During West Bengal's Naxalbari Movement, Women Were Not Merely in the Background

Though the official Naxalite documents occasionally refer to organising women’s squads, women’s participation in violent acts – if they were not specifically guided by male activists – was seriously criticised and resented.

Political violence has always been an integral part of Bengal’s history. The forms of such violence – over time – have mutated and transformed themselves. In the series Bengal: Genealogies of ViolenceThe Wire attempts to capture some of the milestones that mark the narratives of political bloodshed spanning more than eight decades. Read the other articles here.

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Let me begin with the ‘parable of elephant hunt’, popular among Naxalites of the 1960s. The parable was lucidly elaborated as the revolutionary strategy in Utpal Dutt’s play on Naxalbari, Teer (Arrow) (1967). Dutt points out through this parable the distinction between the bookish knowledge of metropolitan Naxalites about guerrilla warfare and the interpretation of Maoist guerrilla tactics in everyday language by the tribal guerrillas. In one scene, Devidas, the urban Naxalite leader, tries to explain the strategy of ‘people’s war’ by reading from party booklets, but his peasant comrades fail to comprehend such grandiloquent language. Finally, Gangee Orain stands up and starts speaking. Let me quote an excerpt from this scene:

Gangee: Do you know how an Oraon hunter used to hunt elephant with a mere knife?

Somari: Hunt elephant with a knife? You are talking nonsense! A mere knife to hunt a big elephant?

Gangee: So are we! Mere arrows in front of those guns and canons!

[Everybody laughs]

Gangee: [continues] Listen carefully what happened then. The hunter thought – elephant is so big, if he would try to attack from the front the elephant would crush him with its trunk […] but he was very clever. He started to strike with knife at the hind-legs of the elephant. The elephant could not reach him because it is big and slow and the hunter was swift. Then the hunter started striking knife-wounds on both sides of the elephant’s body. The elephant became tired, injured and after much blood-loss it sat down on the ground. The hunter then leapt up to its shoulder and struck the knife in its head. I think chairman Mao meant this. This state is like that elephant. The cities are its head. It has the trunk and long teeth to protect its head. So start from its hind-legs, start from far-away villages where the trunk does not reach and it takes time to turn around. So strike and duck, strike and duck. It will finally crumple down.

[Gangee sits down. Devidas looks at her with wonder and admiration.]

What is distinctive in this excerpt is also usually missed by the scholars on the Naxalbari movement – a woman explains the strategy of guerrilla warfare to her comrades; a poor tribal peasant woman at that! Each of these terms – ‘poor’, ‘tribal’, ‘peasant’ and ‘woman’ – mark multiple categories of exploitation and discrimination which are entangled with each other intricately. Any effort to understand the relationship between women and political violence as well as women’s experiences of political violence in the Naxalbari movement of the 1960s and ’70s is fraught with this meshwork.

Also read: The Forgotten Massacre of Dalit Refugees in West Bengal’s Marichjhapi

Conceptualising women’s experiences of violence is at the same time difficult and necessary. It is difficult because the mere descriptions unveil brutalities that constitute a traumatic memory. For example, one report in Frontier in September 1974 gave a detailed horrific description of women’s prisons, and an Amnesty International report which highlighted the case of Archana Guha, who suffered vicious torture for weeks in police custody in 1974. A few details from Archana Guha’s interview:

Then I was taken to that torture chamber [in the police headquarter at Lalbazar police station] and they hung me head down in that 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 singed my elbows, toes, nails with his cigarette. […] A few hours later they started a new technique. I was hanging. They put a water-vessel right above my head and drops of water started to fall on my head continuously. After a point of time each drop seemed like a bludgeon. […] A strapping policeman made me stand up by pulling my hair and then threw me with force on the wall. But just before my head hit the wall he caught me with my hair and pulled back. He went on doing this. Then one of them caught my head tightly and started to pull out my hair. I was semi-conscious. Then two of them stood up on two chairs side-by side and started to hang me between them with my hair. […] Runu asked two of his men to bind my hands and then hit me on head with a leather club. […] After four days I completely lost consciousness. (An excerpt from an interview with Archana Guha, conducted in 1987 by a journalist from Bengali daily Pratikshan.)

In Latika Guha’s memoir Let Hell be Revealed: Twenty Seven Days in Lalbazar Torture Cell, the narration of torture is interspersed with her own thoughts during those terrible 27 days. She has also mentioned unbelievable verbal violence, replete with sexual insinuations, throughout the period of their physical torture. Through her words the entire episode becomes demonic: their huddled semi-conscious nights, relentless rattling of doors where other prisoners were kept and regularly taken to the torture chamber, flushed faces of the police officials livid with anger after their failure to make the prisoner confess even after merciless torture, helpless brutalised faces of one or two of the prisoners who could not hold on to their resolve after torture, and persistent uttering of ‘no injury, no complain’ by the guards when prisoners were taken back to their cells after every bout of beating.

The necessity to read through such descriptions emerges from feminist engagements with violence in terms of its wider implications in women’s lives. The everyday nature of violence – whether it is domestic violence, rape or other forms of culturally sanctioned violence against women – also reflect on the intensity of symbolic violence whereby women’s agency can be discredited, trivialised and finally dismissed.

View of a rally in Calcutta in support of the peasant uprising of Naxalbari, 1967.

Violent activities of women, at the interpersonal level or at the collective level, however, have been explained as either pathological or extreme reaction to oppression. This process of pathologisation can perhaps be understood on the basis of women’s dual image – dangerous/domestic (passive). As women have ‘occupied a symbolic and social site deemed potentially uncontrollable,’ Jean Bethke Elshtain has explained that a general presumption persists that ‘women can let loose mindless destruction and violence on the world about her’. Women’s participation in perpetrating violence has generally been treated as ‘an aberration, an eruption of not wholly disciplined subjects, partial outlaws’. While on one hand this image of ‘out-of-control vengeful women’ lurks behind social interpretations of violent activities committed by women, on the other hand, their image as embodiment of gentleness prevents the assumption that women can be ruthless. Looking at issues concerning violence during the movement from the point of view of gender, therefore, covers a much broader and complex terrain than the dichotomous categories of Naxalite violence/state violence can explain.

The question, then, becomes, how does one construct the gender angle? First, let us be clear that gender is not synonymous with women. Gender is principally about the ideals of femininities and masculinities within a spatio-temporal context and the relations of power between these ideals. The ideals of masculinities, consequently, are equally important to construct the gender angle towards the nature of political violence during the Naxalbari movement. It may be possible to do so if we refer to a specific historical influence on the Naxalbari movement.

Also read: Memories of 1946 Great Calcutta Killings Can Help Us Understand Violence in Today’s Bengal

Raghav Bandyopadhyay, an activist in the movement who became a critically acclaimed author after spending years in prison for his activism, wrote in his memoir that he came from a poor refugee family living in a shantytown at the outskirts of Kolkata and his fellow refugees had little regard for the Gandhian non-violence.

There was a firm belief among these refugees, apart from a few staunch followers of Netaji, that since the British were not driven out through any real war with guns and canons, this entire episode of transfer of power was a conspiracy and our war of independence is, therefore, incomplete.

What a golden opportunity to leap into the arena of history, to become a part of completing that unfinished war!

Who would not be enticed by this call for heroic bravery? For those, who had no future, whose pallid present had nothing to offer, there was no other place to escape than the past. Agniyug cast its long shadow over those shanty-towns in Beleghata, Kasba, Belgachhia; many like me thought that the ideas of Agniyug were their discovery. We did not think those ideas as extended silhouette of a powerful but long-gone era. […] I even desperately wished about changing the script of our struggle against colonialism. Only if Kshudiram and his friends had an opportunity to have a look at Lenin’s State and Revolution, if Benoy-Badal-Dinesh could learn about guerrilla warfare from Che Guevara and Marshall Chu Teh…

The ascetic masculinity of the armed anti-colonial movements dictated the terms of gender relationships within the Naxalbari movement as well. The histories of women’s participation in the armed anti-colonial movements – Shanti and Suniti, two girl students of Comilla district of undivided Bengal, who successfully assassinated the district magistrate of Comilla on December 14, 1931; Preetilata Waddaddar, who became the first woman martyr during the armed raid of a European Club in Chittagong district on September 24, 1932; Bina Das, who attempted to assassinate the governor of Bengal on February 6, 1932 – were rarely invoked as examples of women’s agency. Such memories of women’s active roles in perpetrating political violence faded behind the hyperbole of the patriotic masculinity. As we can see in Bandyopadhyay’s reminiscences, his heroes were exclusively men.

Also read: How the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement Gained Popularity in Bengal

Though the official Naxalite documents occasionally refer to organising women’s squads, women’s participation in violent acts – if they were not specifically guided by male activists – was seriously criticised and resented. In case of women’s transgression of the gendered script of revolution, the water soon closed in smoothing out the ripples by providing the justification that she ‘reacted’ to an earlier personal suffering of sexual violence. This justification marks the pathology in women’s performance of pre-meditated violence. It also situates the pathology within the familiar terrain of sexual violence instead of the more ambiguous revolutionary violence. Labelling the woman militant as a victim of sexual violence is an act of segregating her from the ‘normal’ category of women. Designating her ‘action’ as personal revenge is a method of re-integrating abnormal victim through the general presumption of aberration.

If upper-caste, middle-class urban women with university education were considered the ‘rear guard’, poor peasant women from rural areas suffered under the double registers of marginalisation – ‘non-metropolitan’ and ‘women’. The standard story of the Naxalite memory of activism in the rural areas represent rural women as shadowy figures who gave food and shelter, who carried their messages and occasionally arms, who guided them from one village to another, and yet had almost never been considered an equal partner in revolutionary activism. Utpal Dutt’s representation of tribal women’s capacity of interpreting the Maoist guerrilla strategy is, therefore, significant. In the same play Dutt depicts another character – Debaree, a Rajbangshi woman peasant – who can read and who teaches her fellow villagers the philosophical moorings of revolution. It is in this domain of imagination (and extensive field research as Dutt toured the Naxalbari area for weeks immediately after the mass shooting in Prasadujote village in May 1967) we meet women revolutionaries who displayed courage, resilience and intelligence in scripting a vision of people’s movement.

Mallarika Sinha Roy is assistant professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.