This is the season of patriotism. Facebook feeds and television channels celebrate the surgical strikes of the Indian army across the border with a combat-readiness and war-mongering that is nothing short of vulgar. Anyone who talks about the 80-odd Kashmiri civilians who have been killed in the weeks that have followed Burhan Wani’s assassination, or anyone who speaks against an impending war, is quickly labelled anti-national. Within this jingoistic framework, where men in uniform are blindly valorised, it is easy to understand why the ABVP, the student wing of the rightwing nationalist RSS, targetted the performance of Mahasweta Devi’s famous short story, Draupadi, in the Central University of Haryana in Mahendragarh. The ABVP not only alleged that the play portrayed Indian soldiers in poor light, but also claimed that performing this play was a seditious, anti-national act.
As a Tamil woman born in the 1980s, my first emotions towards the Indian armed forces was terror, dread and visceral hatred. In our childhood, we heard of the atrocities of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in the northeast Tamil territories of the Sri Lankan island. More than any textbook lesson in identity or nationalism, this drove us to support the Tigers and the Tamil demand for an independent homeland. In addition to the onslaught of information from refugees, political activists, television and radio, we lived through a time where books were propaganda. The 1989 Valvettithurai massacre, labelled India’s My Lai by none other than former defence minister George Fernandes, was one of the first “picture books” I encountered, thanks to Massacre at Valvettiturai: India’s Mylai, that was widely available in Tamil Nadu at the time. The photographs of carnage, testimonies of the survivors, descriptions of rape of women in front of their children, and brutal murders — the images and words are still irrevocably lodged in me. I learned early on that women were the first casualties of war, and that those who went to the battlefield in the guise of saving them could end up perpetuating the worst kind of atrocities. Later, as a teenager carrying this history of hate, I first came across Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi in an anthology called Breast Stories, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
Draupadi showed me how the armed forces did not treat some Indian women, women who lived within its own borders, any differently. Twenty-seven-year-old Dopdi Mejhen, “notorious female”, wanted in the murder of the landlord Surja Sahu and his son, epitomised not only the Naxalite militant, but also the figure of an adivasi woman unjustly subjected to rape and torture by the armed forces.
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The custodial denuding and rape of Dopdi immediately calls to mind her namesake Draupadi in the Mahabharata, who, being disrobed and dishevelled in public, vows to tie her hair only after washing it with the blood of her molester and combing it with his thigh-bone. The Dopdi in Mahasweta Devi’s story does not require the divine male agency of her epic counterpart to save herself. She, instead, turns her unclothed state into an act of rebellion. It is with her mangled breasts that she pushes Senanayak, the anti-Naxal operations expert; it is with that nudity that she emasculates him.
Being aware of how the Tamil Tigers functioned, particularly the way they deployed female suicide bombers, I had learnt that war on the bodies of women came with its consequences: when the female body became a battleground, it returned to the theatre of war as a weapon of war. In Comrade Dopdi, as much as I celebrated the female Naxalite’s murder of the landlords, her waging war against an oppressive system, I also learnt to admire her courage when she was totally unarmed and under capture.
Introducing Draupadi in Critical Inquiry in 1981, Spivak wrote of how “one cannot speak of the Indian reception of Mahasweta’s work, but only of its Bengali reception…”, but, 35 years (and several translations and English-language publication) later, her work has stepped outside the confines of West Bengal, and is something that addresses India at large. The relevance of reading Draupadi in today’s context cannot be highlighted enough. Even as the Indian armed forces behave in the fashion of ruthless occupying forces in central India, Kashmir, and the Northeast, it becomes our responsibility to enumerate their atrocities and to challenge their mandate to murder. Day after day, we read of the rapes of Adivasi women that routinely happen during military operations in Bastar. A few months ago, a young woman from Sukma, Madkam Hidme was picked up and later “encountered” in a classic case of mistaken identity. It made Mahasweta Devi’s words ring prophetic – “Not merely the Santhals, but all tribals of the Austro-Asiatic Munda tribes appear the same to the Special Forces.”
With more than 100 adivasis having been killed in staged “encounters” in the last seven months, in a political climate where journalists who report about the excesses of Operation Greenhunt are being hounded out of Bastar, reading and performing a radical text like Draupadi on college and university campuses will allow students to not only be in touch with the reality that surrounds them, but will also prepare them to eventually struggle against such injustice. At this stage, fighting the gag orders and anti-national labels is as urgent as fighting state violence itself.
Meena Kandasamy is a novelist and poet with three collections of poetry to her credit: Touch, Ms Militancy and #ThisPoemWillProvokeYou.
Views are personal.