One reason that India has seen several insurgencies in the past 70 years is because they secured the participation of women in large numbers.
The dream of an insurgency is often initiated and led by men fighters and ideologues, but it can’t be run by men alone for long. The success of an underground revolutionary guerrilla army depends upon the participation and support of women, who, acting as a counterpoint to men, lend the struggle width, tactical advantage, and emotional and moral base.
One reason that India has seen several insurgencies in the past 70 years is because they secured the participation of women in large numbers. Senior journalist Rashmi Saksena, in her book She Goes To War, traces the lives and profiles of 16 of them, representing five regions—Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Nagaland, Assam and Manipur. The idea has immense potential. Saksena has some poignant tales based upon her interviews with the militants, but her narration often lacks persuasion. She has the raw material, but several of the profiles are not deeply felt.
Among the engrossing profiles is that of Avuli Chishi Swu, who joined a batch of Naga guerrillas for an arduous trek to China through the Himalayas in 1974 for arms training and to procure arms. She was one of the 20 women in the batch of 395 guerrillas led by Isak Chishi Swu, who later became the chairman of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (IM). Of the guerillas on the trek, only 12 could reach China, the rest perished along the way.
The story of Ruhi, among the first batch of Kashmiri women who went to PoK for arms training, is also heart-wrenching. She was molested by the ‘trainers’ and was forced into a marriage before she managed a seemingly impossible journey to reach Srinagar, following her return to India on a Pakistani passport.
Curiously, Ruhi, Saksena notes, ‘reminds’ her of “Meena Kumari, the legendary tragedy queen of Indian cinema”. Another curious adjective is reserved for Maoist women, whom Saksena finds ‘buxom’. Having covered the Maoist insurgency across Chhattisgarh, this writer has not encountered many tribal guerrillas who match this description.
Saksena also gets crucial facts wrong, reflecting chinks in her research. As she notes that “surrender is the only, and very much accepted success route for Chhattisgarh’s women militants”, Saksena claims that “the largest number (of surrenders) was seen in 2015-17”. Media investigations, including those done by this writer, and the state police reports have consistently noted that the majority of these surrenders were fake. Most of Saksena’s inputs are based on conversations with surrendered cadres or those who have quit insurgencies. Not a single active Maoist guerrilla figures in the book.
The book doesn’t contain many mentions of difficult choices women militants had to make, but one arrests the attention. During her guerrilla days, Avuli Chishi Swu found her late husband’s cousin, a junior guerrilla, falling in love with her. “I did not want to remarry… (but) when you work together you establish a strong bond. I married him in March 1983 because of this bond. The more dangers we faced together the more we fell in love,” Avuli says.
More of such dives into the innards of guerrilla life would have made this book richer.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla