Gurpreet Singh: Encounter illustrates how Indian security forces terrorize tribal activists

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      Naravasa Dance Theater's Encounter, currently playing at the York Theatre in Vancouver, is a performance worth watching for those who continue to idealize India as the world's largest democracy.

      Based on Draupadi, short fiction by the late Bengali author Mahashweta Devi, it's the story of a tribal woman named Dopdi (played by Dr. Aparna Sindhoor), an Indigenous activist fighting for the right to land and water.

      She's 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, which is leaving them in hunger and penury. Her act of resistance brings her in conflict with the Indian state. 

      The story illustrates ongoing sexual violence frequently experienced by tribal women in areas under influence of Maoist insurgents. There, paramilitary forces often use rape as weapon to demoralize Indigenous peoples from taking arms to resist the appropriation of their traditional lands by the extraction industry.

      Encounter refers to the euphemism used to describe secuty officers' extra-judicial killings of political activists in these areas.  

      At the opening on Tuesday (October 17), one of the presenters linked the struggle of Indigenous peoples in India to what's going on in Indigenous communities here in Canada.

      Rohit Chokhani from Diwali in B.C., which brought the show to Vancouver with the Cultch, acknowledged that Encounter was purposely chosen to open on land that has a long history of genocide against First Nations.

      The show that will continue until Sunday (October 22) and coincides with 50 years of the Naxalbari movement in India. That uprising started in the Naxalbari village in the Indian state of West Bengal and has since spread to other parts of the country. 

      The author, Devi, was a social activist with sympathies for the Naxalbari movement who died last year at the age of 90. She also wrote a novel, 1084 Kee Maa (The Mother of Prisoner Number 1084). which was based on their struggle and was later turned into a film.

      The Naxalbari movement began with a demand for land for the tillers. It was mostly supported by the indigenous community that Encounter's character Dopdi belonged to, and gradually expanded to other tribal belts of India.

      It's now believed that it's being led by Maoists and the movement is active in 200 districts of India. Not surprisingly, many Indigenous communities who've endured structural violence for centuries see these Maoists as their protectors and allies, deeply involved in their struggle for their inherent right to the land.

      However, sexual violence by the security forces is not confined to Maoist-influenced India. In other conflict zones Indian forces are frequently accused of raping women.

      In Manipur in the eastern part of the country, an armed resistance has been going on for right to self-determination. There, custodial rapes prompted women to disrobe themselves and picket outside a military base to expose state brutality in 2004. 

      In a climactic scene in the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic text, Draupadi was a princess who was publicly disrobed by evil kings. This incident came after her husband lost a gambling bet.

      The legend remains relevant even today when women's bodies are being used as a battlefield not just in India but elsewhere in the world. 

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine. He's also the author of Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector and Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families. Both were published by Chetna Parkashan.