M.S. Shankar, Outlook – April 06, 1998
Rankled by a PWG unit’s harassment, tribal women give Naxals a taste of their own medicine
IF there is a whiff of an agitation, can women be far behind, in Andhra Pradesh that is? In the recent past, the womenfolk have successfully organised themselves to launch a vigorous anti-arrack movement, forcing the state government to ban the sale of the brew. Now, they have declared war against one of the most dreaded Naxal outfits, the People’s War Group (PWG), in East Godavari district. If it was Rosamma in Dubagunta (Nellore) who spearheaded the prohibition drive and drove the then Congress government headed by Kotla Vijayabhaskara Reddy to ban liquor in 1982, it’s Bodeti Lakshmi of Peddamallapuram who has now stormed into the limelight with her bold initiative to teach a lesson or two to the PWG.
Both women’s struggles are an offshoot of awareness campaigns launched by voluntary organisations in the district. The anti-arrack movement came on the heels of “Operation Blackboard”, where women were inspired to take on their alcoholic husbands after reading all about it in textbooks; the decision to fight the PWG’s harassment has got a lot to do with a unique savings scheme which has bettered the economic lot of women and given them a voice to protest.
Samata, a voluntary organisation, launched the scheme—thrift cooperative societies—and helped tribal women, living in about 46 villages in four mandals, Prattipadu, Sankhavaram, Kotanandur and Yeleshwaram, to mobilise a whopping Rs 21 lakh, including a Rs 7 lakh aid from the Girijana Cooperative Society, to see them through their rainy days. This not only brought some economic stability to their lives—thus reducing their financial dependence on the men—but also gave them courage to stand up against the ‘Annalu’ or big brother, the PWG. All the four mandals on the foothills of the Eastern ghats fall in PWG territory where its writ runs.
The cause of the upheaval can be traced to the “misdeeds” of a nine-member committee, foisted on the region by the PWG to oversee tribal interests. But from day one itself, the committee members seemed to be more keen on promoting its own needs. Alleges Bodeti Lakshmi, mother of three and one of the many ‘sisters’ who dared to speak out against the ‘Annalu’: “The new committee is dominated by non-tribals and they have never shown any interest in protecting our rights.”
According to her, the committee had taken control of the 20-acre Annavaram Devasthanam, a sacred property hitherto held collectively by the tribals, and disbursed the land among the members’ kin for ploughing. The landgrab was followed up by systematic bouts of violence. The committee members beat up five men of the village for petty reasons; among the thrashed was the village sarpanch, Jagga Babu. And imposed a fine of Rs 55,000 on all five for allegedly flouting the PWG diktat.
The PWG, which declared the entire Dandakaranya spread along the Godavari valley as a “guerrilla zone” some six months ago, had stepped up its activities in the region for quite sometime. But the blast at the Girijan Cooperative Society depot at Peddamallapuram on February 16, during the first phase of polling, was the last straw. The tolerance levels of the villagers, especially the women, snapped. The blast couldn’t have come at a worse time because the depot is the only source of monthly rations for the villagers.
This incident and another encounter in which two Naxals and two policemen were killed forced the state-owned Road Transport Corporation to stop its services, thus putting the villagers to further hardship.