The young woman had finally been acquitted of all charges, yet a police inspector chose to address her as ‘ugravadi’ on the court premises. The terrorist tag enraged the alleged Maoist shooter; she pulled out the pen from his shirt and asked the man in khaki to scribble ugravadi on her forehead. He ran away.
That was a decade ago. Life today hasn’t changed much for Mamta alias Shakuntala, 35. Every time there is a Maoist attack in her parents’ Lohardaga district or at neighbouring Latehar where her in-laws live, Mamta invariably becomes one of the accused. Police come knocking at her doors midnight and quiz her for hours. The media continues to dub her a ‘Maoist leader’ or ‘sympathiser’.
It all started with the killing of IPS officer Ajay Kumar in east-central Jharkhand’s Lohardaga in autumn 2000. Mamta featured prominently in the list of Left insurgents accused of the murder on October 4. She was jailed for three years even as the hearing on the case was on. With an infant in a towel slung to her back, Mamta pleaded her case. Eventually, she was exonerated.
Even so, the ‘ugravadi’ tag continues to cling on to her. It’s so not just with the police or investigating agencies. Criminals, too, enjoy using it. Thugs have, on more than one occasion, collected levy in Mamta’s name from businessmen, making her the scapegoat. Helpless, she keeps running to police stations and courts to prove her innocence.
“There is no respect for a woman’s dignity still in our society,” an ailing Mamta lamented, lying on a cot in her thatched hutment at Naudih village under Lohardaga’s Senha police station, when HT visited her. “Once branded a witch by any Tom, Dick or Harry, you remain one till death. Hundreds of prying eyes prey on you for their pie.”
The tribal woman does not claim she has no links with any insurgent group. That was a “brief association” 17 years ago, says the woman, whose son is a teenager now.
Mamta explains she was, in 1999, lured by a village youth into People’s War, which merged with MCC to form CPI (Maoists) in 2004. Within a month, she married its zonal commander, Birendra alias Guddu. Soon, she left the jungle and moved to her parents’ house — never to return. But the IPS officer’s murder landed her in prison.
An eloquent and rational orator, Mamta tried her hands in social work and small businesses. She even tried contesting the panchayat polls but the ugravadi tag failed her.
Mamta is not the only ex-Maoist insurgent struggling for the elusive pride every woman strives for in a 21st-century society. Despite severing ties with the ultras and returning to the mainstream, most of these women continue to face societal backlash. It hurts more when critical remarks come from people in the government on whom lies the onus to resettle and rehabilitate them.
Interrogation of female ex- ultras — both arrested or surrendered — by the Jharkhand police has revealed that over 90% of them were either forced or lured into the group. The rest simply joined them out of sheer innocence or poverty.
While there are provisions for adequate compensation and rehabilitation packages to those who surrender, the government offers nothing to those who are caught.
Says Lohardaga police superintendent S Karthik: “Once caught, our priority is to take their cases to conviction, as they have committed atrocities. But we treat them as ordinary citizens if they are acquitted or released after serving jail sentences. We try to prevent them from returning back to the rebel groups.”
Insiders say some of these women are encouraged to become special police officers.
“I was cheated by Gulzar Ansari, a relative. He sold me to Maoists,” says Rehana Khatoon, 21, an accused of the May 3, 2011 landmine blast in Dhardharia village that killed 11 policemen. Though Rehana claims that she barely spent a fortnight in the Maoists camp, police said she had a longer stint serving as a sex slave.
“We had intercepted the calls of her group leader, Akshay Kherwar,” says Karthik. “We heard him directing his over-ground supporters to rush Rehana to a gynecologist as she was bleeding non-stop.” The police suspected it was a case of gang rape, but Rehana rubbishes the report, probably fearing Maoist reprisal and societal taboo.
She was arrested in 2012 but acquitted last year. Returning home hasn’t been a pleasant experience for her till date. “My step-mother and brothers do not want to see me. Neighbours do not mingle; they are suspicious of me, Rehana laments. “Thanks to my father, I am somehow surviving.”
In Ranchi, Rashmi Mahli gave up arms in 2011. She accuses the government of dumping her and turning back on their promises. “I was assured of withdrawal of cases against me, a job and education of my son. None of these have been fulfilled,” she bemoans. “Life hasn’t changed for the better after I shunned extremism.”
But not all woman ex-Maoists are unhappy after returning from the jungle life. Santoshi, an ex-squad member, is working for the Jharkhand police — and is glad about it. A minor girl nabbed by the police with a bullet injury after an encounter with the Maoists in Latehar last year, is now a child police officer and happy.
A 17-year-old Maoist guerilla, who was forced into the ultra-group five years ago, happily chose to surrender and go to Ghatsila jail last month than continuing with the jungle life.
Though the state police have no figures to ascertain the number of armed women in the Maoists squad, unconfirmed reports say they are 20% of the total strength. Late Sanjeeta Kumari, a 20-year-old Maoist-turned-alleged police informer, had told HT during an interview that there are “four to five girls and women” in every Maoist squad of 15 members.
Maoists’ spokesperson Gopalji said women constitute 40% of their total strength.