By Suparna Banerjee:
The Naxalite uprising has been since its inception a war waged against the class enemies. Charu Majumder, the frontrunner of the Naxalbari movement declared his “annihilation of class enemies” perspective inspiring a generation of youths who responded to his call. Although there has never been a separate agenda of encouraging women to participate in the struggle, nevertheless, they did so in large numbers.
However, the issue of gender equality has always taken a back seat within the bigger idea of class struggle. The Naxal movement did not treat its female comrades at par with that of the males. They were tested at every stage and for every criterion being demanded of its participants. Herein began the struggle of the women cadre both within and outside the group. The state and its instruments used every kind of terror tactics to suppress the voice raised against the state supremacy. One key point needs mention here: The demand for equality between the sexes, though went unheeded among the revolutionaries, it was well received by the state machinery. They maintained the same standard of torture for both male and female while extracting information. It is at the backdrop of all these that I discuss the issue of gender in Naxalism, limiting to the initial years of uprising, mostly in the 60’s and with a special focus on Bengali middle-class girls who were the frontrunners in the movement.
Was there any specific reason for the women to join the movement? No. The reasons that led the men to get attracted to it also led the women. The issue of gender equality and its association with the movement can be discussed in two parts. the first part deals with the issue within the folds of the movement. The second part uses this issue to portray the suppression tactic unashamedly utilised by state machineries from time to time.
It has been argued that Naxalism embraced the idea of sexual liberation as many men and women lived together without marriage. It was initially difficult for these Bengali middle-class girls to find safe shelter in the ‘underground’. Even if they got one, they were exposed to the danger of sexual harassment. They would feel safe only if they got into one of the socially accepted roles like that of marrying their male comrades. Though this kind of incident happened rarely, they were not totally absent. Ashim Chatterjee, a Naxalite leader, mentions that it was obligatory on the part the male to follow the Bhadralok ideal of sexuality, flouting which would be tantamount “to forfeiting the commitment to revolution.” It was ironical though. On one side was the declaration of classlessness and on the other the inculcation of Bhadralok notions to protect the female compatriots. This sent a wrong message. The supreme duty of protecting women’s honour made the latter a burden on male counterparts.
Despite these several protections, there were instances of sexual harassment and humiliation within the party. Sumanta Banerjee penned an incident where the woman became a symbol of inflicting violence between the two warring factions of the movement when it got divided on the basis of ideology. A couple became a symbol of the separated factions. The woman was pregnant and was forced to abort her child because her husband belonged to the enemy faction. Being a true revolutionary, it was expected from her to overcome the idea of motherhood and abort the child of a ‘traitor.’ She had to give up her motherhood to justify her revolutionary potential.
Similarly, the Naxalite women whose male counterparts were killed by the police were sanctified in a higher moral position. They were expected to follow the dominant ideas regarding widowhood prevalent in the society, though it is the people of that same society whom they labelled as bourgeois. Thus, they should behave as widows of martyrs. As a result, they faced severe criticism if they tried to cross that line and chose a second partner. It was considered disrespectful to the sacred memory of the martyrs. The ideal role of a dutiful housewife was extended to the revolutionary virtues.
The ideas and subsequent practices of the society were well adopted by the male members of the movement to be imposed on their female counterparts. The middle or high-class Bengali women had to surpass a barrier of perception towards them. They were wrongly thought of as incapable of overcoming the class and its nuances to which they belong. They were tested several times to prove their worth for the ideals that they stood for. One of them narrates a story that goes like this: “They used to test us also. One day I had nothing to eat. For the whole day I starved. They were testing me whether I could bear the hunger and suffer as they did.” Once again the very group that boasts of classlessness could not leave aside its gender framework thereby casting doubt on the capability of its women compatriots. Where women had risen up to the rank of leader, followers revealed no difference between working under a male and a female leader. Trivialising women’s performance of revolutionary violence not guided by male activists was yet another way of demarcating women’s role in the movement as that of only sufferers or victims.
The state decided to handle the situation from two different angles. On one side were the women directly involved with the movement and on the other were those women whose male partners were active members of the movement. The police, however, made no distinction between them when it came to extracting information. The accused women, proof or no proof, would be arrested, searched by male police, burned by cigarettes in their private parts, electrocuted and raped. Archana Guha narrated her tale in the police custody, “Then I was taken to the torture chamber, and they hung me head down in a crouching position. They had tied me up with ropes and put a rod through my bending knees. Then they started hitting on my feet. Runu Guhaniyogi kicked me with boots from time to time and signed my elbows, toes, nails with his cigarette.”
While the second group would face similar treatment, the reason for which they faced police ire was amazing. They were ill-treated before their male counterparts to force the latter to come up with the suitable answers of the interrogation. Let me narrate an episode. It took place in the year of 1971 in Birbhum district. Ashok Senapati, a well-known, Naxalite leader of the district was caught along with his partner, Runu. Though there are variations in the narrations of what exactly happened. One thing is clear that while Ashok was killed, Runu was tortured and sexually abused in front of him. The mental and physical torture of the male became subservient to his revolutionary virtue when the police failed in its desired objective. “Violence through the inscription of suffering, torture and death, is a concrete manifestation of marking the body with power relationships.” Physical torture and sexual assault became a weapon of suppression by the very institutions who were the protectors. However, there is nothing new about it. What is new about the movement is the perception of martyrdom of male and female comrades. While it is an instance of ‘sacrifice’ by the male, it is an example of ‘sexual assault’ for the female. The image construction is that of “the chivalrous and valiant Naxalite masculinity; and the suffering femininity.” Thus, women had to prove their loyalty to the group and their capacity to protect information by retaining symbols of physical violence which acted as sources of legitimation. But the same act never received any recognition of appreciation beyond the label of ‘sexual assault.’
Many highly qualified middle-class girls participated in the movement what they considered could bring the desired political change. Their body became the site of torture, physical and mental assault that bore permanent marks deterring them and future generation from the movement. The bodies were turned into agency aptly used by the state to act as deterrents. Thus, there are two ways in which the bodies of the female comrades attained significance. On one side, they acted as a source of legitimation to display the desired revolutionary personality demanded of the movement and on the other the same body bore the brunt of inhuman state atrocities to deter anti-state voices.
A number of points need mention here. Firstly, the violence on the women participants of the movement, both within and without, has been multi-layered. Secondly, “Women’s experiences of violence during the Naxalbari movement emphasised the point that gendered markings of violence fused torture, martyrdom, suffering and duty on their bodies.” Finally, very simple and common ideas like motherhood were extended to the broader ideas of revolutionary spirit and potential.
The gendered aspect of the Naxalbari movement has remained obscured from the mainstream academic discourse. It was systematically ignored by both, those who were part of the struggle and those outside it. The reasons are not too far to seek. The movement being anti-state in character received widespread negative publicity. In their bid to destroy class enemies they have neglected the gender perspective and encouraged multi-layered inequality in the very system that promises classlessness and equality. Thus, it is a war that women need to wage both within and without to change their position from this ‘sub-human’ condition.