Three years ago, 16-year-old Jagari Baske vanished from a remote village in the Indian state of West Bengal. But unlike most girls her age who suddenly flee their homes in the country’s conservative countryside, she was not eloping with a boyfriend opposed by her family.
Instead, Baske ran away to join Maoist rebels who claim to be fighting for the rights of the rural dispossessed but who have been responsible for a wave of killings this year as they step up their battle with the state.
Now 19, Baske is described by security forces as a dangerous foe.
“Jagari is fearless and a crackshot,” said a senior intelligence official in West Bengal’s capital, Kolkata. “She is ruthless and has taken part in dozens of Maoist attacks in the last two years.”
Wielding an AK-47 automatic rifle as she leads guerrilla raids, Baske is a household name in many of the areas worst hit by the insurgency—West Bengal, and the eastern and central states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh.
The girl’s relatives and friends find it difficult to explain how the teenager they knew — and who they remember as a cheerful tomboy — could have achieved such notoriety.
“We have not seen her for years, but we have heard that she controls women militants and also kills,” said former neighbor Bishwanth Murmu.
But while Baske’s deeds have cast her as a villain to the security forces and a liberator to Maoist sympathizers, she is by no means the only woman to have taken up the gun in India’s so-called “red corridor.”
Police say the rebels, who have loose links with guerrillas fighting to replace the monarchy in neighboring Nepal with a communist republic, have slowly been building up an elite women’s brigade.
Around 150 women, all in their 20s and drawn from 3,000 women believed to be among the rebel ranks, have been trained to handle sophisticated weapons and explosives, officers say.
Police say the Maoists have 20,000 armed fighters backed by hundreds of thousands of supporters.
The Asian Center for Human Rights said in a recent report that 235 people were killed in fighting across nine states in the first three months of this year.
The women’s brigade is under the direct command of senior militant commanders from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh — also a Maoist hotspot — and its members travel along jungle paths to evade security forces as they move from state to state in bands of 10 to 12, officials say.
Martyrs to the cause
In Chhattisgarh, the state worst hit by the recent fighting, about 50 women from the elite group are based in a densely forested area of 4,500 square miles.
“They (the Maoists) have even promoted a few women cadres to become senior commanders in Chhattisgarh,” M.W. Ansari, inspector-general of police in the state’s Bastar region said.
In Jharkhand, a “lal dasta”—or “red-squad”—made up of women guerrillas operates up to the outskirts of the capital, Ranchi, police say.
Trained in guerrilla warfare, the Jharkhand women hit the headlines after they attacked a police post in the state’s Dhanbad district several months ago. The women reportedly posed as villagers and lured officers into a nearby forest before hacking them to death. They then set the police station on fire.
Poverty among the region’s traditionally marginalized tribal people—who make up many of the movement’s guerrillas and sympathizers—is a major factor in driving women into the hands of the Maoists in a matrilineal society where mothers and wives play the dominant role in managing families.
“Most of them cannot afford one square meal,” says Ajay Nand, police superintendent in Maoist-infested West Midnapore district of West Bengal. “With money and food assured, some women do not think twice about joining the rebels.”
Upen Kisku, West Bengal’s minister for the welfare of low caste and tribal groups, says that poor development in remote areas, domestic violence and rampant exploitation by money lenders and landlords are key factors behind the movement, and especially the involvement of women with hungry children to feed.
“Poverty definitely has a big role to play in the recruitment of women by the Maoists,” he said.