How Village Women Stood Up to Violent Forces

Eleven years ago, on November 4, 2008, in a forest area near the border between the Indian states of West Bengal and Jharkhand, an incident of police violence on local tribal women’s sparked a widespread resistance movement and followed by a conflict… that you may have never heard about! I must say, I have always been interested in studying things that nobody talks about. Popularity has nothing to do with how significant an issue or event is – it is more related to power.

Lalgarh was the case study I chose for my doctoral research, and what I have found there was unexpected and powerful. I went there in 2013 to study conflict, but I ended up learning about peace. What I found out was that the local people did so much to stand up against violence, even when their were threatened and so many of them killed.

The lessons I have learn from the people – especially the women – of Lalgarh are what inspired me to look for everyday peace around me. I kept thinking: what if it happened here, in the society I live in? Would we be able, in our society, to stand united and resist violence? But yes, let me tell you about Lalgarh first. Especially, let me tell you about the women of Lalgarh.

The spark of a mass movement

The whole story of Lalgarh started with an incident in a remote tribal village in a jungle area in West Bengal, India. The incident started with the police raiding a tribal village and randomly arresting a man accusing him of being a Maoist insurgent. The women of the village came out and told the police that he was innocent and that they could not take him. They refused to let him go. They shielded the man with their bodies, holding tight to each other. The police beat them brutally. Many were injured, including a woman who lost an eye, and a pregnant woman who lost a baby.

The village Chopelia. Photo by the author.

It did not end there. The story of the women of Chotopelia quickly became a symbol of state injustice. The day after the incident, thousands of local people came out to demonstrate and started a resistance movement that spread to hundreds of villages across three districts. 

The mass mobilisation that sparked after the incident in Chotopelia was not short-lived. An organisation called the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) was formed to lead the resistance movement. This organization used noncooperation strategies to keep state forces out of the villages, and started experimenting forms of self-governance. They formed village-level committees to identify local problems and priorities and set up development initiatives to address them, like health camps and building infrastructures. 

A few months later, the role of Maoist insurgents became more evident and state forces launched an operation to crush the movement. The situation escalated to a violent conflict which lasted until after the change of government in West Bengal in 2011.

Women symbols of resistance

From the start of this widespread non-cooperation movement to the violent conflict between Maoist and state forces that followed, women’s role was at the forefront. Pictures of thousands of tribal women rallying and demonstrating in Lalgarh against the state spread around the world as symbols of resistance. The leaders of the PCPA and the Maoists emphasised the participation of women in their ranks. However, when I interviewed women, they had alternative explanations. Many women participated in nonviolent and violent resistance because they chose to, but coercion and violence were also widely used to force them to join. 

Women’s own stories of resistance were very diverse and often different from those told from the outside. These were, for example, stories of women who set up collective strategies to avoid state forces, women who used the movement to lead their own protest actions, women who refused being coerced into participating in rallies and violent actions, or women who stood together and used their bodies as shields to stop the violence. 

These narratives were not so much about supporting a side or another, they were about women’s direct agency and ownership. This does not mean that women’s actions were not political. It means that their politics was different from the agendas of political groups that claimed their voices. 

The incident of Chotopelia and the way it sparked widespread mobilisation is itself an example of how powerful everyday resistance can be: resistance did not start with the organization of the PCPA, but with the women who stopped the police in Chotopelia.

Chotopelia was not the only time women resisted the state through their bodies, but these women were meaningful symbols that the local people mentioned over and over in their narratives when they explained their reasons for resistance. The story of Chotopelia also shows that acts of resistance may take place at village level, and still influence large masses as the news spreads. And that was even without the use of social media!

Women’s everyday resistance was also very effective against the Maoists. In a village called Radhanagar, towards the end of the conflict, when a group of Maoists came to coerce the women to join a rally, they refused all together and ultimately the Maoists run away. The news of their success inspired the neighbouring villages to do the same. Soon, many villages stood up against the Maoists, and the conflict settled down in the months that followed.

Women’s invisible networks

During the conflict, often there were only women left in the villages, while all the men fled. In many villages, the women faced the everyday challenges of conflict by living all together in one house. In this way, they we’re able to feel more in control and support one another. They also organised systems to gather and share information, and act collectively. They had to set up strategies that allowed them to protect their children, and provide to their everyday needs. Because there wasn’t just the conflict: life went on. Among them there were women with little children and all their material and emotional needs, pregnant women, elderly women, disabled women. They all had to keep going, and they did it best by acting together. 

Everyday resistance was possible in villages where the bonds among  women were already strong. Often, women were used to counting on one another to face everyday violence even before the violent conflict broke out. They shared emotional support and material resources to overcome poverty, oppression, domestic and sexual violence, and much more. Thus, even in a situation where trusting was extremely risky and resistance was punished with violence, there were invisible informal networks that were able to challenge the armed forces.

Everyday peace in your community

When I was writing about the power of community bonds for everyday peace, I wondered how everyday peace looked like in my community here in New Zealand. At that time, I was pregnant with my second baby, and I kept worrying about who would look like after my 3 years old son while I gave birth. There was no village around me, and I realized how isolated I was. I knew that it was time to start connecting and looking for everyday peace here.

My journey to set up ‘ The Everyday Peace Initiative’, so far, has been focused around connection. While connecting with other women here in New Zealand, I found that there are patterns of everyday violence similar, in many ways, to the ones I described in my research. It is not just subtle discrimination. I am talking about unspeakable levels of suffering, families broken apart, and constant humiliation. After all, violent conflicts and violent attacks like Christchurch, are often a sign of more invisible, but widespread issues in the society. Invisible because they are actively silenced, normalised, and because we tend to avoid listening to things that make us uncomfortable. 

The good news is that there is resistance and everyday peace, too! There have been Maori movements in New Zealand this year, and I also witnessed informal networks being set up where families are supporting each other, sharing information, strategies, and advice so that they can build a peaceful future for their families. The context, culture, and tools are entirely different, but once again, everyday peace is found in nurturing connection among people. I am sure that this happens elsewhere, too. My guess is that where there is everyday violence, there also tends to be everyday peace. 

There is still a lot to learn though, so I need your help. I need to collect more stories and more knowledge about everyday peace, so that we can connect everyday peacebuilders around the world. Do you have an experience to share about things that you or other people you know did in a context of violence? It does not necessarily need to be a violent conflict. It could be an assault, sexual violence, domestic violence, discrimination, institutional violence, harassment, emotional abuse, bullyism, and more. What helped making a difference?  If you do, or you are interested in learning more, please connect with us to share your story, connect with other everyday peacebuilders, or discover the everyday peacebuilder in you. 

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