Following the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi is no mean task, as today's leaders will readily agree, but the "Mahila Shanti Sena" (MSS), which means 'Women's Peace Force', seems ready to meet the challenge head-on. This 5,000-member strong cadre of women in Bihar, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur is convinced that it can, by sheer moral force, tackle anything. From resolving the daily problems of villagers, farmers, women and other marginalised groups, to holding a dialogue with hardcore militants.
And their magic appears to be working. In Assam's Nalwari district, for instance, the initiative has shut the people's doors to militants. And in Gokhar Dahak village in Bihar's Jamui district, MSS solved an irrigation problem faced by local farmers - through sheer hard labour. "They (the farmers) were worried because it was the second year that their crops were wilting for want of canal water," says MSS member Sarita Kumari. "The government authorities did not show any interest and finally, when the men decided to help themselves, 300 women from the MSS present at the meeting volunteered their assistance," she says.
Almost 1,000 MSS women worked continuously for four days alongside the farmers on a massive desilting and chanelling effort to direct and ensure water flow. With water in the fields now, the colour of the crops is a healthy green, and there are smiles on every face.
Also in Jamui district, MSS has been instrumental in forcing the closure of several bhattis (a place where illicit liquor is made). "Now there isn't a single bhatti in my village," says Munni, an MSS member in village Bhatta. MSS forced the bhattis to close down, says Munni, because the women of the village wanted it. "Now the men do not drink frequently and the women are happy."
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Any woman over 18 years of age can become an MSS member by paying an annual fee of five rupees. However, potential members must not be affiliated to any political party. MSS members receive no remuneration or stipend for the work they take upon themselves.
"Gandhiji wanted to form a shanti sena (peace force) throughout the country," says Acharya Ram Murthi, a Gandhian and the director of Shram Bharti Khadi Gram in Jamui. "I thought that this was the time to implement Mahatma Gandhi's idea because there is no peace in this world being ruled by men. Women are the last hope to bring peace."
MSS members are trained over a period of four to seven days. Apart from being oriented towards the movement's ideology, they also learn how to address and resolve various social issues. The training schedule is designed so as not to disrupt women's routines in their homes and to maximise attendance. MSS meetings are forums during which social and economic issues are regularly discussed, and members are taught not to discriminate against the girl child and to discourage the practice of dowry.
MSS members also maintain a register of women voters in their area and motivate them to attend the gram sabha (village assembly), participate and raise issues related to education, health and development.
Of the 3,000 MSS members in Bihar, about two-thirds are also members of self-help groups (SHGs). "Gandhiji wanted women to learn some skill that would help them earn. Our MSS members (those who are SHG members) are also learning how to start their own work. Some run a small teashop and others rear pigs or goats. The SHG concept also helps in the making of MSS," says Acharya Ram Murthi.
Although most MSS members are illiterate labourers, they are very aware of the strength of a women's force, and the importance of their role in society. Whenever they learn about cases of exploitation or corruption, they call a meeting to discuss the issue and decide on how best to intervene, without seeking the help of the police. Wearing distinctive yellow scarves, MSS volunteers step in to resolve matters. They could be dealing with a drunkard who creates a nuisance, a theft, or disputes between neighbouring farmers - one person's cattle straying into the other's fields or a disagreement over the flow of water into the fields.
Yashoda Devi, of Lal Mathiya village in Jamui, says the people in her village now approach the MSS to resolve issues. "Five hundred MSS members with banners proclaiming 'Do Not Spoil Children's Future' have prohibited men from playing cards in the village of Padho since the middle of 2003. Even the police was quick to swing in behind MSS, warning men against gambling," says Sarita Kumari.
MSS activities are not limited to resolving domestic or local problems. In the militancy-affected areas of Assam, their intervention has eased tension in some areas. In Nalwari district, three kilometres from the Bhutan border, militants were using the area surrounded by forests as a hideout both for themselves and for keeping the people they kidnapped for ransom. But over the past two years, kidnapping incidents have come down considerably here. This, after 1,000 MSS members called a meeting and served a notice on the militants saying that they would no longer cooperate.
The militants' counter threats did not work. "We asked them how many doors they would continue to knock, and for how much longer. We said that no one would open their doors to them, and that we were not alone," says Bhai Ravindar, founder of Anchalik Gramdhan Sangh in Kummarikata.
In October-November 2003, the ULFA cadres had ordered Hindi-speaking people to leave Assam; they had killed 80 migrant labourers in working in tea gardens, and were spreading fear in the Kumarikata, Lakhimpur and Tejpur blocks. As a result, many of the Hindi-speaking people were seeking refuge in police stations at night. "Then, MSS marched through the streets carrying banners and proclaiming the message of peace. About 3,000 people joined this march; then people stopped going to police stations for refuge because they realised that the local people were with them," says Bhai Ravindar.
Why, then, has MSS not intervened in Bihar's Naxalite belt? Says Acharya Ram Murthi, "We are not scared of guns. But we want effective intervention in such areas. We are working on how and when to intervene." They are also thinking of forming an MSS in Kashmir.
Despite the fact that MSS faces financial difficulties - they do not get funds from any agency - it continues to function as a force to reckon with. Not one to be bogged down by financial worries, Acharya Ram Murthi has more dreams. He would like to create a Rapid Action Force with 100 MSS workers in Bihar - a force that would be ready to meet a crisis anywhere in the state - to help save human beings from natural and man-made calamities.