This book by New Vistas Publication encompasses acts of resistance, resilience in face of extreme oppression; oppression on the basis of class, caste, feudal assertion ; and much more intersectional and layered experiences of pain and oppression; that is seen as a result of skewed social structure and abuse of power.  It addresses the struggles of women who constitute the most oppressed among the oppressed, poor peasant and landless peasant women who have lacked not only an identity and voice but also a name, and those who have stood up in the face of these inequities, and mobilized to stand up for it. These women have been subjected to  intense economic exploitation,brutal social oppression, a culture that not only denies her independence but also denigrates her in all possible manners. Hence, women from the oppressed classes have had a stake in the destruction of the feudal rural order and have come forward to do so; and they have been one of the most exemplary movements to take place,but the voices have been silenced by the ruling class; and those in power.  

The book speaks of Marxist perspective on women oppression: “ The masses of women face twin oppression. Just as their male members they undergo class oppression. But at the same time they experience patriarchal oppression. Patriarchy is the system of male domination over women. The ruling classes of all exploitative societies institutionalize patriarchal oppression. But in addition to that, men who are at the same time oppressed by the ruling classes resort to patriarchal domination. All men generally practise patriarchy, which is institutionalized by the ruling classes. This is an important characteristic feature of women’s oppression. This feature contributes to the pervasiveness of patriarchal prejudices. Thus class oppression and patriarchy are interconnected, and at all points of time this interconnection must be grasped and is the cornerstone of the Marxist perspective on the women’s question.

It is with the help of this form of patriarchy that the landlords, compradors and imperialists oppress India’s women masses. But due to the uneven development of Indian society patriarchal oppression has its specificities among the different classes, castes and tribes; its

manifestations also vary in the big cities, in the towns and in the vast rural areas. While in the big cities and extent town’s influence of capitalist-imperialist patriarchy is greater,

in the villages feudal patriarchal norms dominate more. Therefore in India the concrete struggle against patriarchy requires that semi-feudal, semi-colonial structure be overthrown and a

new democratic society be set up in its place’ “

Looking at the book made me think of its relevance in our practice as mental health practitioners; our role in building community; how to bring political into personal ; in the rooms of therapy and how organizing happens; and where do we fit in as stakeholders, as someone who dorn the hat of being narrative practitioners who are “decentered yet hold an influential position”

This aspiration is a fragile and difficult one to hold on to; given how much we have been surrounded by power structures; and how the privileges and marginalities that we come with make us all the more oblivious to these things.

Day in and day out we see people who are often grappling with social suffering; and to hold that experience is a responsibility. How we hold these personal experiences of those who come to see us; and not getting in the way of social change. How we hold space for their voices; and decenter our voices; given the training that we all have had and how pervasive these structures are. All these thoughts drove me to explore collective narrative practices; and some themes or ideas to ponder on:  

1. When people do come to us with their issues; having a sense of their reality; what is happening for them; and in addition to holding that problem is the problem and externalizing it; to hold the aspiration that perhaps then solution is also not personal only; how can one create relational equation with community for the person sitting in front of us through our communication.

2. People are representing themselves but also a social issue; they are only speaking in second and third person, people not only represent ; link lives to social issues; listen for the collective agenda that people are introducing to; honoring personal experience, and enable people to join and acknowledge social issues. This can often be seen in the statements of resistance made by the client; the ways in which they are constantly communicating to us that they are standing up to what is not okay for them.  While exploring the idea of words ; and resistance; and acts of resistance of people ; I stumbled upon these ideas which seemed rather interesting to ponder upon:

A) “The listener (the therapist) who follows the talker (the client) not only hearing the words but also seeing how the words are uttered, will notice that every word is part of the moving of the body. Spoken words and bodily activity come together in a unity and cannot be separated … the listener who sees as much as he or she hears will notice that the various spoken words “touch” the speaker differently… Some words touch the speaker in such a way that the listener can see him or her moved.”

B) “Language is here defined as all expressions, which are regarded to be of great significance in the above-mentioned communal perspective. They are of many kinds, f.i. to talk, write, paint, dance, sing, point, cry, laugh, scream, hit, etc., are all bodily activities. When these expressions, which are bodily, take place in the presence of others, language becomes a social activity. Our expressions are social offerings for participating in the bonds of others.”  

3. Exploring the idea of linking lives and contributing to helping others who are going through similar hardships; lived experience as a way to contribute to others. This is foremost rooted in transformative justice; which is essentially holding space for one’s pain experienced due to what is happening for them; transformation and accountability from a place of holding space and empathy.

4. Holding space for pain and connecting people to what is important for them; often stems action and to be able to hold the RHIZOME metaphor dear ; and look for ways in which people are responding and engaging with the community.This can bring to light the spontaneous acts of courage; resourcefulness, resilience and newfound yearnings of people in their ways of engaging.  

5. People’s identities are shaped by our social histories; by the movements; how we understand our bodies lives; dreams can often be viewed as a product of social movements; queer movements; anticaste movements; anti-feudal movements; feminism; all have shaped views to what would it mean to consider our identities broadly; how we are influenced by these movements; and how we can also influence them.

Throughout these reviews, one thing that stands out to me as a theme is how there is agency in the ordinary, and how people are responding; and engaging with the community and how the rhizome metaphor becomes more important to hold on to; while looking at our clients and their lives.

RHIZOME Metaphor : tied to the natural world; captures spirit of web building; sending roots and shoots in new ways, we will never know when new weblets will appear, sometimes they appear directly , sometimes in indirect ways.

Some of the ways in which these ideas play out is explained further in the review.

The social oppression of Adivasi women and their resistance to the oppression and integration into the life of an armed revolutionary were expressed through the songs in their regional languages, for this cultural outpouring, the young women squad members joined together to compose songs. This medium has also opened up spaces for the women to showcase their young talent at the same time contributing to the cause in their own style and capacity.  

The songs coming from the lived experiences of the women was able to poignantly bring out the unending, unrecognised toil of the peasant women. Since it is written in the language that is a home to their emotions and struggles ,like in all the other movements, these women too found their expression that represents and resonates with them. These songs expressed the depths of despair and also laid the clear way towards equality, for building women’s organisation and joining the armed struggle or supporting it to establish a new democratic order.

Couple of sonnets

I get in the darkness, Sanglrum pandu

And pound and pound the grain

Till the sweat flows Sanghqm pandu

I slave in the house, I slave in the forest,

Cutting the paddy, cutting the Kohla I do well.

Yet, girl you may not thresh they say, I looked after the house, bring the needs from the hills,

But I can’t go near the grain store

I breed the hens , I breed the pigs,

. But he eats without asking his wife and children

Near the panch, near the ritual if we go,

What do women understand they say

What sin have we committed sangham pandu I cannot go anywhere, Sangham pandu.

He lakes the cows and bulls and sells them off

He drinks and spends the money, my man

He never brings anything, not even clothes

As if he doesn’t know he has a wife and children

The feelings of a young girl forced into marriage have been

poetically expressed in this song which goes like this:

In the darkness of no moon

In the light of full moon

In the deep forest I am alone,

I put my foot forward, I take a step backward

Wherever I step it is dark, brother

Their only daughter, this bright beauty,

This beautiful face they have ruined, brother

They have forcibly married me off, brother

For establishing new democratic order

The land and sky are equal, women and men are equal

If our troubles have to go

Join the struggle sisler

Let us build a Red annv and win power

Let us build our liberated areas in the world

The red flower songs ends in this way:

Sister in the forests of Dandakaranya

Let us take the struggle for new democratic revolution forward

All the people must unite sister

We have to build our raj (power)

Hold the red flag in your harut sisler

Let us also join the war sister

These songs were composed in their traditional tune, in order for these songs to be remembered and sung easily. 

The women of Jharkhand have always played an active role in revolutionary movements from the 19th century Santhal Rebellion against the colonial rule to the Munda uprising. They also played an active role in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in the 1960s and 70s conducting anti-liquor and anti-wife beating campaigns. However, the JMM continued to perpetrate patriarchal ideas that women have no role in political decision-making and must continue to play their roles as house-wives. Wife-beating, witch-hunting and sexual abuse continued and against this backdrop the Nari Mukti Sangh (NMS) came into being in the early 1980s.

Initially they organised themselves to resist the feudal systems that were exploiting adivasi men and women both economically and sexually. In addition to this, they also called out repressive social customs and patriarchy on the home front. Once the NMS was able to establish itself firmly in the community, it began to take up “women’s issues” more strategically. Since 1997, the repression of their movement became more and more severe but the NMS emerged stronger from this too, catapulted by the women’s creativity and ingenuity!

A common tool used by the NMS to address social issues is propaganda which involves posters, messages on walls, rallies, songs and plays. Yet another way in which they call out injustice and gender-based violence is through ‘jan adalats’ where their stance on these issues is made visible time and again. Below is a list of issues taken up by the NMS and how they are responding to these. :

1. Child marriages: The NMS has used propaganda against child marriage as a means to deter people from practicing it and encourage them to report it. When the NMS ‘didis’ are informed about a child marriage taking place, they go there to convince the family that this will not be good for the children’s physical and emotional well-being. A bond is signed by families that the children will not be married until they are adults and will seek permission from the NMS when the marriage is to take place. This has significantly reduced child marriages in areas of Jharkhand where the NMS has a presence.

2. Dowry & dowry related harassment: A similar combination of propaganda, intervention and bond-signing is used in this case as well. When the NMS didis find out that a woman is being harassed because of dowry, a ‘jan adalat’ is conducted where the husband is coerced into either paying the wife all that she is due for the many years that she has toiled in his house or he is made to promise that he will look after her well. “Usually the woman wants to live with him and only wants him to change so the NMS tries to fulfill the woman’s desire”. Sometimes the man is also beaten up as punishment in the jan adalat. As a result, dowry harassment has also significantly reduced in all areas of Jharkhand where the NMS has a strong presence.

3. Feudal marriage customs: The NMS is opposed to feudal marriage customs such as lavish expenditure and dowry. They conduct ‘shibir vivah’ which is a simple ceremony in the presence of relatives. When the bride and groom belong to different castes but love each other, the NMS supports them to get married. In areas where the NMS is present, they are well-loved by the people and invited to attend all weddings and functions.

4. Sexual harassment/rape: Typically, a jan adalat is conducted where the perpetrator is questioned. If it is found that he is from a poor family and he accepts the crime, he is let off with a warning. If it is found that he is a “goon” and has done this before, he is beaten up, his head is shaved, he is made to wear a garland of chappals and he is paraded through the village. In serious cases, a hand or leg is cut off. There was once an instance where a young woman was impregnated by the perpetrator. His family called the police who turned up at the jan adalat and were told to leave by the NMS. The NMS then conducted a shibir vivah and a bond was signed by the perpetrator promising that he will look after her well.

5. Anti-liquor and anti-wife beating: Propaganda is conducted against liquor as this is seen as a cause for increasing violence against women. In the jan adalats where wife-beating is being addressed, the wife is often asked to give the husband a beating after which he is made to promise that he will look after his wife. While the adivasi society typically condemns women who beat their husbands, it is considered acceptable when it is done on this platform. The powerful presence of women on this political platform has increased their confidence in the family and has led to a decrease in violence against women.

6. Polygamy: The NMS opposes polygamy and typically compells the man to separate from his second wife after which they are paraded through the village to deter others from doing such things.

7. Gender pay gap: The NMS agitated against the gender pay gap and have managed to ensure that women earn as much as men do in areas of feudal Bihar-Jharkhand where they are present.

8. Superstitions about witches: Amongst the adivasis of Jharkhand there is a superstition that if someone falls ill or passes away suddenly, it is because of witchcraft. Typically the Ojha (witch-doctor) will point to a widow who can be persecuted so that her land can be confiscated. Sometimes, the family of the deceased will beat her up or ostracise her and her family. The NMS conducts propaganda against these superstitions and conducts jan adalats where the woman who has been targeted is given an opportunity to beat the people who tortured her. The witch-doctor is also called out which has reduced the practice of killing and beating women in the name of witchcraft.

9. Independence day and elections: On 15th August NMS didis go to schools and educate the children about why they must boycott the celebrations. They also boycott elections because of their firm belief that the electoral system is corrupt and a “revolutionary change is necessary”. They also hold the candidates accountable by questioning them about their stance on women’s issues.

In addition to all that they do to resist systemic oppression of adivasi women in rural areas, they make their presence felt in the cities on March 8th every year, celebrating it as “The Struggling Day of Toiling Women”. Through this they are able to engender awareness amongst the city-dwellers and also seek support from intellectuals and middle class sections of society. Since 1997, they have faced a lot of resistance against this celebration from the police, who repress them by withholding permissions, stopped from entering the city or at the very least, their rally is delayed by half an hour.

Resisting systemic oppression through adamance, solidarity and education

In spite of the police repression, the NMS didis would hold their rally against all odds. They would wake up at 3 am and make their way to the city to avoid any roadblocks. They would always have alternative arrangements to conduct the rally in a different place in case the police prevented them from doing it where they had originally planned to and then, much to the chagrin of the police, they would swiftly put posters all over they their campaign has been successful! If their campaign leaders were arrested, they would release press statements to demand their release, making even the arrest a part of their propaganda campaign. In this way, the NMS strategically deploys its organisation’s grit and adamance to resist oppression and make their stance visible.

NMS women have been arrested, tortured, booked under false cases, beaten up, paraded and some have even been raped. But the NMS wouldn’t back down. They would “gherao” the police stations and compel them to release the women. When the police came to make an arrest in the village, the adivasis of that village would beat on drums to alert all the neighbouring villages who would promptly turn up to resist the police with them. They would use bow and arrow, stones, or any household items they could get their hands on to resist. The solidarity and allyship amongst the adivasi community and the NMS is yet another source of their strength!

The NMS also relies heavily on education and propaganda and has 6 of its own publications, the first three of which are taught to all members. These are all based on the relationship between the class struggle and women’s liberation and speak about independence, democracy, equal rights, women’s liberation and socialism. They are based on the ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Many of the members are illiterate when they join so they are first encouraged to learn to read and write as soon as possible and then educated about the political stance of the organisation.

What stands out to me most through this book is the fear of the authorities who are constantly trying to repress the voices of the margins and the conviction of the ‘didis’ who in turn are constantly finding new ways to resist the oppression. Another aspect of their approach that stands out to me as a mental health practitioner is their firm political stance that externalises women’s issues into systems of oppression and recognises the intersections between the class struggle and women’s issues.

This book review was written by our therapists and fellow’s Aishwarya, Lalitheswari and Srivalli.