IN their olive green fatigues, the women guerrillas look tough and disciplined. These mostly illiterate, erstwhile tendu leaf pickers are trained to wield the gun, raid police stations and set up ambushes. They can now read and write. Some have even stringed together a few verses and songs. Military training apart, they devote at least two hours a day to basic education and studying party ideology.
About 150 women in the Bastar belt joined the movement after revolting against the male-dominated tribal society. Many were tortured and hounded out of their homes. Others joined the cause because their families were already part of the PWG.
Being a woman guerrilla means roughing it out in the jungles. While there is no discrimination, there are no special privileges for them. Even as the first rays of the sun filter in through the trees, they are up and about. The morning begins with a drill. The women fall in line along with the men. From ‘sentry duty’ to ambushing police parties, these women have proved their mettle.
Though they wield their guns with con-fidence, the women guerrillas are not forthcoming with strangers. So shy is 19-year-old Rambai that even after much coaxing she speaks little. Her parents had forcibly gotten her married. Within a year of marriage, her in-laws began harassing her. "My husband always used to keep quiet. I could not tolerate it and came back to my parents. But they wanted me to go back to my in-laws," she says.
Then came the turning point in her life. The PWG had a presence in her village and she expressed her willingness to join the dal (squad). Does she want to go back to her family? Pat comes the reply: "I have fought with my parents. Why should I go back?" Rambai has no immediate plans to remarry. "Maybe later," she adds shyly.
Though they come from far-flung villages, the girls have similar cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Like other uninitiated tribals in the area, they also kept away from the armed PWG squad. Elders would warn them to keep off the kosks—as outsiders are called in Gondi. Anyone in trousers is a kosk to the tribals.
Recalls dusky Padma with a smile: "Our elders used to tell us that these people have come in search of food and they will run away with beautiful girls." At first she believed them and stayed indoors. But soon she joined the Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sangh, a PWG front organi-sation, before joining the dal. She has spent nine years with the squad during which she married Santosh in 1990, who was killed in an encounter on March 12.
All the women feel secure and hon-oured to be part of the PWG squad. According to the dal code, all male members address their female counterparts as didi. Of course, men and women do fall in love and marry. But all liaisons have to be reported to the party. Those who wish to have children are free to do so. But many don’t prefer child rearing. Points out special zonal committee secretary Bhupati: "Women do not prefer to have a child once they join the squad. But if a woman opts for motherhood, she has to go back to her village." He dismisses allegations of sexual harassment of female members. Asks he: "Would any harassed and oppressed woman like to join an organisation where she would be further harassed?"
Kaushalya is proof of Bhupati’s statement. She carries a .303 rifle which was given to her four years ago. A poor, illiterate tendu leaf picker, she came into contact with the PWG when it launched an agitation to raise the rates for plucking tendu leaves. Kaush -alya took part in the campaign and became close to the party. When her parents tried to push her into marriage against her wishes, she protested and joined the organisation.
Urmila, 18, who never leaves her gun for even a minute, says she joined the dal to avoid police harassment. She was an active member of the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangh (KAMS). Her problems began with the Jan Jagaran Abhiyan announced by the Sund-erlal Patwa government to root out Naxalites from Bastar and surrounding areas. "In our village, one person was working for the Government. When he gave our names to the police, I joined the squad," she explains.
Leading a militant life involves frequent trysts with death. But the women have learnt to cope with the trauma of watching their comrades die. Padma witnessed her husband’s death in an encounter. But such is the training that she picked up her husband’s gun before escaping. "Write songs for the people and work for the party, even if I’m not there," were San-tosh’s last words. Padma has written a song in his memory. Its refrain runs thus:
Bambulai pela mantive Santoshanna Dopidolunu kuluda mantive Santoshanna (You taught us women to explode like bombs—comrade Santosh You taught us to uproot the exploiters—comrade Santosh.)