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Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence, and Subjectivity in India’s Naxalbari Movement. by Srila Roy

by Goldie Osuri
9 Jan 2014 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10] | Review

Review: Srila Roy (2013) Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence, and Subjectivity in India’s Naxalbari Movement, OUP India 264 pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-808172-2.

I read Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence, and Subjectivity in India’s Naxalbari Movement (2012) during a period when I saw the film Red Ant Dream (2013), Sanjay Kak’s poetic chronicle of past and contemporary revolutionary realities and possibilities in India.  While the genres of documentary and academic research shape the ways in which each text represents its subject, the two perspectives taken by Roy and Kak are reflective of the debates through which the idea of a violent revolutionary movement is discussed among the Indian left. Kak’s film is seemingly unapologetic about the necessity of violence in countering the violence of the state.  Let us declare that a state of war exists, the opening lines of the film declare. As a sociological study of the gendered effects of violence, Remembering Revolution, is a critique of violence, more specifically of the correlation between masculinity and violence. Such a correlation is interesting as Roy seeks to map the gendered dimensions of the transformation of a middle-class male subject into an often violent Naxalite revolutionary.

The book is concerned with the ‘figurations of masculinity and femininity in a range of sources to theorize the Naxalite version of revolution as a thoroughly gendered construct that made particular demands on men and women’ (p. 49). In mapping the Naxalite revolution of the late 1960s and the 1970s through this approach, the book confirms an extant thesis that the new man demanded by the literature of the Naxalbari movement was, in fact, dependent on older idioms of sacrifice—that of individual will and subjectivity; an idiom mobilised by the nationalist movement. In the case of the Naxalbari movement, led primarily by young urban middle-class students from Kolkata, sacrifice in the interest of ‘declassing’ was ‘explicitly bound up with the refashioning of masculinity through sexual self-control’ (p. 53).  But the book goes further in that Roy examines this thesis through her analysis of the sexual politics of the Naxalbari movement gleaned in part through interviews with middle-class women who were participants in the movement.

What did sexual self-regulation mean for middle-class men and women in the Naxalbari movement? The importance of Roy’s study lies in an examination of the ways in which an exceptional political situation engendered, so to speak, some rather unexceptional gendered and sexual practices amongst its middle-class revolutionaries. It is through memories of the everyday lives of some of these revolutionaries that the often invisible violence and constrained potentialities of the sexual politics of the Naxalbari movement has been carefully chronicled and analysed. While a shift for men meant reliance on an ideal of the martyr and the ascetic, for women revolutionaries it was perceived to be a liberation from the constraints of bourgeois norms of family life.  The ‘radicalism of the Naxalites’, Roy argues, has to be placed within the ‘various historical trajectories of Indian nationalism and social reform, and of Bengali and Chinese communism’ (p. 108). So, ‘free choice marriages and consensual unions were privileged over, and at times in explicit rejection of, the normativities that govern Hindu Bengali marriage ideals and practices’ (p. 108).  Yet norms not unlike the proverbial bad penny never do disappear.  Norms may have been challenged by party preference for individual choice in sexual/marital relations, but ‘the party became the social consciousness of the collective, substituting for parental authority and mimicking middle-class morality in the underground’ (p. 109).

It is perhaps not surprising what the gendered consequences would be for middle-class women leaving their families in the quest for declassing.  If declassing involved leaving the relative comfort of a middle-class family home for work in the factory, or hiding amongst strangers for the sake of refuge (albeit Naxalite supporters), most South Asian women would expect the tensions and hierarchies of caste, class, and gender to surface precisely within the mores and practices of everyday life. For one interviewee, compelled to join the movement after her brother’s arrest and torture by the state, ‘the state recedes as the sole source of violence’ (p. 88).  Roy notes that for many of the interviewees there was ‘the concomitant fear of bodily harm by local goons and moneylenders, resentment by women workers, hostility by female members of political shelters, and the everyday drudgery of voluntary poverty and uprootedness’ (p. 88).  For Roy, the point of exploring these lived experiences is to highlight the manner in which the blame for fascism and violence (especially its gendered, class and sexual forms) is often laid at the feet of the capitalist state or bourgeois norms in revolutionary literature. In this literature, state violence against peasant, tribal, or Dalit women is fetishised and often used as justification for violence against the state. Yet sexual violence or other gendered forms of abuse particularly in the underground or during a time of ‘declassing’ were often ignored unless the blame could be placed on the state or bourgeois, middle-class ideology. The point of this analysis, as Roy argues, is to reference a Foucauldian question, ‘how does one keep from being a fascist, even (especially) when one believes oneself to be a revolutionary militant’ (p. 192-3). In this sense, the book complicates the binary ways in which the bad violence of the state and the good violence of the revolutionary are posed and remembered in utopian narratives through an analysis of the experiences of middle-class female revolutionaries.

Roy probes, especially from a feminist perspective, the psychic mechanisms and justifications of violent political movements. The book is complex in its analysis. There is also a specific labour involved in reading against the grain of the interviews produced by women who, in Roy’s analysis, idealised the revolution. Narratives of financial sacrifice to support the revolution (‘ma started to sell things to support so many people eating in the house) are discussed as ‘a forgetting of the darker aspects of this history’ (p. 90). The pride and happiness in feeding the revolutionaries is contrasted to some of the ’real’ consequences of support: ‘the draining of the family’s resources.’ And these consequences (even the death of the husband as a martyr) are deemed to be a denied trauma: the ‘infinite police raids . . . havocked the bari, leaving it desolate and its women members eventually alone’ (p. 91). Or as Roy states, ‘the language of the movement, particularly that of a self-sacrificial and patriotic motherhood, works in powerful ways to conceal past trauma, especially the violent loss of a loved one’ (p. 91). Such readings raise the issue of the author’s regard for the ambivalence and contradictions of the psychic and lived memories of her interviewees. How we handle narratives and the affective ways in which lived experiences of memories are produced is interwoven with a particular theoretical and ideological lens.

Remembering Revolution is intensely aware of the problem of representation. Or as the author states, ‘a central concern’ is to ‘foreground some of the complexities involved in the task of personal and historical recovery and reconstruction’ (p. 17).  A focus on trauma can be a troubled terrain, furthering the risks of what is heard. Or, as articulated by Roy: ‘even when women’s stories have been speakable, they have been received with disbelief’ (p. 16).

If assumptions about what is traumatic or not are projected onto the narratives of interviewees, how do we understand academic assumptions concerning the ‘good’ violence of the revolutionary?  Remembering Revolution maps this violence as a ‘fundamental discursive strategy’: ‘what makes violence altogether irresistible is the violence of the other, which is beyond the bounds of justification, and must be, out of necessity, avenged and defeated’ (p. 54). Sanjay Kak’s film Red Ant Dream goes a long way in explaining the strategies and terrain of warfare being played out between the state and a contemporary Maoist movement. Here the state and the media declares the violence of the other (the Maoists) as beyond the bounds of justification. In such a context, whose violence is to be critiqued and analysed as good or bad? The dominant narrative in a contemporary world is not that of the left in South Asia, but a global master narrative of terrorism, indigenised by states often to engage in political repression and brutality.

Roy’s text insists on the necessity of a vigilance of gendered violence in a transformative political imaginary. Feminist battles are necessarily multiple—whether it is within the confines of the bourgeois family, within the bureaucracy of the state’s violent machinery, or within the organisation of Maoist cadres. In this sense, gendered norms and practices within progressive or violent revolutionary movements are not totally outside of gendered and/or sexual struggles in familial and public spheres. And this is a key point of this rich and multi-layered text.

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