Encounter currently playing at the Cultch theater in Vancouver is a drama worth watching for those who continue to idealize India as the world’s so called largest democracy.
Based on Draupadi– a short fiction by the late Bengali author Mahashweta Devi it is the story of a tribal woman Dopdi (played by Dr. Aparna Sindhoor) who is an indigenous activist fighting for the right to the land and water. She is part of a cultural troupe that organizes tribal people to fight against oppression and acquisition of their forests by the mining industry with the help of the government that leaves them in hunger and penury. Her act of resistance brings her in conflict with the Indian state and she ends up getting raped in custody of the security forces.
The drama ends with her challenge to the army officer to disrobe her and outrage her modesty in protest against the sexual abuse and repression of tribal people in the name of development. Her story illustrates the ongoing sexual violence frequently experienced by tribal women in the areas under influence of Maoist insurgents where the paramilitary forces often use rape as weapon to demoralize indigenous peoples from taking arms to resist against appropriation of their traditional lands by the extraction industry.
Encounter as the name suggests is a reference to the extra judicial killings of political activists by the security personnel in these areas.
The organizers at the opening of the drama on Tuesday evening tried to make a connection between the struggle of the indigenous peoples in India with similar campaigns going on in the indigenous communities here in Canada.
The play that will continue until October 22 coincides with 50 years of the Naxalbari movement in India. The uprising had started in the Naxalbari village of West Bengal state and had spread to other parts of the country.
Mahashweta Devi who died last year at the age of 90 was herself a social justice activist with sympathies for the Naxalbari movement. She had also authored a novel 1084 Kee Maa (The Mother of Prisoner number 1084) that was also based on the Naxalbari struggle and was turned into a celluloid. The Naxalbari movement that began with a demand for land to the tiller which was mostly supported by the indigenous community Dopdi belonged to but gradually expanded to other tribal belts of the country. It is believed that the movement being led by the Maoists is active in 200 districts of India. Not surprisingly, many in the indigenous communities who have endured structural violence for centuries see Maoists as their protectors and allies who are thickly involved in their struggle for inherit right to the land and forests.
However, sexual violence by the security forces is not confined to the Maoist influenced India. In other conflict zones too the Indian forces are frequently accused of raping women. In Manipur, where an armed resistance has been going on for right to self determination, custodial rapes prompted women to disrobe themselves and picket outside a military base to expose the state brutality in 2004.
Draupadi who was actually a princess who was publicly disrobed by the evil rulers in Mahabharata, a Hindu epic after her husbands lost her in gambling remains relevant even today when women bodies are being used as battlefield not just in India but anywhere in the world.
Gurpreet Singh is a Canada- based journalist who publishes Radical Desi- a monthly magazine that covers alternative politics.