By Rakhi Chakrabarty, TNN, Aug 24, 2010, 01.02am IST
Somewhere On The Bengal-Jharkhand Border: The eerie calm in the dense sal forest is deafening. Walking along a snaking dirt track, a clear patch appears. Sitting on a rock, hidden by thick, emerald green foliage, is the diminutive figure of a woman, a gamchha (thin towel) covering her head. Her blue salwar-kameez meld with the surroundings. Her eyes dart around at the slightest hint of sound. Shobha Mandi, alias Uma, alias Shikha, gives a searching look and then smiles. The 23-year-old CPI-Maoist Jhargram area commander says she was expecting us.
From commanding 25-30 armed Maoist squad members, Uma turned a fugitive four months ago. She fled her command post on the plea of seeing a doctor. She hid with her aunt for a short while; and now she says she wants the world to know her story. She wants to surrender and is likely to give up Naxalism on August 26.
Why did she decide to shed her battle fatigues seven years after she joined the Naxals? "They committed injustices against which they claimed they were fighting," said Uma. "As a recruit, I protested against the habits of some leaders in the presence of Kishanji. Nobody liked it. The leaders instructed the squad members not to speak to me. I was isolated and warned of dire consequences if I protested," she said.
What didn't she like about the leaders? "They rape," she shot back, eyes flashing with rage. "After about a year of joining Naxals, I was put on night-long sentry duty at a forest camp in Jharkhand. Suddenly, out of the dark, Bikash (now, head of the state military commission) came up and asked me for water. As I turned to fetch it, he grabbed me and tried to do 'kharap kaaj' (indecent acts)." When she objected, Bikash threatened to strangle her. After forcing her into submission, Bikash raped her, she said. She was 17 then.
"He warned me against telling anyone about this. But, I told Akash (Kishanji's confidant and a state committee member). He said he would look into it but did nothing. In fact, Akash's wife, Anu, lives with Kishanji," Uma said.
Most women recruits are exploited by senior Maoists. Senior women leaders, too, have multiple sexual partners, Uma said. "If a member gets pregnant, she has no choice but to abort: A child is seen as a burden that hampers the agility of guerrillas."
Uma has heard tales of brutalization of other women Naxals, too. "Seema (then a recruit) told me that Akash raped her as well. Rahul (alias Ranjit Pal) raped Belpahari squad commander Madan Mahato's wife, Jaba. In this case, the party punished Rahul, who is a key weapons trainer at Maoist camps. He was removed from the regional committee for three months," said Uma.
State committee secretary Sudip Chongdar, alias Goutam, was also punished for similar acts, she said, and transferred to Jharkhand's West Singbhum district. Maoists divide time between forest camps and hideouts in villages. Villagers can't refuse shelter to gun-toting Maoists. Also, they must keep all night vigil to alert them against police raids. "When Sudip took shelter in villages, he raped women in their homes. They were too scared to protest," said Uma.
Many of her senior leaders exploited her sexually. One day, says Uma, Kamal Maity, who is a Bengal-Jharkhand-Orissa regional committee member, came to her rescue. At a meeting attended by Kishanji and other top Maoists, Kamal proposed a relationship with Uma. The leaders agreed. "After Jaba's incident, I learnt that a woman cadre is protected against sexual exploitation only if she is with a senior leader," she said. That was a turning point and she rose steadily in Naxal ranks.
Uma is on the police's most wanted list. She is suspected to have planned and executed a series of attacks, including the massacre of 24 EFR jawans in Silda (February 2010); a raid on Sankrail police station in which two policemen were killed and an officer abducted (October 2009). She is also one of the suspects in Jharkhand MP Sunil Mahato's murder in 2007.
She mentored PCPA members, including Bapi Mahato who is in jail for the Jnaneswari train sabotage. Last year, when the joint central and state forces advanced into Lalgarh to break an eight-month siege, she along with other Maoists fired at the police. In Jhargram, she is known as didi. According to a source, Uma single-handedly built up the PCPA at Jhargram.
Uma joined the rebels in 2003. CPI-Maoist hadn't been formed then. "I joined the People's War ( PW) which later merged with MCC in 2004 to form CPI-Maoist," she said. She was given a new name, Uma. "I was plump. Anu (Akash's wife; Kishanji's companion) said I looked like Uma Bharti. So, she named me Uma."
Maoist leaders spotted her organizational skills. She was asked to mobilize tribals women at Jamboni and Dahijuri in West Midnapore. She also underwent three-month arms training at Jharkhand's Gorabandha forest. "First, we are taught with dummy weapons using tree branches. All recruits have to fire three bullets in their first session. Those who hit the target are picked for armed squads," she said.
In spite of guns and guerrilla warfare, the woman in her sometimes longs for simple pleasures like painting her nails or wearing earrings. But, she says, "We were not permitted to use even fragrant soaps, lest we get detected. Only Lifebuoy is used by cadres."
Did she join the rebels of her own free will? Circumstances, she said. Uma is second of four siblings. Along with their parents, they worked as wage earners on farms or collected sal leaves, mahua and red ants (kurkut) to sell. "I was good in studies but weak in math. I worked all day and studied at night," the girl from Khayerpahari village in West Bengal's Bankura district recounted. "I couldn't pass the Class X board."
This was in 2002. Younger brother Sanjay, who was in Class VIII, was already taken away by the extremists. He became a Lalgarh squad member and is in jail now. "My father, Jamadar Mandi, was an alcoholic suffering from tuberculosis. There was no money to buy him medicines. We sold our land and also borrowed money," Uma said.
While the family struggled, some "party" members offered help. "They gave my father some money and told me to join them. They said I could leave if I didn't like working with them," said Uma. The prospect of a job spurred her.
But only after she signed up did she realize she could never go home. "Whoever comes here, never returns," a senior leader told her. She wanted freedom from poverty but found herself chained to an ideology she couldn't understand.
After seven years of witnessing bloodletting, she has no fear of death. She now hopes the state she has fought against will rehabilitate her. "There are many in the Maoist ranks who would flee given half a chance," she said.