Purnima, a faith healer in Manipur, and Ribini, a nurse at a hospital in Assam. Unlikely occupations for women who once lived life on the run: the former as the fearless Nalini, a member of the rebel Kangleipak Communist Party, and the latter as “lance corporal Raisumai” of the Bodo Security Force, a banned separatist outfit in the North-East. In Kashmir, Khalida was just another schoolgirl till January 21, 2007, the day she was found with a bullet through her head. No one knows who killed Khalida, but hers is a story repeated at other times also in the conflict-ridden state.
Through the stories of Purnima, Khalida, Ribini and 13 others in her book She Goes To War (Speaking Tiger; Rs 499), author Rashmi Saksena attempts to fathom what goes into the making of a woman militant. Speaking at the Khushwant Singh Literary Festival in Kasauli recently, Saksena elaborated upon what motivates these women to abandon the traditional playbook for girls and embrace the uncertain life of an insurgent, and equally, how easy it is for them to return to the “normal” world, when age, or desire for marriage and motherhood, beckon.
At a session on women militants at the festival, with former Pakistan envoy Vivek Katju and strategic expert Uday Bhaskar, Saksena said, “Since the time LTTE operative Dhanu, the first known human bomb in India, assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in a suicide bombing in 1991, women have been crucial operators in insurgencies in the states of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Chhattisgarh and Kashmir. Given the same rigorous training as their male counterparts, they carry AK-47s, rob banks, ambush security forces and play the game of subterfuge with elan.”
The book — in first-person narrative — does not make any political statement, nor does it judge these women for their decisions, or paint them as victims who were forced into something against their wishes. “While I was various reporting assignments during my 20 years, I came across some of these women. Even though I never wrote about them, they stuck as a reference in my mind,” says the veteran Delhi-based journalist, who lived in Sri Lanka for a year in the late ’80s and closely watched the LTTE. “After I gave up being full-time job as a reporter, I visited police and intelligence agencies to get figures on women militants in India, but they had no specific statistics. Everyone thought of them as supporters and sympathisers, and not in active roles,” she adds.
“Even though men are still calling the shots, the role of women cadre has evolved in the last one decade, and it’s time our agencies woke up to this,” she said, adding that her book is an attempt to tell the authorities that all counter-insurgency measures and strategies should factor in these women. “No insurgency can survive without the active or passive support of women; if they can be prevented, half the battle is won,” she said.
Interestingly, the active life of women insurgents is shortlived, she says, adding that it’s their desire for motherhood and a settled domestic life that usually brings them back into mainstream. “The return to the family is the toughest in Kashmir, while women in the North-East are not judged once they give up arms,” she adds.