IF there is a whiff of an agitation, can women be far behind, in Andhra Pradesh that is? In the recent past, the womenfolk have successfully organised themselves to launch a vigorous anti-arrack movement, forcing the state government to ban the sale of the brew. Now, they have declared war against one of the most dreaded Naxal outfits, the People's War Group (PWG), in East Godavari district. If it was Rosamma in Dubagunta (Nellore) who spearheaded the prohibition drive and drove the then Congress government headed by Kotla Vijayabhaskara Reddy to ban liquor in 1982, it's Bodeti Lakshmi of Peddamallapuram who has now stormed into the limelight with her bold initiative to teach a lesson or two to the PWG.
Both women's struggles are an offshoot of awareness campaigns launched by voluntary organisations in the district. The anti-arrack movement came on the heels of "Operation Blackboard", where women were inspired to take on their alcoholic husbands after reading all about it in textbooks; the decision to fight the PWG's harassment has got a lot to do with a unique savings scheme which has bettered the economic lot of women and given them a voice to protest.
Samata, a voluntary organisation, launched the scheme—thrift cooperative societies—and helped tribal women, living in about 46 villages in four mandals, Prattipadu, Sankhavaram, Kotanandur and Yeleshwaram, to mobilise a whopping Rs 21 lakh, including a Rs 7 lakh aid from the Girijana Cooperative Society, to see them through their rainy days. This not only brought some economic stability to their lives—thus reducing their financial dependence on the men—but also gave them courage to stand up against the 'Annalu' or big brother, the PWG. All the four mandals on the foothills of the Eastern ghats fall in PWG territory where its writ runs.
The cause of the upheaval can be traced to the "misdeeds" of a nine-member committee, foisted on the region by the PWG to oversee tribal interests. But from day one itself, the committee members seemed to be more keen on promoting its own needs. Alleges Bodeti Lakshmi, mother of three and one of the many 'sisters' who dared to speak out against the 'Annalu': "The new committee is dominated by non-tribals and they have never shown any interest in protecting our rights."
According to her, the committee had taken control of the 20-acre Annavaram Devasthanam, a sacred property hitherto held collectively by the tribals, and disbursed the land among the members' kin for ploughing. The landgrab was followed up by systematic bouts of violence. The committee members beat up five men of the village for petty reasons; among the thrashed was the village sarpanch, Jagga Babu. And imposed a fine of Rs 55,000 on all five for allegedly flouting the PWG diktat.
The PWG, which declared the entire Dandakaranya spread along the Godavari valley as a "guerrilla zone" some six months ago, had stepped up its activities in the region for quite sometime. But the blast at the Girijan Cooperative Society depot at Peddamallapuram on February 16, during the first phase of polling, was the last straw. The tolerance levels of the villagers, especially the women, snapped. The blast couldn't have come at a worse time because the depot is the only source of monthly rations for the villagers.
This incident and another encounter in which two Naxals and two policemen were killed forced the state-owned Road Transport Corporation to stop its services, thus putting the villagers to further hardship.
The women decided to pay back the PWG in the same coin. So, first, a band of women swooped down on the nine-member committee and armed with lathis, literally chased them away from Peddamallapuram. The mission over, the women have made their intentions clear. They want the committee members to stand trial in the village court—all the culprits will have to appear before the panchayat, failing which their houses will be "blown up".
Says Lakshmi: "Who are they to tell us what to do and what not to? Let them allow us to lead our own lives and improve our living standards with the help of government-sponsored schemes and voluntary organisations' assistance. The committee didn't have tribal interests in mind in the first place." The two predominant tribal groups in the region are the Konda Kammaras (blacksmiths by profession) and Konda Kapus, a majority of whom work as agriculture labour for their daily bread.
NO sooner was the women's struggle launched at Peddamallapuram, the news spread like wild fire. Women of the other 45 villages sent word that they were ready to fight for the cause. One of the key reasons for their resistance is the inclusion of non-tribals in the committee. Complains Pentamma, mother of two: "Ever since Damodar took over as the new commander, problems cropped up. Earlier, the PWG never questioned our lifestyle and we didn't pay heed to its activities. But the fines imposed on our men and the blast at the GCC depot, which belonged to a helpless widow Puchchala Malleswari, provoked the women to react. Besides, the Naxals' decision to evict Samata, which had promoted a savings scheme, irked most women, who had scraped the bottom of the barrel to put away some money."
Warns Poosala Narasamma, another militant activist: "We have been put through a lot of hardship by the Naxals and we cannot tolerate their henchmen's nonsense anymore." After getting a taste of its own medicine, the PWG area secretary, Jambi, hastily issued statements that the committee had never been asked to harass the villagers. But he told the villagers that he would take action against those violating PWG instructions and even accused some locals of creating mistrust among villagers.
As tension mounted, Chandrababu Naidu—more exercised over whether to lend support to the BJP government at the Centre or not—chose to remain a mute spectator. Not that the women activists are fretting over his inertia. For, the spirited activists have even told the police not to come in between their fight with the PWG.
This is not the first time that the PWG is facing the people's ire. In the past, villagers have revolted against the Naxals in several north Telengana districts but the protests, allegedly backed by the police, dwindled out. Things are different now. The people themselves, read women, are up in arms against a people's group and are in no mood to give in without a fight.