The Legacy of Ajitha: Unearthing a Subaltern Indian Revolutionary and Political Prisoner
Issue #71, December 2004
As a Third World postcolonial feminist scholar and activist, I look back to my tempestuous teenage years in India, when my heroes were great revolutionaries. But it was not merely international hetero-patriarchal models of revolutionaries like Ché Guevara and Fidel Castro who inspired me, but other models closer to home as well. In fact I did not have to look very far, for two of my great heroes were women from my own home state of Kerala in southern India. One lives in the annals of Malayalam literature as one of the greatest exponents of Kalaripayattu, the martial art of my home state, Unniarcha of the Vadakkanpattu or "Northern Ballads" of the kingdom of Malabar. The other is a more contemporary hero, whose foray into history took place as recently as the 1960s. Her name is short and simple, for she has always been known by her first name: Ajitha the Naxalite. The name Ajit from the Sanskrit, means "victory," and is more commonly used to name boys. As a revolutionary and later political prisoner this young woman's name would be recorded for posterity in her country.
Last year I paid a visit to the region where she was captured some 35 years ago, deep in the forest district of Wyanad. The entire region of Wyanad is a forest wildlife sanctuary. The village is called Pulpalli, a place whose claim to fame is legendary in Kerala. For in the dense tropical forests surrounding the region, lurked large numbers of angry young rebels known as Naxalites. The 1960s saw a series of uprisings by these angry young men and women who were led by a fiery leader from Calcutta called Kanu Sanyal. The Naxalites believed in the cult of violence to achieve their goal, to find a solution to the myriad problems of the young nation. The violent movement took its name from the place of its origin; a place called Naxalbari in Kolkata and gradually spread to different parts of the country. They were perceived as radical extremists by the Indian government that used ruthless force to crush the burgeoning movement. But in reality they were merely intensely idealistic, angry youth many from highly educated middle class families who had seen the great dreams for their country shattered in the postcolonial politics of the nation. It was a movement that shook the whole nation and rocked writers, poets, philosophers and filmmakers alike.
I remember two films in particular about the movement, which I saw during my halcyon days at the Film and Television Institute in Pune, near Bombay. One was by the maverick avant-garde filmmaker John Abraham from Kerala, and was titled Amma Ariyan, "To Let Mother Know." It was a moving portrait of a young Naxalite upon whose death his friends had to travel to the village where his mother lived to inform her of the death of her only son. Like his protagonist, Abraham too had died prematurely, cutting short a spectacular talent.
The second film was by the renowned Bombay filmmaker, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas. Abbas had traveled to Calcutta to comprehend the truth behind the violence of the movement. On his return to Bombay he put all that he had heard, read and experienced into a film called The Naxalite. Abbas's casting triumph lies in the fact that he cast a former Naxalite in the lead role. The Bengali actor turned Bollywood star Mithun Chakraborthi indeed was so moved by the idea of Abbas making The Naxalite that he agreed to work free and his entire staff, chauffeur, make-up-man and secretary were also inspired by Mithun to work for Abbas without apy. Abbas was also fortunate to find the great actress, Smita Patil, to play Ajitha in The Naxalite. Patil too didn't charge Abbas a rupee and played the young female revolutionary with aplomb. The film, like most of his films, didn't do well at the box-office but for those who wanted more from a film than mere spectacle, it was an experience.
But who was Ajitha? The press had painted a graphic picture of her. In 1968, the most famous female revolutionary of the Naxalite movement in Kerala had massacred several policemen and left the impression of her bloodstained palm on the walls of the Pulpalli Police Station. That is the legend behind the figure: the dangerous gun toting female bandit, predecessor to the more well known "Bandit Queen" Phoolan Devi, immortalized in cinema by Shekar Kapoor's film. I can visualize her in my mind's eye, a 19 year-old revolutionary, grimly attacking the astonished policemen, shocked at the sight of a woman, such a young woman at that, facing them like an avenging dragon in the mists of the Wyanad hills.
She describes her extraordinary youth in her memoirs, Ormakkurippukal. Born to parents who were revolutionaries themselves, Kunnikkal Narayanan and Mandakini Narayanan, in April, 1950, Ajitha was attracted to extreme Left politics as a high school student. The first agitation she led was in 1964 when she organized her schoolmates against the Indian government's decision to drastically cut Kerala's ration dividend. Both her parents had been revolutionaries themselves, her father Kunnikkal Narayanan who died in 1979 had been friend, guide and philosopher to Ajitha. Her mother, Mandakini, is an extraordinary woman in her own right. Born into a Brahmin family from Gujarat, she had turned to Left politics and, abandoning the conservative customs of her high caste community, had turned atheist and further adding to the scandal, had married Kunnikkal Narayanan in the 1940s, shortly before India had gained its independence from the British.
In the late 1960s Ajitha was active in the Naxalite movement. She was the only female member in the group that organized and executed the Thalassery-Pulpally Naxalite "actions", which consequently led to her arrest and imprisonment in 1968. On 22nd November 1968, a group of about 300 armed guerrillas made an unsuccessful attempt to attack the Thalassery police station. The members of the group fled and went into hiding. After 48 hours, another group of peasant revolutionaries, armed with country-made guns and bombs, attacked the police station at Pulpally in Wyanad. A police wireless operator was killed and many policemen including the Sub-Inspector of police, got injured in the attack.
The torture of the peasants and indigenous people in these areas by the local landlords with the connivance and help of the local police prompted the revolutionaries to this violent action. After this attack the militants had entered the dense forests of Wyanad where they waited for their comrades from Thalassery to join them. But after a few desperate days in the forest, the rebels including Ajitha, had been arrested and sentenced to prison. Prison life was torturous for the young Ajitha. In the Central Jail at Trivandrum, she was sentenced to solitary confinement and considered so dangerous that other prisoners were not allowed to interact with her. Once a little child was beaten up in front of Ajitha for merely talking to her. In the Cannanore jail to which she was transferred later, Ajitha could spend some time with her parents who had been imprisoned there as well. What disturbed her the most, she recalls, was the plight of the sex workers, which she describes in her memoirs. "Even young girls were forced to accept prostitution as a means of earning bread. Once they are in the profession and get imprisoned for a single term, these girls become seasoned and have no other alternative but to sell their bodies," she writes.
Her feminist sensibilities were slowly being honed, even as she spent her days reading in her solitary cell. Ajitha served close to 8 years before being released by the state and remains a famous revolutionary icon in her home state. Today she says the media had grossly exaggerated her role in the Naxalite movement. "Revolutionaries are being portrayed in films as fanatics who blast trains and buildings, unmindful of the lives of those who perish. Such portrayals are actually part of an attempt to tarnish revolutionary movements. Our activities are meant for the people, not against them.''
After reading all these stories of the famous revolutionary, it is somewhat disconcerting to meet Ajitha today for the middle-aged former guerrilla lives with her mother and daughter in a suburb of Calicut in the Malabar district of northern Kerala. To get to their house you pass somnolent cows, grazing sleepily amidst green fields, little rivulets, coconut groves and brightly painted houses. As she invites one to have a sip of tea, she looks nothing like the daring, dangerous revolutionary she once was. But the fire in her eyes is the same when she speaks of the exploitation of the innocent, the landless, and the poor. The weapon she uses today, however, is far more effective in some ways than any gun could ever be: for Ajitha today uses the tool of awareness to shake the conscience of people in her home state. She has a new avataar today, as the founder of a dynamic feminist organization, Anweshi, successor to the earlier radical group called Bodhana ('Awareness') that she started soon after leaving prison.
Anweshi, formed in 1993, is a women's group, which takes up multiple issues of oppression, from gender issues to indigenous and environmental issues. It has been creating waves in Kerala for the past few years by indicting famous politicians for sex crimes. Within the last decade, Anweshi has dealt with more than 500 cases. The organization also led agitations demanding an inquiry into sex racket scandals in Kerala, which involved minor women. In Ajitha's hometown of Calicut, a sex racket had been unearthed in which several senior politicians of the state had been implicated. But after the initial hue and cry fizzled out, the influential minister succeeded in getting political protection despite substantial evidence against him. Anweshi is the only group that relentlessly pursued this issue and has made many powerful enemies in the process.
In another sex scandal, which rocked the state in 1997, known as the Suryanelli case, Professor P J Kurien, a former Union minister and Congress leader, was found to be involved. Different people including well-known politicians sexually molested a schoolgirl from Suryanelli in Idukki district in Kerala for almost a month. Despite the scandal he had been embroiled in, Kurien had contested the last elections from the Idukki parliamentary constituency. Anweshi led by the intrepid Ajitha went there to campaign against him. The result - Kurien lost by more than 10,000 votes in this Congress bastion, quite a record for a country in which politicians have on several occasions managed to fool people successfully and capture their votes. What makes it even more odd is that a former felon turned feminist activist engineered this coup.
The factor that I reiterate as critical here is that Ajitha is not an anomaly in Asia. From the Trung sisters in ancient Vietnam who rallied their people to fight against the invaders to the Rani of the Indian kingdom of Jhansi who rode to battle against the British during what they euphemistically named "the Sepoy Mutiny," but which Indian historians have subsequently reclaimed as the first Indian war of Independence, to Fa Mulan, the great Chinese woman warrior recreated by Maxine Hong Kingston, the Third World has not lacked female heroes who have demonstrated resistance against the forces of oppression. Indeed, these heroes have been kept secret in western scholarship for the insidious purpose of projecting women from this part of the world as helpless victims, desperately needing the benevolent hand of the West to rescue them, a project that would then justify the invasion and subsequent occupation of these regions by the hegemonic powers of the First World. Indeed the importance of unearthing critical issues pertaining to Third World women has to be an essential aspect of current postcolonial and transnational feminist scholarship. As Ania Loomba points out, there is another history where resistance, however problematic, is present, and where precolonial history needs to be rewritten, lifted from its nostalgic or Orientalist versions.
Shoba S. Raggopal, Ph.D, a former television journalist in India, teaches Asian-American Studies at Colorado University, Boulder.