Brinda Karat: Communist with a bindi

Characterised by a lack of self-indulgence, this memoir narrates a story that describes her mission to end exploitation in the world.

Published : Apr 04, 2024 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

Members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, led by Brinda Karat, stage a demonstration outside the Supreme Court against its ruling on striking government employees, in New Delhi, in August 2003.

Members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, led by Brinda Karat, stage a demonstration outside the Supreme Court against its ruling on striking government employees, in New Delhi, in August 2003. | Photo Credit: V. Sudershan

Set during the years from 1975 to 1985, the book vividly captures the period, bringing alive the remarkable journey of a young woman from a privileged but progressive background who joins the communist party in India. In her memoir, Brinda Karat, who is a Politburo member of the CPI(M), writes about her return to India to join the communist party with the firm belief that the revolution was imminent. This was the heady and palpable optimism of post-Vietnam war radicals, to change the world, to end exploitation.

An Education for Rita: A Memoir, 1975-1985
By Brinda Karat
Pages:‎ 206
Price: Rs.350

The book is characterised by a remarkable lack of self-indulgence, and is honest and introspective, as she negotiates the difficult terrain between allegiance and questioning, strategising and spontaneity, marriage and independence. She faced an early tragedy, losing her mother at the age of five, and her brother and sister in her 30s. Her family was supportive of her decision to become a communist, notwithstanding her father’s complete exasperation when he learnt that she was collecting loose change as donations for the red flag at a busy intersection in Kolkata. She writes with a great deal of tenderness and love about Amma, her mother-in-law.

The cover of An Education for Rita: A Memoir, 1975-1985.

The cover of An Education for Rita: A Memoir, 1975-1985. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement.

She was inspired by the events in Bengal where, braving severe repression, lakhs of peasants, workers, and the landless fought for food, land, work, and wages led by a dynamic Jyoti Basu. Even as the countryside witnessed huge agrarian movements in the 1960s, the early 1970s were a period of growing militancy for the trade union movement in India. The Emergency was declared soon after, and workers’ basic right to unionise, strike, and protest was under attack; she herself moved to Delhi and started working as Rita in the trade union.

The world of textile workers

She writes with great insight and intensity about the world of textile workers (“the heart if not spine of the working class movement in Delhi”). She writes about organising workers, struggles in the production process, and circumstances of work within the factory on the one hand, and the socio-economic backgrounds of the workers, most of whom were first-generation workers and individual migrants living in groups, on the other.

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The Emergency meant that it was not easy to be an open trade union, and the tea shop became the hub. With the fear of dismissal hanging over the head of politically active workers, the task of organising workers shifted to the working-class shanties around the factories. Here, differences of caste, religion and region meshed with working-class solidarity, and over time and in struggle their sway also got somewhat loosened. She writes with respect about the bravery, the understanding, and the resilience of working-class leaders, at a time when the mere act of picking up pamphlets surreptitiously left at work machines or in public places and folding them and putting them in one’s pocket to read later was in itself an act of great courage.

All this, without a tinge of romanticism or idealism; she discusses the challenges in navigating between revolutionary and reformist trade unionism, and how even in her own case, P. Sundarayya cautioned her against a creeping economism in the movement; also, the tendency to collaborate as an outcome of the dirty tricks played by the management and the vulnerability of these leaders. In fact, she along with two other women blackened the faces of strike-breaking workers, for which they were hauled up before a magistrate. This is still a legend.

Rita interacted with legendary communist leaders like Sundarayya, Jyoti Basu, and B.T. Ranadive. She learnt a lot from them, including how to cook from Sundarayya, who would stay with them in his underground days. At the time, she was the only woman trade unionist in the area (following in the footsteps of Aruna Asaf Ali) and workers accepted her and were far more open and democratic than many Members of Parliament when she was a Rajya Sabha member. However, it came with risks. Once, during a strike, some goons decided to teach her a lesson and planned to switch off the light at the gate and to strip and humiliate her in the darkness and confusion that followed. However, her comrades surrounded her and dragged her to safety. This is the vulnerability of women in political work because it is so much easier to humiliate a woman through sexual harassment and sexist actions.

The pain of Delhi’s “beautification”

She writes about the pain of Delhi’s “beautification” suffered by the working poor through their large-scale displacement during the Emergency (Turkman Gate the cruellest example of this) and about shifting her work in part from factory gate to the newly created resettlement colonies in north-east Delhi.

After the Emergency, the Janata Party came to power riding on popular discontent against the Congress. This opened a new challenge of building unity and united struggles without compromising the revolutionary struggle. Contrary to the capitalist propaganda, reinforced again and again by the media, that workers love to go on strike, she underlines the immense hardships suffered by workers and their families during strikes. They typically had no savings to see them through these periods of earning no wages, and their families had to somehow manage; many returned to their villages. Many wives of workers took up distress employment like home-based work. Even within working-class movements, patriarchal cultures prevailed—women rarely became part of the discussions and trade unions did not link with working-class families despite attempts and a call: “Sangharsh hamara gate se ghar aur ghar se gate tak” (Our struggle from gate to home and from home to gate).

That was the beginning of her work amongst women, starting with a convention of working women to explore how capitalism and patriarchy combined to exploit women. The most brutal face of class exploitation is exposed through the lives of working women and the lives of wives of workers. They were amongst the first people to talk about sexual harassment at the workplace in Delhi. Safdar Hashmi staged his famous play Aurat for the first time at this convention. From this, it was a logical step towards building a women’s organisation in Delhi, a task that she accepted with some reluctance; the focus of her work moved to understanding the multiple dimensions of women’s exploitation and oppression in a capitalist society.

Breaking barriers of family and poverty

There are rich accounts of how poor working-class women broke the barriers of family, community, and poverty to build the Janwadi Mahila Samiti. It is an account of forging true solidarity between middle-class women from the Left, students from the Left, and working-class women, not through an apolitical and biological notion of sisterhood, but through a truly communist solidarity, with working-class women privileging their issues.

The memoir describes how, initially, issues of domestic violence in particular, taken up in the party committee or in the union, evoked mixed reactions: some saw it as divisive and feared it would weaken the struggle. They wanted women to focus on government policy, not on the home. It took a lot of discussion and assertion by the women themselves to change attitudes within the party, and the formation of the women’s organisation had a huge impact on the party.

The scourge of dowry deaths loomed large over north-western India at the time and the Janwadi Mahila Samiti organised squads and groups to respond to complaints.

In addition to protesting and fighting against the misogynistic complicity of the police, they also protested against a High Court judgment which claimed that dowry was a Hindu practice: members of a number of women’s organisations jointly scaled the walls of the court complex. They had to defend themselves. It was decided that instead of employing a professional lawyer, Karat would herself argue before a bench of Justices Leila Seth and Rajinder Sachar. Her interventions were about the larger social and political issues linked to the movement against dowry. They were ultimately found guilty of contempt of court, and their punishment was to stay until the end of the day. As a result, the case, the issue, and the organisation received a lot of publicity.

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The book ends with a discussion of the horrors of the anti-Sikh riots, bringing back tearful memories of those horrible nights and days when Sikhs in Delhi were hunted, looted, killed. This is intermingled with stories of humanity and courage, the bravery of neighbours from the Hindu community who saved and hid Sikh families, and how an entire neighbourhood of Dalits protected a Sikh neighbourhood. She talks of how workers and party units defended Sikhs in the factories and the bastis, and stopped people from joining the rioting mobs. She writes of the months of relief, peace marches, and family outreach, especially to widows.

The book leaves you wanting to know more about what followed in the journey of not just Karat, but all the other friends and comrades she writes about after this tumultuous decade and the challenges posed to the communist movement in the 1990s and after.

Smita Gupta is a fellow at the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi.

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