Excerpt: Nightmarch by Alpa Shah

Hindustan Times | ByAlpa Shah
Dec 01, 2018 09:57 AM IST

In 2010, Alpa Shah, dressed as a man in military fatigues set out on a seven-night march with a naxal platoon. While her book looks at dispossession and the conflict at the heart of India, this excerpt also reveals how upper caste leaders police the relationships of tribal foot soldiers

327pp, ₹699; Harper Collins
327pp, ₹699; Harper Collins

The shadow of a soldier stirred. He bent down to awaken another. The hour was up and it was time to change sentry duty. There was some grumbling from under the blanket that he was shaking. ‘Wake up! Wake up!’ the soldier whispered. No response.

‘Come on,’ his voice grew louder and more agitated. The lump under the blanket finally moved and somebody staggered out, mumbling their annoyance at being awoken. Would he fall asleep again on sentry duty? Despite this noise, there was no movement at all from any of the other sleeping men.

I grew increasingly frustrated because I knew I desperately needed to rest to survive the next days of the march, for the end seemed nowhere in sight. Yet my mind just wouldn’t shut down, and my thoughts kept racing back to Seema and Somwari.

The contours of Gyanji’s face stood out dark against the moonlit night. Kohli was between us, under Gyanji’s blanket, his head and entire body huddled under the covers where it was warm. I watched Kohli’s silhouette turn over under the covers. If he stayed with the Maoists, what kind of a man would he become? Would he eventually develop a more patriarchal attitude towards women than those that existed in the Adivasi households of Lalgaon where he had grown up?

It felt as though I was upon a bed of rocks. I recalled that Gyanji and I had once had a conversation about the Muria and Gond Adivasi ghotul (a kind of dormitory – a spacious mud hut – for youth to gather) in Chhattisgarh and the dhumkuria, its equivalent in the Oraon and Munda Adivasi areas of Jharkhand. It was a sacred tribal hut for youth – a ‘children’s republic’, Verrier Elwin had called it – and existed in many villages, a place where girls and boys came to sing and dance, tell stories, plan village festivals, allot duties, and sometimes sleep together.

Gyanji had said, ‘As communists we don’t approve of the ghotul; we are against premarital sexual relations because such relations don’t seem to be about much more than freedom of choice.’ I had tried to defend the ghotul, saying that it was not a space of anarchy as he interpreted it; there were rules about what you can and can’t do. And besides, what was wrong with premarital sexual relations?

The Maoist Women’s Liberation Front posing for a photograph in Jharkhand, 2009. (Courtesy Nightmarch by Alpa Shah)
The Maoist Women’s Liberation Front posing for a photograph in Jharkhand, 2009. (Courtesy Nightmarch by Alpa Shah)

I wanted to awaken Gyanji and talk to him about these thoughts that were racing through my mind. To point out to him the potential virtues of the romantic liaisons between Adivasi youth who joined the Maoists, and to suggest that perhaps the guerrilla armies provided the space that the ghotul once had in Adivasi society. I wanted to make the case for the possibility that premarital and extramarital sexual relations, in fact, gave Adivasi women greater economic autonomy and respect in relation to their men than their higher-caste counterparts could enjoy. In a country which put so many constraints on women, I wanted to ask him about the many women who came to live with the guerrillas because of a man they had fallen in love with in the squads. And of the virtues of being able to leave their partners if they were unhappy with the relationship. So, I brought the subject up.

‘Sexual anarchy,’ muttered Gyanji as he drifted in and out of sleep. I had realised that this was how he slept. I could talk to him all night long in his state of semi-sleep and in the morning he would remember the entire conversation, and also say that he had slept well.

Annoyed, I asked him why he couldn’t celebrate the Naxalites for inadvertently creating a space for voluntary sex-love relationships and why he had to be so moralistic about them. I can’t understand, I continued, why as a Marxist you want to idolise family structures based on monogamous marriages. Weren’t they often about the subordination of women for the protection of private property owned by men? I asked. Don’t you think Engels, one of your heroes, was right? That with the development of capitalism and the need to transmit wealth across generations, we have seen the increasing enslavement of women in monogamous family structures?

Gyanji was clearly getting upset with me for confronting him with these questions and brushed them aside saying I didn’t understand.

I knew that the Maoist leaders were concerned about the widespread media propaganda against them. Male leaders were accused of sexually exploiting low-caste female cadres. They wanted to maintain a ‘pure image’ of the movement, far from condoning casual sexual encounters. Any romantic liaisons were disrupted by the Maoists by assigning the couple into different platoons, by suspending one for a while, or, most commonly, by encouraging their marriage to make them ‘legitimate’.

Author Alpa Shah (Courtesy Harper Collins)
Author Alpa Shah (Courtesy Harper Collins)

Although there were no Hindu rituals, a pledge of marriage was the only legitimate way in which a couple could be intimate amongst the Naxalites. Permission to marry had to be sought from the movement’s leadership and would be determined by showing that the desire to be together was not just sexual but would help the revolutionary cause. Once married, it was assumed that it was a lifelong partnership. The conjugal union was to be a democratic one, prohibiting inequalities of any kind between the husband and the wife. Couples had to be prepared to spend long periods apart due to the demands of war – many of the leaders like Gyanji often didn’t see their wives for six months or more. Wanting divorce without good reason amounted to irresponsibility and anarchy, a product of individualistic thinking that did not prioritise collective interest. If disputes arose between a couple, other comrades had the responsibility of settling them, ensuring that divorce would not be granted unless there really was an insurmountable problem. Ultimately, though, I said to Gyanji, what was or wasn’t a problem would be decided by a male high-caste leadership and it seemed that the emphasis on marriage – as the only legitimate way in which two people could be close – was about controlling women.

Using Marxist terminology, Gyanji accused me of being ‘mechanical’ in my thinking. From his point of view, I knew this was a damning criticism. I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by ‘mechanical’ in this context, except that I wasn’t applying the art of discussing and examining opposing arguments and ideas in order to find the truth.

‘Then teach me to be “dialectical”,’ I retorted. But he only responded with a deep sigh, indicating that he had drifted back into unconsciousness. I didn’t have the heart to raise the question about the Naxalite perspective on same-sex unions. I think I knew that there wasn’t one.

Read more: Bappaditya Paul writes of the rebel who never returned in The First Naxal

I was surrounded by all the sleeping men, huddled together under blankets they had amassed, piled up on top of one another, seeking bodily warmth from each other. I felt bitterly cold. I wished Seema were with me and that we could talk about these matters. Seema hadn’t been able to come and stay with me in Somwari’s house in the end. There must have been concerns about her security, but I wondered if part of the reason was that we needed the permission of the male leadership for that.

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