In her introduction to Garrisoned Minds: Women and Militarisation in South Asia, its editor Laxmi Murthy writes: “As in many parts of the world, when underlying causes of conflict have not been addressed, there is no ‘post’ war harmony. Simmering discontent and bitterness in an uneasy ‘peace’ is most-often sought to be suppressed by aggressive troop deployment and repressive colonial laws … This everyday nature of occupation defines the rhythm of life in these margins.”
In the book, twelve journalists explore the impact of such militarisation on the lives of women in four conflict-affected zones in South Asia: Pakistan’s frontier provinces, which share a border with Afghanistan; Nepal during and after its decade-long civil war; Northeast India under the shadow of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act; and the Kashmir valley amidst the overwhelming presence of the Indian army.
The following excerpt, ‘Incomplete Revolution,’ is by the journalist Darshan Karki. It is set during the Maoist Rebellion, an armed conflict between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Nepalese monarchy that ruled at the time. The conflict was launched in February 1996, and ended in November 2006, when a peace accord was signed between the government and the communist rebels. Karki explores the issues that plague the Madhesis, who inhabit the Terai—the country’s southern plains—and who are marginalised by the ruling elite and kept out of mainstream politics. Karki writes about the lives of the women in the region, which are relatively untouched by the upheavals of the Maoist insurgency.
During the war, the women’s wing of the Maoist party was actively engaged in ensuring that villages were free from domestic violence, the exploitation of women, child marriage, forced marriage and polygamy. As the Bara district chairperson of ANWA-R, Jwala Sah also led the movement against gender-based violence. As part of the campaign, Maoists would demolish shops that sold alcohol and destroy the liquor. If a man who was alcoholic was found to be beating his wife, the Maoists, according to Jwala, would tie his hands and legs together and dip his head in water until he agreed to quit drinking. If this method did not work, the Maoists would make his wife beat him with a stick. If the man still did not change his ways, he would be tied to a pole and starved for a couple of days. Jwala claims that such measures controlled domestic violence to a large extent.
The Maoists also implemented programmes against dowry. For example, if a girl’s parents were found to be tormented for dowry, the Maoists would marry the couple onstage and make the parents deposit any money they planned to spend on the wedding in the couple’s joint bank account. Further, while expanding the Maoist organisation in Makwanpur, Jwala observed that women in this hilly district would sit, eat and talk frankly in the company of men. In the Tarai districts of Bara and Rautahat, however, the practice of seclusion and veiling or ghumtopratha was widely prevalent. Women in Rautahat, in particular, would not even come out of their houses. This made it relatively difficult to expand the party’s base among women. Initially, the Maoists sought to attract and inform people through the usual routine of singing revolutionary songs and performing skits in local dialects. The most effective strategy, however, turned out to be helping the women with their household work. The Maoists would cut grass, till the land, milk buffaloes and also help the women in the kitchen. In this way, they were gradually able to win the trust of the women of the area.
Jwala claims that the men in their families were not opposed to the Maoists. Rather, they treated the Maoists as guests and even gave them new clothes as farewell gifts. “Apart from expanding the base of the party, our presence in the villages also helped clear many misconceptions about the Maoist party in the Tarai,” she says. “Fraudsters had spread rumours that the Maoists were scary beasts, as big as elephants with huge teeth, long nails and large frightening eyes that lived in the forest,” Jwala laughs. “People were so scared of this creature called the Maoist that they would not step out their houses at night to take a leak.”
Kismati Devi Ram, a Dalit rights activist, who lived in Inaruwasira Ward No 7, in Bara, remembers hearing such rumours about the Maoists. Even though she was twenty-three when the war broke out in 1996, Kismati had no inkling whatsoever about the Maoist party. Villagers often spoke of the Maoists in hushed tones as the war progressed but because “Mao” sounded similar to a cat’s “meow” she wondered if they were a species of cat!
It was only after she found bottles of beer and pieces of meat lying in a sugarcane field one morning that she knew that the Maoists were human beings. Soon, the Maoists began taking shelter in her village and would frequently come to her house demanding food. They wanted rice, pulses, maize, meat and, at times, money. As her husband’s family was relatively better off, the demands kept increasing. And as soon as the Maoists had left her house in a mess, the police would barge in. The frequent visits of the Maoists and the interrogation of the police and local authorities added to the mental torture she was already suffering due to violence at the hands of her in-laws.
Married at eleven, Kismati came to live with her husband, a sixth-grade student, when she was twelve. Since then, her life largely consisted of being beaten up by her in-laws for the tiniest of things. Sometimes, her illiteracy was a problem. Other times, she was too dark-skinned for their liking. Nothing seemed to reduce the violence, even though Kismati’s parents had done everything they possibly could to ensure their daughter’s happiness. They had given a dowry of 1,500 Nepali rupees in cash, clothes for thirty people, a bicycle, a watch and a vessel to cook rice. What remained was a brass gagri. And for not being able to provide that coveted brass water container, her in-laws demanded that Kismati’s parents, along with her brother, come to work in their farm as labourers. They obliged.
Though Kismati and her husband’s family were both “Chamar,” a Dalit caste in the plains, the latter were better off, and that class difference seemed to validate all the maltreatment of her family. “At that time, I led the life of a bonded labourer,” she says. She was always busy looking after her in-laws’ buffaloes and oxen or collecting fodder for the cattle. The beatings, however, were a constant. Clearly, the Maoists’ campaign of making villages free of domestic violence never reached Kismati.
In 2001, after the Nepal Army was mobilised against the Maoists, they would barge in anytime they liked, regardless of what she was doing: cooking food, out to fetch water or taking a bath. “They [army and police] never beat or touched me, but it added to the psychological torture I was already facing,” she says.
With both the Maoists and the state forces interrogating them constantly for allegedly providing support to the other side, it became extremely difficult to live in the village. During the nights, Kismati worried about her house being burned to the ground or her children being kidnapped. Furthermore, as her husband was a teacher in a school near the India-Nepal border, he was constantly harassed by both the Maoists and the police about his movements and it became difficult for him to travel there every day. So in 2002, Kismati along with her three children, her husband and his sister left Inaruwasira for Kalaiya, the headquarters of Bara district, to escape the Maoists.
Recalling those days, Kismati concedes that perhaps the torment she faced at the hands of the Maoists was because her father-in-law was a staunch Nepali Congress supporter. “It is easy to win Dalit support,” she says, “because they largely function as somebody else’s remote control. Most do not know the way politics works. And their loyalty can be bought easily.” Political party leaders, according to Kismati, visit the villages during elections, take a dirty child on their lap and wipe its snot for all the people to see. Innocent villagers mistake this display to secure votes for genuine concern. Besides, Kismati argues that any party which distributes free alcohol to young Dalit Madhesi men gains their support; their wives vote for whosoever their husbands tell them to.
The lack of agency of Madhesi women, including those in politics, is arguably the most recurring theme in writings about them. In an article about female Madhesi leaders, Prashant Jha writes, “Women’s participation in politics is passive at best: as a voter told by her father, husband or son which way to cast the ballot, and as fodder when street agitations are launched.” Manchala Jha further adds that even though there were fifty-seven Madhesi women among 197 women elected to the 2008 Constituent Assembly, most of them seem to have only acquired the post due to the backing and influence of men. She writes, “The presence of women seems to be merely an attempt to meet the quorum and to support the party’s agendas when it issues a whip.”
This is an excerpt from Garrisoned Minds: Women and Militarisation in South Asia, published by Speaking Tiger.
An earlier version of the introduction to this excerpt mistakenly stated that the Maoist conflict in Nepal began in 1966, instead of 1996. This has been corrected. The Caravan regrets the error.
Darshan Karki has been a journalist and editor at The Kathmandu Post. Before joining the newsroom, she worked as a researcher in various nongovernmental organisations in Nepal.