Resistance and democracy: women’s trajectories towards social equality and liberation – A profile of Shoma Sen

“At no time have governments been moralists. They never imprisoned people and executed them for having done something. They imprisoned and executed them to keep them from doing something. They imprisoned all those prisoners of war, of course, not for treason to the motherland…They imprisoned all of them to keep them from telling their fellow villagers about Europe. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve for.”

― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956

‘Political Prisoner’ is a category of criminal offense that sits most egregiously in any civilized society, especially ​in ​countries that call themselves liberal democracies. It is a thought crime: the crime of thinking, acting, speaking, probing, reporting, questioning, demanding rights, and, more importantly, exercising one’s citizenship. But these inhumane incarcerations do not just target private acts of courage, they are bound together with the fundamental questions of citizenship, and with people’s capacity to hold the State accountable. Especially States that are unilaterally and fundamentally remaking their relationship with their people. The assault on the fundamental rights has been consistent and ongoing at a global level and rights-bearing citizens are transformed into consuming subjects of a surveillance State.

In this transforming landscape, dissent ​is ​sedition, and resistance is treason. 

While the Indian State has a long history of ruthlessly crushing dissent, a new wave of arrests began in 2018. Eleven prominent writers, poets, activists, and human rights defenders have been in prison, held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. They are accused of being members of a banned Maoist organization, plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and inciting violent protests in Bhima Koregaon. To date, no credible evidence has been produced by the investigating agency, and those accused remain incarcerated without bail. Since the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protest began in December 2019, students, activists, and peaceful protesters have been charged with sedition, targeted with violence, and subjected to arrests. Since then, more arrests have followed specifically targeting local Muslim students leader and protestors, including twenty-seven-year-old student leader Safoora Zargar, who is currently pregnant.

Since the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, India’s leading public intellectuals, opposition leaders, writers, thinkers, activists, and scholars have written various appeals to the Narendra Modi government for the release of India’s political prisoners. They are vulnerable to COVID-19 contagion in the country’s overcrowded jails, where three coronavirus-related deaths have already been reported. In response, the State has doubled down and rejected all the bail applications. It also shifted the seventy-year-old journalist Gautham Navlakha from Delhi’s Tihar Jail to Taloja, without any notice or due process – Taloja is one of the prisons where a convict has already died of COVID-19.

A fearful, weak State silences the voice of dissent. Once it has established repression as a response to critique, it has only one way to go: become a regime of authoritarian terror, where it is the source of dread and fear to its citizens.

How do we live, survive, and respond to this moment? 

In collaboration with maraa, The Polis Project is launching Profiles of Dissent. This new series centers on remarkable voices of dissent and courage, and their personal and political histories, as a way to reclaim our public spaces.

Profiles of Dissent is a way to question and critique the State that has used legal means to crush dissent illegally. It also intends to ground the idea that, despite the repression, voices of resistance continue to emerge every day.

You can read Varavara Rao’s profile here, the profile of Sudha Bharadwaj here, that of GN Saibaba here, Gautham Navlakha’s profile here, Anand Teltumbde here and Sharjeel Usmani here.




Shoma Sen grew up in Mumbai in a Bengali family. During her college days, she worked with the Vidyarthi Pragati Sangathana and edited a student magazine called “Kalam”. She supported workers during Mumbai’s 1980s workers strikes, and contributed to the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights in their work and the publication of their magazine “Adhikar Raksha”. After completing her masters at Elphinstone College, she moved to Nagpur and acquired her MPhil and PhD. As an academic, she studied the Maoist movement, with a focus on the role of women. She was involved with a women’s organization called Stree Chetana, which worked on violence against women and dowry deaths, amongst other issues. She is a member of Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression. She later taught at the People’s Welfare Society, became a founder of Committee Against Violence on Women, and edited its magazine. She worked on examining the implementation of AFSPA in Manipur after 2004 and organizing legal aid for women political prisoners. She was the Head of the English Department at Nagpur University, before being suspended due to her arrest.

Date of arrest: 6 June 2018

Charges: Shoma Sen was arrested for alleged Maoist links, incitement of violence in January 2018 Bhima Koregaon, and her alleged connection to Elgaar Parishad. The arrest was made under the non-bailable section of UAPA. She was taken to Yerwada Jail in Pune, whereas her daughter Koel reports that she was denied basic amenities for a period of time.

Update: On 3 November 2018, Special judge KD Vadane under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) court rejected the bail plea of civil rights activist Prof. Shoma Sen on Friday in Pune. Vadane, in his order, said Sen’s name had emerged in the investigations into the alleged involvement of Maoists in the Bhima Koregaon violence that took place in the aftermath of the Elgar Parishad rally in Pune on 31 December 2017. Advocate Amit Deshmukh, representing former University of Nagpur Professor Sen, told the Pune Sessions Court that she had suffered from hyper glaucoma due to which she needed to be released on bail. Deshmukh, in his argument, spoke of “an undeclared emergency in the country” under which the police could frame any person with dissenting views. He termed it as “thought” policing.

Location of work: Nagpur

Updates 10 August 2020:

Prof.  Sen’s first bail application was rejected on November 2, 2018, on grounds that there was “material linking her involvement in alleged unlawful activities inimical to the country’s security”. To date, no such evidence has been produced to substantiate this claim.

On March 31 this year, after the nationwide lockdown was imposed, Prof. Sen’s plea for interim medical bail, as a precaution against COVID-19, was rejected by the special NIA judge D.E. Kothalikar.

Sen is currently lodged in the Byculla jail in Mumbai. On July 26, the same court again rejected her interim medical bail on grounds of age and ailments. Her bail application stated that her history of hypertension, osteoarthritis, and other ailments, made her more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

The court said that suffering from “some disease” cannot be a ground for her release”, despite reports detailing her medical condition.

On August 1st, 2020, Prof. Shoma Sen spent her  birthday in jail for a third consecutive year

Contemporary Anti-Displacement Struggles and Women’s Resistance: A Commentary

Women’s exclusion in the present model of development needs to be understood as inherent to a system that benefits from patriarchy. Seen as a reserve force of labour, women—excluded from economic activity—are valued for their unrecognized role in social reproduction. The capitalist-patriarchal system keeps the majority of women confined to domestic work and child-rearing and uses this as a way of keeping the wage rates low. The limited participation of women in economic activity is also an extension of their traditional gender roles (nursing, teaching, or labour intensive jobs requiring patience and delicate skills), with wages based on gender discrimination. Largely part of the unorganized sector and deprived of the benefits of labour legislation, this insecurity leads to sexual exploitation at the workplace. In the paradigm of globalization, these forms of exploitation in export-oriented industries, Special Economic Zones (SEZ), and the service sector have greatly increased.

In spite of sixty-three years of so-called independence, women’s presence is negligible in political bodies, and reservations for the same have been strongly resisted in a patriarchal political system. Though at the lower levels of governance, reservations have made a limited entry possible, the success stories are more exceptions than the rule. Social institutions, thriving on feudal and patriarchal notions are disapproving of women’s participation in production and laud her reproductive roles. Violence against women at the familial and societal level is given social sanction and women are confined to a dependent life within the domestic space. Therefore, women’s access to the economic and political activity itself is the first step to their participation in decision-making processes—rather than the symbolic steps towards their “empowerment” that are seen in this system.

Women’s resistance to this imperialist backed model of development, therefore, must be seen as their attempt to find space and voice in a system which has not only neglected their communities but even their gender within it. Though some perceptions of feminism believe that women in the anti-displacement movements and the Maoist movement are working within the patriarchal fold, this paper contends that, on the contrary, their participation in such movements are a process of breaking the shackles of patriarchy, of emergence from private to public arenas. With fifty percent of the population largely deprived of economic and political activity, such a democracy cannot be real in any sense and the participation of women in struggles is a process of democratization. If the gender axis of such struggles is sharpened then this trajectory is more likely to lead to equality and women’s liberation.

The present model of development in India has led to immense hardship for the common people and reaped benefits for a limited few. It has led to a tremendous agrarian crisis which has also affected the lives of rural women and children. As lakhs of farmers commit suicide, they leave behind their wives and family members who have no recourse to mitigate their suffering. The agrarian crisis has led to large scale migration and trafficking in women and girls unskilled, low-paid jobs, and sexual exploitation. The various mining and industrial/development projects in the mineral-rich hinterland have deprived women from their limited access to common property resources, their families, and future generations from the land. The processes of the land acquisition have deprived them of decision making about their own lives and livelihood. The large-scale environmental degradation has had a devastating impact on their lives. Rehabilitation has uprooted them from familiar, healthier environments to difficult, alien surroundings causing cultural and psychological problems. The breakdown of community life, family, and means of livelihood have led to sexual exploitation of these women, as traditionally mainstream society looks at tribal women as “sexually free”. By their life experience, women have understood that development is not for them but others, whether it be the Narmada waters for cities in Gujarat or the Bailadila iron for Japan, and that destruction of life and livelihood is in their lot.

In states like Jammu and Kashmir and in the Northeast, women have come to realize that the pattern of development in India is lopsided and there are areas that will be exploited for their mineral and energy resources, tourism, etc. which benefits the central government and imperialist-backed industrial lobby and that the Indian government has forgotten the promises of autonomy made to them and are therefore fighting for secession. As is always, in this pattern of democracy, dissent is suppressed not only by large-scale state repression but also by using rape as a political weapon to teach an ethnic or minority community a lesson and hundreds of women from these areas have faced such sexual violence from the army and para-military forces with the AFSPA firmly reinforced for fifty-two years to condone such crimes.

In recent years, a widespread resistance movement has grown in the mineral-rich areas like Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, and Orissa and also in parts of West Bengal and Maharashtra where the local people are resisting this imperialist-backed model of development. Women are actively participating in these movements. In spite of facing the brunt of state violence and sexual assault, they are not intimidated.

In West Bengal, in the struggles at Singur and Nandigram, women spontaneously came out to fight. As was the tradition in Bengal during the Tebhaga movement, women use traditional weapons, household implements and condiments like chili powder, and signaling through conch shells, etc. as their ingenious methods of self-defense. In these struggles, women became iconic symbols of resistance even in cultural forms like poetry. In Lalgarh, West Bengal, when the PCAPA (Committee Against Police Atrocities) was set up, it was ensured that in each area fifty percent of committee members would be women. Even now, in spite of rapes, disappearances, murders, arrests, and torture of women and men in that area, protest marches of women sometimes numbering up to fifty thousand are being held. Draconian laws like the UAPA are being used to arrest and deny bail to women who are simple, uneducated villagers, who never heard of the word Maoist, or urban women professionals who are also not part of this movement but oppose this exploitative pattern of development. Whether they are Gandhians, NGO workers, or simply liberal intellectuals, no one is allowed to enter these struggle areas and interact with the people.

In areas like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, where a similar anti-displacement movement and the Operation Greenhunt to hunt down Maoists and their sympathizers are going on, women have been organizing for a longer time. As media reports and Naxalite literature show, the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (KAMS) is one of the largest women’s organizations existing in India today, though ironically it is “invisible” as it is banned. Maoist literature and the reports of journalists and researchers who have visited Dantewada claim that the movement there has led to great changes in a lot of women. In the process of land distribution, the land is allotted in the name of women as well. The construction of check dams — which helps in agriculture—has helped women solve the problem of domestic use of water, as well. The new agricultural methods and introduction of fruit and vegetable cultivation has given women more nutrition. It is again ironic, but a well-known fact that only a few kilometers from the financial capital Mumbai, in Thane and Melghat in Vidarbha district hundreds of women and children die of malnutrition, but in Naxalite dominated Gadchiroli of same Maharashtra, there are no deaths due to malnutrition. The access to better health and education in the Maoist areas is the only way women are getting educated there today. The wage increase in tendu (kendu) leaf collection has brought more economic equality into their lives. The setting up of rice mills helps women avoid the strenuous processes of threshing. The KAMS has not only targeted external patriarchy (sexual exploitation by non-tribals etc) but internal patriarchy as well. The practice of isolation of women during menstruation and unscientific practices after childbirth are being reformed.

In Bihar and Jharkhand, the Nari Mukti Sangh (NMS) is a strong and popular women’s organization that is giving space to women’s voices and encouraging their participation in economic, political, and social activity and decision-making processes. Whether it be the replacing of the feudal and patriarchal dowry-based marriages with democratic marriages, the punishing of perpetrators of sexual violence through people’s courts, or the attempts at amicably settling family disputes, the NMS women’s teams move from village-to-village, not only affecting women’s lives with their interventions but also involving women and children along with them. Thousands of women and girls have learnt to read and write and been educated in the “Kranti ka Paathshaala” by organizations like KAMS and NMS. Picketing at health centers where there are no doctors, at schools where teachers are absent, fighting for equitable distribution of food grains, for better wages and better remunerative prices, and for equal wages for equal work between men and women, these tribal women’s organizations are democratizing the processes of women’s political, social and economic activities, thus making development and democracy more meaningful to them. Being aware of the impact of globalization on women’s lives, how the beauty and fashion industry has been commoditizing women, these organizations—in the heart of India’s darkness—have held rallies against the Miss World Beauty Pageant and opposed George Bush’s visit to India. The leading activists of these organizations, hailing from indigenous backgrounds have a higher level of political consciousness than many women degree holders in our cities.

In conclusion, it must be noted that the suppression of the anti-displacement struggles by using force and violence, as is being done through the Operation Greenhunt, is not only causing devastation to the lives of lakhs of indigenous people and rural population, but it is also stifling the process of democratization that was begun by the social movements working in these places. Deprived of participation in economic activity and confined to reproductive roles in the present system, women have found new horizons in the ideologies and participation in social movements. Whether Gandhian, socialist, Dalit, nationality movements or Maoist movement, these are trajectories towards social equality and liberation for women and suppression of these movements means pushing women further into the morass of patriarchy and class exploitation, into caste and communal discrimination. If democracy and development are to be really meaningful to women in India, then ways must be evolved to include women in these processes and not simply make symbolic gestures for their empowerment.