Unsung Women Warriors Of Naxalbari
Ye Lo Bayaan Hamaare / And We Were There – 1967-1977 showcases the participation of women in the male-dominated Naxalbari movement
Ye Lo Bayaan Hamaare / And We Were There – 1967-1977 is the intriguing name of a documentary film directed by Uma Chakravarti and Priyanka Chhabria. It was one of the biggest crowd-pullers at the 8th Kolkata People's Film Festival in Kolkata earlier this year. The Festival is organised by the People's Film Collective, a people-supported, independent, volunteer-led festival that showcases politically committed contemporary documentary and fiction films from India and South Asia.
Uma Chakravarti is an Indian historian, academic and filmmaker, who has written extensively on Indian history involved with issues relating to gender, caste, and class. She stepped into the rather rough and challenging terrain of cinema after she retired from teaching History at Miranda House. She has made documentary films on women's history. Among them are Prison Diaries, A Quiet Little Entry, Darbar-e-Watan and Fragments of a Past – Lucknow, 1920 – 1949.)
Her latest film, the 141-minute documentary, Ye Lo Bayaan Hamaare / And We Were There – 1967-1977 is a milestone in documentary films. In her own words, "This is a film about the idealism, passion and jail time of young women coming of age in the late 1960s, seeking to change the world and throwing them into the rebellious movements sweeping parts of India like Bengal, Bihar, Delhi, Bombay, Hyderabad and Bangalore."
The Naxalbari movement (1965-1975) is the first peasant revolution within 20 years of Indian Independence. It was initiated in a small village named Naxalbari situated in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. Though there have been many scholarly studies on the movement, the representation of women and their experiences in the texts on the movement in Indian English Literature has not yet been traversed upon.
Chakraverti's film has an unusual, unique and remarkable agenda. She brings to public knowledge the participation of women in this male-dominated political movement which has been done quite rarely and never on film before this one.
According to Pritha Sarkar, "while on one hand, historical records show how women had been frontline warriors in the initial phase of the movement only to be marginalised with the spread of the movement; on the other, none of the chronicles on the movement recognise the role of women and their contributions in it."
Sarkar goes on to add, "Though there have been many scholarly studies on the movement, the representation of women and their experiences in the texts on the movement in Indian English Literature has not yet been traversed upon. The paper therefore, addresses this gap by studying the movement from the feminist standpoint through one of the representative texts.
"While on one hand, historical records show how women had been frontline warriors in the initial phase of the movement only to be marginalised with the spread of the movement; on the other, none of the chronicles on the movement recognise the role of women and their contributions in it."
Chakraverti sets out to rectify this omission and fill these gaps by interviewing many of the women who are still alive, (one or two passed away while the shooting was on).
Minakshi Sen, Jaya Mitra's cell-mate, speaks extensively about "Pagolbari" in her book Jailer Bhitor Jail (Jail Within the Jail, 2014). Mitra explains the sheer irony of the term "safe custody" in her memoirs, Hanyaman. Both Mitra and Sen appear in the narratives but only as inquisitive voices who coax out the life stories out of their fellow inmates.
But Uma's film does not make any mention of the books some of these women have written other than Sen and Mitra such as Krishna Bandopadhyay and Rita Banerjee who have written at length both about their experiences of radical left activism following the Naxalbari uprising, and time inside the state's prisons, as political prisoners.
"These incarcerated women activists suffered through the regimes of state's systemic violence, possibly be described as a form of draconian aggression of the male authority, on its 'out-of-control' female subject, which customarily uses sexual violence as a weapon."
The Naxalite uprising, according to the women interviewed, failed completely due to the wrong strategy of its leaders, Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal. They had zeroed in on the single strategy of "annihilation" which, these women go on record to say, they found questionable. But these women stayed on because of the unquestioned commitment they had made.
Chakravarti zeroes in on the first-person nostalgic experiences of 15 such women, some of whom are no longer alive. They surrendered themselves, leaving home and hearth, to join the movement even when some of them realised it was doomed to failure. However, the leaders were confident that they would be able to topple the administration ruled by capitalist, feudal and dictatorial party power and establish people's power.
The women speak of their prison experiences where they were tortured almost to the point of death by the police and denied the Constitutional rights political prisoners are entitled to. The interviews began in 2010 and went on till 2020. The film spans the period 1967–1977 passing through India Gandhi's declaration of the Emergency in 1975. It closed with the end of Emergency in 1977, with the declaration of the General Elections.
These women surprisingly, do not harp on the inhuman torture they had to undergo never mind their age, and health conditions. Instead they talk about the beautiful "alternative world" they discovered within the jails where other women prisoners caught for theft and other minor crimes gave them solace when death is the only wish they had left.
The film is filled with interviews with (late) Sreelatha Swaminathan, Deepa Dhanraj, Jaya Mitra, Jhelum Varde, Vasanthi Raman, K. Lalitha, Vina Shatrughna, Swarna A.P., Ambika, Mrinal Gore, and Ahlya Rangnekar. It also has an interview with Maya Devi from an Adivasi group who says that she joined the underground movement following her daughter who was 14. Maya Devi says she has no regrets that her daughter was killed when she was barely 22 because, "every dream and every movement charges a price. I consider my daughter's life to be the price."
Newspaper clippings are featured from the declaration of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975, then of, "George Fernandes Goes into Hiding", "Food Movement in West Bengal in 1966" and news about Mrinal Gore's decision to teach women by forming groups, Indira Gandhi's 20-Point Programme, Interim Report of the Civil Rights Committee, the Tarkunde Committee and so on.
The film opens with clips from a beautiful song sequence from Bimal Roy's film Bandini (1963). It shows a woman prisoner recalling sweet memories of her brother back home as she grinds wheat and looks out wistfully and birds homing back to their nests on a bare tree. The lines of this song get repeated at different points of the film driving home the issue of life for any woman behind the bars of a prison cell. "I was enchanted by the way the film presented the women in the prison, including beautiful songs the lyrics of which are carved in my mind till today," says Chakraverti.
Krishna Bandopadhyay writes: "So many women joined the movement, but on the party's part there was no actual directive as to what their role was expected to be. Many commented that even in the case of the men, there were no speciﬁc directives. For the sake of argument this is perfectly true, but the party leadership was male and can it be denied that their policies would automatically tend to be patriarchal?"
Why this silence? Is it because they wished to leave their terrible, traumatic past behind and move on? Or, were they afraid that talking about their nightmarish period in prison might place those still in there in danger? Or, perhaps, as several women had lost their near and dear ones in the movement, they felt it would be futile to go back to their tragic days even emotionally?
Rajshri Dasgupta who is now a noted women activist and journalist, narrates an incident when, on a night after day-long torture, she was brought back to her cell, another inmate, placed Rajshri's head on her lap and patted her to sleep. "Till this day, I have no clue who this woman was, what her crime was and what her name is. But her putting me to sleep gave me the moral and physical strength to face the torture waiting for me the next morning."
Uma Chakraverti says that Rajshri had said "no" to facing the camera though she had opened her house for an interview session that became part of the film. But when two other women namely (late) Meenakshi Sen and Krishna Bandopadhyay were being interviewed, she came forward on her own and began to speak. Meenakshi Sen passed away soon after the film was completed.
I have personally known some of these women over time, but it is only through Uma's film that I discovered their scary history and sacrifice for an illusory future. Lost along the way were hundreds of lives of talented and brilliant young students who got involved in the movement as narrated by Vasanthi Raman who was one year junior to me during her post graduation in Economics in Mumbai.
The film is mind-blowing in the way it juxtaposes interviews with voice-overs, newspaper clips, video clips and soulful music. It offers a glimpse into the character of the print media in those days, factual and narrating the truth. The film steers away from using the melodrama of the National Anthem or the national song. It closes on a quote by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This is a beautiful film for the archives, for students and researchers on political history about a period that many do not know about at all.