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Women, Leverage and Peasant Revolutionary Organisations

The Maoist Organisational Field in Telangana

Juhi Tyagi ( is with the International Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Max Weber Kolleg, Erfurt, Germany.

Vast scholarship has found women in revolutionary organisations lacking in bargaining potential, being accorded subordinate positions, and facing sexual violence. This paper refutes such claims of homogeneity in women’s experiences, instead showing, under several structural conditions, that women’s groups exercised power, becoming central to guerrilla movement resilience. Using the case of the Maoists in two districts in Telangana, the author finds that the presence of relatively autonomous women’s groups in the villages generated a collective structural leverage—where women could steer movement actions, bargain for their demands to be met, and influence movement trajectory. Women have become essential to the guerrillas in delivering meaningful social change in the villages and creating robust support systems that can sustain an armed movement, while at the same time generating bargaining power for women.

This article is based on a larger project on resilience in radical movements. The author is especially grateful to Michael Schwartz at the State University of New York, Stony Brook for detailed comments on several ideas and drafts of the paper. It has also gained immensely from insights provided by Naomi Rosenthal and Sharada Srinivasan, and from conversations with Gilda Zwerman and Ian Roxborough.

Much scholarship has focused on the impact on women who participate in armed resistance. This focus has produced a useful portrait of the pressures within guerrilla movements towards sustained clandestinity, evolution toward militaristic-type organisations, and the reliance on a centralised command and absolute compliance (de Volvo 2012; White 2007; Bhatia 2006).

While broader revolutionary movement structures can limit functions performed by women, I find that women are able to exercise leverage and, consequently, gain power within guerrilla movements. Using evidence from the Maoist movement in Telangana, I find this leverage depended on structural conditions for organising autonomous village organisations and, in turn, the ability of the emerging organisations to put forth their demands. This analysis focuses on local sociopolitical and organisational environments, providing insights not only into women’s roles in radical movements, but the dynamics of radical peasant movements.

Feminist scholarship has found a close link for all institutions—including liberation armies—between reliance on violence and the creation of militarised masculinities with oppressive conditions for women (Roy 2012; Enloe 2004; Rodriguez 1996). This important work has documented the secondary and subordinate positions often allocated to women within guerrilla bands and, in the larger movement context, found that women feel the need to prove themselves repeatedly; that many women experience sexual violence; and that they often work under the premise that gender issues can be addressed only after the revolution is won (Roy 2012; Sinha Roy 2011; White 2007; Estrada 2005; Emmanuel 2004; Kampwirth 2002; Shayne 2004; Rajasingham-Senanayake 2001).

While supporting such findings, my research on the Maoist guerrilla movement in India argues that this portrait of women is incomplete. By investigating the social and material conditions in several dozen villages which the Maoists have organised and from which women cadres are recruited, the most striking finding is that women’s experiences are not homogeneous. While many—perhaps most—women are slotted into either the tough and fearless military–masculine roles of armed cadres or complementary feminised roles as non-violent activists, I find a large number of exceptions to this pattern. These exceptions constitute important exemplars of how—at least at local or regional levels—women cannot just break free from the typical roles, but also achieve leadership and policy-determining roles within the movement. These individual achievements can, under propitious organisational circumstances—most crucially when villages are populated by an autonomous field of non-violent protest organisations—alter the profile of movement actions and policies to be more responsive to village needs and desires. This nexus of conditions can negate the all-to-general rule that gender issues are deferred until “after the revolution is won.” Finally, the evidence suggests that those villages that progressed furthest along the feminist chain developed movements that were most resilient against repression and most thorough in the reforms they delivered.

The creation of protest organisations by guerrilla groups in the villages has found space in several recent discussions. Emerging scholarship emphasises the prevalence of non-violent mass organising, suggesting interactions with local communities centred around the organising and working of local groups, to be pre-eminent in armed peasant movement resilience (Navlakha 2017; Sen 2017; Shah 2017, 2013, Srinivasulu 2017; Tyagi 2016; D’Mello and Navlakha 2013; Planning Commission 2008). Evidence supporting the primacy of such organising comes as early as the 1940s, with the analysis of revolutionary parties in China and Vietnam (Hinton 1966; Burchett 1965; Snow 1944). The central principle driving these interactions has been the movement’s structural dependence on local support for organisational survival. This fact perhaps most distinctly differentiates revolutionary organisations from other militaristic structures that work independently from, and in separation to, local populations.

The resulting mutually dependent ecosystem created, between armed cadre and masses under differing structural conditions together constitutes what I refer to as the organisational field of peasant struggles. The term “organisational field” serves to highlight the significance of various village-level organisations to a peasant revolution. It serves to analyse specific groups or people in villages that function as key suppliers, regulating agencies or key producers, for outcomes aligned to the class consolidation interests along which peasant revolutions attempt to organise under varying structural environments.1 In this paper, I focus on the functional and strategic position of women’s groups to the revolutionary organisational field: in contributing to building movement resilience and becoming a source for women’s bargaining itself.

I rely on interviews conducted in 2013–14 with 20 women and 75 men who were current and surrendered Maoist cadre, movement sympathisers, as well as non-party peasants from 38 villages in Warangal and Adilabad districts of Telangana. The two districts were chosen for their varying characteristics, to identify women’s leverage across different structural conditions, such as forest cover, numbers of Adivasis and landlords, and irrigation facilities.

Telangana is one of the oldest sites of the Maoist struggle in India (then led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) (Peoples War)—[CPI(ML)(PW)]. In 1967–68, the Srikakulam movement emerged from sharecroppers, who, having received nothing promised at the end of the Telangana People’s Armed Struggle after 1952, rose against oppressive landlords. This was followed by the emergence of armed guerrilla squads.

The movement spread quickly through the state, with intellectuals supporting and joining it. Students, too, were recruited. Related organisations like the Revolutionary Writers’ Association (formed in 1970) and the Radical Students’ Union or RSU (formed in 1974) came into being. In 1980, the CPI(ML)(PW) was officially set up in Andhra Pradesh. By 1985, the party and its mass organisations began facing state repression, culminating in their ban in 1992. Facing severe constraints, by 1998, CPI(ML)(PW) merged with its counterpart in Bihar, CPI(ML)(Party Unity). In 2004, they merged with the more violent Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI) in the north, forming the now unified Communist Party of India (Maoist) or CPI (Maoist).

In the following section, I elaborate how village organisations became essential to the organisational field of the CPI(ML)(PW). I describe three areas where women gained significance to movements locally: contributing to expanding and sustaining guerrilla bands while also providing women with the bargaining potential to direct and influence movement activities.

Organisational Field of Radical Movements

An organisational field is constitutive of a community of organisations that interact more closely with one another (than with actors outside of it), with each organisation fulfilling certain roles as key suppliers, consumers, regulatory agencies, and/or as organisations producing similar services or products.2 The benefits to identifying an organisational field lie in the advantages it provides in investigating interactions between organisations and the impact they have in directing the trajectory of the field as a whole.

Significance of Village Groups

Applying the concept of an organisational field to armed peasant movements involves understanding the action and relationships among the various protest, insurgent, and cooperative organisations populating the region in which the revolutionary struggle takes place. No insurgency emerges without the creation of an organisational field, including a set of structured relationships that allow for coordination among otherwise distinct groups—a dynamic that creates a convergence towards the understood goals, and complementarity that builds a mutually supportive system of relationships.

The network structure that undergirds organisational fields does not preclude differential power among the networked groups, and most particularly with a single unit—or core group—exercising leadership or domination (Meyer and Rowan 1977). Nevertheless, the network structure creates looseness in the exercise of constraint, permitting a form of relative autonomy that allows organisations within the field to push back against the demands of dominant nodes in the structure, including withdrawal from the field. In the context of revolutionary struggle, the power and capability of armed cadre operating in a field of associated organisations is therefore conditioned—and limited—by the relative autonomy of the other nodes in the network.

Literature on armed revolutionary groups has too often ignored these constraints and assumed a capacity of armed guerrillas to dominate over other actors and organisations (see, for instance, Ramanna 2014). An underground and numerically small organisation is most often devoted to fighting for survival in circumstances of time urgency, limited information, and bounded rationality. And, these constraints are abated most effectively when the guerrilla unit is embedded into a rich network of autonomous and self-motivated village organisations.

In many circumstances, armed revolutionaries may therefore rely on local organisations’ autonomous action and decision-making, particularly when their own exigencies make decoupling—broken ties with the guerrilla band—an existential threat.3 In Telangana, local class-based mass organisations, mobilising the poorest, marginal peasants, and workers, were set up by the Maoists in the early 1980s. These dalams—or armed squads—visited villages with network presence and, together with villagers, formed various sangams or local village organisations.4 The scope for miscommunication between the movement and people was reduced with these overlapping formal and informal sources of information.

Support from trusted local networks was also vital to decreasing the structural ignorance faced by squad and party members who were continually constrained by limited information from their constituency in the village, as a by-product of their specific structural location in the revolutionary structure (Schwartz 1976).

The sustenance of relatively autonomous local organisations, therefore, led to involving relevant class groups in collective action and collectively identifying potential solutions. Repeated several times over, this process eventually strengthened class cohesion, with the potential for class formation among marginal and working peasants in the villages, while democratising the movement within the village.5 Women’s organisations must be understood within this context.

Women’s Organisations in Class-wide Mobilisations

Literature on the Global South extensively documents the reliance of guerrilla bands on women. First, scholars found women played an essential role in the significant task of linking masses with underground revolutionaries, becoming crucial to bridging the gap between people’s desires and the revolution’s goals. Through this, they nurtured and sustained the core guerrilla bands, contributing in the first way to the revolutionary organisational field (Lanzona 2009; Shayne 2004; Kampwirth 2002; Com Parvati 1999; Jaquette 1973).

Second, women became critical to radical movements by their ability to mobilise a wider set of classes from the villages as compared to men. Unlike workers and peasants, women’s structural position was often shared across multiple classes. That is, women did not 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.6

The consequent mobilisation 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 mobilising women around cross-class issues (Lanzona 2009; Viterna 2006; Banerjee 2001; Gautam et al 2001; Roy 1992; Jaquette 1973). Women from differing economic positions thus became a crucial link between villages that nurture the armed insurgents, and, simultaneously, a crucial link between different class segments. This dualistic function made them essential to the construction of the revolutionary organisational field.

Lastly, in areas organised by the Maoists in India, women formed a large part of the agrarian labour force. This positioned them as directly relevant to the revolutionary class agenda. Recent trends in the labour market underscore the increasing centrality of women’s labour in agriculture and the trend of proletarianisation of women’s labour from independent cultivation to wage labour. This has continued since the 1970s with 50.3% women working as agricultural labour rather than cultivators in 2001 compared to 26.9% in 1961 (Swamikannan and Jeyalakshmi 2015). Although some studies report a fall in rates of female employment in rural areas post 2001, at the micro-level in states like Telangana, there has been an increasing trend of feminisation of agricultural labour with women forming 58% of labour in agriculture in several districts (Reddy et al 2015). This establishes women’s significance in providing leadership for class building and consolidation, and in delivering meaningful social change in areas dominated by agriculture.

This data, and the evidence from my fieldwork and interviews in villages in Warangal and Adilabad, documents the centrality of women as a base for the organisation and sustenance of the Maoist movement. Without organising women, the movement could not build a robust organisational field capable of sustaining armed guerrilla bands and advancing the Maoist programme.

Despite this functional necessity, a full field of women’s organisations were not developed in every village. Environmental conditions affected the ability and motivation of armed organisations to form such groups, with varying class structures and levels of state repression being most salient. This uneven distribution had the unintended consequence of offering a kind of “social experiment” which makes visible the role that the organisation of women plays in the success of armed insurgency and the bargaining power that women can exercise in charting the course of the insurgency.

Episodic Presence of Women’s Organisations

In the previous section, I suggested that women and gender-based organisations were of strategic interest to Maoists. I also reported that, despite this cruciality, such gender-based formations were not always present, even in areas where the Maoist movement attained a significant presence. In this section, I address where and why women’s committees were absent. This requires examining other factors that informed armed cadres’ decisions about working with pre-existing village women’s groups and/or participating in their formation. I then trace forward the implications of the presence or absence of women’s organisations on the role that women played within the revolutionary struggle.

Absence of Women’s Organisations

Women’s groups, or mahila sangams, were developed by the Maoists in Adilabad and Warangal in the early 1990s. Like other village organisations, they were most often formed through a process where the Maoists, in consultation with the village, chose members. Such organisations did not emerge everywhere though. They were most likely to be present in villages where the Maoists had already undertaken some concrete reform activity—most often, land distribution—and had already established other organisational structures such as the agricultural committee, village development committee, or village militants’ organisation.7

The primacy of land occupation programmes was driven by the movement’s agenda to first target village landlords, who were viewed as the main source of oppression (Haragopal 2017; Srinivasulu 2017; Kunnath 2012). This strategy mainly benefited landless and marginal male farmers (and their families), and thus established the movement’s base. The Maoist strategy called for expanding this base by articulating more diverse programmes, through the formation of a variety of village-level committees. The structure of the organisational field that emerged, however, 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. There was no explicit part of this overarching strategy that called for creating or allying with organisations that addressed women’s land rights and/or other explicitly gendered issues. The inclusion of crucial gendered groups in the organisational field depended on propitious environmental conditions as well as the determination of women in the village to initiate and sustain these organisations.

In several of the villages I studied, however, large-scale Maoist activities would abruptly end after land occupations, resulting from either a major counter-attack by landlords or from an initially attenuated organisational structure—perhaps comprising a small group of politically inexperienced organisers and a lack of prior organisation among the villagers. Other times, the failure to build a robust organisational field was a consequence of the movement’s assessment of village class structures. Maoist strategy called for creating broader organisational structures—including women’s groups—only when the village was class heterogeneous, where the party believed land occupation alone could not achieve class cohesion. These single-agenda programmes of land occupation, from which women did not achieve direct gains, resulted in stifling opportunities for the emergence of women’s organisations. This absence did not always suppress all consideration of the key issues that women raise—including both land rights and more narrow concerns like gender violence—because women could raise them in village meetings with the guerrillas. But it did deprive them of the substantial leverage that an organisational base provided, and therefore constrained both leadership formation and programme development by women. And, this constraint on women’s leverage had negative consequences for movement resilience.

Passar village in the south-east of the Warangal district exemplifies the problems that arise when a robust organisational field is not constructed, particularly when women’s groups are not developed.

Passar was a large, mixed caste, 800-household village located in a semi-forest territory, where the landlords had diversified into small rice fields and cotton mills. The Maoists did not hold any party meetings nor develop organisations before establishing their presence with the occupation of 100 acres of a landlord’s land, distributing the confiscated land—along with 500 goats—to landless peasants in the village. Villagers viewed the successful land distribution as both progressive and radical, and the Maoists enjoyed strong support from the village as a whole, particularly when the landlord fled to a nearby town.

Based on this success, the Maoist cadre—perhaps because of inexperience or the strong support they initially received—set out on a single-pronged strategy based on extending the land confiscation programme. They neither encouraged nor supported the creation of independent and autonomous village committees—and most crucially—the gender-based groups that would have created support networks that tied together various segments of the community.

When the landlord returned, reinforced by an amplified and violent police presence that included the killings of three cadres, the Maoists could not win the struggle through armed resistance, and were forced to retreat into the forest. The landlord class and the police soon took control over the daily life in the village without any structural challenge.

The failure of the Maoists to build a relatively autonomous institutional structure during their moment of hegemony may have been inevitable here, but it nevertheless constituted a moment when strategy could have altered movement trajectory. In other villages, the moment of hegemony was utilised to build or forge ties to village organisations that could function during and after the military confrontation. It was in such villages that the Maoists were most resilient; they had resources that allowed them to continue the battle instead of simply retreating; they also had an organisational foundation that allowed them to return to the village once the police had been transferred to another hot-spot.

In Passar, the defeat was definitive. The only organisation that functioned at the village level was a small youth group, which, typically, lacked embeddedness in economic or social structures in the village. The group even displayed a degree of atomised callousness which expressed itself as a lack of collective (or class) identity and a high-handed attitude towards non-Maoists. The alienation from ordinary villagers was dramatically amplified when they assassinated a rival leader based on the false belief that he was a government agent. In the absence of other village organisations, this youth group contributed to what would eventually become insurmountable isolation. Beyond this denuding of the movement, the emerging narrative became one in which the Maoist intervention had brought oppression and misery to the community, thus eroding the base further.

When the counter-attack arrived, the guerrillas—like most guerrilla bands—could not militarily resist the landlord and the police without village support.

Organising with Women

It is important to note here the key role that women might have played in the aborted village organising effort. The social-economy of Passar, and other villages and regions in India (and the Global South), relies on networks of women for social support and for transmitting information during and after moments of collective action (Purkayastha and Subramaniam 2004). If women’s groups had been organised in Passar, they would/could have raised the questions about land rights for women and—if their initiative received support—elevated their support among women for the land distribution project. That would have motivated the activation of women’s networks in support of the Maoist guerrillas when repression arrived. Even if this resistance was unsuccessful, the repression would not have destroyed the resistance infrastructure because it would be embedded in the ongoing social fabric of the village. This would have strengthened the movement for the next battle, and created a foundation for the return of the guerrillas.

The failure of autonomous village organising among women rippled through the subsequent history of Passar. Not long after the repression of the Maoists and their land distribution programme, cotton mill owners would take advantage of the shallow organisational field in the village by hiring hamali or labour at low wages without resistance (to carry loads), and to maintain the acquiescence of villagers, donate, for instance, a water purifier. In other villages, this sort of immiserating initiative was successfully resisted by organised villagers, often without the active intervention of armed guerrillas.8

It is important to note that the failure to create an organisational field populated with women’s groups did not prevent the Maoists from recruiting women. In fact, three women from the village became full-time underground cadre, a relatively rich harvest of support considering the trajectory of the movement. However, their entry did not contribute to organising the village, either in the immediate circumstances or in the long term. They were animated by their poor personal financial situation, rather than collective or ideological class conviction. Instead, their entry into the Maoist movement constituted their permanent exit from the village, and contributed nothing to the local struggle.

A parallel, but instructively different scenario unfolded in Relu, a village in central Warangal that was constituted of railway workers. With its location in a low fertility belt, few in the village practised agriculture, and there was a conspicuous absence of landlords, who occupied lands in other more productive areas. This left the village with a flat class structure— made up of a majority from the Dalit community.

The Maoists distributed government-held plots in Relu, which the villagers used to construct homes. But, the limited programme of land distribution was not motivated by the guerrillas. Here, Maoists suffered from a severe constraint in numbers of cadre, due to a lack of adequate forest cover for protection. This constrained the movements’ structural networks in Relu, resembling the organisational field in Passar. In both villages, the Maoists hinged their movement on a single node in the network—the mobile youth groups—that overrode the collective action infrastructure of the village.

A workers’ union was born six years later, out of village-specific class calculations by the party, since a majority worked as gangmen on railway tracks. The railway sector thus appeared to be an effective focal point for a second attempt at village consolidation, which the guerrillas took up in 1989–90 (when suppression slumped for a short period). Women’s strategic role in cross-class organising was neither seen as necessary, nor invoked.

Deficiencies in village support networks became evident when state forces stepped up repression, unveiling the strategic potency that women’s groups could have in outlasting state violence. The guerrillas attempted to activate women’s village networks by organising “seminars for women,” since these groups had the potential to operate as cover organisations, and during repression, serve as a communication channel between guerrillas and the village. This attempt at organising women in Relu however came late, and failed to operate under conditions where altercations between the state and local youth groups had become regular.

Guerrilla band’s neglect at organising women did not, however, preclude them from undertaking activities that directly concerned women. The problem of sexual harassment was an instance, where militant men activated by youth groups carried out anti-harassment campaigns. Boys making toddy liquor were publicly questioned. An anti-liquor campaign followed where the party banned the consumption of alcohol in the village. These programmes came to be located in the squads’ efforts—more generally—and, the youth group’s motivations—more personally—to gain control over village activities, rather than being aimed at organising women.

The vacuum in women’s organisations did not impact women’s mobilisation into the underground. Twenty-three women from Relu joined the guerrillas, en masse, as full-time members. The alcohol ban had influenced these women’s choices, even though, its execution, had deprived these women from developing a collective political consciousness where they could direct and exercise collective leverage over the party. All 23 women returned to the village in a week, after feeling underprepared for underground life and politics. After this they remained uninvolved in any further collective action.

This incident demonstrates that while women could, and did, make individual gains from campaigns on women’s issues, an absence in women’s groups inhibited the transformation of individual leverage into women’s collective demands.

Women’s groups could have been pivotal in creating movement resilience by sustaining the movement during repression and in integrating it with the village’s social fabric. The absence of the women’s segment of the organisational field came from a combination of causes, the most salient being state repression and erroneous calculations of the guerrillas due to lack of experience and initiative at activating women’s groups in caste homogeneous villages. This cost them their organisational base and consequently reduced the leverage women exercised over the movement’s trajectory.

Women’s Committees and Collective Leverage

Anti-alcohol campaigns were not always initiated and executed directly by the squads. In several villages, they took place through autonomous village organisations, usually organised, mostly led, and always populated by local women. Not only were these campaigns popular, but as I will show, they 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 organisational network in which the guerrilla band was embedded.

The following examples are from villages in north-west Adilabad, where the anti-liquor campaigns lasted for at least five years with collateral women’s committees. They illustrate the range and depth of leverage that women came to exercise. Here, the party, in contrast to villages like Passar and Relu started numerous committees that filled out the organisational field. These committees pursued different programmes of irrigation, seed distribution and school improvement. Women’s committees with five to six women were started in nearly every village.

In Shalam, an Adivasi village populated with economically marginalised Gond and Naikpod families, each owning three to four acres of forestland, Akhila was one of the nine women to join the movement. She rose to a leadership position, 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. Now 39 years old, she 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. Significantly, she demonstrated 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, thus exerting collective leverage. Women’s organisations demonstrated another crucial point: their ability at transforming 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. The operational mechanism this set forth was increasing the general levels of class consciousness in the entire village.

Below is Akhila’s description of the functioning of her village women’s group:

Everyone would go for party meetings in the village. I joined the mahila sangam [women’s committee] in the early 90s and we had five members. The dalam [squad] chose us since we were educated, could talk to the public, and were smart. Our job was to question the forest officials and fight—not run away, like women until then used to. That way we could support the entire movement in the village, making it stronger. The sangam met when there was an issue to discuss. Otherwise we would meet when the dalam or squad came. They would come often then, and even stay on for eight to ten straight days.

There were also many akkas [women cadre] in the dalam who would have a separate meeting with us. They would ask us about women’s problems and teach us about our rights. They taught us that when we are protesting, no man is not allowed to lay a finger on us. We would also tell them about problems specific to tribal women, like how we were not allowed to leave our homes, not talk to people, forced into early marriages, and oppressed by powerful men in the village such as the patel-pujari and mahajan [traditional village head, priest and money-lender] who would tell us what to do all the time. So, the akkas would teach us how to fight that too.

The biggest problem in every village was men getting drunk and hitting women. So, we would tell men not to drink. We then mobilised men to shut liquor depots with us, which were owned by economically powerful groups. Men became involved in this way.

We, as Adivasi women, could collect all men from the village and speak to them about women’s issues—initially, only in front of the dalam, since we were afraid to address men on our own. But as time went by and men realised we were associated with the dalam’s mahila [women’s] team, we started to address them on our own.

Akhila’s narrative illustrates some of the dynamics that encourage village mobilisation when women’s groups take their place in the organisational field. First, Akhila was fully aware that the women’s groups made the entire movement “stronger.” This reflects the cross-class alliances that emanate from women’s groups, and symbiotically strengthen other groups in the village, in addition to building movement resilience. Second, she highlights the autonomy achieved by the women’s groups in their ability to gather and address men. This quality came to be decisive in movement resilience during and after repression. When squads’ presence in the village decreased from their previous week-long stays to months of forced absence, the movement pivoted off nodes of women’s networks to sustain their agenda and break out of the pattern of violence and collective movement collapse witnessed in Passar and Relu. Third, through engaging men by addressing them in shutting down liquor depots, women’s groups created conditions that allowed and animated women into leadership positions. This strengthened women’s collective leverage with the movement and strengthened cross-class alliances and movement resilience.

Apart from alcoholism, women’s committees took up issues that needed sensitive handling, such as marital matters. This was strategically encouraged by the guerrillas who had come to realise the wide acceptability of women’s committees’ decisions, especially with regard to family disputes (also see, Sen 2017).

The autonomy that women’s groups achieved in villages like Shalam increased the visibility and leverage of women within the community and the revolutionaries. This created a positive feedback loop, drawing more women like Akhila into the guerrilla squad itself. Akhila specifically emphasised her role in resolving gender conflict within the villages which the guerrillas sometimes left to the women’s groups to “handle.” This served two functions: insulating the local village from the guerrillas imposing an injudicious or dictatorial resolution to a local problem; and in providing villages with organisational leverage over movement cadre and therefore movement strategy.

In Shalam—and in other villages with flatter class structures and where women’s committees achieved relative autonomy—women began raising the foundational issue of wage equality. Consider Akhila’s account of the connection between relative autonomy and the raising of women’s pay:

We, the women squad members, would direct the women’s committee according to zilla or district committee guidelines. However, the women would tell us about what they needed. Married Adivasi women were not allowed to eat eggs, wear blouses, and made to sleep outside during menstruation. The party questioned these practices through backing the women’s committees. Faced with lesser class resistance in Adivasi villages, we also tried equally hard to fight for equal pay that women demanded, although it was somehow never implemented.

It was thus only in villages where the women’s committees gained effective leverage that the issue of equal pay was integrated into the broadened agenda of the mahila sangams. And even then, as Akhila comments “it was somehow never implemented,” probably because of changing forms of economic exchange in the villages.9

Akhila’s statement nonetheless demonstrates the presence and working of women’s collective leverage. The creation and sustenance of autonomous organisations in the villages was a significant factor in Akhila’s continued activism when she left the guerrilla band after eight years of leadership. When ill-health forced her to leave the forest, she and her husband could return close to her home village, where the local villagers had continued an active movement that could protect her from the arrest warrant that had originally sent her into the forest.

Women Wage Workers

We now consider villages in which a majority of wage workers were women. In these circumstances, the initial organising campaigns by the Maoists could not be exclusively targeted to male workers, and women’s committees were started.

In north Telangana, the most important economic activities have been agriculture and beedi-making, which led to the struggle for higher wages and fair treatment of beedi workers taking on one of the most militant forms (Srinivasulu 2017).

Ila village, in the heart of north Warangal’s forests, was initially home to an Adivasi population. However, by the 1970s and 1980s, Ila had grown to a size of 500 households—with 200 Adivasis, 100 Dalits and 200 from other caste groups. Most families had an average landholding of two to three acres.

Madan, a young Adivasi khoya sympathiser from the village, one of the 113 party sympathisers who had to regularly report to the police to mark their continued presence in the village, described the close functioning of the committees with the movement. The women’s committee, according to him, was set up to address women’s issues across class groups, but also because of the need to address tendu and beedi prices. Women sold their labour to tendu leaf contractors, who became the only group in the village to accumulate surplus earnings. This made it imperative for radical organisations to take up tendu wages. Madan’s account points to several of the key elements of successful organising that hinge on women’s organisation.

When the movement entered in the 1980s, they cut 200 acres of forest land and distributed it to the village. The dalits had stayed out of the movement initially, but joined after land distribution. Eventually 20 people from the village entered as full time cadre: one upper caste, three economically backward castes, five dalits and the rest adivasis. Ten were women. The movement started committees immediately in the village. There were no landlords, so all the committees, such as the peasant committee and village development committee, worked closely with the party, even building five hand-pumps. When fertiliser costs increased, the committees and movement set up a co-operative society (that was disrupted by the police) and collected village development funds from contractors to develop the village. Tendu leaf contractors were quite powerful and many women earned their wages from tendu plucking and beedi making. So, a women’s committee was set up. It addressed general issues such as nutritional needs of pregnant women, but also demanded better tendu rates. These committees have continued to function after repression, although in limited ways because of continued state pressure.

There are several elements to Madan’s account of Ila’s trajectory that merit specific attention.

First, the decision to organise peasant and village development committees that produced the first infusion of women activists because of their involvement in wage labour, which was of particular interest to the Maoists. Later, “when fertiliser costs increased … a cooperative society was set up,” which allowed the committees to achieve the kind of autonomy that only cross-class organising can confer. From this emerged a host of projects that the cadre would not have initiated on their own, and ultimately in the creation of a self-sustaining cooperative movement. This development, which thrust women into leadership, gave them the leverage to call for and enact a women’s committee that specifically addressed women’s issues, including the all-important organisation of beedi workers. Ultimately, when the contingent of cadre from the village chose to return from active duty with the guerrillas, they found a fully functioning autonomous movement that could reabsorb, protect, and harness their expertise for the continuing movement.

According to Madan, “in fact, in 2006, when martyr’s stupas (monuments) were constructed, one of a Gond woman who had been killed in the movement was also built.”

Note the process through which the creation of autonomous village organisations laid the foundation for women to exercise leverage, and—in this case—to use that leverage to create women’s groups that would sustain and amplify that leverage, creating a self-sustaining and resilient structure within the village. This instance both confirms and extends Omvedt’s finding in studying the peasant movements in Maharashtra: that when groups mobilise women without addressing specifically women’s demands, they (unintentionally) build women’s power, which translates into consciousness about women’s issues (Omvedt 1978; also see, Sinha Roy 2011). In Ila, this increased consciousness, combined with already developed leverage of women as workers, led to the creation of new groups devoted to women’s interests.

In Shalam and Ila villages, women’s leverage derived from differing structural strengths of women within the economic and social structures of their villages. Akhila’s narrative of Shalam illustrates women’s relative advantage at sustaining the village’s struggles against forest officials, which set forth diverse village organisations cross-cutting gender. The consequence was the creation of a vibrant organisational field that was able to contain the guerrilla band from dominating over the protest field, while sustaining the armed struggle.

Women workers’ trajectory to leverage was not dissimilar; with their entry into mass organisations and a gradual thrust towards collective demands that was a consequence of their expanding political consciousness and prior leverage as wage workers.


Most discussions on women in revolutions have been based on individual women’s experiences within the larger revolutionary movement structure—outside of their structural conditions—and, more significantly, of their organisational environments in the villages. While I do not dismiss these claims, I have shown women’s position to not uniformly be inferior. Revolutionary movements aim at consolidating small, marginal and landless peasants and in the process, are faced with several constraints. Limited access to information, challenges in whom to trust, and gaining and maintaining continued support from people, are some. Village level organisations that populate the organisational field contribute to alleviating these constraints by increasing informational networks, involving relevant groups in collective action and in strengthening class cohesion—with the potential for class formation—and, all these contribute to building movement resilience.

Villages with an autonomous field of non-violent protest organisations, once formed, thus alter the profile of movement actions and policies to be more responsive to village needs and desires. Autonomous women’s organisations are particularly significant in this regard, since they contribute to creating an organisational field that nurtures core guerrilla bands, facilitating cross-class alliances within the village; and, providing crucial leadership as agricultural workers—all of which are essential to delivering meaningful social change in the villages and crucial to creating robust support systems that can sustain armed movements.

For this reason, and in understanding the functional and ideological necessity of women’s groups in the village, Maoists frequently supported women’s organisations. The absence of women’s segment of the organisational field, I show, came from primarily two causes. One, state repression, which reduced structural opportunities necessary to fully develop all organisations within the field. And, two, erroneous calculations by the cadres whose lack of experience or initiative at activating women’s groups was motivated by their assumed achievability at class consolidation through addressing men in caste homogeneous villages. Either reason led to the movement paying a heavy price through the loss of its organisational base and an episodic presence. It had the further consequence of reducing the leverage women exercised over the movement trajectory.

Villages where women’s organisations were formed and attained relative autonomy, not only created an organisational foundation that the guerrillas could return to once the state had retreated, but importantly, retained collective, and sometimes class-based decision-making capabilities through continued (even if) truncated functioning of local groups. Autonomous women’s organising significantly affected the role that women also came to play in the guerrilla’s decision-making and actions, affecting movement trajectory and the addressal of women’s issues. On the whole, it created a collective structural leverage for women over the movement where they could steer movement actions, bargain for their demands to be met and involve men in their struggles, illustrating the differing experiences of women in revolutionary projects and the criticality of women to resilient radical peasant projects.


1 Consolidation of the working class against the capitalists is a fundamental ideological tenet of most revolutionary organisations (see, Strategy & Tactics of the Indian Revolution, Central Committee(P), CPI(Maoist), 2004, at

2 See DiMaggio and Powell (1983) for a detailed explanation.

3 The Maoists explicitly acknowledge this exigency, as well as the potential consequences of yielding to the temptation of encroaching on network autonomy. A 1997 party circular released by the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee, titled “Some Problems in Fulfilling the Organizational Tasks—Our Understanding,” discusses the criticality of starting and maintaining autonomous village committees and holding regular general body meetings (People’s War, July 1997–June 1997, pp 41–54). Nevertheless, under severe repression, armed cadre have violated this dictum, over-relying on armed mobile groups in the villages, leading to the suppression of diverse local village committees.

4 Such as the Ryutu Coolie Sangam or agricultural committee and Gram Rajya Committee for carrying out village development.

5 For a fuller discussion of this process in the context of the Maoist movement in India, see Tyagi (2016, 2017).

6 See E Leacock (1979), “Class, Commodity, and the Status of Women,” Toward a Marxist Anthropology, Stanley Diamond (ed), New York: Mouton, pp 185–201; K B Sacks (1975), “Engels Revisited: Women, the Organization of Production, and Private Property,” Toward an Anthropology of Women, R R Reiter (ed), New York: Monthly Review Press, pp 211–34; Evelyn Reed (1970), “Women: Caste, Class or Oppressed Sex,” International Socialist Review, Vol 31, No 3, pp 15–17 and 40–41.

7 Militants were a secretly chosen intermittent layer of around 10 cadres who informally communicated village and police information. The agricultural committee implemented formal party programmes of land distribution, while the village development committee undertook tasks such as tank construction and seed acquisition for farmers.

8 In Benga, Warangal, for instance, capitalists attempted to buy out labourers who had collective ownership over a stone quarry. The villagers protested this by activating their local organisations that had continued to come together when needed during the ongoing state repression.

9 Such as a reversal in the rental process—where former landlords from neighbouring villages began renting land from marginal farmers, rendering landed peasants into a confounding economic position of owners and wage labour, obscuring the target of wage struggles.


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Updated On : 14th Jun, 2018


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