October 28, 2010

INDIA-Maoists: Women in the Camp

Thursday, 28 October 2010 11:53

By Fakir Mohan Pradhan, Analysis by SATP

In a gruesome attack on the Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) camp at Shilda in West Midnapore District of West Bengal on February 15, 2010, the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) killed 24 personnel of this State paramilitary formation. Significantly woman Maoist cadres played a major role in the attack, which was led by Jagori Baske, a woman ‘commander’. Baske usually operates along the borders with Jharkhand and Orissa, under the supervision of Koteswar Rao alias Kishan, Maoist Politburo and Central Military Commission member. Three woman cadres had made the final recee of the site in the guise of tribal dancers a few hours before the attack. Shobha Mandi alias Uma (23), the Jhargram (West Midnapore District of West Bengal) ‘area commander’, who later surrendered on August 27, 2010, also played an active role in the attack.

Earlier, the attack on the Sankrail Police Station in the same District on October 20, 2009, in which two Police personnel were killed and the officer-in-charge abducted, was also led by a woman cadre, Suchitra Mahato.

Another high profile attack, in which 18 Policemen were killed in the Gadchiroli District of Maharashtra on October 8, 2009, was also led by a woman cadre Tarakka (42), a member of the South Gadchiroli Divisional Committee, which is also headed by a woman, Narmada (52), from Andhra Pradesh. Police believe, about 40 per cent of dalam (armed squad) cadres in Gadchiroli and adjacent areas are women. Apart from Tarakka, other women ‘commanders’ in Gadchiroli include Jyoti (in Tipagadh), Raneeta (Chatgaon), Sujita (Deori) and Ranjita (Surjagarh). Saroja, who was ‘commander’ of the Jimalgatta dalam, was arrested in 2009. Her husband, Lanka Papi Reddy aka Lachanna, who was a Central Committee member, later surrendered before Warangal Police in Andhra Pradesh. Radhakka, a senior Maoist cadre working in Bastar in Chhattisgarh for many years, hails from Rajaram Khanla village in south Gadchiroli.

Women cadres have long had a significant role in Maoist attacks. In 2004, several woman cadres were spotted in the gang that looted the armoury at Koraput in Orissa. In 2008, woman cadres again prominently featured in the killing of Policemen during the looting of the armoury at Nayagarh (Orissa). An unnamed senior leader of the CPI-Maoist, questioned by a reporter about the position of women in their ranks, declared, "We treat women on par even in our military struggle. Our women cadres are provided training just like their men counterparts. There is no discrimination in their diet or exercises." It is mandatory for all new recruits to the outfit to take a nine-point oath that declares, inter alia, that he or she would not discriminate on the basis of religion, caste, gender, race, or ethnicity.

While women have played a crucial role in Maoist operations and organisation, however, the reality is far from the declared ideal of equality and equity. The story of Shobha Mandi alias Uma (23), the Jhargram ‘area commander’, illustrates a reality that is far off from the ‘solemn pledges’ of gender justice taken by the Maoists. After being sexually exploited by some senior leaders of the outfit, Shobha, who commanded a squad of 25 to 30 armed Maoists, eventually mustered courage and deserted her command post on the plea of seeing a doctor. She remained a fugitive for nearly four months and then surrendered before the Superintendent of Police (West Midnapore District) Manoj Kumar Verma in Midnapore town on August 27. Shobha is a native of Bankura District. Shobha joined the Communist Party of India – Marxist-Leninist – People's War (also know as the People’s War Group, PWG) in 2003 [the PWG later merged with Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) on October 14, 2004, to constitute the CPI-Maoist]. Shobha disclosed that it was Bikash (now, head of the West Bengal State Military Commission) who raped her when she was just 17-years-old. Describing her ordeal, she said, "I reported the matter to Akash (West Bengal State Committee Member and a confidant of Koteswar Rao alias Kishan). He did nothing other than giving me an assurance to look into the matter. In fact, Akash's wife, Anu, lives with Kishanji." She also revealed that stories of sexual exploitation of women cadres by senior Maoists are not uncommon. Seema (then a recruit) told Shobha that Akash had raped her as well. Rahul alias Ranjit Pal, a key weapons’ trainer, raped Belpahari ‘squad commander’ Madan Mahato's wife Jaba. In this case, the party ‘punished’ Rahul, by removing him from the regional committee for three months. West Bengal State Committee Secretary Sudip Chongdar alias Goutam was also ‘punished’ for similar acts, with a transfer to Jharkhand's West Singhbhum District. Significantly, the slain Maoist leader Sakhamuri Appa Rao, who was a State Committee member and was believed to be in charge of the Andhra Pradesh State Military Commission, was demoted several ranks for misbehaviour with women cadres before his rise through the ranks.

Shobha soon recognized an unpleasant reality – a woman cadre is protected against sexual exploitation only if she is ‘with’ a senior leader. So, when Kamal Maity, a Bengal-Jharkhand-Orissa regional committee member, proposed a relationship with her at a meeting attended by Kishan and other top Maoists, she could not refuse. The leaders also agreed to this relationship. That was a turning point in her ‘career’ and, in what is a recurrent pattern, she rose steadily through the Maoist ranks.

Unsurprisingly, some woman ‘commanders’ who have led recent major Maoist attacks are wives or ‘partners’ of senior leaders of the outfit. Notably, Tarakka (42) who led the October 8, 2009, attack in Gadchiroli, is the wife of Central Committee member Mallojula Venugopal alias Bhupathi. Narmada (52), under whom Tarakka worked, is the wife of CPI-Maoist ideologue Sudhakar aka Kiran. The attack on Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) personnel at Gidhni in West Midnapore District on November 8, 2009, in which four EFR personnel were killed, was led by two women – one of them believed to be Tara, a Lalgarh native and Maoist leader Bikash's partner. Likewise, Suchitra Mahato, who led the October 20, 2009, attack on the Sankrail Police Station, is the wife of Sasadhar Mahato, the prime accused in the Salboni landmine attack on Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on November 2, 2008.

Sonu Gawde (24), another woman cadre who surrendered in 2008, claims, "Sex is demanded at gunpoint (in the Maoist camps). It is so rampant that often it is difficult to say who is sleeping with whom in the jungles." Sabita Munda (20), an ‘area commander’ who surrendered with a young male cadre, Rahul Juang, in Orissa on February 11, 2010, claimed that Maoist woman cadres who raise their voice against sexual exploitation were instructed by senior leaders to remain silent. Two woman Maoist cadres, Geeta Murmu and Anju Murmu, who were arrested on February 12, 2010, in the Banka District of Bihar, claimed they were also sexually exploited in the Maoist camps. Geeta gave details of how a group of 200 woman Maoists was exploited in the dense forest areas of Belhar, a Maoist ‘stronghold’.

Disgusted by the sexual exploitation and camp life, many woman cadres have preferred to surrender. According to the partial data complied by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 74 woman Maoist cadres have surrendered before the SFs since 2005. After two married Maoist couples surrendered in Rayagada District of Orissa [Ghumusur ‘divisional commander’ Akash alias Dora alias Ghasiram Majhi and his wife Jharana on June 8, 2009, and Surendra Vekwara (19) and his wife Ruby (18) on July 22, 2009], the Maoists in south Orissa started using force to marry off their women cadres to cadres from Chhattisgarh deputed to Orissa. This was part of an effort not to let the disillusioned women cadres get away from the outfit. The apprehension was that, if both partners were from Orissa, they may choose to surrender. Significantly, woman Maoist, Laxmi Pidkaka alias Sunita (18), surrendered before Police in Rayagada District on December 30, 2009, to escape from a forced marriage to a cadre from Chhattisgarh.

A senior Maoist leader Narsimha Reddy, conceded that only those young girls belonging to Dalit, extremely backward class, and tribal communities, were recruited and then left to fend for themselves within the organisation. These women were mainly engaged in cooking, serving as couriers and nursing the injured cadres. Pongi Sillo alias Lalita alias Chinnari, a Maoist militia member who surrendered on July 7, 2010, in Andhra Pradesh, disclosed that girls were forced to cook food, carry luggage and do menial jobs, apart from carrying kit bags and luggage of wives of top Maoist leaders. According to media reports published on October 13, eight tribal women hailing from the Naxal-affected areas of Kaimur range [which includes Robertsganj, Mirzapur, Sonebhadra and Chandauli of Uttar Pradesh (UP)], sought UP Chief Minister Mayawati's intervention to help in their rehabilitation. These women had joined the Naxalite outfit between 2000-2005. They were sexually exploited and the Naxalites abandoned them when they got pregnant. Woman cadres who become pregnant ‘naturally’ end up as liability to the Maoist ‘people’s war’. Gender equality has a utility only to the extent that woman cadres help in the ‘struggle’ by various means, including ‘entertaining’ fighting cadres.

Fakir Mohan Pradhan, Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management

About SATP: The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).

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