Masters of disguise and guile

Vinaya Patil
Saturday, 25 August 2018

Rashmi Saksena, author of recently-published She goes to war gives us a peek into the book that speaks of the lives of women militants in India, their challenges and more

The life of a militant is something that’s hardly spoken of from a humane point of view, forget that of a woman militant. Rashmi Saksena, in her book She goes to war, published by Speaking Tiger, had tried to do exactly this. “I was keen to find out who these women were, what compelled them to become a militant and choose a life on the run filled with danger, violence and subterfuge,” she says. Here’s more from an interview with the journalist-turned-author...

From being an acclaimed crime reporter to writing this book, how has the journey been, and why this turn?

Like all reporters of my time, I had to do all the local beats and crime beat was one of them. I took on the challenge and learnt a lot of the under-belly of the city. It was good training in developing contacts across the board, without making judgements about them and squeezing information out from them. 

I learnt not to be intimidated by criminals and law-breakers. Instead I became even more curious about them. This is why I persuaded my News Editor to send me to a place where dacoits were negotiating terms of surrender. I interviewed men with awards on their heads to figure out what led them to such a life.
My book is a product of my love for field work, investigation and trying to understand why people choose to be on the other side of law.

Tell us about the inspiration behind writing She goes to war.

I have always been interested in engaging with women who decide to break out of the conventional mould for Indian women. I try to know them as persons and figure out why they are what they are, why they have opted for a choice which does not conform to the ‘traditional’ or ‘conventional’ of the society they come from. When I first heard of women cadres in militant and insurgent outfits, my curiosity was roused. To add to this was the perception that women were forced into this life and it really was not a choice they made 

I wanted to know the person behind the generic term “woman terrorist” used in official records. Over time my interest in them grew as women militants/terrorists started to make international headlines. Another big reason I chose to write about women militants was the realisation that they were vital in keeping alive underground movements. It is only after meeting about 100 such women did I realise the sort of crucial assignments they carry out. After getting to know some of them, I realised that they opted out of the life of a militant for a home and children. And for their children they want peace. 

In other words, women militants make a big constituency for peace and normalcy. Yet they are missing when militant organisations and governments sit across the negotiating table to hammer out a solution. I want to underscore this in my book and hope someone in the corridors of power will take note of it. 

North East and Kashmir are two extremely sensitive regions. How challenging was it writing about these?

Finding ex women militants was a big challenge. There is no record of them. Once they leave the organisation,  they just disappear into the ‘normal’ world. They don’t want to be identified as a militant. So I did not know where to start. I tapped my contacts — right from underground leaders, known militants, security agencies and even local leaders. It was frustrating when I met dead end but was so rewarding when I could establish contact and over time get a story out of the person. 

Kashmir was most challenging. The situation is so sensitive that even those who knew such women were reluctant to mention them, leave alone putting me onto them. Also the security agencies in Kashmir are always suspicious of any one snooping around or trying to establish contact with “marked” men and women. It was difficult to convince people that my search had no political overtones. The women in Kashmir have their reasons to be secretive. 

Unlike those in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur or Chhattisgarh where they work over-ground and their success lies in maintaining a cover, in the North East, the women militants leave their homes to live in forest camps. 
Everyone in their village or home surroundings know that they have been away to camp. There is less secrecy but that does not mean that these women are keen to talk about their life in camps. The biggest challenge for me was first to find these women, then get them to agree to talk to me over several meetings.

What motivates them to abandon the traditional roles and embrace the uncertain life of an insurgent?

It differs from region to region as my book clearly brings out. Yet there is one very strong common reason. Women turn to militancy when their men folk are beaten up, tortured or taken away by security and government agencies for no reason. Perceived injustice is a big factor that drives them to take up arms against the establishment. 

What makes their militancy distinct as compared to that of their male counterparts?

Women cadres are very dedicated and loyal; this is not to say that their men comrades are not. They have proved to be masters of disguise and guile. They make effective lone operators, couriers of missives and arms and provide cover for their men on the move. It is the women who usually form the security ring around their leaders. They take part in combat and some are ace shots. For strategic reasons, they are put in the frontline of action and they put their life on the line without asking questions.

Did you face any resistance in penning this book down? 

If you mean resistance from the government or security agencies, no there was none. In fact, the question did not arise because I did not approach the government for help. I worked with the help of sources. Yes, people did caution me saying that I was taking on a risky project. 

However, I did face resistance from the women militants themselves. Many refused to speak to me. I managed to overcome this by working at gaining their trust and confidence. Sometimes I had to meet them several times, sometimes live with them and at times even had to convince their husband that no harm would come to them if I told their story.

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