Farewell to arms: A modest attempt to capture the dilemma of revolutionaries with silenced guns

By: | Published: March 5, 2017 3:23 AM

Swati Sengupta’s book divides the surrendered Maoists under four chapters: young ones, men, women and couples.

With at least 40% women cadres, the nature of their equality and bond with male guerrillas has seen fierce debates. (Souce: Express Archive/file)

Among the most controversial women cadres the five-decade history of the Maoist insurgency has seen, Suchitra Mahato is a character befitting a novel. She participated in some of the most prominent attacks on the security forces, was romantically linked with several male cadres, including CPI (Maoist) central committee member Mallojula Koteswara Rao, alias Kishenji, who famously led the insurgency in West Bengal for years. Mahato was also suspected of trapping Kishenji, which eventually caused his encounter killing in November 2011, before came the denouement of her surrender and marriage with a Trinamool Congress leader.

So when Swati Sengupta chose Mahato as one of the characters in her book, Out of War: Voices of Surrendered Maoists, much was expected of the conversations the author had with the former guerrilla. While Mahato’s life is not sufficiently thrashed out, as one barely sees the innards she would have gone through, a crucial argument is nevertheless made. “Why am I accused of trapping men? Women are always seen as temptresses, as objects of lust and greed?” Mahato asks, to which Sengupta observes: “It is deeply entrenched in our culture that a female soldier is never seen as a desexualised individual.”

With at least 40% women cadres, the nature of their equality and bond with male guerrillas has seen fierce debates. Some surrendered cadres have claimed that they faced sexual exploitation, while those in the forest emphatically note that such a massive participation of women in the revolutionary struggle would not have been possible without upholding their rights and dignity.

Sengupta believes that women cadres like Mahato “were embodiments of that sexuality, which either had to be repressed or considered as a potent threat to lead men astray”. The ground reality is more nuanced. The forested camps have certainly seen instances when the Maoist code of conduct was breached, but the leadership has also been strict enough to punish such violations. A leader as senior as central committee member Lanka Papi Reddy, who was instrumental in building the movement in Dandakaranya in its earliest years, was demoted after such complaints surfaced against him. Dejected, he eventually surrendered.

The author misses another nuance when she notes that since the Maoists are “not Jehadis” and “do not have suicide squads”, their “commitment is far less than the fervor and spirit of those who fight…on religious grounds”. Suicide bombers and attacks on innocent civilians do not symbolise “dedication”, but terrorism and fanaticism. Despite its many failures, the five-decade-old Maoist struggle has brought the issue of forests and tribal rights onto the national discourse.

Sengupta’s book divides the surrendered Maoists under four chapters: young ones, men, women and couples. Her interviews are a result of her travels across the Maoist land from West Bengal to Dandakaranya. One can read the insurgency and its faultlines through the prism of these surrendered cadres. Take, for instance, the life of a young boy, Toofan Sahu, who worked with Sabyasachi Panda, among the biggest Maoists of Odisha. Sahu was disillusioned with the movement upon finding that his friend, also a guerrilla, was killed on the suspicion of being a police informer.

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Nothing is more tormenting for a cadre than the decision to quit. Behind the final moments to lay down arms are buried nights and days of torturous introspection. Having lived an underground and nomadic life for years, a cadre knows that it would not be easy to navigate through the chaos of the outside world. Yet, in bleak moments, when one loses faith in the ideal of revolution and the weight of the rifle slinging on the shoulder becomes unbearable, surrender becomes inevitable. As a cadre accepts the supremacy of the state she had fought against throughout life, her entire journey stands questioned, and defeated. Sengupta’s book is a modest attempt to trace this dejection.

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