Fearless activist

Important phases of her life are in the sociopolitical context of undivided Andhra Pradesh.

Published : Aug 27, 2022 13:30 IST

MONTHS after being shunted out of Jagdalpur in February 2016 for writing stories that “tarnished the image of Chhattisgarh police”, I sat in the Dummugudem police station in Bhadradri Kothagudem district of Telangana waiting to talk to the station house officer about the murder of a pastor in Laxmipuram village allegedly by Maoists. A case had neither been filed nor had the pastor’s family been granted any compensation.

An intelligence officer walked in, and standing almost behind me softly asked the staff, “Yevuru? Human rights activist avuna?” (Who is she? Human rights activist?) When informed that I was a reporter, the officer screened my muddied shoes and trousers and bulky rucksack and walked past me. I heaved a sigh of relief, secretly thanking all the gutsy human rights activists of the Telugu land who had left this indelible mark at the thana level that the human rights activist exists and is to be left alone.

Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary
By Gita Ramaswamy
Pages: ‎432
Price: Rs.599

Gita Ramaswamy is one such fearless activist, although she would rather identify herself as a labour union activist. In her recently published personal-political memoir, Land, Guns, Caste, Woman, Ramaswamy takes her readers through three decades of her life, putting its important phases in the sociopolitical context of undivided Andhra Pradesh.

Her modern yet repressive childhood days in the orthodox Tamil Brahmin family she was born into, her heady radical days at Osmania University in Hyderabad that drew her to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), or CPI(ML), the tyrannical Emergency phase that forced her to move to Delhi to escape arrest, and the intense struggle she waged alongside the Dalit community of Ibrahimpatnam, close to Hyderabad—each of these phases is a rich read and a treasure trove of valuable lessons that she continuously draws on.

For someone who picked up the pen after two decades of development work to report on stories from Chhattisgarh’s restive Bastar region, I read of Ramaswamy’s close engagement with the ultra-Left movement with great interest.

Radical days

The murder in 1972 of 25-year-old George Reddy, a student leader at Osmania University, was a defining moment that drew her to the Progressive Democratic Students’ Union (PDSU) that he had founded. Ramaswamy later married his brother Cyril Reddy, and they were together until his death in 2016.

Osmania University, Hyderabad.

Osmania University, Hyderabad. | Photo Credit: G. RAMAKRISHNA

When she joined Osmania University, she had the opportunity to read about and discuss politics with a wide range of men and women who were intelligent and wanted to do something meaningful with their lives, and this ignited in her “the hope of a changing world”. Charged with the energy of youth, Ramaswamy describes how they went about mobilising students on campus, holding themselves from nothing: from smoking to eating meat to braving everything and everyone that came their way. “Attitudes change, opinions are formed, relationships are forged, unity is discovered, and courage and bravery miraculously become acquaintances,” she writes of those days.

The tumultuous sociopolitical period of the 1970s in undivided Andhra Pradesh also made way for the operative presence of the CPI(ML) in the underdeveloped and poor Telangana region. Of the several factions of the CPI(ML), one was led by Chandra Pulla Reddy and was called the CP group. Ramaswamy does not explain why she joined this group, but one assumes that it was because of her association with others in the faction.

Ramaswamy’s parents were aghast at her association with naxalites and, as she painfully recounts, promptly had her confined in a mental asylum where a psychiatrist organised shock treatment for her in an attempt to “rebrainwash” her to counter the “brainwashing the Naxalites had done”. She gave her biological family the slip and went running back to her adopted family, “the party”.

  • Gita Ramaswamy was born into an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family.
  • The murder in 1972 of 25-year-old George Reddy, a student leader at Osmania University, drew her to the Progressive Democratic Students’ Union.
  • She joined the faction of the CPI(ML) led by Chandra Pulla Reddy.
  • She, Cyril Reddy (her husband), and 30 others formally left the party in 1976.
  • She and her husband set up the Hyderabad Book Trust in 1980.
  • She was instrumental in the formation of the Ibrahimpatnam Taluka Vyavasaya Coolie Sangam, a collective of Dalit landless labourers that successfully fought against bonded labour.

As someone trained in Carnatic music, she easily fit into the party’s cultural front, Arunodaya. Her exposure to an English-medium school education opened her mind and eyes to rational thinking and a scientific understanding of several practices where her “rational and emotional selves coalesced in a unified rebellion against the superstitions practised at home”.

The thinking, observant, questioning teenager who transformed into a rebellious young girl took this critical mind into the party as well. Her happiness with the party lasted barely three years, including the Emergency, during which period she and her comrades had to keep moving to stay safe. The need for constant vigil curtailed their freedom to a great extent. “Our world became circumscribed and that’s when the fun began waning,” recounts Ramaswamy. That period also saw vast numbers of “encounter killings”, including that of her mentor, Neelam Ramachandraiah, and the subsequent “destruction of our faith in the party”.

While the so-called “lies of liberated areas” left her feeling betrayed, she was further dumbstruck by the stereotypical gendered relationship the party leader, C.P. Reddy, had with his partner. When Ramaswamy confronted him about this, CP threw her arguments back at her by asking her to come out of “idle debate” to “times of armed struggle”. “’Can they read this?’ He asked. ‘You and I can, they can’t. Don’t confuse us with the people,’ he said. ‘We are different. We are leaders.’”

“The possibility of democratic functioning in a party so deeply hierarchical was bleak,” she says. The party criticised the young “debating and questioning” students for doing exactly that, debating and questioning. Party cadres began to find discussions “tiring”, preferring the rural people who were willing “to get up when we tell them to get up and sit down when we tell them to sit down”, records Ramaswamy.

People who migrated from their villages in Baster in fear of Maoists arriving at a relief camp at Konta in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, in March 2006.

People who migrated from their villages in Baster in fear of Maoists arriving at a relief camp at Konta in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, in March 2006. | Photo Credit: AKHILESH KUMAR

Castigating the party for practising “democratic centrism” and beginning to realise that people’s mobilisation in the real sense could never be achieved with such “blinkered politics”, Ramaswamy, Cyril, and 30 others formally left the party in 1976 as the emptiness of the lofty ideology began to dawn on them. “Annihilating the unequal system was not as important to its leaders as the continued existence of their particular party,” she notes despondently.

Ramaswamy also could not come to terms with the mindless violence of the party and its stance of the “ends justifying the means”. “The use of violence felt counterproductive,” she writes. As violence by the revolutionaries only invited “worse violence from the state”, the poor people had to endure the worst of the terror unleashed by the state.

These observations hold true even today in the conflict zones of Bastar, where large numbers of villagers have been arrested and put in prison for the violence committed by the revolutionaries. The security forces are not unaware of this, but they also must prove to their superiors that they are not just idling in the safety of their security camps.

After a Maoist land mine attack in a densely forested area in Bastar, about 345 km south of Raipur, on May 26, 2013.

After a Maoist land mine attack in a densely forested area in Bastar, about 345 km south of Raipur, on May 26, 2013. | Photo Credit: AP

Consider this recent example: A blast triggered by the CPI (Maoist) in Burkapal, a village in Konta Tehsil of Sukma district, killed 25 central paramilitary personnel in April 2017. Over a span of one month to one and a half years after the incident, 122 people were arrested from different villages under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in addition to other charges under the Indian Penal Code, the Explosives Act, the Arms Act, and the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act. After a delayed trial, which resulted in the villagers spending five years in jail and one of them dying there, the National Investigation Agency court in Dantewada found not a shred of evidence against them. This clearly indicated that the police had made random arrests without a proper investigation.

No regrets

Despite her ideological break from the ultra-Left party, Ramaswamy does not regret her association with it. “I do not and never have regretted my few years in the ML movement. The crisis in idealism, the personal suffering—these tested our values and stiffened our spines. The radical movement, the Emergency, counterbalanced by the struggle of people for democracy and entitlements, was a watershed in our lives.”

Ramaswamy at a young age derided the Brahminism at her home and questioned the revolutionaries for being caste and gender blind, yet notably, it is her very privilege—by birth and all its associated advantages, including her knowledge of English; her confidence; her association with bureaucrats, people’s representatives, high-profile rights activists, and such other progressive people, most of whom are from privileged backgrounds—that stood her in good stead when she wanted to escape arrest, find shelter, or even influence judgments in favour of the poor. It would have been impossible for a Dalit to have achieved what Ramaswamy did. But Ramaswamy used these very privileges not just for the benefit of the underprivileged, the exploited and poor labour, but to rip out the accepted norm of extreme exploitation by constantly reminding those who abetted severe class-based and caste-based ill-treatment through the sheer abuse of power of the rule of law.

Gita  Ramaswamy, in her office at the Hyderabad Book Trust in September 2012.

Gita Ramaswamy, in her office at the Hyderabad Book Trust in September 2012. | Photo Credit: K. RAMESH BABU

Restless and “missing the emotional grounding” while working and even running English classes in the slums in Delhi, where she spent four years after the Emergency, Ramaswamy and Cyril returned to Hyderabad in 1980 to set up the Hyderabad Book Trust (HBT), which filled a vacuum in the publishing industry in the Telugu land. Their thirst for knowledge and to spread it was evident from the number of books the HBT published and translated into Telugu, bringing out some remarkable literary pieces and many different types of books, including practical health guides for public reading. After four years of publishing work, the activist in Ramaswamy began to itch for “active political work”.

Work in Ibrahimpatnam

Three-quarters of the book is devoted to Ramaswamy’s work in Ibrahimpatnam, now a flourishing suburban town near Hyderabad. She was instrumental in the formation of the Ibrahimpatnam Taluka Vyavasaya Coolie Sangam (ITVCS), a collective of Dalit landless labourers that successfully fought against bonded labour and the illegal control of land by the powerful “higher-caste” Reddys. A “self-sustaining, strong organisation of the rural poor” with the leadership in the hands of the people was missing, she felt, even as the political parties that espoused their causes, such as the CPI and the CPI(M), created leadership spaces for “middle and rich peasants” to lead the programme.

She mobilised Dalit labourers and helped them understand the legal system in simple terms with the aid of a legal advocacy unit, Salaha, that Cyril Reddy had set up. The labourers gradually but steadily became a collective that demanded action from the administration to enforce the laws meant to safeguard them from bonded labour and to ensure that landlords—who perpetrated brutal violence in league with the police, the administration, and ruling party politicians—paid them minimum wages.

“Despite her ideological break from the ultra-Left party, Gita Ramaswamy does not regret her association with it.”

Over a span of eight years, the collective was able to “officially release and rehabilitate 1,500 and unofficially 1,420 bonded labourers”. About 14,000 acres of land was released from the control of landlords and officially recorded in the names of new Dalit landowners from six blocks of Ranga Reddy District. Landlords paid over Rs.2 lakh to agricultural labourers as back wages and Rs.66,000 as workmen’s compensation. The regular agitation, striking work, picketing, demonstrations, and following up matters in courts enabled agricultural labour wages to rise by 150 per cent for women and 114 per cent for men.

Laying emphasis on land ownership in comparison to wage labour, Ramaswamy writes: “Wage struggles even after they were successful, meant the landlords continued to hold the reins of power. The labourer remained a supplicant. The landlords can turn punitive and refuse to give you work. When land is liberated, the person becomes relatively self-sufficient. … The wresting of the monopoly of a few over the land breaks the very spine of systemic exploitation.”

Land ownership

Her reflections on the importance of ownership of land from her work in Ibrahimpatnam in the early 1990s resonate in the remote villages of Bastar even today, where the inhabitants—young and old, men and women, young girls and boys—are on a recurrent cycle of agitation fighting to hold on to their land and forests in the face of road building, establishment of security camps, and the arrival of extraction-related industries.

In 1993, following years of activism in the Ibrahimpatnam, Yacharam, Kandukur, Maheswaram, Hyathnagar, and Choutuppal mandals of Ranga Reddy district and “rural activity days” when she was involved in providing non-formal education to children and even survived an attempt on her life by irked landowners, Ramaswamy slows down after the birth of her child.

Ramaswamy’s memoir promises to leave young readers craving to know more about the 1970s and 1980s era, when she lived as an ideological zealot. Several activists of today fighting against injustice will read with nostalgia the energy and zeal with which the ITVCS fought its battles and perhaps even bemoan the fact that in the “New India” it is becoming increasingly difficult to carry out even in one-fourth of such activism.

If the armed groups still operating in the forests of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand wish to maintain their ideological fervour, they would do well not to ignore Ramaswamy’s critical assessment of them in terms of their lack of transparency, hierarchical ways, and so on. As regards violence, she finds its use as a tactic to be a complete failure, and yet “violence cannot be rejected outright unless a counter argument and counter-strategy is built”, she writes, not with the intention to justify violence but to remind “revolutionaries” that they need to build that counter argument and strategy.

Malini Subramaniam is an independent journalist from Bastar, Chhattisgarh.

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