'She Goes to War: Women Militant of India' book review: In the shadows

By Nandita Bose| Published: 02nd September 2018 05:00 AM

The rains this Independence Day leave disquiet in their trail. Between jingoism on social media and nationalistic songs on loudspeakers, I wrest with failure. As a nation we are witnessing more schisms and imbalances than ever before. And yet our understanding of the larger travails of India is flawed. If there is a perfect book to read on this day, it is She Goes to War—painstakingly researched and brilliantly written by Rashmi Saksena.

“There was such a madness for freedom that I believed that just by my taking up the gun we would achieve it”—loaded words from former gunwoman, Ruhi. Such striking naiveté and the pathos of her situation are mirrored in the stories of women militants across India.

The locales change from Kashmir, Chhattisgarh or Nagaland to Manipur and yet share a trajectory. Idealism, poverty, the lack of opportunity or the perceived enemy have all thrust these once-tender women into violence against the state. Some unabashedly tell of shooting policemen. Others baulk at going there.  There are fault-lines in our society and those who live at its edge, also live in despair. One common thread among the women who share their stories is the fascination for the gun. Many rue their failure to have shot an AK 47. As a symbol of empowerment, the gun seems to have temporarily given them a purpose life hadn’t.

Another theme is love for a militant drawing these women into lives of subterfuge and destruction. In other cases leading the life of a militant, love came as a respite. “Sometime between firing guns, making bombs and defying death, Avuli fell in love.” She married Nihokhe and barely 13 months later was widowed. The shadow of death rarely leaves militants.

These stories are gathered with journalistic rigour and retold with power and finesse. Almost too many to recount here, they present a rich tapestry of women’s issues that mainstream women can both empathise with and never share. Women militants who ran away from home for the cause find themselves victims of patriarchy, rape and abuse. In other cases, their bodies let them down: with illness, with menstruation or with childbirth.

These are women of a bold unsung variety. These are confrontationists unafraid of testing their fates or of bloodshed. Their stories encapsulate an India we know and leave unseen. This book is a gritty testament of our sisters in arms and their impossible journeys.

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