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July 2, 1998


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AP women declare war on Naxals

M S Shankar in Hyderabad

The menfolk in Andhra Pradesh may well shiver at the mention of the dreaded Naxalite outfit, the People's War Group, but the weaker sex is made of stronger stuff.

Thus, women in the state have declared war on the outlawed Marxist-Leninist outfit, which itself has been at war with the state government for some time now.

The tribals of Peddamallapuram took the lead, banning PWG militants from entering their turf -- and when a couple of PWG activists defied the ban, going so far as to give chase, capture them, tie them to trees and thrash them within an inch of their lives.

This provoked the PWG, just last week, to raid villages in the region. Some women were beaten up, and the village sarpanch and the zilla praja parishad president were both killed.

One of the women beaten up in that attack was Bodetti Lakshmi. Unfazed, she indicates that the war against the PWG will continue.

Way back in October 1992, Rosamma, of Dubagunta village in Nellore, had sprearheaded an anti-arrack movement that forced the then Congress government headed by Kotla Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy to ban the sale of the brew.

That struggle, and the one now being led by Bodeti Lakshmi today, are both spawned by awareness campaigns launched by voluntary organisations in the district.

Thus, the anti-arrack movement was the result of the literacy campaign, Operation Blackboard, while the more recent decision to take the PWG head on is an offshoot of the establishment of thrift co-operative societies.

Voluntary organisation Samata, which masterminded the thrift scheme and implemented it across 46 villages spread over four mandals -- Kotanandur, Prattipadu, Sankhavaram and Yeleshwaram -- has mobilised a whopping Rs 2.1 million.

And this, in turn, has diminished some of the lustre the PWG had for the local tribals. Aware now of their power, the women are prepared to fight their own battles -- and the Naxal outfit, once seen as their defenders and protectors of their economic interests, are now seen as the main threat.

What the thrift campaign has done, in essence, is to help the women bring economic stability to their families, and thus reduce the role of menfolk in their day-to-day lives to a minimum.

The scene was in any event ripe for an anti-PWG movement. The outfit had foisted a nine-member committee on the region comprising the four mandalams, ostensibly to protect its interests. However, locals say that following the appointment of the committee, it is anti-tribal atrocities that have multiplied.

"The new committee is dominated by non-tribals," says Lakshmi, "and they have no interest in protecting our rights."

According to Lakshmi, the committee had taken control of the 20-odd acre Annavaram Devasthanam, which was hitherto held by the tribals, and disbursed the land among the members' kin for ploughing.

Further, PWG activists rubbed salt into the wounds by bashing up five locals, including village sarpanch Jagga Babu, and imposed fines of Rs 55,000 apiece on their families.

However, the Naxal outfit finally overstepped its own limits -- and, in the process, snapped the patience of the women of the region -- when it detonated explosives in the Girijan Co-operative Society Depot, at Peddamalapuram, on February 16.

This depot is the sole source for villagers to draw their monthly rations from.

The state-run AP Road Transport Corporation reacted to the heightened tensions by stopping its services to the region. With the result that the tribals, unable to find provisions in their own area, were also prevented from travelling elsewhere to stock up.

Pushed to the wall, the womenfolk finally decided to band together and fight back. As a first step, they drove the nine-member committee out of the area. And now, Lakshmi and her sisters in arms have declared that any PWG activist found in the region will have to face their fury.

"Who is the PWG to tell us what to do and what not to?" demands Lakshmi. "Let them allow us to lead our own lives and improve our living standards with the help of government-sponsored schemes and the assistance of voluntary organisations. Or we will make things too hot for them here."

Photographs: P Anil Kumar

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