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Talk by Rakhee Kalita Moral on "The Woman Rebel and the State: From Combat to Community"

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  • September 15, 2014
    The Internal Security Centre at IDSA organized a talk by Dr. Rakhee Kalita Moral on “The Woman Rebel and the State: From Combat to Community” on September 15, 2014. Brig. Rumel Dahiya (Retd), Deputy Director General, IDSA, chaired the talk. The talk aimed to look into the suppressed history of the women rebels in the struggle between the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the State, and also their encounter with the state and community while transitioning from war to peace. Three important signposts of transition from conflict to post conflict were highlighted during the talk. These include, a) the 2003 Bhutan crackdown, which led to a wrapping up of the camps of the outfit, followed by b) the ceasefire that happened a few years later, and c) the negotiations/peace talks.

    Dr. Rakhee began by describing how ULFA’s initial popular mass base steadily declined in its later phases due to the increasing unethical use of violence and coercion that led to a physical disconnect with the Assamese society. In its rise and decline, the outfit flung from its role as “romantic revolutionaries” to “enemies of the state”. The role of the women cadre in the ULFA throughout is seen as miniscule; women formed about 10-12% of the cadres at most (figures disputed).

    It is commonly agreed that women entered the organization due to a variety of reasons. What drove these women were not merely feelings of belongingness to a region that was ULFA’s homeland, but also certain ethnic factors that constitute categories of people who have been radical in terms of the idea of the Assamese, articulating aspirations of the Assamese, sovereignty of the Assamese, etc. The tacit support of the village elders, safe homes, were also some reasons that inducted them into the ULFA fold. It is important to note that a huge chunk of the women cadres in the ULFA were taken from certain districts of upper Assam. In choosing these women, the leadership had often looked into the capacities of the women. For instance, women who were more educated, came from bigger cities, were inducted into important groups. Within the ULFA hierarchy itself, very few women cadres were inducted into the military wing – the relatively significant arm of the ULFA.

    In 1996, ULFA’s reorganization led to the restructuring of the organization – the structural severing of the military from the political. Many of the cohesive factors of ULFA’s organizational capacities were actually played down with this separation when there were moments of rifts inside the camps. It was during this period of stress and strife that the guerilla romance started diminishing and the dynamic of gender discrimination started becoming evident. While women slept in different barracks, wore the same uniform, carried the same cartels on their backs, they were often not privy to the more important political meetings. When ULFA was going through the splits that led to triggering of defections from within the camps, the female rebels wanted to move out. There was clearly a sense of bewilderment and frustration amongst women, who saw how their male colleagues often did not reveal strategic information to them.

    In the summer of 2008, when ULFA pro-talk faction declared ceasefire and decided to negotiate, many of the women suddenly seemed to lose grip with the organization. At that time, while male cadres were typically viewed as salient to the outfit’s cause and post conflict welfare, women were perceived as inimical to the organization and as a liability. Men were to politically chart out strategies for peacemaking, while women were left to accommodate to social roles such as tending to infants, nursing, sweeping, washing, etc. They were subjected to the whims of their leaders who were invariably men. Therefore, there were significant numbers of women rebels who had disbanded.

    However, her moment of release from the underground would also be her entry, unwittingly, into a deeper maze of surveillance and state control, also social economic uncertainties. In what is understood as a routine and standard procedure of surrender, her activities were often tracked down every single day. These women were transformed into a special category of state subjects who were seen to be struggling in a shrinking democratic space. As these women encounter a certain sense of uncertainty when they fling back to civilian life, they soon realize that the liberal state that the insurgent looks to is apparently not present. Between war and no war, therefore, the combatant saw that the end of troubles were not in sight.

    One of the interesting encounters that the women rebels had with the state was triggered by the Bhutan crackdown in December 2003. During this, several rebels went missing because they were either taken by the Royal Bhutanese Army or handed over to the Indian Army. Many former women combatants and civil society activists even launched an offensive proclaiming that the state wasn’t taking a proactive role in trying to see what happened across borders. This led to a legal, judicial impasse and, after a lot of legal battle and several court hearings, the matter was dropped for want of evidence in 2010.

    It is clear that despite numerous attempts by the state, there is a gap in some juridical position to solve this issue. Even the Geneva Convention, which articulates the historic protocol on rebels of armed conflict more than three decades ago, is constrained by its own mandate for not providing any machinery for its supervision or enforcement. Dr. Rakhee also highlighted the problem of A) lack of proper disbursement of cash to these former women combatants. The compensation allotted to them by the state fails to reach them thereby making it difficult for them to reintegrate. B) Further, gender concerns are markedly absent in the structural paradigms of peace building. Transitions from conflict to peace are critical reconstructive moments and therefore should be a priority to the state.

    There are multiple sites where representation of women can be advanced. These include 1) Government, 2) Security sector, 3) Local stakeholders, and 4) External partners like international institutions, regional and multilateral organizations. All this is only possible if the processes of justice are advanced, for which there must be cognition of offences particularly to women. There is a need to erase silences and there ought to be measures by which narrative can be made available. There must also be measures where women’s role in these long drawn conflicts must be recorded and acknowledged and their participation in the peace processes and in reconstruction during the conflict must be made available.

    Key points that were raised during the discussion:

    • It is significant to look at the way we define surrendered insurgents. One of the reasons why a lot of women had difficulties in procuring the benefits after surrender could be due to the fact that they might not have been qualified for it.
    • The internal patriarchal paradigm that pervades every sphere of our lives could be one reason why there is lack of a prominent name of a female rebel in the ULFA ranks.
    • While looking at the lives of the women rebels after surrender, it is important to look at the level of societal acceptance of these women, i.e., for instance, how do civilian Assamese women look at these former combatants.
    • A comparison of surrendered militants from Jammu and Kashmir, Nagaland or Mizoram would prove helpful in providing a clearer pan-India picture.
    • Understanding of the women cadre in the ULFA will also help us to have a strong case study to understand how to deal with the women in other insurgencies, for instance, the Maoists.

    About the Speaker

    Dr. Kalita is Currently Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Teen Murti House, and Associate Professor of English Cotton College(State University), Assam. Her work on women combatants is based on field work she has conducted with women combatants of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

    Prepared by Husanjot Chahal, Research Intern, IDSA