By Juhi Tyagi
“We, as Adivasi [tribal] women, could collect all men from the village and speak to them about women’s issues—at first, only when we were accompanied by the dalam [squad], since we were afraid to address men on our own. But as time went by and men realized we were associated with the women’s squad, we started to address them on our own. The biggest problem in every village was men getting drunk and hitting women. So, we would tell men not to drink. We then mobilized men to shut liquor depots with us, which were owned by economically powerful groups. Men became involved in this way.”
-Akhila, 39, Former Maoist Deputy Platoon Commander and Former Women’s Committee member.
When I met Akhila in 2013, I was investigating how armed movements built resilience in some villages in India. In this essay, I focus on one primary finding: the criticality of women’s organizations to building cross-class alliances, and through it, movement resilience. This learning was articulated by Akhila, and expressed through her, and her female comrades’, collective mobilization of a cross-section of men and women, even when faced with state repression.
Too often, the criticality of organizations that are satellite to, but supportive of, larger movement structures— forming their organizational field— has been missed. The organizational field of working-class movements, such as local women’s organizations, constitute the many sub-organizations that movements build and rely upon for survival. No insurgency emerges without the creation of such a field of organizations, with ancillary groups becoming vital to decreasing the structural ignorance faced by movement members (Schwartz 1979). More significantly, working-class movements depend on this dense network of organizations to provide coordination among otherwise distinct groups. This network creates the ability for collective action through a regular engagement of all rank and file members, and through it, provides leverage for workers (which would be absent if workers were to act individually). Relatively autonomous women’s groups can provide that potential for coordinated action across class groups.
In the villages I studied, women became critical to the Maoist insurgency through their ability to mobilize a wider set of classes than men. Unlike workers and peasants, women’s structural position was often shared across multiple classes. That is, women didn’t constitute a class by themselves, but inhabited a contradictory class position. On the one hand, like men, they occupied a defined class position in the labour market based on their occupation and wages. On the other, because of their family identity, they occupied another fundamental niche in the structure of capitalism as the producers (more properly reproducers) of labour power. This role created the potential for unity across classes.
The consequent mobilization of women across class was significant in spreading the revolutionary agenda upward, to the middle classes, significantly extending the base built on workplace recruitment. Studies of other guerrilla movements corroborate this success of armed insurgencies in mobilizing women around cross-class issues (See, Lanzona 2009; Viterna 2006; Banerjee 2001; Gautam et al 2001; Roy 1992; Jaquette 1973). Women from differing economic positions became a crucial link between villages, workers and peasants that nurture the armed insurgents, and simultaneously, a crucial link between different class segments. This dualistic function made them essential to the movement organizational field: in enabling coordinated action.
The structure of the organizational field that emerged, depended on a host of environmental variables, including the class make-up of the village, the presence and capability of the state repressive apparatus, and the movements’ organisational capabilities at that moment in time.
In several villages, campaigns such as the anti-alcohol initiative took place through autonomous village organizations, usually organized, mostly led, and always populated by local women. Not only were these campaigns popular, but as I observed, often cleared the path for other collective demands of women, provided a venue for the inclusion of men in women’s liberation struggles, and became foundational nodes for the organizational network in which the guerrilla band was embedded.
Akhila’s village, Shalam, was predominantly populated by economically marginalised tribal families. She was one of nine women to join the movement. She rose to a leadership position after her involvement in the local women’s organization. First, as a member of a two-woman mobile team and later as a section platoon commander placed in charge of forming and meeting with women’s groups throughout the region. Akhila spoke about regular meetings of women’s committees in the village and women’s role in safeguarding village cadre and movement structures against the state.
She told me how, once women’s committees were formed, women began using the power that came with party support, pushing bottom-up for specific issues to be addressed. Women’s organizations, however, demonstrated another crucial point: their ability to transform a struggle that could create intra-class divisions into one that created class unity across gender, and build cross-class alliances. They achieved this by taking up issues that combined class and gender concerns, such as struggles against the forest department and attacking liquor depots owned by dominant groups, which brought men directly into their struggles. Through this, it became evident to both – class and gender constituencies in the village – that collective struggles against the system brought progressive change for the working class and women at the same time.
Villages where women’s organizations were formed and attained relative autonomy created an organizational foundation that guerrilla squads could return to once the state had retreated. More importantly, these villages retained collective, and sometimes class-based, decision-making capabilities. On the whole, women’s organizations resulted in a collective structural leverage for women with which they could steer movement actions, while also contributing to building cross-class alliances that increased coordinated action of the larger movement. Working class movements would benefit from focusing on women’s organizing – in the short and very long run.
Banerjee, Paula (2001): “Between Two Armed Patriarchies: Women in Assam and Nagaland,”In Manchanda, Rita (Ed.) Women, War and Peace in South Asia: Beyond Victimhood to Agency, New Delhi: Sage Publication, pp 131-176.
Gautam, Shobha, Amrita Banakota and Rita Manchanda (2001): “Where There Are No Men: Women in the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal,” In Rita Manchanda Rita (Ed.) Women, War and Peace in South Asia: Beyond Victimhood to Agency, New Delhi: Sage Publication, pp 214-251.
Jaquette, Jane S. (1973): “Women in Revolutionary Movement in Latin America,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol 35, No 2, pp 344-54.
Lanzona, Vina A. (2009): Amazons of the Huk Rebellion Gender, Sex, and Revolution in the Philippines, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Roy, Debal K. Singha (1992): Women in Peasant Movements: Tebhaga, Naxalite and After, New Delhi: Manohar Publications.
Schwartz. Michael (1976): Radical Protest and Social Structure: The Southern Farmers’ Alliance and Cotton Tenancy, 1880-1890. University of Chicago: Chicago.
Viterna, Jocelyn S. (2006): “Pulled, Pushed, and Persuaded: Explaining Women’s Mobilization into the Salvadoran Guerrilla Army,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol 112, No 1, pp 1-45.