VIOLENCE, GENDER & MEMORY IN NAXALBARI
UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK, UK
The memory of violence that I am going to explore in this paper raises some fundamental questions about what falls under the category of violence – do all forms of violence acquire the same symbolic status when recognized as violence? What counts as violence and what, on the other hand, is rendered invisible or unnameable as violence?
Revolutionary movements (such as the one my research is on) mirror a wider politics of naming violence, which legitimates certain kinds of violence while rendering others invisible. Much like the state, revolutionary movements confer legitimacy upon their own acts of militancy, thereby effacing violence in the rhetoric of liberation. In the face of the ‘extraordinary’ violence of armed struggle around which cultural memory is woven, forms of violence that fall outside a totalizing category of ‘political terror’ are also rendered invisible. Within progressive revolutionary politics world over, stories of internal strife and oppression have often been perceived as a threat to internal political solidarity and have thus been misrecognised, denied, or ‘willfully forgotten’ (Das 1995). These forms of violence, locatable in the politics of everyday life, often threaten the codes of internal solidarity and are subject not simply to forgetting but to active repression. Women, the bearers of tradition, invariably emerge as the custodians of oppositional or ‘risky’ memories that require disciplining. Placed upon a continuum of violence, forms of regularized and cumulative violence that are internal to a political community occupy the lowest position in terms of visibility and social recognition.
In this paper, I want to focus on the ways in which violence is structured in the memory of one such radical movement – the late 1960s Naxalbari andolan/movement in Bengal. In so doing, I explore how some forms of violence are more easily remembered, grieved, or even valorized than others, at the level of the individual and a culture, and the gendered dynamics of such forms of remembrance. For those of you who don’t know, the Naxalbari andolan began as a peasant uprising in northern West Bengal in 1967, led by a dissident group of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Members of this group and their sympathizers came to be known as Naxalites. The Naxalites declared a ‘people’s war’ against the Indian state structured on the Maoist model of protracted armed struggle. Armed with a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, middle–class students, who formed a wide base for the movement, left the city in order to ‘integrate’ with the peasantry and become ‘de–classed’.2 The political line of khatam or the individual annihilation of ‘class enemies’, first instigated against landowners in rural areas, escalated into what has often been referred to as an orgy of violence. Small guerrilla units primarily of men indiscriminately killed anyone from traffic policemen to local schoolteachers as representatives of the state. The movement was finally crushed in 1971 under severe state repression and partly due to the political misgivings of the Party. Stories of young idealist men being brutally tortured and shot by the police have been the most sustained component of the Naxalbari legacy. Although contemporary Naxalite and Maoist groups operate in other parts of India, Bengal has never seen a resurgence of Naxalite violence after the events of the 1960s–70s. Yet this movement forms an intricate thread of the lived memory of the city of Calcutta, and continues to be one of its dominant legends.
The larger project, on which this paper is based, I should mention, concentrates on the urban experience of the movement, drawing on the narratives of middle–class men and women activists, and ‘official’ and popular ‘sites of memory’. I will not go into details about sources or methodology here; we can always talk about these later.
I shall begin with the memory of ‘revolutionary violence’, key to the formation and persistence of an imaginary community of martyrs and heroes. The official memory of the movement, including the writings of its key ideologue, Charu Mazumdar, is, on the whole, fairly conventional in its propagandist overtones and revolutionary fervour. The rhetorical and narrative strategies that it deploys scripts a predictable tale about the necessity of violence, the inevitability of victory, and an inauguration of the proverbial ‘new’ (man, age, nation). The consolidation of Naxalite violence as a righteous, revolutionary form of ‘good’ violence split–off from the ‘bad’ violence of the enemy is accomplished within this war–like logic of necessity. What makes revolutionary violence legitimate is the illegitimate violence of the Other, primarily the state. The state, as the only agency that can legitimately deploy violence (c.f. Weber) is, for the Naxalites (as for most radical groups), criminalized. Its use of violence is rendered unjust, illegitimate, and immoral. This is the fundamental discursive strategy that the revolutionary employs to justify his acts of violence as against those of the anti–hero who is reviled as contemptuous, unjust, and criminal. On the other hand, the violence of the hero is a locus of positive attributes – of heroic, sacrificial action, of a vision of a just and egalitarian future. The violence of the revolutionary is thus shorn of all its horror, and presented, within historiography, as ‘infantile adventurism’, and within the community, as idiomatic martyrdom. It is memorialized, indeed idealized as a form of ‘good’ violence, split–off from those characteristics that are projected onto a denigrated other, namely the state. These twin processes of idealizing the self and demonizing the other lie at the heart of a triumphant fantasy of revolutionary class struggle. They enable, as Dawson (drawing upon Melanie Klein) has noted of narratives of nationalism, a coding of ‘our’ atrocities as righteous and divinely sanctioned whilst ‘theirs’ are named as atrocities alone (1994:37).
What I am suggesting here is that the discursive transformation of violence into ‘revolutionary violence’ enables a disavowal of the violence of the self, and its projection onto an Other. The psychic operation of projection whereby unwanted feelings are purged from the self and placed upon others enables one to hurt the other with impunity. The imagining of revolution and its heroes enables, in this manner, a coercive misrecognition of the violence of the self. More significantly, it also enables a denial of one’s own pain which is recast in heroic light. At the heart of a romantic narrative of revolution is an emphasis on its heroic aspects and a concomitant denial of its less exciting, less glorious, and harsher realities. When state repression was at it height in 1970s, Charu Mazumdar called for more martyrs to come forward in a public valorization of revolutionary violence. His unflinching faith in ‘our’ victory and ‘their’ losses even when the ground reality was appallingly different can be read as a defensive strategy to counter the real threat of defeat and destruction. A story of romantic revolution could not afford to include unsettling images of betrayal, torture, and death that had become a daily occurrence in the life of the movement from the mid–1970s. As Dawson explains in relation to war narratives, the phantasy of war as romantic adventure provides a degree of psychic defence in the face of the tensions and terrors of real–life combat. In the context of Naxalbari, narratives of glorious struggle and sacrifice for the cause enable a denial of feelings of fear, trauma, and anxiety in the face of possible death.
The clearest instance of such a denial can be seen in the present–day commemoration of state repression undertaken by ex–activists and various splinter groups who broadly align to Maoist politics. Such a splintered political community commemorates the repression of the 1970s as a testament to the brutality of the state, and to the valour of those who were martyred in its wake. In public acts of commemoration and in ‘official’ speech, the brutality of violence and death is transformed into glorious martyrdom. However, in accepting the myth of self–sacrifice rather than the reality of death, remembrance becomes a way of forgetting violence, and of domesticating trauma. Such a ‘sacrificial memory’ is endemic to the myth of the nation–state in which death in war is, for instance, reinscribed as a glorious sacrifice to the nation (Edkins 2003). It is through such a sacrificial memory that the state co–opts the bodies of dead soldiers, and produces closure. These modes of public remembrance have significant implications for the possibility of individual mourning.
In the context of Naxalbari, practices of commemorating the dead as martyrs reinforce an imagined community held together by a comforting collective fantasy of revolution. In providing us with a romantic tale of sacrifice for the greater good, official and popular forms of memory diffuse past trauma. The possibility of mourning the individual is also one that is necessarily delayed or even lost as the myth of the revolution takes precedence over ‘the question of personal loss and bereavement’ (Edkins 2003:94). Individual pain is left unacknowledged; individual life itself can no longer be mourned. The human cost of self–sacrifice is also obliterated from collective memory.
Thus far, I have suggested that the valorization of ‘revolutionary violence’ in official discourse relies upon a disavowal of the violence exercised by the self on the other, and equally, a denial of one’s own wounded subjectivity. Beyond this, the public valorization of violence is intimately linked to the lack of recognition or to the ‘forgetting’ of the violence that was internal to the revolutionary community – those ‘little violences’ and acts of betrayal that structured everyday relationships within the movement. From my interviews with male and female activists, it was possible to map a broad taxonomy of violence – everyday, political, sexual, ‘public’ and ‘private’ – as structuring the everyday life of activists within the movement, especially in the space of the underground where the revolutionaries took ‘shelter’ in the homes of peasants, workers, or middle–class sympathizers of the Party. It was within such a space of refuge and safety that female activists, in particular, faced multiple forms of threat and not at the hands of the enemy alone. These ranged from routinised acts of violence and interpersonal aggression experienced in the shelter, to acts of male sexual violence at the hands of one’s comrades, to the political betrayals that contributed, in no small measure, to the eventual dissolution of the andolan. In women’s narratives of everyday life in the underground, the ‘spectacular’ violence of the state and of armed resistance disappears in the face of a daily, unspectacular gendered vulnerability.
At the same time, the research overwhelmingly demonstrates how these memories of violence and betrayal could not always be articulated as testimony, not at the time of the movement, and crucially, not even today. Instead, they were and continue to be articulated in the context of a normative silence; subject to collective denial, misrecognition, and ‘forgetting’. These forms of interpersonal and everyday violence (that were deeply gendered) are thus rendered invisible in the cultural memory of Naxalbari; they do not ultimately ‘count’ as violence. Acts of sexual violence committed against women activists by male comrades/sympathisers are paradigmatic of a form of ‘bad’ violence that demands ‘forgetting’. The inability to publicly testify to sexual violence lies, for me, at the heart of the cultural practices of remembering Naxalbari that glorify some forms of violence while eliding (and normalizing) the experience of others.
I use the term sexual violence to capture the range of abuses and threats that women faced both as women and as sexual objects within the political field. These included acts of physical assault, rape, acts that stopped short of rape, unwanted gestures, sexually inflected and sexist comments, and domestic abuse. The spaces of violence, for women, were not confined to the ‘public’ domain of political conflict but included normatively ‘safe’ spaces of shelter and refuge. The threat of sexual violence can be located precisely at the interface of these spaces – the ‘private space’ of the underground/shelter and the ‘public’ space of armed struggle. At the same time, the very ‘extraordinariness’ of political conflict (including the construct of a rapist state) transformed the space of the underground (and the shelter) into one of safety, thereby rendering invisible the structures of power and vulnerability that constituted these spaces.
Krishna Bandyopadhya (2001) and Supriya Sanyal’s (2001) short published memoirs of the movement detail the particular forms of gendered violence that structures their experience of underground life. Other women that I interviewed equally bore witness to the sexual and domestic abuse suffered at the hands of male peasants, Party leaders, and even ‘political’ husbands. Several of these testimonies to violence (including published ones) are, however, voiced in the context of a coercive silence. This is demonstrated by the emphatic need of most of these women to remain anonymous. The need for anonymity signals, for me, the failure of an oppositional story of the movement that can validate (rather than abject) the ambiguities, politics, and traumas of women’s lived experience. It also indicates that an affective community of listeners who can bear witness to women’s experiences of wounding has perhaps not come into being, in the thirty years that have passed since the dissolution of the movement. These thirty years have seen the flourishing of several alternative discourses and speech communities, including feminism that can potentially re–write the past. Several ex–Naxalite women are, in fact, members of these more recent communities, and have taken up a feminist vocabulary to critique the gender blindness and sexism of the radical left. Krishna is, for instance, one of the few women who has publicly condemned male sexual violence in writing and in speech (see Bandyopadhya 2001). At the same time, Krishna has been accused, even by other women activists, of trying to ‘destroy’ the image of the movement by doing so.
Female testimony to sexism and sexual violence becomes, in present times, an act of betrayal. It is perceived as a threat to an imagined political community, and thus discouraged from public discourse. In the face of the movement’s dissolution, ‘the discourse of unity [has become] even more compelling, if not purely coercive’, in the name of which internal conflicts and betrayals are silenced (Motsemme 2002:649). It is thus not surprising that even when women tell a different, often traumatic story of the past, they (must) remain anonymous. Just as the privileging of a triumphant narrative of the movement mitigates the possibility of individual mourning with regard to political violence, it also forecloses the possibility of identifying acts of betrayal and violence that were internal to the community. The memory of sexual violence is a particularly risky memory that blurs absolute moral distinctions between victim (the movement) and perpetrator (the state) in moving closer to Primo Levi’s (1988) conception of a ‘grey zone’, a sphere of moral ambiguity in which the revolutionary becomes a coward.
The collective repudiation/misrecognition of sexual violence can, thus, be fairly straightforwardly linked to the repressive nature of political cultures that silence stories of internal strife and coercion. For me, the more interesting and difficult question throughout this research was: how and why women themselves were invested in these acts of misrecognition/denial, even against their own experience of abuse. Women, my research suggests, routinely disassociated themselves from sexual victimization, downplayed, disavowed, and denied male sexual violence, defending the Party against accusations of complicity. Although time prevents me from presenting some of these narratives, I want to finish by raising the following question: how can we understand women’s investments in not naming violence, even while bearing testimony to acts of abuse as some of the women I interviewed have? This question raises larger issues to do with the politics of subjectivity, and its relation to cultural practices of memory and forgetting.
One way of doing so (as suggested by feminists; see Kelly 1988) would be to recognize denial and contradiction as part of a coping strategy in the face of a traumatic past. Feminists have also suggested how women’s acts of denying or minimizing abuse can be seen as a form of resistance to a discourse of victimology, generally understood to be profoundly disempowering. The associated risk is that of rendering violence against women invisible or even normalizing male sexual violence (Jackson 2001).
Another way, in the context of the movement, would be to situate women’s repudiations of sexual violence in their continuing identifications with, and investments in fantasies of heroic selfhood; and the attendant costs of these forms of identification. Identifications, we know from psychoanalytic and poststructuralist theories, are multiple and contestatory, and our identifications always entail the loss of alternative selves that are disavowed for the sake of fashioning a coherent and unitary self. Identities are thus produced in and through practices of repudiation and abjection, and even through a disidentification with or a ‘forgetting’ of certain pasts. What is forgotten is not simply abandoned or lost but is the means through which subjectivity is itself produced. Subjectivities are thus constituted as much through forgetting as they are through remembering.
A fantasy of glorious revolution offered women powerful points of identification in idealized images of heroic resistance. The ‘taking up’ of such subject–positions entailed, however, the active and affective disidentification and disavowal of certain experiences, especially those that were rooted in more fragmentary and vulnerable aspects of the self. These experiences were abjected or expelled from the borders of a normative self, given the threat they posed to its coherency. The abject, for women, included that which was coded as feminine within primarily male fantasies of heroic self–sacrifice. However, sexual violence disrupted individual women’s identifications with masculine fantasies of class struggle and heroic martyrdom by reinscribing feminine otherness, and together with it, feelings of acute vulnerability. As I have argued in more detail elsewhere (Roy, work in progress) the threat of sexual violence sharply underscores the gendered limitations of masculine cultural imageries that are structured through the very repudiation of the feminine and a distancing from the domestic.
In women’s narratives, an identification with a triumphant narrative of heroic resistance thus entails a loss of alternative identifications including the possibility of identifying oneself as a wounded subject or as a subject in pain. The repeated repudiation of one’s own wounding (in sexual violence) is the cost of articulating oneself in the (masculine) image of the self–abnegating martyr, rooted in an imagined community of heroes and revolutionaries. In the context of Naxalbari, identification with ‘good’ revolutionary violence seems to foreclose the possibility of identifying both the violence of the self, and its fragility under trauma. The politics of identification/disidentification are particularly evident in the case of sexual violence, resolutely borne by women.
While the trauma that women suffered within the community is actively repressed, their victimization at the hands of the state finds ready appropriation by a collective discourse of political injury. The ‘untellability’ of stories of sexual violence suffered within the revolutionary community must then be linked to the ways in which stories of state terror (including rape) have become highly tellable, and have assumed a preeminent role in the cultural memory of Naxalbari. However, this ‘tellability’ of women’s experience of political violence in testimony does not guarantee the alleviation of individual pain. On the contrary, radical political movements often rely upon an instrumental usage of female suffering in order to construct an imagined political community. To return to one of the earlier points made by this paper, an ‘official’ narrative of heroic self–sacrifice can marginalize subjective experiences of wounding even as it renders them visible by remaining tied to the demands of political solidarity and not to the need for individual mourning.
This paper’s discussion on revolutionary and counter–revolutionary, legitimate and illegitimate, and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence should make it clear that not all events or experiences come under the sign of violence; and what is and is not violence, as Jeganathan (2000:64) usefully reminds us, is always governed by politics. In the case of Naxalbari, I have shown how certain experiences of pain and violence are valorised (and thereby domesticated) while others remain shrouded in silence, subject to collective disavowal and constant repudiation. Some forms of violence become constitutive of a heroic identity while others are purged for the sake of living with a damaged subjectivity. These reflections raise more fundamental questions that pertain to what ‘counts’ as violence within oppositional political cultures, and how the idealizing of some forms of violence rest upon the ‘forgetting’ of others, the burden of which is invariably borne by women. Questions such as these have, I believe, been inadequately posed and engaged with within the feminist critique of the radical left, at least in India. A feminist reappraisal of the revolutionary left will have to grapple seriously with the ways in which transformative politics rely on certain abject zones and silenced spaces in order to compose a utopic future. The compulsion to invest in such a future should not blind us, as feminists, to its cost.
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Jackson, Sue (2001) ‘Happily Never After: Young Women’s Stories of Abuse in Heterosexual Love Relationships’, Feminism & Psychology, 11(3): 305–321
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Kelly, Liz (1988) Surviving sexual violence, Cambridge: Polity
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Motsemme, Nthabiseng (2002) ‘Gendered Experiences of Blackness in Post–apartheid South Africa’, Social Identities, 8 (4): 647–673
Sanyal, Supriya (2001) Biplaber Sondhane ek Sadharon Meye, Monthon Patrika, November–December
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1 Draft of paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the AAS at San Francisco, 6th April 2006. Comments welcome but please don’t cite without author’s permission.
2 The idea of ‘declassing’ the self in order to revoke the ideological distance between the ‘intellectual’ and the masses has a long–standing tradition in middle–class Bengali Marxist politics. Becoming ‘de–classed’ meant, for the bhadralok Marxist, the sacrifice of customary material privileges and aspirations, beginning with the abandonment of domestic life and responsibilities. See Dasgupta 2003.
Srila Roy is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick where she teaches on gender/sociology. Her PhD research explores issues of cultural memory, gender and violence in relation to south Asia. Her work is forthcoming in Feminist Review.
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