgotten or pushed to the peripheries in the past. Through such analyses, one can further hope to comprehend why alternative non-violent movements are proving to be an insufficient outlet for voicing the concerns of women who choose to join the Naxalite movement instead.
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of participants.
Roy, S. (2012). Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence, and Subjectivity in India’s Naxalbari Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sinha Roy, M. (2011). Gender and Radical Politics in India : Magic Moments of Naxalbari (1967-1975). London: Routledge.
Zeena Oberoi is an MPhil candidate in Development Studies at the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development (ODID). Her current research focuses on women in social movements in India, in particular in Maoist movement in Telangana, with further interests in sustainable development, education and state-society relations. Prior to joining ODID, she pursued an BA in Modern History at the University of St Andrews, where she specialised in Iranian history and European Intellectual History.