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In Maoist-police battle, tribal women bear the brunt
Published on 13 Jul. 2010 11:10 PM IST
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On both sides of the war between Maoists and security forces, it is mostly the men who wield the arms. But it is the tribal women who bear the brunt of the conflict.
With scores of men having been arrested or fleeing their homes to escape capture, tribal women struggle to run families and at the same time earn a livelihood.
After one year of Operation Lalgarh, a crackdown aimed at reclaiming the area from the rebels, many tribal women are left to fend for themselves in the absence of their husbands, sons and other male members.
“Many women like me don’t know what to do. My husband is in jail. I simply have no idea how I will get him out,” an elderly lady from Madhupur village in West Midnapore district told IANS.
“We can only shed tears over sons taken away by the police,” she said.
Ironically, the movement started 19 months back when a tribal woman lost her left eye due to alleged police torture.
Sitamoni Murmu of Chotopelia village was a victim of a police sweep to nab Maoists who detonated a landmine targeting West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s convoy in Salboni in November 2008.
The alleged police high-handedness created deep resentment among the tribals. As a result, the Peoples’ Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) was formed Nov 8, 2008 with the backing of Maoist guerrillas.
The Maoists then unleashed violence. They soon controlled Lalgarh and declared it a “liberated zone”.
The government deployed crack units of central paramilitary forces and police. Raids, crackdowns and gun battles followed, leaving over 300 people, including 38 policemen, dead. About 700 were arrested.
Many young tribal men fled their homes. Others joined the guerrillas in the forests.
In the process, the women were left to fend for themselves. Those caught up in legal battles travel to Jhargram or Midnapore towns.
“This causes strain for the women who feel uneasy to be away from their village surroundings,” Santhali scholar Dhirendranath Baskey told IANS.
For nearly 50,000 tribals in this belt, life is tough even otherwise in the inhospitable terrain. Hundreds of villages lie scattered in the forested stretches characterised by dry soil, paucity of water resources and poor connectivity.
“Unlike the women in other societies, the tribal women have to play an important role in running their households, as most tribal men do not have permanent jobs,” said Baskey.
“Women raise the family, run the house, take part in farming during cropping season, tend to poultry and cattle, collect sal and bidi leaves, and also cook,” said Baskey, a former adviser to the state-run Santhali publication Pachhim Bangla.
Jaba Hembram, a middle aged woman of Bakibandh village, said: “We have to run around. We have to run the family. Women have to do everything.”
Tribal men, who mostly work as labourers, work on and off as jobs are available only for a small part of the year. Most of the time the men are asleep or drunk, even during the day.
“Now, because of the Maoist threat, many block offices have been moved to Midnapore town. So, for even the smallest of problems or to get paid under welfare schemes, we have to walk for hours,” said a woman in Chotopelia village.
“Even then, we do not know who to approach,” she said.
Another fallout is that the forests have become high-risk areas. From collecting sal leaves to making utensils and collect wood for fuel, the forests have for ages been a part and parcel of tribal women’s lives.
“Now, if the security forces see us, they will torture us thinking we are Maoists. And if the Maoists see us, they may take us as police spies and shoot us,” she said.
Ironically enough, little is now heard of Sitamoni Murmu, whose plight started it all. Her whereabouts remain a mystery.
Locals say she no longer lives in her house in Chotopelia village. PCAPA leaders feign ignorance about her current location.
Police claim that Sitamoni never lost her vision, and that PCAPA and the Maoists just spread the untruth. West Bengal Director General of Police Bhupinder Singh said: “The allegation is untrue. Yes, she was injured. But she was treated and got cured.”
But in Lalgarh, nobody seems to know who to believe.

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