On May 25, Mahendra Karma, the leader of the disbanded state-backed, anti-Maoist militia Salwa Judum, was stabbed 78 times by a dozen Maoist women in forest fatigues, who then sang and danced around his body.
This grim, primeval spectacle put a blood seal on what many had suspected for long: Women play a major role in the Maoist guerrilla ranks.
Not very different from Sandanistas of Nicaragua, Zapatistas of Mexico, the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, and the deadly women warriors of LTTE in Sri Lanka.
Bastar, tribal-dominated district where the sex ratio is 1,023 females per 1,000 males (the national average is 940), has been prime recruiting ground. A long history of state atrocities against tribal women only makes the Maoist headhunters’ job easier.
“In Bastar, the state has used international warfare methods of targeting women to threaten the community and break morale. It has used rape as a tool to undermine dignity,” says Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian activist who has worked for 18 years in the region. He had prepared 522 cases of state atrocities between 2005 and 2009, of which 99 were of rape.
Prominent guerrillas include Meenakka, Sharda, Kamala, Basanti, Ganga. Each one has four or five aliases. If one of them is killed, somebody else takes her identity to keep the legend of the ‘revolution’ alive.
Maoists usually send their women for recce. She’ll come close to the enemy sometimes with a goat herd, sometimes to pick mahua. But all the time, she is watching you.
In Bijapur, a woman came to a mobile CRPF camp and said she needed medicines for her child. The jawans gave her the medicine.
But something about the woman felt suspicious, so they moved the camp four or five km further into the forest. After a few days, the woman appeared again, making an arduous trek through the jungle. This time she had a large bowl of local meat curry for the soldiers to thank them.
Long after she was gone, they realised that the food was exquisitely laced with poison.
Women are trained as pharmacists, signal and wireless operators. A seized textbook is titled Mahila Sawaal Par Drishtikon, published by the Central Committee, CPI (Maoist). It spouts progressive ideals about women, attacks patriarchy and religion.
But the reality is often quite different, say police and paramilitary officials. Maoists take away tribal boys and girls when they are very young, indoctrinate them, and there have been reports of sexual exploitation by Maoists commanders.
Shanti Salam, a social worker and former sarpanch from Kangoli, Bastar, says there is no security for tribal women at all.
“Either Maoists take them away forcibly, or they are trafficked as labourers to Bangalore and Hyderabad by agents. Government job schemes often don’t reach them, and most girls aged 11-15 were found to be severely anaemic,” she says.
Salam says the CRPF and BSF are a lot more disciplined now. Earlier, tribal women had predatory men from both sides, the Maoists and the forces.
Forces admit there had been rapes, especially when the SPO units were operating. But not now, they say. “Huge protests will break out, especially in the politically vibrant north Bastar,” says a police official. “Forget rape, even the echo of a slap finds its way to the next day’s local papers.”