soniasarkar26

The rage of angels

Posted on: December 5, 2011

On my first ever trip to the tough terrain of Dantewada and Bijapur in Chhattisgarh, I discovered how many impoverished women in the villages are either enlisting with the Maoists or with the security establishment in an effort to stay alive.
 

Sitting on a rock in the deep forests of Golappali in south Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, 20-year-old Rajmani Erra recalls her school days when she wanted to be a teacher. “I loved to study maths and was inspired by the teacher. So I thought I’d become a teacher myself,” says Erra.

 But her life seemed to be scripted otherwise.

Three years ago, her parents and brother were killed with 18 others from their village in an attack allegedly led by the state-backed anti-Naxalite civil militia group, the Salwa Judum. Since then, she has been a sangam member, or a village-level supporter of the Maoists.

 “This was the best option. In order to survive in this conflict zone, I had to be either with the government or the Naxals. I chose the latter as I had no faith in the establishment,” says Erra.

There are many women like Erra in the region who have joined the Maoists. Sulata Majhi, asangam member from Baragudi village in Bijapur district, south Bastar, is among them. “I have full faith in the Maoist-inspired Janatana Sarkar (people’s government),” she says.

 That women are increasingly being drawn into the Maoist fold became apparent when Maoists demanded the release of 14 tribal women in West Bengal in exchange for abducted police officer Atindranath Dutta. There are also many recent instances of women playing a leading role in Maoist operations. Last month, 40-year-old Tarakka led an operation in the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border where 18 policemen were killed.

According to police sources, around 40 per cent of the Naxal operations are now being carried out by women. There’s a reason for that, experts stress. “Since tribal women have been both socially and sexually oppressed by the government and the police who were supposed to give them protection, it is natural for them to rebel to get liberated,” reasons Jai Prakash Rao, associate professor, sociology, Osmania University, who has been closely following the Maoist movement in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.

To counter the Maoist move to enlist women, the government has been trying to recruit women as special police officers (SPO) in the state. Shimanti Markam, 20, has been an SPO in the Bhairamgarh police station for the past four years. “Naxals had attacked our village, so we had to shift to the nearest Salwa Judum camp. We were told by Judum leaders that one member of each family should join the force to be allowed to stay in the camp. Since I was the elder of two siblings, I had to take the lead,” says Shimanti.

But the police have a different version. “We do not recruit them forcibly,” says Amresh Mishra, superintendent of police, Dantewada. “Moreover, they are mostly used to guard their own relatives staying in the camps,” he says.

The women on both sides have their work chalked out. Erra takes regular rounds of the village and visits the weekly markets. “This is how I collect intelligence on the movement of the police and government officers. A lot of information is gathered from the villagers while casually moving inside the forest to collect tendu leaves and tamarind,” explains Erra.

Apart from collecting items for daily use — blankets, saris, dhoti, rice and pulses — from the villagers for Maoists deep in the jungles, she is also an “educator”. She teaches local tribals about Maoist philosophy, and motivates them to join the force. “I tell them how imperialist forces have oppressed us, looted our forests and destroyed our lives,” she says.

Life is tough in the villages, and Erra stresses that little has been done over the years. “A child in this village who wants to study beyond middle school has to travel 55 kilometres. We have to travel for more than an hour to visit a primary health care centre. This is what the government has given us in all these years. It is time to raise our voice for our rights,” says Erra.

For Sulata Majhi, joining the Maoists is an act of rebellion not just against the government but against her family as well. Her parents and sisters have been staying in a Salwa Judum camp at Bhairamgarh for the past four years. “My family was forced to leave their house and 10-acre land behind to stay in the camp. But I have joined the Naxals to fight back,” says Majhi.

Majhi, who has learnt the use of bows and arrows and a sickle for self defence, wants to be trained in sophisticated arms. “But I have to prove my abilities as asangam member first,” she says. So she is attending meetings of the Chetna Natya Manch or the street theatre group of the Maoists, where she has learnt traditional Gondi songs that have been reworked with revolutionary lyrics.

Unlike Majhi, many of the women SPOs are being trained to use arms, but their work mostly revolves around gathering information about meetings organised by Maoists.

There are 11 women SPOs at the Bhairamgarh police station, while the Bijapur police station has 40 women SPOs, mostly under 25. Three hundred of the 1500 SPOs in Dantewada district are women. They all get a monthly salary of Rs 2,130.

The police stress that recruiting women is a “well thought-out tactic” to gain the confidence of the locals. “We want to improve the police-public relationship. Curbing unemployment is also one of the motives behind the recruitment,” says Rajendra Das, additional superintendent of police, Bijapur.

The police also keep an eye out for women Maoists who break away from the fold. Chandra Ka, who joined the Maoists when she was eight, is one such villager who has moved away. “I was trained to use arms, including AK-47s. I felt empowered when I had a gun on my shoulder,” says Ka who was an active Dalam member (a senior rank in the Maoists) for six years.

But Ka, 25, says she was forced to marry another Dalam member who sexually abused her. “When I realised how they exploit women, all I wanted to do was to run away,” she says.

Some months later, after her husband was killed by the police, she fled the Naxal camp. “Since then, I have not visited my village. My family members tell me that the Naxals are searching for me. I live every moment with fear,” says Ka, now married to an SPO.

According to the villagers, the Maoists are also zeroing in on widows, since they are seen as vulnerable people. “One night, Maoists barged into my house, blindfolded me, tied me up and took me to their den,” says 29-year-old Mooiyee, a widow in Nilavaram village in Sukma. “Since I am a widow and have no one to fall back on, they insisted that I join them. They also asked me to enlist other widows.”

The next morning, she was taken back to her village. “They have targeted me. I am sure they will kill me one day,” says Mooiyee.

Clearly, the women want an end to their life of endless strife. Twenty-one-year-old Kottam Kittu, SPO, Dantewada, had to leave her home in Errabore village when she was 16. “I want to go back home and farm. I want to see the end of this fight,” she says.

For Kittu, though, there is no going back home. The fight promises to be a long one.

(Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the persons)

 

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