Tribute: Mythily Sivaraman

Mythily Sivaraman: Quintessential Marxist

Print edition : July 02, 2021

Mythily Sivaraman, a file picture. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Mythily Sivaraman in Kilvenmani in 1969, a week after 44 Dalits were burnt alive by a landlord. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

At an AIDWA rally against atrocities on women, in Chennai on March 31, 1987, led by Mythily Sivaraman, Pappa Umanath and other AIDWA leaders. Photo: K. GAJENDRAN

Mythily Sivaraman flanked by her daughter Kalpana (left) and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat during the release of a book of her essays titled “Haunted by Fire”, in New Delhi on September 30, 2013. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Mythily Sivaraman (1939-2021), a veteran Marxist leader who played a pioneering role in raising public awareness on women’s rights and class issues and fought for them without compromise, leaves behind a remarkable history of social activism that will serve as a beacon of inspiration for generations to come.

Mythily Sivaraman, the writer of these prescient lines, was an inspirational leader of the women’s movement, a trade union leader and a champion of the underprivileged sections of society. She succumbed to COVID-19 related complications on May 30 at the age of 81 in Chennai. She had been fighting a losing battle with Alzheimer’s over the last decade of her life. But through her prolific writings, her interventions challenging class, caste and gender inequalities, and through building movements that brought thousands of activists into struggle, Mythily Sivaraman continues to be a living presence even today. The legacy she has left behind is a continuing source of inspiration and learning for all those committed to creating a just and equitable social order.

Making of a crusader

Mythily Sivaraman came from a middle-class family in Madras (now Chennai). She topped the B.A. Hons course in Political Science in Presidency College and went on to Syracuse University in the United States for her master’s degree. Those were the heady 1960s, with the civil rights movement asserting itself; African Americans rising up against racism; and huge anti-Vietnam war protests breaking out on campuses. Mythily Sivaraman internalised these radical developments and also delved into the nascent feminist discourse of the times. After graduation, she chose to work with the United Nations Committee on Decolonisation, where wide-ranging political discussions around colonialism sparked off in her an abiding anger against imperialism.

A clandestine trip to socialist Cuba, undertaken at great risk in the early 1960s, left her deeply impressed with its achievements in a short span of time. She was excited by the number of measures being undertaken by the Fidel Castro-led Cuban government to transform the lives of working people: the land reforms initiatives, education and health-for-all programmes, and the passionate speeches on “social justice” by Che Guevara. The experience armed her with a firm conviction that revolutionary political ideology and action were inextricably linked to each other. She incorporated this understanding organically into her work in building people’s movements.

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In this interesting crucible, a crusader was born. Madras saw the return of a passionate and committed political activist whose range of skills included writing, speaking and organising people to fight for justice and resist exploitation.

Documenting Kilvenmani massacre

In 1968, 44 Dalit agricultural workers were burnt to death by a landlord’s henchmen in Kilvenmani village in East Thanjavur as punishment for demanding a paltry increase in wages. The massacre was also a threat delivered to the ‘red flag’ agricultural worker’s movement that was growing in that area. Mythily Sivaraman’s visit to the village, with some friends and comrades, led to a meticulous documentation of the harrowing scene. The smell of death that she captured and the grim tales of survivors that she painstakingly noted down provide, perhaps, one of the earliest examples of powerful investigative journalism.

Her later indictment of the State government for its complicity in the case, and of the courts that acquitted all the “Gentlemen Killers” (sic), is a brilliant expose of how caste and class exploitation are interlinked, and how the state extends patronage to this unholy nexus. Mythily Sivaraman’s ability to go to the core of an issue, teasing out the caste, class and gender interconnections and placing them in a political context, was unparalleled.

However, Mythily Sivaraman was not satisfied with just defining the problem. Her search for answers, for a means to change these circumstances, led her to the Communist movement. Her forays into trade union work in Madras, where she met the firebrand Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) leader V.P. Chintan convinced her that a programmatic understanding and revolutionary plan of action was the key to transforming society. Mythily Sivaraman then joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and remained active in the party’s Tamil Nadu State Committee until illness overcame her.

Uniting workers

A key area of her revolutionary work was the organisation of the burgeoning workers’ movement of the late 20th century in Tamil Nadu. The 1970s witnessed industrial expansion in and around metro cities such as Madras and the rise of militant trade union activity against the exploitative practices indulged in by leading companies. Mythily Sivaraman threw herself wholeheartedly into the workers’ struggles. She would address gate meetings, lead strikes and protests, and take part in negotiations, organising workers even during the dark Emergency days of 1975-77. Her writings of the period give a graphic account of exploitation by big companies such as Ashok Leyland, MRF, Simpsons, Metal Box India and others, also linking it up to state policies.

An interesting development underscores how the personal and the political were never disparate in her life. Mythily Sivaraman’s work in trade unions brought her into conflict with the management of TI Cycles, where her husband, Karunakaran, was employed. Rather than continue in a job that could fuel speculation and controversy, Karunakaran preferred to resign. Mythily Sivaraman and Karunakaran had chosen each other across caste barriers, entering into a marriage born of mutual understanding and respect. Theirs was a role model partnership which was to inspire and motivate many young couples coming into the Left movement in subsequent years.

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Not only did Mythily Sivaraman storm a male bastion in the early years, she also worked to unionise women workers employed at measly wages in the pharmaceutical sector, garment factories, and other small and medium industries. She organised the severely exploited quarry and plantation women workers. Women coming into white-collar employment were also suffering hardships. It became obvious that women workers across different sectors needed a platform to address the gender-specific problems they faced. And so evolved the Working Women’s Coordination Committee, of which she was the Tamil Nadu convener for many years.

In the 1970s and the 1980s, the women’s movement in India began asserting itself in multiple ways. The publication of the Status of Women Report (1974), piloted by visionaries like Vina Mazumdar, provided a stark picture of gender disparity within the capitalist paradigm of development. Women began coming forward to question the injustice being meted out to them.

Role in shaping AIDWA

The Left-oriented women’s organisations were on the ground fighting for innumerable rights of poorer women and their demands for supply of essential commodities through ration shops, drinking water, toilets, transport facilities, and so on. In 1973, Mythily Sivaraman co-founded the Democratic Women’s Association in Tamil Nadu, which was helmed by stalwarts like K.P. Janakiammal and Pappa Umanath.

She played a prominent role in hosting the first Conference of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in Madras in March 1981, where she was elected one of the national office-bearers, and remained a patron of AIDWA until the end. The conference resolved to build a militant organisation of women that would confront the multi-dimensional forms of gender oppression—as woman, as worker and as citizen. On all these issues, she made valuable contributions.

Mythily Sivaraman represented AIDWA on many platforms and programmes within and outside the country, where raising the issues of marginalised women in a powerful manner. One memorable global campaign in which she held aloft the AIDWA banner was the International March of Women against Poverty and Violence held in New York in March 2000, which brought together progressive women’s organisations from across the world.

Confronting violence

Mythily Sivaraman was sensitive to the myriad ways in which women faced violence and was passionate about tackling them at the individual and societal levels. A significant issue that came to the fore was the alarming decline in sex ratios in districts such as Salem, Dharmapuri and Madurai. Under Mythily Sivaraman’s leadership, AIDWA conducted an extensive survey before launching a Statewide campaign and protest rallies. The survey revealed the linkages between women’s unpaid and underpaid labour, their resultant devaluation, the increasing practice of dowry in a market economy, all converging within the crime of infanticide, or foeticide as it was then called.

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While calling for legal redress, AIDWA also demanded work opportunities and equal wages for women. Mythily Sivaraman emphasised the importance of also evolving a constructive agenda and worked on the setting up of the K.P. Janakiammal Trust, which provided education and support to underprivileged and vulnerable families. An endearing sight of children waiting for an embrace from her when a function was held in the village of Chinnaramalingapuram of Virudhunagar district attests to its appeal.

Mythily Sivaraman pioneered the strategy of combining agitation with legal advocacy, on the basis of evidence collected directly from the victims. This helped AIDWA in successfully taking up innumerable cases of atrocities against women.

Vachathi case

One particularly inhuman atrocity was perpetrated in 1992, when forest officials and revenue police raided the tribal hamlet of Vachathi in Dharmapuri district in search of the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan. On the suspicion that the villagers had been sheltering him, 18 tribal women were raped, houses were destroyed and several innocent people forcibly detained without food or water.

Mythily Sivaraman was part of the fact-finding committee that went to the area immediately after the incident. Her detailed documentation of the atrocity and subsequent petitioning to the authorities, accompanied by public outrage and mobilisation against police brutality, combined to help obtain justice for the victims. After 19 long years, 269 officials were found guilty under the The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and 17 of them were convicted of rape and punished.

In addition to taking up individual cases, Mythily Sivaraman guided the collation and analysis of different types of cases of violence and discrimination against women. Using these details, AIDWA began demanding legal reform and new laws. More effective laws to deal with issues such as domestic violence, dowry murders, child sexual abuse and sexual harassment at the workplace, to name but a few, came on to the demands charter of the women’s movement.

In these ways, organisational expansion accompanied AIDWA’s agitational interventions. Innovative strategies of different kinds lent strength to a range of activities such as anti-untouchability campaigns, protests around economic or political demands and protests against beauty contests. The Tamil Nadu unit’s inputs helped AIDWA extend its activities to other parts of the countryand emerge as an all-India organisation.

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Mythily Sivaraman understood the need for uniting many other women’s organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to build solidarity and join mass protests against atrocities. The collective voice of the women’s movement was strengthened in this process, and a broader climate of resistance to violence against women was achieved.

She also recognised the rising threat of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Hindutva movements in these years and would say that the Left had to reach out to a wider section, especially Hindu women, to build an effective front against communalism.

Radical Review

Mythily Sivaraman engaged in an impressive array of organisational tasks, of which writing was a central passion. She was a talented chronicler of events around her and was constantly putting together her experiences into highly readable articles for the popular press, in Tamil as well as in English. These included critical pieces on the ruling parties of that period, namely the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), their policies and politics. Many of her articles, some written along with N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu Group of publications, were published in Radical Review, of which she was the editor between 1969 and 1974. These are masterpieces of discursive writing, which should be on the reading list of academics, activists and anyone wanting revolutionary transformation in society. The sensitive accounts of struggles recreate the terror, desperation and militancy of the toiling masses.

While writing about Dalits, the scourge of untouchability and the complex underpinnings of social discrimination in the journal, Mythily Sivaraman says: “The harijans [of Kattur] need no pity: what they need is a stronger political organisation which can force the pace of change within the colony, and at the same time link it up with a revolutionary strategy.” She then draws the lesson that the failure has been in organising the kisan movement along correct class lines.

Revisiting Periyar’s relevance

Mythily Sivaraman’s scintillating article on the relevance of E.V. Ramasamy Periyar stands the test of time. She minces no words in saying that his role and its long-term impact on Tamil society had been underestimated. She describes how Periyar’s phenomenal influence owes itself to the revolutionary content of his anti-Brahminism, and propagation of rationalism, both of which “touched the hearts of the people, as never before”. She applauds Periyar’s mission seeking to liberate Tamils from “the shackles of superstition, religion and God”.

Mythily Sivaraman then endorses Periyar’s firm opposition to the social oppression of women. Here was a revolutionary social reformist, who “championed the cause of widow remarriage, marriage based on consent, women’s right to divorce, to property, birth control, and disavowed wedding ceremonies, and rituals”.

However, Mythily Sivaraman acknowledges the limitations of Periyar in his inability to see the connections between religion and a class society. His substitution of caste for class was not acceptable to a Marxist thinker.

She concludes this remarkable article on Periyar as follows: “The oppressed were made aware of their downtroddenness, and came to realise that this degradation is man-made and alterable through struggles: his tragedy lies in the fact that he did not realise that the struggle had to be on the economic plane.”

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Acknowledging and assimilating Periyar, it appears, is a task that still lies ahead before progressive forces. This article appears in Haunted by Fire, a collection of essays put together by her daughter Kalpana and Dr V. Geetha. This anthology provides an amazing and comprehensive analysis of her life and times.

Within AIDWA, Mythily Sivaraman wrote innumerable pamphlets, petitions and press releases. She edited the AIDWA monthly journal Magalir Sindhanai in Tamil for many years. She would prepare educative notes on current issues, and take classes for women. Small booklets on themes like “We will break the chains of dowry” or “Women in two worlds” are still popular as beginner’s readers. She was on the editorial board of Women’s Equality, the AIDWA journal, in its initial years. It is not at all surprising that one of the most vivid memories recalled by her daughter Kalpana is the sound of her mother tapping away at the typewriter.

Mythily Sivaraman wrote a memoir about her grandmother called Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive, which is a touchingly personal and political narrative.

Many will remember Mythily Sivaraman for the warmth and concern that she radiated towards all who came in touch with her, her capacity to share knowledge, and her ability to mentor younger activists. Paying tribute to her is also paying tribute to the tremendous support provided by her family throughout her life.

The enduring legacy left behind by Mythili Sivaraman, the champion of the oppressed, will never be forgotten.

Sudha Sundararaman is a central committee member of the CPI(M) and former general secretary of AIDWA.

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