HOME ALONE: (From top) Subhashree Panda with Swarupa; Tikaai Nachika; and Moti Wadeka
Subhashree Panda is helping her daughter with her maths homework. She has been away for a while, and has a lot of catching up to do. In fact, she was away when 12-year-old Swarupa Priyadarshi was promoted to her new class. But Subhashree couldn’t help it — she was in jail.
“It’s like we are starting afresh. I don’t quite know where to start my life from,” says Subhashree, now in her parents’ house in Puri district.
Subhashree, 34, is married to Sabyasachi Panda, a Maoist on Odisha’s most wanted list. After being jailed for two years in Bhubaneswar and Gunupur, Subhashree — charged with working as a covert operative for the Maoists — was released in April.
Her husband, the secretary of the Odisha state organising committee of the CPI (Maoist) which abducted — and then freed — two Italians in the state recently, is in hiding. And Subhashree fears she may be picked up again. “The police may frame fresh charges and re-arrest me because they cannot catch Sabyasachi,” she says.
Clearly, it’s not easy being the wife of a Maoist. Among them is Barso Hulka, a 32-year-old resident of Basnaput village in Koraput’s Narayanpatna. “Often the police threaten to send me to jail. We live in terror every minute,” she says.
Ever since her husband Singhana, an alleged Maoist, was arrested a year ago, Barso has desperately been trying to take care of her four daughters and one son, all under eight years of age. Elsewhere, she points out, tribals have gained from government schemes especially aimed at them. But her village, she alleges, has been bypassed by the government because it is believed to be Maoist-dominated.
“The government treats us like beasts. It neglects us hoping that the difficulties we face will force us to give up our struggle.”
Two kilometers away from her house lives Moti Wadeka. The 30-year-old Bhaliaput villager is married to Dibba, a member of the Maoist frontal organisation, Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS). Her three daughters — the eldest is six, the youngest three — squat on the verandah and have their lunch, eating from a common bowl containing rice and lentils.“This is all I can give them,” Moti rues.
Dibba made a livelihood by collecting forest produce. After he was arrested two years ago, Moti started working on others’ farms to earn money — about Rs 30 a day. “There is no certainty in our lives now. There is no food, nor cloth to cover the bare bodies of my children,” she says.
Poor tribal families in tiny villages across the country have similar woes. But for the Maoists’ wives, hardship is not just related to poverty. Being married to the guerrillas also means police harassment and not being given jobs in employment schemes.
To top it, with their husbands in hiding or in jail, the women have to bring up their children single-handedly. Last year, when Rassai Nachika, whose husband Subba is a jailed CMAS member, discovered that their four-year-old son had cholera, she had to carry him on a cot to a primary health care centre eight kilometres away. “With Subba not being there, I had to ask others for help. These are the biggest difficulties I face without him,” Rassai says, sobbing quietly.
If middle-class Subhashree’s life is different from that of the other wives, there’s one thread that binds them — their faith in their husbands has not lessened over the years. They are convinced that their husbands are innocent.
“Singhana’s mistake was that he always fought for fellow tribals and their land rights. It is unfair to charge him with waging a war against the state,” says Barso. Likewise, Tikaai Linga, whose husband CMAS leader Nachika Linga is wanted by the police, believes that his struggle is justified.
“He fights against the government and others who grab tribal land. His fight is also against the liquor mafia to make our village a better place to live in,” says Tikaai, who stresses that she has been supporting his work since they were married 15 years ago. “It is Sabyasachi’s pro-poor ideology that I can completely relate to,” adds Subhashree.
When Subhashree met Sabyasachi in 1997, he was not with armed rebels. In the late 1990s, he became an active member of the Indian People’s Front (IPF) before joining the CMAS in 2004. Then, a few years ago, Sabyasachi started leaving home suddenly, often staying away for months together. Subhashree says she started suspecting then that her husband had links with the Maoists. But he never gave her a straight answer.
“He told me that the police made it impossible for him to work in the villages, so he needed to work from a hideout,” she says, caressing the diamond ear studs which she explains were a wedding gift from her parents.
It was in July 2009 — when the Pandas went to Puri on a holiday — that she saw her husband for the last time. “It’s his favourite destination,” smiles Subhashree.
The memories of togetherness keep them going. Rassai remembers their last parab — annual tribal festival — together. “He bought chhena jalebi (a traditional Odisha sweet) and toys for the kids,” she says.
When Moti’s children clamour for their father, she takes them to Koraput jail where Dibba is housed. She pays a tenner to a constable, who then allows the family to meet Dibba even during non-visiting hours.
Swarupa sees her father more often — but only on television. He was last seen being interviewed during the release of kidnapped Italian national Claudio Colangelo. “I feel proud when I see him on television,” she says.
There are moments when she misses her father a lot. “I feel bad when I see other children’s fathers at parent-teacher meetings. I wish my father could come out of the jungle just to attend these meetings,” says Swarupa, who studies at a private school in Nimapara in Puri and was selected the “best performer” of her class this year.
Nachika Linga’s 15-year-old son has not been this lucky. Rabindra, who wanted to be a doctor, dropped out of school two months ago, after being harassed by the police. “On my way to school, the police would threaten to arrest me. So I just stopped going to school,” he says.
Though Linga comes home to see his wife and children every week Nachika fears the arrangement won’t work for long. “The police raided our house a couple of times in search of him. He may get picked up anytime.”
Some of the wives want their husbands to carry on with their struggles, but Subhashree is not among them. She would rather he returned. “I want the government to adopt a policy which will help Maoists return home. I will appeal to him to leave the path of violence if the government drops the charges against him. Then he can start peace talks with the government,” she says, adding that she would like to start a small sari business to keep the family going.
But Barso nurtures no such hopes. “This is a distant dream,” she says.