The relationship between feminism and the left movements in India has long been a contested one. Marxists accuse feminists of trying to subvert the politics of class, while feminists criticise Marxists for underplaying gender discrimination. But is ‘class’ itself an adequate tool of analysis? Is an understanding of class that is divorced from extra-class factors such as caste and gender really capable of handling the complexity of today’s reality? Such a question may be described as too broad, but it is of particular interest with regards to the Naxalite movement in India. Let us take a deeper look at this matter in the context of rural Bihar.
For many, the mention of rural Bihar conjures up visions of inequality, lawlessness and mindless violence. But there is a definite method to the madness. The violence that wracks this part of the country has its basis in the existing order, which is increasingly being challenged by the labouring poor under the leadership of the Naxalites. Upheavals among the underclass are not new here, and they have often failed in their campaigns. As far back as in the 1930s, the Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha (BPKS)-led movement failed to address the grievances of the truly oppressed sections of Bihari society, largely because it did not take into account the caste system that structured agrarian relations. The BPKS was dominated by traditional landholding upper castes, which did not move to organise landless labourers and sharecroppers, who were mostly Dalits and Adivasis. It also failed to take into account issues of gender discrimination, particularly the sexual abuse of lower-caste women by the dominant-caste landholders.
Reports show that even during the 1990s, control over land was vested in only 10 percent of the population in rural Bihar, and that most of this group was upper caste. The underclasses were forced to work as sharecroppers or daily-wage labourers under oppressive economic and social conditions. It is not surprising, therefore, that it was the Dalit, Adivasi and low-caste sections – and women among them – who came to form the Naxalite backbone. The issues they raised included the underclass’s right to own land, to minimum wages, to a life of dignity and, specifically for women, to an end to sexual abuse perpetrated by the dominant-caste landholders. In certain pockets of rural Bihar, such as the Bhojpur, Jehanabad, Gaya and Patna districts, the Naxalite-led movements have indeed achieved a fair degree of success in terms of economic and political rights, including the right to a life of dignity. But how emancipatory are these politics?
The Naxalites use violent means in order to end what they term the ‘violence of the status quo’. So threatening is this challenge that it has invited violent and organised reprisals almost unprecedented in India’s history. Unlike earlier movements, the Naxalites have not relegated caste to a secondary level, and they have also to some extent addressed the question of sexual abuse of women labourers. But while its members have demanded that stipulated minimum wages be paid, they have not highlighted equal wages for women and men. They are fighting for land-ownership rights for the labouring castes, but entitlements in the names of women are not on the agenda.
During the 1970s, women were in the forefront of the land-acquisition movement being waged by Party Unity, at the time one of the main Naxalite groups in Bihar, against the head priest or mahant of the Bodh Gaya temple, one of the biggest landowners in the area. Subsequently, however, the women’s demand that these lands be registered in their own names aroused the indignation of the male Party Unity cadres. The line of argument followed the familiar logic that, since it was men who were the ‘real’ tillers, they should own the land. When the women subsequently refused to be involved until this demand was met, the party leadership compromised by registering in the name of women 10 percent of the 1100 acres of land that had been won.
Such tokenism on the part of male Naxalite leaders does not fit with their analysis of gender inequality being rooted in the economic structure of society. Although it has not been stated explicitly by the Naxalites, they appear to have recognised that the withdrawal of women from the production process is legitimised by the institution of caste, which prescribes that because women embody the honour and prestige of the family and community, they should be closely monitored, kept behind the purdah, and must not work outside the home. According to this approach, the lower castes also occupy lower positions because their women are ‘visible’, as they work outside the home. By extension, a woman who transgresses the patriarchal norms is not considered worthy of respect, and thus can be used and abused in various ways.
Understandably, the Naxalites have focused on this aspect of gender oppression. But can revolutionary politics stop here? The sexual abuse of women has significant bearing on caste honour and prestige. Naxalite politics seem to have accepted this understanding, and acknowledged that any economic reductionism of this phenomenon is more likely to dilute than enhance an understanding of the contradictions. However, Naxalism neither questions the patriarchal ideology of feminine modesty, nor that of seeing women as embodiments of community honour. The Naxalites have clearly been looking at the sexual abuse of women in terms of feminine modesty and community honour, rather than in terms of violation of women’s rights. The radical Naxalite demand of a labouring woman’s right to a life of dignity gets blunted due to patriarchal assumptions built into it. By incorporating patriarchal ideology into their understandings and theories, the Naxalites have given a new lease of life to patriarchy.
The Naxalites have steadfastly refused to acknowledge the possibility of the existence of patriarchal ideology and practices within their own assorted movements. This externalisation has inevitably weakened the overall fight against patriarchy: only sexual abuse of labouring women by the dominant classes can be legitimately challenged. This means that the domestic sphere, as well as that of the Party, is not seen as a legitimate arena of struggle against patriarchy. Documents produced by Naxalite groups, even those of their women’s wings, clearly state the primacy of class over gender, that only a classless society can decisively solve the ‘woman question’. Any politics that questions this suggestion is seen as a conspiracy to subvert a progressive, class-based politics. The only special problem confronting labouring women is seen as sexual humiliation from upper-caste landholders. Some Naxalites are even against the setting-up of a separate women’s wing, the argument being that such a policy would create division in the ranks of the movement.
How do Naxalites conceptualise the issue of feminine modesty and honour? Feminine modesty in India has been viewed in terms of Brahminical patriarchy, and the Naxalites seem to have accepted this framework as legitimate. In one incident during the 1980s, reported on by journalist Manimala, an activist with the Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Samiti (MKSS, the Party Unity mass front) from Aurangabad, Bihar, was killed in a police encounter, and the organisation declared him a martyr. His widow, also a party worker, was subsequently revered as the widow of a martyr. Meanwhile, she developed a relationship with another party worker, and the two decided to get married. Thereafter, the Aurangabad villagers complained about the situation to the MKSS leadership, which formed a council to decide on the case. The woman was denied permission to remarry, and the man was expelled from the organisation for harbouring ‘immoral’ thoughts.
The situation did not end there. The woman refused to accept the verdict, and instead resigned from the MKSS. Deeming this action an insult to the memory of the martyr, the organisation expelled both the man and the woman, and, to add insult to injury, ordered them to leave the village. Initially, the villagers’ complaint had been that allowing the widow to remarry would ‘pollute’ the village, and affect its reputation. In turn, the Naxalites had justified their decision with the logic that the organisation needed to be at one with the masses. That it was a patriarchal decision forced on the two comrades did not seem to matter much.
It must be noted that the incident described above was not out of the ordinary. There have been incidents of direct sexual violence perpetrated on women by the Naxalites themselves. Manimala also refers to an MKSS action in June 1988 against a Yadav criminal gang. The MKSS kidnapped the new bride of a Yadav man (possibly with links to the gang) and attempted to sexually abuse her. This was seen as the easiest way of taking revenge on the entire gang. The young woman was saved when neighbours intervened. Five days later, the Yadav gang tried to retaliate in a similar fashion. This time, it was the wife of an MKSS activist who was saved, again by the villagers.
This incident was condemned by Tilak Das Gupta, a Naxalite leader interviewed by this writer. ‘G M’, a Party Unity activist who did not want to be named, wondered about the political efficacy of such actions, and termed it as a deviation from the ‘real’ struggle. ‘C R D’, an MCC leader, said that he “did not see any difference between what dominant-caste landholders do to labouring women and what the Naxalites did in this case”, the patriarchal mode of action evidently did not bother him. The issues raised by this incident are political ones, because they question the revolutionary agenda and the transformative capacity of the Naxalite movements. Here, the party has become the new patriarch – one that controls its members, their desires, their bodies and sexuality, and punishes deviance accordingly.
How do male comrades, reared in a male-dominated society, view women’s participation in the Naxalite movement? A female Naxalite activist’s answer: “As a group that must necessarily be led by men.” Among the leadership, there is hardly any female presence. Meanwhile, although exact figures or even estimates are hard to come by, it is evident that the presence of women at the grassroots has been overwhelming since the late 1960s. The absence of women leaders is justified by the suggestion that women eventually become mothers, and in the course of things take up responsibilities in the domestic sphere. Even otherwise, there is a patriarchal allocation of roles: the task of nursing an injured comrade, for instance, and providing emotional support, falls solely on women cadres.
Yet police records prove and testimonies of the women themselves consistently claim that, without them, the Naxalite movement would have faced a significantly more difficult task. From the snatching of weapons, giving shelter to revolutionaries, acting as couriers, to spying and dying for the ‘revolution’, women engaged (and engage) in some of the most dangerous tasks. While the male Naxalite leaders agree, they simultaneously persist in the argument that women should ultimately take up the traditional feminine roles of household work and motherhood, so as to prepare the next generation of fighters. Indeed, there exists strong pressure on women cadres to bear children.
One of the four pillars of oppression identified in Chinese society by Mao Tse-tung was the patriarchal authority of the husband. But revolutionary males in India, as elsewhere, are not ready to give up the privileges that come with authority. Besides being good wives and mothers, women are expected to build an environment in which the men can work for the revolution unhindered – in the process, appropriating women’s labour. “Naxalite men are unable to give an equal measure of respect to their fellow women compatriots,” says Krishna Bandyopadhyay, a Naxalite.
Evidently, fighting against the state and ‘class enemies’ is easier than questioning the foundations on which the revolution stands, for both men and women. It was easy to prioritise the prevention of sexual abuse of labouring women; much more difficult is questioning the patriarchy present within the Naxalite organisation, as well as the patriarchal grooming of the Naxalites themselves, including of the women comrades. After all, doing so would inevitably lead Naxalite men to give up many of their privileges. But even the women would be faced with the uneasy task of questioning the ideology and practices of men who are very close to them: fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, comrades and leaders.
In these ways, feminism comes to be seen as an enemy not only because it gives primacy to gender, but also because it enters the most intimate domains. It brings into focus the politics of personal life, and how power operates in the ‘non-political’, private arena. Ironically, Naxalite women also seem to have internalised patriarchal hegemony within the movement, and appear to have some hostility towards the raising of gender (read: feminist) issues. Those women revolutionaries who challenge the patriarchy currently prevalent in the movement are very often labelled as deviants – as immoral, ‘loose’ women. Liberation politics cannot be deemed truly liberatory until it frees itself from patriarchal ideology. It must break the dichotomy between the private and the public spheres, challenge the ideology that sees women as embodiments of community honour, and debunk the ideology of motherhood and the gendered division of labour.
~ Sarbani Bandyopadhyay teaches sociology at St Xavier´s College in Calcutta.