The Forgotten Women of the Unfinished Revolution – Part I

On confronting the memories of the yesteryears, what gets exposed are the gendered nature of remembering the movement. Speaking to the male leaders of the movement, one gets a sense of a rehearsed way of narrating. Women’s memories on the other hand, tend to be more personal.

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PC: cpilm.org

Bengaijyot, a small hamlet in North Bengal. A small slab in the midst of a meadow bears the names of Dhaneshwari Devi, Simashwari Mallik, Nayaneshwari Mallik, Surubala Burman, Sonamati Singh, Fulmati Devi, Samsari Soibani- seven names that remain as reminders of a different time, of a revolutionary possibility.

The ‘spring thunder’ that had waged an ideological war against the Indian state has been well documented through numerous stories, films, pictures, songs, plays, poems, and autobiographies. Movements are often remembered through personal as well as social memories. This ‘collective memory’ is constructed out of tales passed down in families or through collective acts of observation and remembrance. What finds a place in written history is etched from what one remembers, how, and what one would rather forget. This gets particularly difficult to create any archive of any underground movement as much of its history remains censored, hidden away from the eyes of the state. As a result, oral history plays a crucial role. Furthermore, since the movement was an underground one that had undergone brutal state repression and has been almost erased from the national memory, the history of the movement is one filled with absences and silences. It is in these gaps and silences where the factual archive fails, that literary imagination creeps in. While discussing the politics of remembering the movement, it therefore becomes imperative to engage with this ‘imaginative memory’ of revolution that has kept the movement alive in public memory.

Archival documents, oral history, and literature complement each other in bringing to life the history of the Naxalbari movement. While any deliberation on the women of Naxalbari movement, brings to mind the names of the aforementioned ‘martyred’ women. The names of many other women involved with the movement elude us. Even those that make its way in the recollections, or in literary imagination are remembered in the terms of men. Women, primarily middle-class women, in these contexts mostly get cast in the image of the ‘mother’, ‘sister’, ‘lover’, while peasant women are either seen as the ‘victim’ who needs to be rescued by the ‘new man’, or the virile courageous guerilla woman. What gets lost in these binaries are flesh and blood stories of resilience, fear, conviction, doubts, hesitation, repression, struggle…

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If the history of Naxalbari is to be reconstructed through the accounts of rural women who had been part of the movement, memories, however slippery, seem to be the primary source. While dealing with the memories of women who had participated in the movement, one needs to keep in mind the kind of repression and marginalization these memories have gone through over the years. Whatever little has survived, remains in the form of fragments. Attempts to reconstruct the history of the movement through these fragments of memories, therefore, should take special note not only of what is remembered but also of the way it is remembered, the reiterations, the events that are easily remembered and the ones that have been obfuscated, what is said and what remains unsaid.

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On confronting the memories of the yesteryears, what gets exposed are the gendered nature of remembering the movement. Speaking to the male leaders of the movement, one gets a sense of a rehearsed way of narrating. Many have come to interview them about the movement which has helped them acquire a practiced way of remembering the movement. Their narratives are therefore more theoretically sound, factually correct, dealing more with ideologues of the movement, the larger picture: the how and the whys. Women’s memories on the other hand, tend to be more personal. They are not much used to being asked about their experiences and the interviews have often been punctuated with their husbands or male comrades intervening ‘itihash ta ami ektu bhalo kore bole ni (let me tell you about the history in a better way)’ or they themselves directing the honours to the male leaders ‘onara aro bhalo kore bolte parben (they will be able to put it in a better way)’.

Remembering the days of the movement also remains fraught with conflicting emotions, anxieties, tensions. For Kuni Tudu, of Gopiballabhpur of Midnapore district, the days of the struggle was perhaps one of adventure and thrill. In her narrative she kept referring to the bygone days as the time of the battle, naming the space of struggle as ‘juddhokhetro’ (battlefield). For Suniti Biswakarma, of Naxalbari, a woman now rendered dependent by old age and poverty, the remembering of the old days meant a time when she was valued, when she felt needed, when her life was perhaps worth something to her, ‘onek kichu korechi (I have done a lot)’ she kept emphasizing.

The inherited family memories also get interspersed with personal memories in some narratives as happens in the case of Anita Mazumdar. As she sets out to tell her mother’s story, the narrative gets weaved in with her remembrance of her father’s story as well as her own story in the ways the movement had affected her merge, presenting a shared history infused with multiple voices, multiple subjectivities. For Preeti Jha again the remembrance of the bygone days is filled with a sense of indignation and longing. She felt betrayed when the party expelled her for voicing dissent. The sting of being unjustly punished still rings in her voice as she narrates: “When they sent me that letter warning me that I was standing in the way of party policies, I went to Bhaskar da and asked have I not done anything for the party? I would sneak out of the house to attend their meetings. Have I not gone about the entire North Bengal with the cultural team of the party?” The gendered nature of the act of remembering becomes most prominent in studying the way Bina Nayek’s story is retold by her comrades.

The memories of Bina in the minds of Sushanta Jha and Leba Chand Tudu are more factual detailing her family background, the nature of her participation, the consequences she faced, who she married, how she led her life. However, it is through the accounts of Mary Tyler, who had been in jail with her that one gets a glimpse of Bina as a person, her thoughts, her emotions. The recollections of Sushanta Jha and Leba Tudu had shed light on the brutal assault Bina had to face in police custody, but it is through Mary’s memory of her that one is perhaps able to come closest to hearing Bina out: “Her body was still covered in scars when I met her, and the beating had somehow damaged her ears, causing her to feel dizzy sometimes and giving her headaches and frequent attacks of fever. But Bina was tough. What had disgusted her most of all was that the police had not even given her a piece of cloth to use during menstruation.” While the narratives of Sushanta Jha and Leba Tudu portrayed her as a victim of grotesque violence, it is Mary’s remembering of her story that represents her as a survivor. It dissociates her story from the rhetoric of ‘honour’ that the naxalite script had so long inscribed in the minds of the people and shifts the conversation from shame to one of dignity.

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PC: thewire.in

The language that one uses while reminiscing gives a sense of how one wants to construct one’s identity in relation to the movement. While for some the battle was theirs to fight, their choice of words or body language reflecting their identification with the movement, as though they derived their identity from it; for some, it was a battle which assigned them merely the role of onlookers, in their retelling lay a subtext of othering, the revolutionaries were referred to as the ‘Naxals’ or distanced as ‘they’, revealing their inability to identify with the movement, to consider themselves as ‘one of them’, yet despite such defenses, their retelling of the stories also betrayed subtle hints of the way the movement influenced their lives, left its mark on their beings.

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Nazalbari Veteran, Shanti Munda, PC: thewire.in

Listening to women’s testimonials of the times laid bare a sense of tracing things back to the roots. Most of their narratives started with an attempt to locate the turning point, the epiphanic moment from when they began to associate themselves with the movement. Most of their stories, therefore, started from the point at which they began to perceive themselves as ‘one of them’. Each individual rummaged about in their memories for that particular event that changed the course of their life.

In between storytelling, they recount why they decided to join the movement and how they reached that decision. For Shanti Munda of Hatighisa, the story of urban ‘Dada-didis’ come up frequently, “akhon ei para-te achi, ei para-te keu na khaya thakbe ke kandbe amra dekhtam (We used to see people in our village starving, crying over their misfortunes). So, when Kanu Sanyal and all came to the village and explained to us their ideologies, I decided to join them. “For many, their political activities are interwoven with the political history of their families, with the memories of peasant struggles that they have inherited. For instance, Suniti kept recounting her childhood memories of Tebhaga in the course of reminiscing Naxalbari, “We would see red flags everywhere and we would say laal e laal hoe gelo puro deshta (the whole country was turning red that is, embracing communist ideals).”

For many, the events of 24th and 25th May were the turning point. As Savitri Rao recounts, “There was a protest rally on 24th May, 1967. I was only 14-15 years old then. I had gone to my sister’s house who said, ‘Bring a katari (machete).’ I asked, ‘What would you do with it?’ She told me the police are coming. They would probably attack us, so we need to fight back. When the police came, they asked her what you are going to do with that chopper. My sister was very brave so she replied I will kill you. All the men had to flee, only the women were left behind.” When the police entered the village, a villager had shot an arrow and chaos followed. The police raids compelled the men to go underground, and it was the women who took charge of things. Police interrogation, assault, arrest, raids- the women faced everything.

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The women organized a procession in protest against such police atrocities. The Adivasis and Rajbanshis who were victims of such oppression had gathered in Prasadujote to register their protest. The procession was supposed to be led by Dhaneswari Devi, a Rajbanshi woman as soon as the women began to gather, police came. When this news spread, women from neighboring villages began to gather armed with sickle, machete or whatever they could get hold of. It was the death of Banamali Karmakar’s wife (who was pregnant at that time), that intensified the conflict with the police and the Superintendent of Police (SP) Sonam Wangdi was shot by an arrow during the commotion.

It is heard that the women snatched away the rifles from the police. The police convinced them that they would go away without hurting anyone if they would return their rifles. However, as the women returned the rifles, the police went back a few meters, stopped their jeep and fired at them killing eight women, two children and a man.

While the details of the event vary from one hearsay to another as the memories have been tampered with over the years, what remains common to all is the martyrdom of those Adivasi and Rajbanshi women who had to lay down their lives on that day. Interestingly though the individual stories of these women remain obfuscated, relegated to the realms of oblivion, collectively they have been commemorated as the epitomes of ultimate sacrifice. The day 25th May is celebrated as Shahid Dibas in their honor and a memorial column stands in the place where the police fired immortalizing their names. From a conversation with Dhaneshwari Devi’s son a lot of stories about him and his father came up but even for him, his memory of his mother’s participation in the movement was limited to her martyrdom along with the other women.

Massive rally for the Naxalite movement near Shahid Minar in Calcutta in 1967. Image taken from cpiml.org

Gopiballabhpur had a different story. The urban middle-class leaders tried to organize the villagers through a call to seize their harvest. It is heard that the women, who were involved with most of the farm work, were at the forefront of this movement. These moments of occupying what is one’s, of seizing the land that they till still come foremost in popular memory, as women narrate it as their ‘gramer lorai’ (community fight).

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For many again, the defining moment in their involvement with the struggle is not too sharply distinct. Leela Kishan, an adivasi woman from the village Burhaganj in the Naxalbari region has an interesting story to tell. Leela was only twelve or thirteen years old at the time of the Naxalbari movement. She had gone to listen to one of their meetings, but the police arrested her. She was jailed for a year and a half despite not being in any way involved with the movement. It was this unfair punishment that drove her to join the movement: “I thought I was not even actively involved with the party and they punished me anyway so might as well join the movement”. For Parbati Karigar, the movement was her only escape, the only safe refuge, “We were aware of the movement but not involved in it. But the police would come and torture everyone. They did not verify whether the concerned person was involved or not. They would just come and arrest anyone they could lay their hands on. We heard stories about how the police did not even spare the women in other villages. I don’t remember when I got involved with the Naxalites. The police raids forced us to become fugitives and that was how I joined their group.”

Interestingly, while oppression prepared the ground for struggle, the resilience and courage of the oppressed gave many the strength to fight on. It was not only urban men or women who were points of inspiration, but women from the villages also became pillars of resistance behind whom many rallied. Suniti of Gholaimallik area speaks of these women, “Women would go to occupy lands, harvest crops with weapons, moynakata niye michhile jaito…ami dekhe bhabchi amader deshe jodi eirokom hoto tahole to jotedargulo ke kabu kora jae… (The women would go to the processions with traditional weapons. Watching them, I would think if we had such women in our village then we could fight the landlords). I would see women going to meetings, processions. I saw Leela Mazumdar (Charu Mazumdar’s wife) delivering a speech in Hatighisa. Jangal Santal’s wife, Galoswari, my mother-in-law would also talk in meetings, ispat meyera (women of steel). They would talk about state oppression. Women would hold meetings. ami to dekhe obak hoe jachilam eto himmat (I would watch their courage with awe)”.

Also Read: The Forgotten Women of the Unfinished Revolution – Part II

Jhelum is a researcher at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a social activist. Views expressed are personal. 

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