JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
May 20, 2017
Women guerrilla fighters are at the forefront of an emerging insurgent war in India aimed at protecting women from sexual violence and human rights abuse.
On April 24, about 300 guerrillas, half of them women, attacked a police outpost guarding road construction workers in Sukma district in Chhattisgarh State in east-central India.
The guerrillas, armed with grenades and AK-47 assault rifles, killed 25 members of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force before disappearing into the forested mountains. Three days later a group called the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) issued a statement taking responsibility for the attack, and saying it was a continuation of similar attacks on the paramilitary police in other parts of the state in recent weeks.
The statement, issued as an audio clip by a PLGA spokesman known as Vikalp, said the reason for the attacks is to stop the construction of roads, railways and communication towers. Governments say these are to improve the lives of the poor, indigenous people living in what are called tribal areas, said the statement, but in reality “it is being done to loot natural resources, to exploit common masses and to make easy transport for security forces.”
“These attacks should be seen as retaliation against the sexual atrocities that are being committed by the security forces against the tribal women and girls in the conflict zone. It should also be seen as an answer to the countless incidents of sexual violence, which is a blot on any civilized society,” said Vikalp.
The recent attacks in Chhattisgarh are a resurgence in a guerrilla war which started in the 1960s when Maoist communists took up arms in protest at New Delhi’s failure to give autonomy and control over natural resources to the country’s 84 million tribal peoples. At the height of the insurgency in 2007, it was estimated that the Maoists, of which the PLGA is the armed wing, were active in half of India’s 28 states. This covered about 40 percent of India’s geographical area, mostly down the country’s eastern states, and became known as the “Red Corridor,” where the Maoists controlled 92,000 square kilometres.
There are no reliable estimates of the number of people who have died in the 50 years of conflict, but there have been hundreds of deaths each year among both the insurgents and the security forces.
However, the violence has been on the wane since 2009, when the previous government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought in a new two-pronged policy. On one hand, Singh ordered the beefing up of security by deploying special police units, and outlawing local militias raised by wealthy landowners, which often operated as vigilantes and were responsible for countless outrages against tribal villagers.
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At the same time, a lot of money was allocated to development in the poorest and most neglected areas. At the top of the list were new roads, schools and medical centres. The policy was remarkably successful, at least on the military front. Government forces claim to have killed 800 Maoists and arrested 3,400 since 2013. In addition, several thousand Maoists surrendered in return for an amnesty.
The number of people killed in actions between the Maoists and government forces has dropped off sharply since 2010, when 1,180 people died over the course of the year. In 2014 there were 314 deaths, 252 in 2015, and 433 last year. The 25 policemen who died in the Sukma attack last month was the largest number of security force fatalities in a singe incident since 2010.
Indian intelligence and security agencies reckon that there are now about 10,000 Maoist fighters throughout the “Red Corridor.”
The quest to improve the lives of the tribal peoples with economic development has not been as successful as the security drive. The roads pushed into the mountainous, forested areas where the tribal people live have been a great boon to resource industries, especially mining companies, that can now get at previously inaccessible reserves. Lack of regulation meant that mining companies all-too-often felt unconstrained, expropriated local people’s land, and devastated the local ecology.
Ironically, India’s economic slow down in recent years has taken some of this development pressure off the tribal peoples. And new laws, backed by judicial activism by India’s Supreme Court, has seen many illegal mining operations closed down and the enforcement of environmental protection regulations.
However, there are clouds on the horizon flowing from the policies of the present government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He pays lip service to the two-pronged, security-teamed-with-development policy of his predecessor, Singh, but Modi is also committed to the rapid growth of Indian industry.
To this end, he is advocating simplification of laws pertaining to both land acquisition and control over forests. This will inevitably bring back the pressures on the tribal peoples in the hill country.
Meanwhile, the composition of the Maoist movement has changed significantly. Studies by both civilian and military analysts in India have found that women now make up about 60 per cent of the members of the Maoist organization, and also its fighters. Information gathered by New Delhi’s Intelligence Bureau suggests that in many regions of the “Red Corridor,” which stretches down India’s eastern, Bay of Bengal seaboard, most local Maoist committees are run by women. In Bastar district of Chhattisgarh State, the Intelligence Bureau says 20 of the 27 local Maoist committees are led by women.
Police and paramilitaries who have faced the women fighters say they are usually much more brave and committed to the battle than their male comrades. The woman have also gained a reputation for brutality towards prisoners, but they deny this. The audio message from Vikalp about last month’s attack on the police post at Sukma, for example, denies allegations in Indian media that the guerrillas mutilated the bodies of the dead policemen.
Women have always been active in the Maoist movement since its founding 50 years ago. But they have risen to be dominant both as organizers and fighters since Singh’s efforts to end the insurgency started in 2009. One reason is that men have been more willing than women to take the government amnesty and leave the Maoist movement. Women Maoists have been more loyal, and their proportion of the group’s membership has risen accordingly.
Leading from that, has been a move to put more focus on recruiting women. One study published by India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses found that “some have joined the underground due to desperation. Exploitation at the hands of the high and powerful in the village is another reason.”
Other studies have found women recruits escaping unwanted arranged marriages, and it is not just rural, tribal women who are joining the guerrillas. There are many examples of urban, educated women who join the Maoists for political reasons. One of the most prominent was the renowned feminist and sociology professor, Anuradha Ghandy.
Ghandy was a member of the Maoist organization’s Central Committee, but died of malaria in April, 2008. She was a fierce advocate for an end to the laws and cultural practices that keep women in India as, at best, second class citizens and more usually as chattels.
Ghandy was highly critical of western feminist movements. She had little time for Liberal Feminism, Radical Feminism, Anarcha-Feminism, Eco-Feminism, or Post-Modern Feminism. One of her last essays ended with the thought: “These solutions have at best benefited a section of middle class women but left the vast mass of oppressed and exploited women far from liberation. The struggle for women’s liberation cannot be successful in isolation from the struggle to overthrow the imperialist system itself.”
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017
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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”
Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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