Last March, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) released a list of 22 martyred women activists. It revived the conversation around women Maoists, who make up a significant 60% of their total cadre and occupy almost all the operational and strategic positions responsible for continuing the Maoist insurgency in India. For a security threat posed by these women combatants, the adoption of the female question should be central to conflict resolution. That is why government counter-terrorism measures are minimal: they treat male motivations as the human default set and model security responses accordingly. Female Maoists often express different reasons for joining the insurgency than their male counterparts, indicating the need to address them separately. The umbrella complaint of women in the movement is that gender inequality exacerbates the problems of sexual harassment, police brutality, atrocities against Scheduled Castes / Scheduled Tribes (SC / ST) and economic inequality.
Many former Maoist women, such as Krishna Bandyopadhyay, agree that the appeal of Maoism is rooted in its commitment to women’s rights. This commitment is evident in all women’s groups, such as the Revolutionary Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (KAMS), which has spearheaded extensive campaigns against forced marriage, abduction, deportation of women, and extortion, domestic violence and police brutality. Such programs encourage many young women to join the armed uprising. The demand for gender equality is so strong that male Maoists cannot escape it. In one case, women fighters forced the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) to accept its own patriarchal failures and total uprising in the party.
The most gendered motivation that separates the female experience is sexual harassment. Crimes against women are higher in Maoist-affected areas than in other parts of the country. Security personnel also use body searches, casual harassment, custodial rape, violence, threats to harm loved ones, etc. as combat tactics against combatants and civilian women. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha alone recorded 84,938 crimes against women in 2019. This is in addition to the 118,677 researches pending from previous years. Despite the large number, it captures only a fraction of the ground reality. Women face sexual harassment from the state, from insurgents, without any means for justice. It is impossible for most people to file a first information report with the police.
Clearly, police brutality and impunity push women towards Maoism and create a cycle of violence. Illegal arrests, detentions, harassment, threats of violence and murder aside, it is very difficult for women to do justice to their loved ones. A female combatant from Odisha confirmed this while recalling the custodial gang rape of her sister by the police; Later, with the same force, in “mysterious circumstances” her brother’s illegal arrest and unlawful murder, she said she had “no choice but to join the revolution.”
The SC / ST women of the Red Corridor know this first hand as they endure layers of gender, caste and class oppression. While one in five police personnel believe that SC / ST complaints are false and motivated, statistics indicate that 69.6% of violence against women over the past decade has been perpetrated by tribal women. Even in rebellion, SC / ST women form 40% of the powers, but 90% of its martyrs. In addition, a large number of SC / ST women will be displaced and lose their livelihood as 75.8% of India’s mineral production now comes from their ancestral lands.
Furthermore, marginalization from the rural economy makes women poorer than men in the same household. Therefore, many women consider Maoism as a relief from poverty and unemployment. Rashmi Mahli, a former combatant from Jharkhand, confirmed this. The Maoists promised to pay her low-income family regularly, in exchange for her joining their cadres.
Here is the allure of Maoism for women. It acknowledges gender discrimination and works to overcome it. However, the radical movements remain the same as the zeitgeist of their time. Despite the insurgency, women Maoists are rarely seen during peace talks and ceasefire talks. Even in the ranks, they face sexual harassment and gender segregation of characters such as cooking, cleaning and nursing. The Maoists are not immune from patriarchal attitudes and behavior, suggesting that the state has the potential to re-enter the discourse through effective gender-sensitive policies that provide a better alternative for women in the region than joining the activists.
At present, however, state schemes focus on tougher energy security responses rather than on the welfare demands of the people’s energy. When asked why the Maoists have so many women, the Union Home Ministry responded that the Maoists had forced tribal parents to separate with girls, to brainwash and form ball portals to teach young women with Maoist ideology. The interpretation suggests that in addition to turning the adivasi into a demon, more than half of the Maoist activists were unwilling to participate and that all women should be made victims of male recruitment. However, although tribal parents alone are responsible for the number of female Maoists, it does not describe 60% of female Maoists from non-SC / ST backgrounds.
The state needs to adequately address the ground realities of women in the region pushing towards radicalization. The patriarchal establishment of activists does not condone failures made by the state on gender equality. Female Maoists outnumber men, with the latest reports suggesting a 70% increase in their cadre strength.
Failing to address women’s grievances around patriarchy is not enough of a state counter-terrorism response. The priority of the State of India is to reduce motivations and not to demean them. Driving factors should be understood not only as incentives behind violence, but also as potential solutions to peaceful outcomes.
Riya Singh Rathod Research & Editorial Coordinator at the Social & Political Research Foundation