A class apart

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Haunted by Fire

Mythily Sivaraman visiting Keezhvenmani (now in Nagapattinam district) in 1969, where 44 Dalits had been burnt alive by a landlord a week earlier.

Mythily Sivaraman (standing) with (from right) Vimala Ranadive, Ahilya Rangnekar, Sushila Goplan and Papa Umanath at the 5th national conference of AIDWA held in Bangalore in 1998.

Mythily Sivaraman’s nuanced understanding of the importance of class struggle and her belief in the rights of the working class and women come out vividly in the compilation.

RECONSTRUCTING someone’s richly lived life through a pastiche of shared memories, experiences and actual writing can be a daunting task. More so when the person is Mythily Sivaraman, former national vice-president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), who spent almost four decades of her life highlighting the importance of class struggle through her activism and writings. Her experiences, detailed in her articles, shaped her own understanding even as she fought for the rights of the working class and women.

A life that began as a child looking at various inequalities in the private realm and the public sphere; a life that was shaped by the social, economic and political forces of the times, and which took a decisive turn after the burning alive of 44 Dalits by a landlord at Keezhvenmani (now in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu) in 1968, her writing reflects a certain integrity devoid of schmaltzy activism.

The year 1968 was an epochal period in more than one sense. This was the year Mythily Sivaraman joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and was associated with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, one of the largest central trade unions in the country. Not only did she participate in industrial strikes in various public sector units but also actively associated herself with the Institute of Social Sciences in Chennai, which published The Radical Review, a journal of socialist ideas and politics. She was its full-time editor and wrote extensively. Some of the articles she wrote for The Radical Review, Economic& Political Weekly and Mainstream have been included in Haunted by Fire.

Mythily Sivaraman’s understanding of the world, therefore, is very much derived from the ideology she believed in. V. Geetha and Kalpana Karunakaran (Mythily’s daughter), who have written the introduction to the book, have compiled her writings, jottings and ideas. This was after Mythily Sivaraman was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. They felt the need to put all her thoughts on major issues together and in the process helped her recapture a lot of those memories.

The book is divided into seven sections with several chapters and subsections, which are inextricably connected to one another. Section I is on Dalits, which includes her writings from the late 1960s, under the titles “Children of Darkness” and “Harijans”. The first one (published in Mainstream in 1969) was written when the nation was celebrating the Gandhi centenary year. It is a case study of a village in Tamil Nadu, where Mythily Sivaraman found a hierarchy among Harijans (this was the time when the nomenclature ‘Dalit’ had not yet entered political parlance), which made her realise that casteism was not an “exclusive monopoly of the higher-ups”. Harijans “have their own hierarchy too with the Pallars at the apex and living separately from the Paraiyas”. She finds that caste hierarchy was also based on food habits. The second section, “Understanding the Dravidian Movement”, looks critically at the limitations of the model of social and economic emancipation of the main Dravidian parties, the gaps between their socialist rhetoric and the politics they practised on the ground.

In the third section entitled “Land and Labour”, her articles closely look at the caste massacres of Keezhvenmani and Puducheri in Thanjavur district, which were in response to the resistance organised by the “Communist labourers” against the landlords. The demands were the same—fair wages. Ironically, four decades down the line, the demands continue to be the same though now couched in the sophistry of “rights” and “entitlements” and espoused by several non-governmental organisations. The basic demand and fight for fair and just wages continues and has been left to the communists.

In “Workers and Unions”, she finds that there was not much difference between the industrial policies of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Congress. The DMK sought to use the socialist rhetoric. “From the ‘scientific socialism’ of 1962 the DMK had come a long way in 1971 to ‘socialism without tears’ to socialism with private property intact.”

“…DMK has broken no new ground, made no major radical departure from the policy of the Congress.”

There are two case studies of union action—the workers’ strike in Madras Rubber Factory (MRF) in 1971 and the plantation workers’ strike in the Annamalais. The government attempted to break the strike at any cost. In this effort, she points out, there is not much of a difference between the DMK, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu then, and the Congress, which was in power at the Centre.

The third section in this chapter is about the murderous attack on V.P. Chintan, a trade unionist and senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The subsequent section, “All-out attack on the Working Class”, shows that no government in Tamil Nadu, despite its socialist pretensions ever did any good to the interests of the working class in meaningful terms. Through three shocking narratives of police torture, she provides a vignette of the Emergency excesses.

The section on “Electoral Politics” in Chapter 6 looks critically at the ways in which the communist parties should chart their path independently without losing sight of the class character of the parties with whom they enter into electoral alliances sometimes. What emanates from her writings is her firm belief that there can be no alternative other than the Left.

Disarming honesty

The articles, written mostly in the 1970s and early 1980s, remain relevant even today. Mythily Sivaraman uses self-criticism as a tool for a better understanding of the world. In the manner of a true communist, her writings reflect a disarming honesty and candour. For instance, when she writes about the relevance of E.V.R. Periyar in a 1971 article in The Radical Review, she says that the Left had not understood him entirely. She is critical of the non-Brahmin movement (Justice Party) in its initial stages when it collaborated with the British. However, she says, when Periyar helped form the Madras Provincial Association, which was the nationalist counter to the Justice Party, things underwent a radical change. But he failed to see the link between the methods of production and social, cultural and political values and substituted caste for class, she writes. His direct action was more against Brahminism, not capitalism. Even as she is critical of Periyar and is conscious of the limitations in his approach as well as the many contradictions that emerged, Mythily Sivaraman feels that the communist movement did not adopt a clear policy on Periyar on the basis of study and analysis. According to her, Tamil nationalism and its understanding of the class struggle, capitalism and caste needed a closer look.

In fact, writing in the 1970s, she observes how ritualism had become widespread and the DMK was able to do little about it. However, in the era of identity politics where classes exist with the castes of the oppressed and where politics has developed around caste identity, the questions that she raises are relevant.

Mythily Sivaraman argues that Marxists should have understood other phenomena such as mass culture. Had they influenced and carried forward the linguistic and cultural aspects of Tamil culture, it would not have been the DMK that had ridden the anti-Congress wave. And Tamil nationalism would not have been reduced to rabble-rousing. She minces no words in her critique of the damage that identity politics of caste had done to the class struggle.

To an extent, her critique of the inability of Marxists to occupy the space taken by the Dravidian parties appears legitimate. However, had Marxists taken the non-Brahmin movement’s line, they would have succumbed to the idea of the notional emancipation symbolised by the non-Brahmin struggles early on. The fact that none of the so-called non-Brahmin caste-based parties could actually address the economic questions of inequality shows the limitations of fighting class questions through caste organisations.

In another article in The Radical Review in 1970, she writes how “in the absence of a commitment to the socialist ideology based on a scientific understanding of the evolution of social history and in the absence of adequate experience in working class struggles, the DMK had proved much too vulnerable to pressures from the dominant economic interests”.

In the section expounding the class character of the DMK, she says that the party in its initial years may have had the character of a bourgeois democratic party but subsequently it had come to reflect capitalist interests. And the recent quagmire of scams and corruption that the DMK has found itself in can perhaps be traced to its deviations since the 1970s.

On reading these articles written more than three decades ago, one finds that the understanding of caste and class by contemporary analysts is pedestrian. With this understanding, the debate does not go beyond the superficial framework of “dignity”, a parameter the government is comfortable with because it does not ask for anything more—a decent and living minimum wage, for instance. The inadequacy in understanding the class hierarchies within the oppressed castes has been the biggest failure of the Dravidian parties. It is precisely because of this failure that they have been unable to eradicate the caste scourge. Why is it that even after 45 years of the Keezhvenmani massacre caste atrocities continue in the State, which has been alternately ruled by the two major Dravidian parties? The reason lies not in the resilience of caste but in the Dravidian parties’ failure to take social transformative politics to the realm of economic contradictions.

Mythily Sivaraman’s writings make it clear that there cannot be any short-cut approach to class struggle. And there is no doubt in her mind at least as to who should play the role of the vanguard in that struggle.