Meena arrived breathless at the bus stop. It was 5 a.m. in the morning and there was not a soul in sight. Her few belongings fitted into the cloth bag she carried. She used it as a pillow and lay down on the vacant bench.
“I don’t know where I am and what is to become of me but I’m too tired to think about it just now. I need some rest.”
She had travelled over eight miles during the night, sometimes walking, sometimes running, off beaten tracks, through field and forest, until she could walk no more. Now despite her worries she fell asleep.
“Wake up,” a woman said, shaking her by the shoulders. “The first bus will arrive in fifteen minutes. Where do you want to go?”
Meena jumped up with a start, ready to flee.
“Are you going someplace?” the woman Gulabi asked again.
“Nowhere to go,” Meena sobbed, and burst into a torrent of tears.
“”Come to my house,” Gulabi said, “You can rest and when you feel better, decide where you want to go.”
Clutching her bundle, Meena boarded the bus along with the woman. She was glad that Gulabi didn’t bombard her with questions.
They alighted at a place called Saklespur, at the foot of the Western Ghats.
At teatime, they sat across a table. Gulabi’s eyes travelled over the girl. She figured that Meena was no more than eighteen. Her dark expressive eyes in a finely chiseled face mirrored anxiety and sadness.
“The girl is in some kind of trouble,” Gulabi thought, “She’s a fine specimen of a woman and will make an excellent candidate for our Movement.”
Meena realised how helpless she was. “If I want any help from this woman, I’ll have to tell her my story. She seems very kindhearted and I’m sure she’ll not send me back.”
As she related her story, she played with her long black tresses that were neatly plaited, and reached down to her knees.
“I lost my husband a few days ago. I was promptly stripped of all my jewellery and good clothes. My in-laws wanted me to shed my blouse and wear the ugly maroon sari like all other widows in my community. More than anything else, they wanted to shave my head bald, and send me off to an ashram for destitute widows. I could not return to my natal home as both my parents are dead. In spite of being fairly rich, my in laws thought I’d be a burden to them. So I ran away and for all you know, they might have sent the police in search of me. Please help me find a job so that I can support myself and also have some security.”
“Of course,” Gulabi said, “My organization has helped many women like you. Rich or poor, literate or illiterate, it is our job to rehabilitate such people and restore their dignity. Tomorrow I will introduce you to my bosses.”
The jeep that arrived next morning took them high up into the Western Ghats. It was a long drive far away from civilization. All around was dense jungle. Meena wondered if she was being taken for a jungle safari. After almost three hours of travel, they arrived at a clearing in the forest. A number of tents were spread out over a large area. Meena was introduced to men and women in grey uniforms.
“Welcome to our camp,” said the Camp Commander, “You will find many people like you for company. I can also assure you of your safety and security. Your life will change overnight. You’ll have good food to eat, decent clothes to wear and a steady income. But you must be prepared to work very hard and obey all the rules.”
“That I will gladly do,” promised Meena. Her in-laws would never find her here. But she was beginning to feel disoriented. “Why are so many gun toting guys around the camp?” she wondered.
Gulabi led her to a large tent.
“You will not be lonely here. There are twenty other girls living in this tent.”
But as it was the middle of the day, the place was vacant. Leaning against the circular wall of the tent were duffel bags and sleeping bags. It was more like a military camp.
“Whatever possessions you have must fit into the duffel bag. Your sleeping bag should be rolled up neatly every morning and stacked against the tent wall as the others have done. Whenever work beckons, we move camp. So we travel light. Now here is your uniform – khaki fatigues and boots. Pin up your hair into a tight bun so that it doesn’t get in the way. Or else you will have to cut it short,” Gulabi said, making Meena wince.
When Meena had changed into her khakis Gulabi said,
“Now come along. The Commander would like to have a chat with you. He will explain the nature of our work. I must leave you with him and return to town.”
“No, no.” Meena pleaded, “I don’t think I’m suitable for this job. Please take me back.”
“You are safe here and will be well protected. I’ll be back in a few days and if you still want to go away, I’ll see what I can do.”
The Commander appeared to be a friendly fellow.
“Sit down and make yourself comfortable. I’ll explain the nature of our work and you’ll realise what an important job we are doing. We fight for the rights of the poor. The government is in cahoots with greedy industrialists who are robbing the wealth of the forests. Rampant deforestation and mining is driving the tribals from their natural habitat. We fight on their behalf so that they can get back their land, have better jobs and improve their standards of living. We have thousands of armed soldiers and other cadres, not to speak of the millions of peasants and tribals who support us. You are now a member of our Revolutionary Force. We call ourselves Naxalites. You’ll be trained in guerilla warfare and how to wield a gun skillfully.”
Meena shivered. “I’ve never seen a gun at close quarters and I’ve never even killed a rat so far. How will I kill human beings?”
“You’ll learn in good time. We have rigorous training programmes.”
As Meena lay in her sleeping bag that night between two other members, she could not help but sob her heart out.
“Stop snivelling and get some sleep,” said the girl next to her. “The wake up bell rings at 5 a.m.”
The girl on the other side said, “Whoever comes here never returns to her family. If you try to escape you’ll be shot. So just grin and bear it. We too were lured into this situation.”
It was a traumatic initiation into the life of a revolutionary. Someone shook her awake when the bell rang.
“Get up fast. We have very little time to get ready.”
The sleeping bags were quickly rolled up and pushed against the tent wall. The morning ablutions were rushed through. Then followed an hour of drill and exercises.
After a frugal breakfast she was marched off to the firing range. A gun was thrust into her hands.
“Hold it and feel the thrill of cold metal.”
Meena was terrified and began to tremble. The gun merely sent her into hysterics. A solid slap from her instructor brought on a gush of tears.
“Stop this nonsense. I’m teaching you to be a good soldier not a coward. Now listen while I describe the functions of each part of the gun.”
So Meena began her training into jungle warfare. “From the frying pan into the fire,” she thought, “I would have probably been safer in the ashram for destitute widows.”
After lunch there were dreary lectures to sit through. Most of what was said went above her head. The word ‘Revolution’ cropped up frequently. This was the mantra that was used to brainwash new recruits and keep up the spirits of those already initiated.
“We are fighting against government officials, politicians, greedy landlords and corrupt policemen who have robbed poor people of their property and rights. Aggression is how we will defeat such forces.”
These long and monotonous lectures made Meena’s head ache. She wished Gulabi would come and take her away from the camp. But Gulabi arrived with upsetting news.
“As you feared, your in-laws have complained to the police about your disappearance. What’s more, they say you might have been instrumental in the death of your husband. You’ll be safe here. No one dare enter this camp.”
All Meena could do was give vent to her tears.
“It’s a cooked up story to keep you here. Gulabi is known for spinning such imaginary tales,” said one of her mates. “You can never escape from here. There are guards watching us day and night.”
But gradually, the brainwashing took effect. She was young and pliable like putty in the hands of the bosses. There came a day when she could handle a gun with ease. She was soon carried away by the momentum of the revolution. She soon forgot life beyond the jungle. The daily routine of making the Red Salute and swearing allegiance to the cause brought about a steady change.
“I’m beginning to like the thrill of combat. I don’t feel queasy anymore when witnessing or perpetrating atrocities on people who are enemies of the poor. These are the very forces who are keeping tribals hungry and powerless. I’m a revolutionary now and should have no qualms about what I do. The aim is to annihilate class enemies.”
Looting, robbing, killing became a way of life. Many times they were killing innocent people, the very people they were supposed to protect. The power of the gun was intoxicating. Meena was not only a good shot but an expert at laying IEDs (Indigenous explosive devices) to trap police who were always on the lookout for Naxalites. It was so thrilling to see groups of policemen or villagers blown up by these land mines.
Meena became bolder with each passing day. She went into remote villages to recruit women for the movement.
“We are fighting on your behalf so that you can own land, have jobs and improve your standards of living.”
All this talk was while making off with the little food the villagers had and threatening them with death if they squealed to the police. The red corridor controlled by the Naxalites ran through twenty states. They moved frequently along this corridor whenever threatened by the police.
Four years sped by with incredible speed. Disillusionment had already begun to set in. The horrific crimes she committed with such chilling ruthlessness, made her worried that she was losing her humanity. Besides, for all her expertise in armed insurgencies, patriarchal dominance was obvious. Women soldiers were at the mercy of the men.
Meena had blossomed into a beautiful woman. Though they were all sworn to celibacy, she noticed many of the senior officers giving her the glad eye. She had heard whispers from her comrades that girls were dragged out of their beds at night to service the higher cadres. Some never came back. Those who resisted were raped and shot.
“Oh my God!” Meena thought, “My turn may come any time. How am I going to protect myself?”
Meena was on guard duty at her tent one night. She felt a firm grip on her shoulder, and one hand closed over her mouth. She was dragged into the interior of the jungle.
“God, give me strength,” she prayed silently, “I don’t want to be mauled by this animal.”
The man pushed her to the ground and knelt astride. But even before he could disrobe her, she pulled out her gun and shot him through his heart. The rapist was a senior Naxalite officer. Meena didn’t wait to see if he was dead. She bolted through the jungle and did not stop till daylight.
“I will not run anymore,” she decided, “I will turn myself in at the closest police station.”
She reached a village that was just stirring to life. The lone constable at this police station felt his legs tremble at the sight of this dishevelled apparition.
“I surrender. I’m a Naxalite,” she told the man, “But first can you give me a glass of water?”
Even before he could return, she had passed out on a bench through sheer fatigue.
Senior officials soon arrived and took her into custody. Interrogation was spread over several days until she had given them every bit of information about the Naxalites in the Western Ghats, the location of their camps and the workshops where their pipe guns and bombs were made. Then followed many sessions with the psychiatrist before she could return to normal life. The indoctrination of the Naxal ideology had to be knocked out of her mind. The memory of her harrowing experiences had to be sanitized and feelings of guilt washed away.
“I will not run away again,” she decided. “I will stand up and fight for my rights. My in-laws will have to give me a portion of my husband’s assets. I’m going to join the Police Force and the money will cover my training in Law Enforcement. I will hunt down the very people who entrapped me and thousands of other innocent people.”
Word Count: 2242.