India: Gun Widows Remake Their Lives – Azera Parveen Rahman

Sometimes all it takes is one incident to transform one from being a mere spectator to a participant in change. For Binalakshmi Nepram, that moment came on a gloomy Christmas eve of 2004 in a village near Imphal, the capital of Manipur. As an academic researcher she was talking to a group of women activists, when gun shots shattered the peace. In the flash of a second, one of the women in that meeting – Rebika Akham, 24 – had become a widow.

Nepram recounts what happened, “We were at Wabgai. The gun shots sounded less than a kilometre away, leading to the death of a 27-year-old man.” The victim, Buddhi Moiranthem, had been dragged out of his car battery workshop by three assailants and shot at point blank range. To date, his wife and family have no clue about who his killers were, or what their motive was.

“Rebika, all of 24, stood with us, shell-shocked. Amid the crying, I remember her mother’s helpless words, ‘Now how will I feed you?’ That was the turning point of my life,” says Nepram. It was then that she decided to set up a support system for women left isolated because of the violence around them.

Growing up in Manipur – a state that shares borders withMyanmar, as well as with the other north eastern states ofNagaland,Assamand Mizoram – which is possibly one ofIndia’s most conflict-ridden regions, Nepram understood even as a child that life was uncertain given that armed violence was a regular occurrence. “My parents tell me that even on the day I was born, there was a conflict raging and my father had to scramble for the medicines that my mother had needed. Violence cast its shadows on our very minds,” she says.

When she joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) inDelhiin 1997, she shared some of the realities of the region with friends and classmates, who often could not comprehend the extent of violence that marked everyday life in Manipur. “They could not believe it when I told them that people could actually disappear and not be seen alive again,” remarks Nepram. In JNU, Nepram began systematically researching into the situation, often travelling in the state to collect primary data. But despite her research, she was unprepared for those gun shots that rang out in 1994, changing a young wife into a widow in an instant.

Soon after that killing, Nepram collected Rs 4,500 to buy a sewing machine for Rebika Akham, so that she could earn an independent income and stitch together the pieces of her life again. With that the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network also came into being. “I realised there is no point in doing endless research if there was to be no intervention. There are so many young women, just in their twenties, who have been widowed overnight. Children have lost their fathers; mothers, their sons. These women needed help to start their life afresh,” Nepram points out.

She also realised that monetary relief was, at best, temporary relief and that soft loans were perhaps more appropriate. The Network then took on the role of providing small loans to women victims and helped them open their own bank accounts.

The lives of many women were turned around in the process. Take the case of Huidrom Tanya Devi, 18. Her father’s untimely death 10 years ago shattered her young life. A karate instructor, he was gunned down by the armed forces in 2001. The young girl still asks in a haunted voice, “Even today I don’t know the reason for my father’s death. I ask everyone, what crime did he commit to meet such an end?”

The Network gave her mother, Huidrom Geeta Devi a loan of Rs 3,000 in 2007 with which Tanya was able to start a small business. As the months rolled by, her confidence as an entrepreneur grew. This April, she became the proud owner of a shop that sells embroidered dress materials, incense sticks and household goods. Two other women have similarly set up their own shops with the Network’s help.

Mumtaz, another victim, whose husband, a lecturer by profession, was killed in gun violence in 2009, was in a similar distress. With five children to look after, she couldn’t be more grateful when the Network extended her a loan of Rs 8,000 to run her business.

Her success as an entrepreneur has whetted Mumtaz’s interest in public life. She now wants to contest the local panchayat elections in order to help bring change in her village in the Thoubal district of Manipur. She also links up affected women like her to the Network and is, in the process, contributing to the expansion of an initiative that had started small with 25 women survivors of gun violence and today reaches out to over a thousand.

The first of its kind inSouth Asia, the Network has 150 are active members, most of whom had been victims themselves. The assistance they render is multi-pronged. The immediate need of women who have been bereaved is a support system – some regular source of food, the continuation of their children’s education, and the like. Then comes the need for a sustainable income. Loans are provided to address this requirement, with the money put to use in setting up a small vegetable vending enterprise or acquiring a loom to weave cloth.

The Network also provides legal assistance to the women to fight their cases for justice and compensation since they themselves are most often too poor to afford lawyers. Medical assistance is provided to take care of the health needs of the affected women. The Network does this by entering into arrangements with doctors who are willing to provide free check-ups or dental care.

In order to function smoothly, meetings are held every two months in an informal setting – like the courtyard of a member’s house – to discuss individual problems as well as general issues, like the treatment accorded to widows in society. “In many parts ofIndia, when a woman who has lost her husband wears bright clothes or takes up employment outside the home, eyebrows are raised, questions asked, and motives ascribed. This is simply unfair – it is only right that women in such circumstances try and reclaim their lives. Girls, as young as 21, are widowed in an instant. Surely they have the right to live a normal life?” comments Nepram.

The Network meetings are not just to discuss problems, but are also meant as a time of togetherness over tea and snacks. The idea is to reach out and explore ways to address common problems. “We can only reach a limited number of women. If the government wants, it can connect with lakhs of them, but that would need political will,” observes Nepram. She emphasises that the Network is apolitical. In any case, politicians generally stay away from such interventions. Not only has no Member of Parliament come forward to be associated with the work the Network is doing, ministers in Manipur have actually mocked its efforts. But for Nepram this only points to the great lack of sensitisation among politicians to the gender dimensions of violence.

The lack of political response has not, however, discouraged the women members of this unusual Network. Right now, they are busy studying government schemes for women and children and searching for ways in which they can benefit from them.

(© Women’s Feature Service)



Activism\Widows                                                                                 WFS REF NO. INDL717

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ntG�ztX��pital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, an with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers,  and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, an under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated. (Capital, Volume I, pp 762-763)[2]

Militants of the working class movement may find Parts III, IV and V of Capital (Volume I), which deal with the production of absolute and relative surplus value more immediately interesting than the rather abstract opening chapters. The tenth chapter entitled ‘The Working Day’ will be especially relevant for militants in the third world countries such as India where the length of the working day still varies greatly across industries and sectors, and is generally unconscionably long, including in some very modern, ‘high-tech’ segments. This chapter is a real tour de force, covering a vast ground of concrete history-including legislative history- with a constant focus on the basic class question at hand, namely the struggle between the insatiable appetite of capital for surplus value and the gradually emerging resistance of the working class to gross exploitation.  Here is the core idea of this chapter in Marx’s own words:


The establishment of a normal working-day is the result of centuries of struggle between capitalist and labourer. The history of this struggle shows two opposed tendencies…While the modern Factory Acts compulsorily shortened the working-day, the earlier statutes tried to lengthen it by compulsion…..It takes centuries ere the “free” labourer, thanks to the development of capitalistic production agrees, i.e., is compelled by social conditions, to sell the whole of his active life, his very capacity for work, for the price of the necessaries of life, his birthright for a mess of pottage. (Capital, Volume I, pp. 270-271)

As he brings the chapter on the working day to a close, Marx reminds us of the crucial transformation that occurs once the worker has entered into an employment contract with the capitalist and entered the work premises, and its implications for the working class:

It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the production process other than he entered. In the market, he stood as the owner of the commodity “labour power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent”, that the time for which he is free to sell his labour power is the time for which he is forced to sell it…the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves an their families into slavery and death. In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of e legally limited working-day…( Capital, Volume I, pp.301-302)

It is interesting to note that while Marx was writing in the 1860s of the need to limit the working day in the context of Great Britain, our worthy captains of industry in twenty-first century “globalizing” India, demand freedom from all labour legislation and raise the slogan of the need for “flexible labour”, supported in this demand by our imported and home-grown academic worthies serving their interests in an out of government.[3]

 Engineers and technologists will find absolutely fascinating Marx’s treatment in Chapters XII, XIII and XIV, respectively, of cooperation, of division of labour and manufacture, and of machinery and modern industry. Marx treats the reader to a detailed discussion of technical matters as they pertain to industrial production in a manner that is readily comprehensible. This will engage the engineer and the technologist. But Marx does something far more remarkable. He never loses sight of the larger context within which the technical discussion has to be placed so that it can be correctly understood. That context is one of social and historical transformation, and of the contradictory effects of scientific and technological advance under the capitalist mode of production, especially the deleterious impact of mechanization on the worker under capitalism. In an overall positive summing up of the historical role of modern industry, Marx makes the following important observations:

Modern industry never looks upon and treats the existing form of a process as final. The technical basis of that industry is therefore revolutionary, while all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually causing changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the labourer, and in the social combinations of the labour-process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionises the division of labour within the society, and incessantly launches masses of capital and of workpeople from one branch of production to another. But if modern industry, by its very nature, therefore necessitates variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer, on the other hand, in its capitalistic form, it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossified particularisations. We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous, We have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity. This is the negative side. But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance at all points, modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes. It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. modern industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.

(Capital, Volume I, pp. 486-488, Accessed at the URL

While Marx thus takes a balanced and historically informed view of the role of modern industry, he does not by any means romanticise the actual process of industrial modernization under the aegis of the capitalist mode of production. In an interesting discussion of the relation between modern industry and agriculture, Marx anticipates some of the contemporary ecological concerns. In a typically dialectical assessment of the impact of capitalist industrial modernization on agriculture and the working people in agriculture, here is what Marx has to say:

Capitalist production completely tears asunder the old bond of union which held together agriculture and manufacture in their infancy. But at the same time it creates the material conditions for a higher synthesis in the future, viz., the union of agriculture and industry on the basis of the more perfected forms they have each acquired during their temporary separation. Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer. But while upsetting the naturally grown conditions for the maintenance of that circulation of matter, it imperiously calls for its restoration as a system, as a regulating law of social production, and under a form appropriate to the full development of the human race.(Ibid)


Marx concludes this discussion thus:

Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility… Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth-the soil and the labourer.[4]

Capital as a delightful read


Capital is thus not a daunting read. It is, as we can see from the foregoing extracts from just the first volume of Capital, a source of valuable knowledge and rich insights that enables us to understand some key aspects of capitalism as a mode of production even today, despite the phenomenal changes that have occurred since the first volume of Capital was published way back in 1867. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that the ruling classes have also learnt from the superbly incisive analysis of the capitalist mode of production in Capital. Bourgeois ideologists, including in academia, have long tried to bury Capital by ignoring it. Among mainstream economists, the dominant strategy has been to deny that Marx was a noteworthy economist, but treat him instead as a political propagandist. Forced to reckon with the continuing relevance of Marx in the context of both the real economic crisis of contemporary global capitalism an the crisis of mainstream economic theory in its neoliberal and Keynesian variants, mainstream economists are finding it increasingly difficult to dismiss Marx as either a non-economist or  a minor post-Ricardian.[5]

Apart from its importance in providing the reader with valuable insights on the nature and dynamics of the capitalist mode of production, insights which have contemporary relevance, the other important feature of Capital that I have been struck by is its method of presentation of arguments. Consider, for instance, what is often seen as a difficult part of Capital, namely the first chapter of the first volume which deals with the concept of commodity and develops the category of ‘value’. Far from being difficult, the argument in the chapter is systematic and goes through a series of simple logical steps to arrive at a profound understanding of the nature of a commodity. The first section of the chapter develops the point that a commodity-anything produced on private account with a view to sell in a market and not for own use-has two aspects of importance. First, it must be useful to some one in society or else it cannot be exchanged, which means it ceases to be a commodity in effect. This aspect, which Marx terms the use value property of a commodity, is a function of the natural-physical and chemical-properties of the commodity. However, the whole idea of producing something as a commodity is to sell it. This implies that a commodity must possess exchange value. Marx’s central point here is that, while the commodity is thus perceived as having use value and exchange value, the exchange value is only the external appearance, the form of expression as it were, of something deeper. This deeper aspect is that what makes the most different commodities comparable and commensurable cannot be their natural properties since these differ from commodity to commodity, but it is rather a social property. The obvious commonness of all commodities is that they are all products of the expenditure of human labour in society. This common property that all commodities have, namely that they are all products of society’s labour, is what makes them commensurable, and Marx calls this property ‘value’. Now, starting from this carefully built scaffold, he raises a marvellous structure of logical argument in Capital that enables him to unravel the inner dynamics of the capitalist mode of production.

 A key feature of Marx’s method, which Capital is suffused with, is that of showing the contradictory character of all the phenomena under investigation. We saw this in the earlier quotation from Capital on the historical role of machinery and modern industry. We saw it again in the passage that we quoted on the historical tendency of the capitalist mode of production. The remarkable twenty-fifth chapter in the first volume of Capital on ‘The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation’ is another outstanding example of Marx’s method of argument of starting out with simple categories depicting various aspects of the phenomenon under study, and showing the process of their dynamic evolution through the working  out of their inherent contradictions. It is of course important to emphasize that the contradictions being discussed by Marx are real ones on the ground and not merely contradictions of the theoretical categories used to represent the real world.

 It is, in retrospect, astonishing that Marx managed to make such a deep and profound structure of argument-and several substructures within the overall structure- so eminently readable. One feature of Capital that contributes to this readability is that every theoretical argument is immediately illustrated from contemporary history-and in many instances with the events and phenomena of earlier historical epochs as well. Marx makes generous but careful and rigorous use of official records and reports and data sources in illustrating and emphasizing his arguments. But he is careful to keep his structures of argument distinct and analytically valid on their own, even as he uses empirical evidence to illustrate, strengthen and illuminate his arguments. His frequent reference to fine works of literature and appropriate quotes from them relieves the reader struggling with dense arguments from time to time. Consider, for instance, the following passage on the capitalist engaged in the accumulation of capital :

To accumulate, is to conquer the world of social wealth, to increase the mass of human beings exploited by him, and thus to extend both the direct and the indirect sway of the capitalist. But original sin is at work everywhere. As capitalist production, accumulation, and wealth, become developed, the capitalist ceases to be the mere incarnation of capital. He has a fellow-feeling for his own Adam, and his education gradually enables him to smile at the rage for asceticism, as a mere prejudice of the old-fashioned miser. While the capitalist of the classical type brands individual consumption as a sin against his function, and as “abstinence” from accumulating, the modernised capitalist is capable of looking upon accumulation as “abstinence” from pleasure.

Marx captures this contradiction between wanting to enjoy the good life and the compulsion to accumulate by quoting from Goethe’s Faust:

“Two souls, alas, do dwell with in his breast;
The one is ever parting from the other.”

Marx then elaborates the argument, bringing out the contradictions involved and showing how they change with the dynamics of capitalism in history:

At the historical dawn of capitalist production, — and every capitalist upstart has personally to go through this historical stage — avarice, and desire to get rich, are the ruling passions. But the progress of capitalist production not only creates a world of delights; it lays open, in speculation and the credit system, a thousand sources of sudden enrichment. When a certain stage of development has been reached, a conventional degree of prodigality, which is also an exhibition of wealth, and consequently a source of credit, becomes a business necessity to the “unfortunate” capitalist. Luxury enters into capital’s expenses of representation. Moreover, the capitalist gets rich, not like the miser, in proportion to his personal labour and restricted consumption, but at the same rate as he squeezes out the labour-power of others, and enforces on the labourer abstinence from all life’s enjoyments. Although, therefore, the prodigality of the capitalist never possesses the bona fide character of the open-handed feudal lord’s prodigality, but, on the contrary, has always lurking behind it the most sordid avarice and the most anxious calculation, yet his expenditure grows with his accumulation, without the one necessarily restricting the other. But along with this growth, there is at the same time developed in his breast, a Faustian conflict between the passion for accumulation, and the desire for enjoyment.

The chapters on primitive accumulation, too, contain many such delightful passages, dripping with irony in their relentless expose of capitalist hypocrisy.

A final word

Go ahead, have a great read! And, by the way, do not forget to read the prefaces and the after-words to the various editions by Marx and by Engels. Hope you enjoy reading all the three volumes of Capital as much as I did-and do! At any rate, start on the first volume as soon as you can lay your hand on it.

[1] All references from Capital are from the edition published by International Publishers, New York in 1967 on the occasion of the 100th year of the first German edition of the classic work.

[2] Brilliant and in some ways evocative of contemporary capitalism as this description is,  the actual development of capitalist social formations- as opposed to the immanent tendency of the theoretical construct of the ‘capitalist mode of production’-has been very different. An important part of the explanation for this difference rests, of course, with the rise of Imperialism as an integral part of the evolution of capitalism. Professor Patnaik’s contribution to this volume explores this issue as a whole in depth.

[3] See, for instance, successive issues, over the last several years, of the Economic Survey, an annual publication of the Ministry of Finance of the Government of India.

[4] A good introduction to Marx’s perspectives and views on issues of ecology and environment can be found in John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (Monthly Review Press,New York, —-)

[5] The reference here is to David Ricardo, who was regarded, along with Adam Smith, as a classical political economist by Marx. Ricardo’s major work is The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. He and Smith, whose classic work, The Wealth of Nations (1776) is often  (and misleadingly) invoked by neoliberals, were the most important economists articulating the views of the emerging class of capitalists during a key phase of Britain’s transition to capitalism between the 1770s an the 1830s. Marx regarded both Smith and Ricardo highly, but also provided the most incisive critique of their views. If you courageously manage to read the three volumes of Capital, you can go on to read Marx’s magnum opus on the history of economic thought, the three-volume Theories of Surplus Value!

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