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March 7, 2014

Geoffroy Thérage took one last look at the nineteen-year old girl tied high up on the stake. Joan (Jeanne d’Arc, as she was known in France) appeared to be resigned to her fate. Her eyes were on the crucifix that Father Martin Ladvenu and Father Ysambard de la Pierre were holding up for her to see.

Thérage, a god-fearing man, drew the cross and closed his eyes in fear of being damned for putting a saint to death. He begged forgiveness of the girl and proceeded to light the pyre under her. As flames shot up, Joan screamed in a loud voice the holy name of Jesus and invoked the Saints of Paradise without ceasing. The crowd gasped and many began to sob. Then her head drooped and her body became motionless.

Jyothi closed the textbook and skimmed through her notes. She had a paper due for her Women’s Studies class. Joan of Arc, the “Virgin Warrior” of France who was a saint to many, fascinated her. She reminisced about the life of the illiterate peasant girl from Domremy in medieval France. Apparently, the “Holy Maid” could electrify those around her and struck terror into the hearts of her enemies. Joan’s self-confident, charismatic and supremely determined persona resonated well with her.

It had been two years since Jyothi Ramani arrived on the campus of the University of Delhi for her post-graduate studies, the first member of her extended family to do so. She hailed from Janwada village in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. Her family owned agricultural lands in Janwada for two generations, since the Telangana uprisings of ‘40s-‘50s. Jyothi aspired for an academic career in one of Telangana’s leading colleges. She had full support of the family in her endeavor. The social pressures to conform to the ‘norms’ did not encumber the clan. Her generation grew up in a different era, free of the crushing feudal exploitations that had ravaged her ancestors prior to the rebellion.

Jyothi cuddled the mobile phone in her pensive mood. The device’s screen indicated that the hour was nearing midnight. Looking at her notes, Jyothi found the word she wrote down in uppercase and encircled: HERESY. Of all the descriptions she could find in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the one she felt was most appropriate in Joan’s context was the following: an opinion, doctrine, or practice contrary to the truth or to generally accepted beliefs or standards.  Joan had to pay with her life on charges of ‘heresy.’ The word had stirred Jyothi’s emotions. Did she find a parallel in her own life?


Last summer Jyothi was chronicling the life stories of the women involved in the Telangana uprising for a Women’s Studies project. She had heard so much about the peasant movement while growing up. Her grandmother, Rukmini, used to talk excitedly about one Chityala Ailamma.

Chakali Ilamma, as she was popularly known, was a mother of four. When the zamindar (landlord) Visnur Ramachandra Reddy tried to take her four acres of land in Palakurti village of Jangaon taluk, she revolted. Her rebellion inspired many to join the vetti chakiri udyamam (forced labor movement). Later she worked actively against the Nizam government and her house was the center for activities against the feudal landlords.

Jyothi felt that Rukmini had more stories to share than she had recounted thus far. One evening, she found her grandmother alone in her bedroom sorting through a stack of papers. She stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. Rukmini peered at her from underneath the thick glasses. Jyothi sat quietly on the bed next to the old lady and smiled at her.

Jyothi was Rukmini’s eldest grandchild. Growing up, she was attached to her grandmother more than any other children in their large joint family. On many hot afternoons, she would seek refuge in her grandmother’s bed, listening to stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. At other times, Rukmini would be braiding Jyothi’s hair in ponytail while humming Bonalu (a festival honoring Goddess Mahakali) hymns and revolutionary songs.

Jyothi laid down a notebook and a small cassette tape recorder that she was carrying in her hand. “I’m writing about the women of Telangana struggle,” she explained to Rukmini, “It is important for our generation and beyond to know the sacrifices you had made.” The literature did mention about women’s active participation in the land movement, in agricultural labor wage struggles, in seizure of landlord’s grain, and against forced evacuation of tribal people from their lands. However, Jyothi wanted to learn about women’s battlefield experiences when fighting alongside their fathers, brothers and husbands.

Rukmini paused from stacking the papers and looked at Jyothi. She removed her glasses and wiped them with the end of her saree. She then put them back and picked up the tape recorder. Her eyes wandered as if scanning the room and eventually fixated on the recording device. Jyothi reached out and turned on the gadget. Rukmini took a deep breath and spoke firmly into the device.


Rukmini was born as Nagamma into the Koya tribe from the Godavari forest region of Khammam district. Her family had Telanganafarmed on a few acres of land under the vetti (forced labor) system in Potuvarigudem village in the Palvancha forest area. She was the eldest child of her parents. During her childhood, the social conditions were oppressive in all the districts of Telangana. The Nizam and his cronies behaved as arbitrarily as medieval potentates. Poor peasants were subjected to innumerable illegal exactions like paying nazaranas (presents in kind or cash) whenever there was a birth, marriage, or death in the family. The worst of all these feudal oppressions was the prevalence of keeping girls as ‘slaves’ in landlords’ houses and using them as adi bapas (concubines).

When Nagamma reached puberty, her family married her off to a peasant boy from her gotram (one of five sub-divisions of a Koya clan). As she attained womanhood, her husband began to treat her very badly. She was fed up with him and fell in love with an agricultural labor hand of the village landlord; the two developed an intimacy. Nagamma’s case was brought before the village committee. After hearing her plight, the council decided that she was free to exercise her will and granted her a divorce.

The year was 1948 and the Telangana Peasant Movement was in upswing. The Andhra Mahasabha and the Communist Party had established footholds in the region, particularly among the youth. Nagamma would find these organizations in her village holding meetings to denounce usury of the landlords and distributing chittis (receipts) authorizing people to refuse vetti. To counter influence of the resistance, the Razakars (Nizam’s militia) and the police set up camps outside her village and began terrorizing people. Women and girls were particularly vulnerable – often targets of abduction and rape.

One evening, Nagamma was visiting her friend in a neighboring village when the Razakars, backed by the police, raided the hamlet. Nagamma ran desperately away from the crowd. As she neared the edge of the Palvancha forest, a resistance squad emerged and opened fire on her pursuers. She thanked her saviors and instead of returning to family she decided to join the dalam (squad). The group was led by one Jagannatham.

In her new life, she assumed the name of ‘Rukmini’, after Lord Krishna’s principal wife who was also considered to be an avatar of Laxmi (the goddess of fortune). Rukmini became an active member of the squad helping it with all its chores. She learned to handle firearms and participated in a number of actions against the Razakars, the police and even the Indian Army. She was soon promoted as the second-in-command.

Gradually, Rukmini and Jagannatham developed mutual affection. They discussed at length about possible matrimonial alliance – she was a Koya woman who had divorced her husband and he belonged to the Gowda community of the plains – overcoming the age-old suspicions of the tribal people towards the domineering plainsmen. Finally, they decided to tie the knot and sought Party permission. The Party approved and solemnized the marriage.

Over the next couple of years, Rukmini and her squad moved through Telangana in support of the uprising. During the period of guerrilla life, she learnt to read and write and developed her political consciousness. Those formative years gave her the opportunity to witness some of the most astounding expressions of human endurance in face of adversities.

In one incident that she could recall, the police raided a Koya hamlet in the Godavari forest area of Gundala and tried to take away several men. Women from the neighboring hamlets rushed forth and surrounded the police. When the police opened fire, the women pelted them with stones from behind the trees and refused to disperse till their menfolk were released. The police had to yield ultimately. In another incident, the police subjected seventy women from Nereda village to beating with tamarind birches on suspicion of being rebel sympathizers. They were forced to wear pajamas and chameleons were placed in their private parts. The pajamas were tied up at the bottom to prevent the critters from escaping. The entrapped reptiles started biting; the agony of the women was indescribable. Red chili powder was sprinkled into the wounds. The women were ill for five months. Rukmini visited the victims regularly and cared for them till they were able to resume normal activities. Some of these women eventually joined her squad.

On a pleasant autumn evening in 1950, news reached the squad that Lachamma, a washer-woman of Nadigadda village, was caught in a raid by the Indian Army. She used to wash the clothes of Rukmini’s squad and of other guerillas and had helped them to ferry supplies across the river. She was tied to a tree branch, upside down, naked, and was beaten with lathis and birches to force her tell the whereabouts of the local guerillas. After the coercion attempt failed, the Army left warning the villagers not to remove Lachamma. Jagannatham set off for Nadigadda with a few men to intervene. As the group was crossing the river, they came under attack. The Army had laid a trap; the messenger had betrayed them. The entrenched rebels fought valiantly but were outgunned. Their bodies were recovered from downstream a few days later.

Rukmini was devastated. She was pregnant with her first child. After deliberation with her comrades, she decided to leave her squad and return to civilian life under the protection of the rebels. Her family had already been forced out of their native village by the authorities when it became known that their daughter had joined the resistance. Rukmini traced one of her siblings to the Akkampeta village in West Godavari district. Her parents were already dead. She decided to move in with her sister who was married to a primary school teacher of the village.

A few months after joining her sister, Rukmini gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She named her Jagannatham. In October 1951, the Telangana movement was called off. The following year saw the rise of the Communists into power. Rukmini contacted the Party leaders of Khammam district to help her with rehabilitation of partisan resistance women like her. In Akkampeta, she began organizing classes for village women with the help of her sister.

One morning, a man in his late twenties arrived in Akkampeta. He was Ranga Rao, an underground fighter who had recently come out of hiding. The Party leaders had dispatched him to assist Rukmini. He would be bringing women cadres after the initial assessment of her needs was completed. He stayed for a week and befriended the three year-old Jagannatham. When departing, he invited Rukmini to visit the Party headquarters in Khammam town. Over the next several years, they took several trips together in support of Party activities. In early 1956, the two returned to Akkampeta as a married couple. They had decided to move west, to Janwada village in Rangareddy district, where Ranga Rao’s family owned lands.


Rukmini took a pause from her narration and put the tape recorder on the bed. Jyothi knew the rest of her life story. Jagannatham was Jyothi’s father. Rukmini went on to have two more sons and a daughter with Ranga Rao. Grandpa had passed away a few years ago.

She kept the tape recorder running as she watched Rukmini slowly breaking into reciting the bardic tale of ‘Telangana Veerayodhulu’ (Telangana Heroic Warriors):

“They raped even the newly delivered ladies; they cut the new born babies into pieces;

They stripped the pregnant women; and stabbed them in their stomachs;

They tied the ladies in hay-stacks; and burnt them to death.”


Jyothi began writing her term paper. She had about two hours to work on it. This word, heresy, was so intriguing.

Throughout human history, the heretics or the proponents of heresy had been hounded down and often put to death. All the major religions of the world had the dubious distinction of persecuting the heretics among their ranks – Jyothi found through her internet search.

Even before Joan’s tenure, the Catholic Church was enforcing pre-existing episcopal powers to inquire about and suppress heresy. Joan’s trial for heresy was politically motivated in the midst of the Hundred Years War between England and France. England resented Joan’s support of the French crown. Her reputation as a French prophetess and saint needed to be destroyed if England were to have a “divine claim” on northern France.

Jyothi’s mind was getting foggy. Rukmini’s life story was an embodiment of heresy too. Her peasantry roots, her marginal existence on the fringe of the society while shepherding her younger siblings, and of course her life as a rebel fighter among the ranks of males – all bore striking resemblance to Joan. There were too many similarities in these two lives, centuries and continents apart, to be purely coincidental. The subjugation of Telangana and her inhabitants was no different than the conquest of Joan’s land and her people. The social and political forces had prompted both girls – not surprisingly, they were nearly of the same age – to seek retribution by rejecting their ‘traditional’ roles and following their conscience.

Jyoti needed a break from typing. It was almost two o’clock. She wrapped herself in a shawl and stepped outside in the December chill. From her balcony, she could see lights aglow in many of the dorm rooms. Those were the late night crusaders like her. There was a group of girls hanging out in the courtyard. Some were milling around the canteen. The road outside the hostel was eerily quiet, except for occasional barking of stray dogs. Students, particularly girls, stopped venturing at night. Security on and around campus was on everyone’s mind for quite some time.

Just a year ago, the whole campus erupted in rallies and protest marches following the rape and brutalization of a young woman, who was about Jyothi’s age. She too had gone to India Gate with her classmates demanding justice for the victim, which in a way was to ask the society to respect her gender. That unfortunate girl, Jyoti Singh Pandey, shared her name and also her dream of a career. How odd a coincidence could that be? Then there were Kiran Negi of Dwarka in south-west Delhi and Shipra Ghosh of Kamduni in West Bengal – the nineteen year olds had aspired for self-sufficiency through work and education – who were brutally raped and murdered. All three girls, like Jyothi, were the eldest of their respective siblings, but that would be the least similarity they would share with Joan and Rukmini. Certainly, each of these women decided to live ‘a life of her choice’, which could make her a heretic to an appropriate authority.

A well thought-out conclusion was what remained of the term paper. Jyothi paced a few times between the room and the balcony, still unsure of the concluding remarks. The more she tried to put ‘heresy’ into perspective, the more her thoughts became convoluted. Who had the ‘moral’ authority to prosecute a heretic? In Joan’s case, the Church used the charges of heresy to silence dissent. Did the modern society or certain sections thereof assume that authority? Why then these girls would ‘burn at stake’ for not conforming to social ‘norms’? It appeared that humans had made little progress at the existential level since Joan’s time in spite of the relentless march of civilization at esoteric levels.

Perhaps, her confusion would not be resolved by the time her writing was done. She was all ready to retreat on this chilly night. Clutching the textbook she slipped into her bed, hoping to skim through it one more time before hitting the lights. It wasn’t long before she fell into a deep sleep.

That night Jyothi dreamt of three maids in pure white dresses crossing the blue waters of Gandipet (aka Osman Sagar), the lake near her village. These apparitions were like Joan’s visions of St. Michael, St. Margaret and St. Catherine. They entered her room through the open window and congregated around her bed. She saw Kiran, Jyoti and Shipra smiling at her. In sweet but firm voices, they urged her to don a shining armor and step into men’s battlefield just as the French maid did some six centuries ago. The armor would prevent her from getting molested or raped and she could preserve her virginity like Joan. This wasn’t a call of duty for god; rather it was a higher calling – for humanity.

Jyothi was jolted off the bed by the alarm of her mobile. It was seven o’clock in the morning. She had another hour before heading for college. Should she be writing about her dreams in that remaining section of her assignment? An SMS from her father confirmed that Janwada was very soon to be the talk of the nation. An NGO would be implementing social programs to promote safe water awareness and hygiene practices, especially among women and children. They would invite celebrities from Bollywood and Hollywood to come to the village to raise funds in the New Year. That was indeed great news! There could be an opportunity to discuss women’s health and wellbeing in and around her village too, thought Jyothi.

She was looking forward to going home.

–        Subhodev Das

From → Creations

  1. A very thought provoking read… I am thinking more about Rukmini..part of her ‘heresy’ is going against the patriarchal norm of Mono-andry, I would think… Jagannatham, Ranga Rao… re-dfining the conventional label of ‘Sati Savitri’?
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Purna, yes that was one of the biggest complaints from women of the Telagana movement. During the revolt, their participation was viewed as ‘secondary’ to men. Following the struggle, they were asked to lay down arms and return to kitchen.

  2. Someslal permalink

    A praise-worthy post, indeed!

    But what Subhodev, alongwith the character ( fictive? ) Jyothi, seems to fail to notice is that it is the same oppressive culture that produces and maintains the oppressive police force and the army on the one hand and the “celebrities from Bollywood and Hollywood” on the other. Doesn’t Bollywood, in particular, play, in the name of Art ( ? ), a big role in projecting and characterising women as mere “objects of desire” and thereby contribute to a large extent to nurture and promote a perverse view about women, a view that acts as perhaps the most important factor in bringing forth a kind of mentality that takes pleasure in seeing an woman assaulted and tortured? And don’t we write songs praising the deeds of “official” butchers that conduct massacres in a country we consider as enemy-territory? But if you say such things very loudly then you’d also perhaps be branded “a heretic”!

    • Someslal, thanks for visiting the page and leaving your thoughtful comments. The ‘sensitization’ of the arms of law and Bollywood regarding gender (women) issues was a topic that we had covered in Protibaad forum articles. The objective of this story was to explore lives of women who broke the ‘mold’ and to find any common thread linking them. Jyothi was cast in the role of the explorer. In the end, she started to identify herself as being one of them. Her “heretic” thoughts were implied in her seeking “an opportunity to discuss women’s health and wellbeing” with the people of her village as well as the ‘visitors’ (e.g., Hollywood & Bollywood ‘celebrities’, press, etc.)

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