Land Guns Caste Woman
The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary
By Gita Ramaswamy
Published by Navayana
May 25 marked the anniversary of Naxalbari. Fifty five years have passed since labourers and tea garden workers in a West Bengal village sparked a movement that articulated “the demands of the poor and landless peasantry in a way that shook the then atrophied Indian political scene,” to quote historian Sumanta Banerji. Hundreds of middle class youths, plunged into that cataclysmic uprising, their imagination fuelled by a vision of change. Many were brutally killed but what happened to the others? What did they go on to do? What were the repercussions of this struggle that had raised issues of land ownership and control? Sadly the fervour of those times is now largely ignored by the English mainstream media, There is very little reflective writing on it and of the people’s struggles for social justice that it spawned.
It is therefore very heartening to come upon Gita Ramaswamy’s remarkable book Land Guns Caste Woman with its rider The memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary. A disarmingly candid recall, the book traces her journey as a student joining the Marxist Leninist (ML) movement in Telangana, going underground during the Emergency along with her partner Cyril Reddy and then working in a basti in Ghaziabad amidst dalit labourers. Disillusionment with the party and the raising of critical concerns, circulated by them, in documents led to a parting of ways. But if leading a non-political life was not an option, what did one do?
Returning to Hyderabad in 1980, Ramaswamy and her partner Cyril and other activists decided they could raise the level of debate by running a book trust that would bring out progressive publications in Telugu. Among those whose works were made accessible to the people through the Hyderabad Book Trust (HBT) were Alex Haley, Mahasweta Devi, Mary Tyler, the great Mexican cartoonist Ruis, and Saripalli Krishna Reddy’s popular Uppena, on the Telangana peasant revolt of the forties. The variety of books published was a reflection of the times when, the world over, people were sharing their dreams and forging solidarities.
Four years later, the stirrings for more active political work and the awareness that the HBT work was limited, led Ramaswamy to Ibrahimpatnam. This was a village, 30 kms to the south east of Hyderabad, with roads leading to it studded with massive outcrops of granite boulders, all with picturesque names. Across this landscape walked shepherds with their trademark blankets called gongadi, women and older girls carrying pitchers of water and peasants with money in their pockets seeking out the rickety benches outside tea shops. It was amongst these people that Ramaswamy chose to live and try build a self- sustaining, militant, non ML organization of the rural poor. She felt that with education, access to various networks, legal and others, government institutions and the media she could provide a capsule of all that she had learnt.
She recounts the setting up of the agricultural labourers’ union _ the Ibrahimpatnam Taluka Vyavasaya Coolie Sangam_ or simply Sangam as it came to be known. Like so many of that era, she had assumed that class was the key concern of the rural poor. The Karamchedu dalit killings brought in the important caste perspective, one that would be honed a decade later with her extensive reading of Ambedkar and his insistence on constitutional entitlements for dalits and disapproval of violence. It is Ramaswamy’s lived experiences and these learnings that empower her to raise valid concerns on the class- caste debate. She is frank about the failure of the Left to have read Ambedkar and work closely with dalit groups.
The core of her book encompasses the Ibrahimpatnam days _ the struggles against caste violence, landlessness, bonded labour and cruel exploitation. But, it is not a dry compilation of facts and events. Ramaswamy breathes life and colour with evocative descriptions, astute observations on everything from politics to food to the Telangana dialect with its penchant for using the prefix ‘dengadam’ (meaning fucking) and above all, unflinchingly honest critiques. Her own gripping story is intermeshed with that of the people. The political and personal are interwoven with humour and grace to create a very rich tapestry of rural Telangana and its people.
We meet Paul Diwakar, the man behind the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights in whose house she first stayed, Buggaiah who tragically died young, and fearless Sriramulu, a mala, son of a bonded labourer, who did not fear officialdom or hierarchy of caste. Ramaswamy narrates the dramatic incident that shaped his future. A hotel used to keep separate coloured tea glasses for the malas and madigas and for six years Sriramulu would take one of the cups, earmarked for the malas, throw away the tea and pay up. One day he drank the tea and broke all 14 cups and asked for another. He was told there were no more cups whereupon he snatched the cup being served to a reddy and drank it. He was thrashed severely by caste Hindus but continued to smash all the tea cups in the hotel. Beaten till he lost consciousness he was thrown into a disused house. His enraged father then came and set fire to the hotel. Sriramulu joined the Indian army and worked as the driver of a bulldozer before returning to his village and became a legendary leader who accompanied dalits to the police station and mandal office. He was among those who joined the Sangam as an active member.
Then there are the women who mentored Ramaswamy. Chandramma the beautiful 40-year-old who had raised her two children single-handedly working as a village sweeper but tragically committed suicide after a quarrel with the son. There is Gattu Ramulamma with her wise, sharp gaze who stitched sacks together for a sari and taught the young Ramaswamy how to view complex village affairs.
Struck by this remarkable attention to detail and all the anecdotes, I asked Ramaswamy in an email if she had kept a diary. She replied she had not but that after the first draft, she counter-checked with her erstwhile colleagues. The first chapter “Why I had to write this book” mentions four other sets of material that formed the foundational archives. These were: her writings in Mainstream from 1985 onwards, mainly about the people, the pen portraits as she calls them; her writings for Nalupu the dalit magazine; the paper on judicial processes and women she wrote for the Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies; the contribution of artist Naru, who worked for Nalupu. He who would paste presswite ups on big sheets. And finally the legal files used for the movement. All these served to construct the timeline, content and methods of work for the movement. It is as an example of how crucial it is for meticulous documentation and the need to build up records of people’s movements in an age where history is constantly being re written or then completely erased.
One of the first example of personal revolt comes with Ramaswamy, as a college student taking up cudgels against her patriarchal Brahminical family, demanding the right to wear a bra and discard the bodice. It is in the university campus that she embraces Left politics, feminism : she feels she is in “step with the tide of the new, radical and subversive events that was sweeping the world.”
Then comes the “sharp left” turn with her joining the CPI-ML Chandra Pulla Reddy group known as the Andhra Pradesh Revolutionary Communist Party. Amidst the various mass stirs she also met her partner, Cyril Reddy. He was the younger brother of George, the charismatic student leader who was stabbed to death by RSS supporters in the engineering college hostel in the presence of policemen. Those arrested for the murder were acquitted. Reading this section, was a reminder of this ugly legacy of brute violence which continues to raise its head, as events in JNU Delhi, Aligarh Muslim University, Central University in Hyderabad and Jamia in Delhi have shown. Thanks to the state’s open complicity with right wing cadres they have become bloody battlefields.
The recall of campus days also captures evocatively the heady mix of ferment, feminism and also the early stirrings of romance and love. There are some lovely vignettes of prominent Left personalities_ Vanaja Iyengar who later married Mohit Sen of the CPI, teaching mathematics at Osmania University and smoking cigarettes in the lounge, much to the awe of Ramaswamy. Veena Shatrughana, a feminist doctor not only drove a scooter but wore sleeveless blouses. It is a wonderful and entertaining documenting of the changing social mores and feminine defiance!
Then there are the marriages and elopements. M Shantha, later to become renowned as Shantha Sinha, championing the cause of eradicating child labour, was confined to her home by her orthodox Pudur Dravida family who learnt of her relationship with fellow student Ajay Sinha. Friends carried out an audacious rescue mission. Mahipal Reddy dressed as a postman, drove to the house on a cycle with a telegram addressed to her and insisted she must sign it. When she came out to do so she was quickly escorted to a waiting car and driven away!
Despite the light tone and humour adopted by Ramaswamy in this anecdote, she does not shrink from revealing her own ordeal and the sheer violence of patriarchy and dominance that formed the matrix of a Brahmin family. When her family came to know she was involved with the Naxalite movement they sent her a fake message saying her mother had a heart attack. Persuaded to go home by her comrades she was confined to a room and then sent to a psychiatrist who sedated her and gave her electric shock treatment to cure her of being “brainwashed” by Naxalites. For Ramaswamy the horror was not just that her father had ordered this to be done but that her sisters, grown women, failed to support her. Yet, as she adds her family was not unusually cruel. They had never raised a hand on her or anyone else. “ The simple fact is that patriarchy and caste diktats are normalized everywhere, made to appear as natural and permanent as sunrise.”
For me the most remarkable feature of her memoir is this refreshing candour, an ability to look at the frailties – not just that of others but hers too _ with an understanding and a humane lens.
In reply to a question that I sent her by email on this frankness, she said she finds those memoirs interesting which are candid and unafraid. “Those which do not speak of events that are well known, even if to a few, seem dishonest. So I set out to be frank though my heart was in my mouth several times.”
One of those events revolves around the ugly spat with a friend and members of a feminist group who physically attacked her husband Cyril and of his own retaliation. She writes she did not include the incident in her first draft but did subsequently because she reasoned that if she could include bits of her family history and the Naxalite group to which she belonged why should she conceal something that affected her so deeply.
In her email she elaborated, “ Again as I worked with a non-profit publishing that works with all activist groups, I have found it politic not to engage in controversial issues. But a memoir is different_ it is personal, it bases on events that one has seen and experienced, so I thought it time to speak out my mind. And yes, I certainly think there hasn’t been honest, transparent and critical writings by activist groups. This not just the Left alone_ most groups, whether feminist, Bahujan or other, seem to think that by engaging in open discussions, we weaken our politics.”
Her book breaks that pattern. She discusses and dissects some of the conundrums and paradoxes of the Left and she offers a critique even of her own Sangam.
She writes of the ML cadres, particularly those of the People’s War Group, that she and Cyril met with in the early 80s who possessed “sterling qualities.” They were affectionate, respectful and committed to their work. But she disagrees with a party “that stifled discussion in the name of democratic centralism,” and cannot accept a party which worked in a hierarchical system, “that privileged power over people’s actual issues.”
Yet, she acknowledges that the Sangam despite its achievement and strategies cannot substitute for broad political action. The Sangam’s work literally ended in 1993 and it is, she admits, indicative of its inability to take up further transformative action. Its cadres, unlike the dedicated ML cadres, were unwilling to leave their villages and work elsewhere. She also reflects on the thorny issue of the ML path of the gun and its inability to respond to the dalit demand for constitutionality.
In my email to her, I had asked her to elaborate on what she thought about the use of violence and agitational strategy in movements. She replied that it was necessary to distinguish between unplanned violence stemming from resistance in a people’s movement and a planned strategy of violence to take over state power. “The first is not to be condemned: but the second has to consider that states today are not weak, they are armed to the teeth and equipped with the latest technological weaponry and surveillance equipment. Wherever violence has worked in the past as in Russia, Cuba or China, it has done so only at times when the state was weak. The emphasis on violence also takes away the necessity of working towards everyday change in strengthening people and changing their lives, attitudes and concerns and this I believe, is the only guarantee of genuine change.”
Given that the nature of the state has grown increasingly hard and that there is a swing away from progressive thought, were such movements of change possible, I asked her.
Her reply was a categorical, “ Yes, yes and yes! We need to be inventive_ we need to closely observe what the people themselves create and maximise this.”
If there is a criticism of this book it is that I find the last few pages making a very abrupt leap from 1993 when she leaves Ibrahimpatnam to the postscript of present times. The personal decision to have a baby when she and Cyril had initially vowed not to have offspring, her leaving Ibrahimpatnam and her life subsequently is skimmed through in just a few pages. The ending is poignant. deeply moving but there is perhaps something left unsaid. Could it be that in life one never has all the answers.
Freny Manecksha’s new book ‘Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories From Bastar and Kashmir’ is out now from Speaking Tiger.