New targets

Published : Dec 17, 2010 00:00 IST

A report submitted by the West Bengal Commission for Women says that Maoists in the State are targeting women.

IN the early 1970s, at the height of the naxalite movement in West Bengal, the then Governor, S.S. Dhawan, famously quipped that one could not call Kolkata (then Calcutta) a lawless city, or West Bengal a lawless State, since women were absolutely safe on its streets. This was indeed so because at a time when many men kept indoors owing to the naxalite menace, women were able to step outdoors without fear. Things have changed since then, both in the naxalite movement, which is the forerunner of the present Maoist movement, and in the State.

Disturbing trend

A new disturbing trend in Maoist activities in the State is the manner in which women in the Maoist belts of Pashchim Medinipur, Purulia and Bankura are being attacked. Maoist violence, apart from causing displacement and threatening livelihoods, has now turned upon women in the form of murder, kidnapping and physical abuse.

Malini Bhattacharya, Chairperson of the West Bengal Commission for Women, told Frontline: Maoist violence has been going on for the last two years. But in the last few months, the number of direct attacks on women seems to have increased. Women are being killed brutally, being abducted and beaten up. This kind of attack on women seems to be a relatively new feature. That is why we decided to talk to some of the victims and also to the relatives of victims. A team from the commission, headed by Malini Bhattacharya, visited Pashchim Medinipur district in October and, on the basis of its inquiry, came out with a report on the political violence against women in the Maoist-affected regions.

Among those who met the team was Phuluram Tudu, the husband of Nilmani Tudu, who was killed by suspected Maoists in July this year. Nilmani, who lived in Patharnasha village, in Saria, Gopiballabhpur, in Pashchim Medinipur district, was a well-known folk artist in the region and a registered singer in Akashbani. She was also at one time an elected panchayat member from the Jharkhand Party. It is believed her killing is linked to the murder of the bodyguard of the Member of Parliament Sudam Mandi, from Orissa, who had come to watch a football match in the region, and the subsequent investigation in the village by the police. Days after the incident, on the night of July 14, 12 armed men, on the pretext of asking for water, entered the open porch in front of Nilmani's house, where she and her husband were sitting, and dragged her away. They accused her of being a spy for the Orissa Police. As her village is on the West Bengal-Orissa border, Nilmani and her troupe often performed on the Orissa side of the border. When Phuluram tried to stop the attackers, he was beaten up and the house was vandalised. The next morning Nilmani's body was found a few kilometres away with Maoist posters next to it.

Shikha and Debashish Mahato's story of their mother Chhabirani Mahato's murder is even more chilling. After she was widowed, Chhabirani, an anganwadi (Integrated Child Development Services) worker, left Debashish with her parents in Barua. Eighteen-year-old Debashish practically grew up in the care of his grandparents. When Chhabirani started receiving threats from Maoists a few months before she was killed, she also sent her daughter to live in Barua. Her children told the commission that their mother would only speak indirectly of the threats and refused to join them in Barua as her anganwadi job was the only source of sustenance for the family. Besides, she believed that the Maoists would not harm a woman. Both Chhabirani and her husband were activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

On August 2, Shikha and Debashish were informed of their mother's abduction and subsequent murder by Maoists. But it was only two weeks later, after the Central forces entered the region and the Maoists were driven back, that Chhabirani's body could be exhumed from the spot where the Maoists had buried her. A man from a neighbouring village who had been made to dig her grave told the police where it was. According to this eyewitness, who is at present in police custody, and the evidence collected by the police, Chhabirani was still alive, though barely, when she was buried after being tortured and gang-raped.

Chhabirani was a member of the Ganatantrik Mahila Samiti (Democratic Women's Association). A representative of the association who met the commission's team said she was a target of the Maoists possibly because she staunchly refused to pay them what they call taxes. Maoists extort a percentage of the earnings of the employed people in the villages.

It has been observed over the past few months that women engaged in government service are perhaps being targeted in particular. Chhabirani was neither the first nor the last to have fallen victim to Maoist terror. Chunibala Rana from Bankura, Anima Besra from Purulia, and Phulmani Mandi, a disabled woman from Pashchim Medinipur all anganwadi workers were abducted months ago by suspected Maoists and there has been no news of them. The most recent such attack was on the night of November 19, when suspected Maoists broke into the house of Sampriti Mahato, an anganwadi worker in Lalgarh, and dragged her away into the darkness.

It is not only women in government service who are being targeted, as is evident from the case of Anima Debsingha of Pashchim Medinipur. Anima's husband was killed by Maoists, and when she apparently still refused to do their bidding, she was kidnapped and is still missing.

Any kind of resistance or disobedience to their [Maoists'] rules is not tolerated and is put down brutally. If there is the slightest suspicion that a person has some relation with the Left parties she does not even have to be a supporter for example, if someone even has offered a glass of water to someone from a Left party, even that gesture makes her a suspect, said Malini Bhattacharya.

The atmosphere of violence itself has been claiming lives in the region. On August 20, 45-year-old Khukumani Mahato was working in the rice fields adjacent to the forest area in Shiarbani in Pashchim Medinipur when firing broke out between Maoists and the Central forces. Khukumani, who was hard of hearing, reacted a little later than the others who were working alongside her and as a result was killed in the crossfire. Khukumani's case is shocking. This is a place where women work in the fields and men are masons. So the women are constantly exposed to the violence. Those who have to go to the forest to collect forest produce for their livelihood have to pay a tax to the Maoists. How can one carry on one's daily life in this situation? said Malini Bhattacharya.

The commission's report also mentions that it found no evidence of the police or the armed forces being accused of excesses. However, it also stated that all efforts should be made to avoid any confrontation with villagers and to win their trust even while combating Maoist violence.

Surrendered women cadre

The commission's team also spoke to the surrendered Maoist Shobha Mandi. Shobha, who is in her late twenties, joined the Maoists in 2003. According to the report, Shobha gave a detailed description of how Maoists recruited young men and women as cadre. At that time they did not come with arms but were sometimes referred to as NGO Party' because they worked in a manner similar to NGOs,' the report states. After establishing their influence among the villagers, the Maoists would target young, single women widows and deserted women in particular for recruitment.

After joining the Maoists, Shobha realised they did not practise what they preached. She felt that while the Maoists talked of equal rights for women, in reality women were being victimised, the report says. She spoke of being forced into physical relationships. Those women who rebelled against the system or were critical of it were sidelined or boycotted. According to Shobha, there are many girls like her among the Maoist cadre who would like to leave, but they do not know how to do it, the report states.

On November 16, another woman Maoist surrendered to the police, claiming to having been mentally and physically tortured by her former colleagues. Twenty-one-year-old Rumpa Mahato gave herself up in Bankura district. I was lured by a job offer and tricked into joining. They trained me, but of late they started torturing me physically and mentally, so I left, she reportedly said. According to Manoj Verma, Superintendent of Police, Pashchim Medinipur, a few more women cadre have been in touch with the police to negotiate their terms of surrender. We also have evidence in the form of letters from senior women cadre who have raised objections to the top brass about certain serious issues, and all these objections have been overlooked, Verma told Frontline.

Maoist violence has also led to the displacement of hundreds of villagers. According to the report, the camps set up for the displaced have no official status they are invisible so far as the administration is concerned. The commission has recommended that it is necessary for the State government to give some official recognition to the fact that as a result of continued Maoist violence a fairly large number of people have been forced to leave their homes and livelihoods. We have said that something should be done by the government, at least for pregnant women, lactating mothers, very small children and school-going children. If this is not done, the overall development will be further hindered, said Malini Bhattacharya.

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