Mythily Sivaraman , the Communist leader who died on May 30 in Chennai, was for decades the face of Left-led mass movements of toiling women and workers and an activist who pushed for the recognition of rights, fought for changes in state policy and opposed imperialism unrelentingly. Her actions, the manifestoes and demand charters she drafted, and the organisations she helped build from the 1970s, exposed and confronted the violence perpetrated by the ruling political classes and their policies that promoted a path of development which denied basic human rights to Dalits and workers. The diminutive yet daunting Mythily Sivaraman confronted the state and its representatives, invoking promises they had made to the people and demanding accountability and adherence to the law of the land. Her politics and dynamism transcended the boundaries set by bourgeois politics, and redefined the frontiers of women’s activism in such a way as to actively confront the myriad forms of oppression that contemporary development strategies sought to impose in line with the needs of the new world order.
Hers was truly a life lived in struggle. In a conversation in April 2008, she spoke to Indu Agnihotri, women’s studies scholar and fellow activist, about her long journey, her anger against imperialism, her commitment to socialism and the struggle to advance people’s rights.
Shall we begin with your early life and the influences that went into shaping you an activist?
I was born in 1939 and went to school in Presidency Girls’ High School in Egmore [Madras], which was down the road from my house. After graduating from the Presidency College of Madras in 1959, I did a Master’s in Public Administration at the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), Delhi (1961) and a second M.A. from Syracuse University, United States (1963-65). Before going to the U.S. I briefly worked with the U.S. Consulate in Madras teaching Tamil language to students from overseas. I also undertook a research study of voluntary welfare agencies in Madras city between 1962 and 1963.
Between 1963 and 1968, when I was in the U.S., I found the exposure useful. I was going from place to place, seeing new places, meeting new people, and be happy to be doing that. During my stay there, I worked with the Special Committee on Decolonisation (C 21) established by the United Nations General Assembly and the Permanent Mission of India to the U.N. (1966-1968). In 1968, I undertook a clandestine trip to Cuba and Mexico.
The trip to Cuba, the racism I saw while in the U.S., and the campaign against the Vietnam War opened my eyes to the blatant attacks by imperialism on people across the world. For me this was important. I was able to link the experience of the people and their conditions with the history of colonial rule and imperialism. I came to see the issues of women’s oppression and exploitation as integrally linked to capitalism. This became central to my perspective and defined my politics and understanding of rights. I have never seen the battle for women’s rights outside this worldview.
Return from U.S.
How did these experiences influence the direction your life took after your return to India?
On my return to Madras in 1968, I did not take up a job, though I was offered one in India by the Ford Foundation.
I was briefly involved with the Sarvodaya movement, but Vinobha Bhave’s ashram did not sustain my political interest. Seeing the nature of attacks in the rural areas, I was drawn to Marxism and I soon joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is where I stayed.
Did your family object to your political involvement?
No, they were used to my being rebellious and independent from an early age. I don’t remember anyone ever saying to me ‘thou shalt not do this….’
My mother, of course, tried to tell me what I should do. But I think for a long time they did not realise the implications of my joining the Communist Party.
And how did you get married?
I married Karunakaran in January 1972. He had just returned from the United Kingdom after three years of studying engineering when we met and was working with a steel tube and bicycles manufacturing unit. He came from a traditional Tamil non-Brahmin background and his family was averse to his involvement in politics. We had a simple wedding along the lines of the Self-Respect Movement with no rituals. The maximum planning went into checking out on a train which was leaving for Mangalore, at 1 o’ clock in the afternoon; on the same day we got married, to escape family pressure to host festivities on a larger scale. A spartan early lunch with a few guests was all that we agreed to.
Our marriage was initially not supported by either of the families. Though my family was soon resigned to it, his family was more conventional and had stronger reservations on account of caste as well as my firebrand political profile. Afterwards the issue was settled. After my daughter Kalpana’s birth, we moved close to my parents. My mother was better with child care and for me that was a big relief.
Interestingly, Captain Lakshmi Sahgal and my mother were classmates in school. In later years, my home was often the workplace for many young activists, since the lone typewriter available was in my home.
Your reports on the condition of agricultural labourers were part of your involvement with the Communist-led agrarian struggles.
In December 1968 there was a murderous assault on Dalit labourers, of whom 44, mostly women and children, were burnt alive in Keezhvenmani village [near Thanjavur], which had seen a struggle for higher wages by landless labourers under the red flag. Going there a week after the incident, I was shocked by what I witnessed and wrote an article in Mainstream .
Those years saw militant struggles by tenants and agricultural workers, across India and in Tamil Nadu. The gruesome incident laid bare the contradictions inherent in rural society, be it caste, class or gender, and the manner in which the state machinery stood by the upper castes. I was also very upset by the media reportage of that incident. From then on, issues of rural women and agricultural workers remained a special concern.
You started to write and report on happenings in Tamil Nadu during this period?
I was involved with a group which ran Radical Review (RR) from 1969 to 1973. The magazine came out as a quarterly and the joint editors for the first issue were N. Ram [former editor-in-chief of The Hindu], P. Chidambaram [former Finance Minister] and myself. The group had initially started off as a discussion forum called the Saturday Evening Club. However, after the first issue, Chidambaram conveyed that he did not wish to be associated with it due to political and ideological differences. Several issues of the magazine were subsequently published. Karunakaran was part of this group, and that is where we met, and were to be married later.
I wrote several pieces for Radical Review , some in my name and many others with no byline. The January-March 1971 issue carried a piece jointly written with N. Ram. The article, “A Report on MRF: A Monopoly, its Workers and the State”, analysed the events leading up to the MRF workers’ strike from April to July, 1971, discussed the struggle in the larger perspective of the Indian tyre industry, its nature and strength and the forces involved: the company management and the government backing them. ( Radical Review April-June 1972, vol. 3 no. 2.)
Another was a long report written jointly with N. Ram, called “Standard Motors: Behind the Closure”, in May 1970, tracking the events leading to the closure by the management. Another piece I wrote in 1972 focused on the Anamalai Plantations workers’ strike in Coimbatore district. The workers were demanding higher wages and protesting against the sell-out agreement made by the unions as well as fighting the tremendous repression and violence unleashed on them. (“Plantations: The Green Industry and its Wage Slaves”, Radical Review , April 1973, vol. 4. no. 1).
Did your long-term involvement with movements and politics first begin with trade unions?
My involvement with the CPI(M) gave me an opportunity to be part of the political struggle for democratic rights, in the background of the Emergency, though the early years of activism were mostly when I was with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). The forming of the union in Tablets India in 1970-71 was a high point. It was, perhaps the first union I was involved in. The company had mostly young girls as workers. They became conscious of their rights and unionised; until then, unions were mostly the domain of men. Then there were the unions in TVS, Ashok Leyland, Metal Box and many more.
Crusader for women’s issues
What led to a more active involvement with the women’s organisations?
The trade union experience helped me to understand the strength of mass-based struggles drawing on workers’, women workers’, consciousness. These clearly showed the linkages between class and gender-based exploitation. In December 1973, the Jananayaga Madhar Sangham (Democratic Women’s Association) was founded. I worked together with Pappa Umanath, a former MLA and later member of the CPI(M)’s Central Committee.
We organised discussions on women’s rights from a socialist perspective after the report “Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on Status of Women in India” was published in 1974. Social Scientist published my paper, ‘Towards Emancipation’, reflecting on the links between the women’s question and socialism in a special issue brought out to mark the International Year of Women in 1975.
In 1979, the CITU’s national convention on working women was held in Madras, which led to the formation of coordination committees focused on organising working women. These discussions marked the beginning of a process of critical engagement with patriarchal practices in society and their reflection within organisational platforms, dissuading women from more active participation in trade unions and movements.
Organisation-based interventions on multiple aspects of women’s oppression in different spheres began with these initiatives. In the political arena this involved engaging with the ideology of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the earlier social reform movement. I myself continued to be active with the trade unions for many more years, even after the founding of the All India Democratic Women’s Association’s (AIDWA) at a conference held in Madras in March 1981. This was a significant step forward.
But your work focusing on women started before the AIDWA was set up?
We had the experience of working with Dalit landless labourers and working women, given that there was an increase in incidents of violence, including against women. This was happening in Tamil Nadu and also all over India. During the Emergency these atrocities came to be highlighted as part of the people’s struggle. We organised women employees in the public sector: bank employees, electricity board and insurance sector women, teaching staff, State and Central government employees and postal employees. There were middle-class women and factory/textile mill workers, transport workers living in the slums of south Madras and its suburbs. The focus on working women remained a special feature of our work. This was reflected in a militant leadership that emerged from amongst them.
Also read: Mythily Sivaraman: Quintessential Marxist
Can you recall some of the issues and incidents which drew women out on to the streets?
The Seeralan case—he was murdered in broad daylight by three police constables in January 11, 1977 at Athiyoor village—stands out amongst our early interventions. His mother’s condition was miserable. We took up the case as a human rights issue to focus on the atrocities committed during the Emergency. Custodial violence was also a major issue then. The torture of Nagammal, a poor peasant woman, in police custody was another instance of the excesses of the Emergency period.
The 1980s saw the dowry issue come into prominence all across the State, especially with the killing of Nagammal in Coimbatore by her husband, Prof. Nagappan, who tried to pass it off as a suicide case. The case went to the Supreme Court and ended with a conviction.
Our interventions fed into the national-level campaign for criminal law amendments. The campaign against dowry/deaths drew in many young activists. After this, activists were called upon as representatives on advisory committees and to sensitize the police. The 1980s-1990s saw incidents of custodial rape by policemen. The Padmini case in Chidambaram was one such. After such incidents, all-women police stations were set up and the Supreme Court issued directives against women being detained in police stations after 6 p.m. The Vachathi case, where tribal women in Dharmapuri were raped by forest officials and the police under the pretext of combing operations to search for Veerappan, was another such intervention. The public exposure of the sexual exploitation of young women by the ‘godman’ Premananda in Pudukkottai and Tiruchi, was important. This case was a landmark victory.
The intervention on behalf of women quarry workers in Pudukkottai was another significant effort. These incidents brought us face-to-face with the distortions in sociocultural life and patriarchal prejudices in our society, which are responsible for the high level of women’s vulnerability to violence.
Implementation of PDS in Tamil Nadu
But your interventions went beyond case work, to focus on state policy, growing poverty and people’s struggle for their daily needs?
In 1983 Madras saw a massive State-level rally on water and rations. Women surrounded the Assembly for several hours. M.G. Ramachandran, the then Chief Minister, was compelled to meet the women and the discussion lasted 80 minutes. This resulted in a great improvement in the State-level implementation of the public distribution system (PDS). MGR promised that a ration shop would be set up for every 1,000 households. Although this did not materialise in full, still, Tamil Nadu has a ration shop per 1,500 population. Water began to be supplied in carts. Since then, the PDS and water have remained key issues in our campaigns, as well as for the political leaders, who can ill-afford to ignore these demands. This major intervention led by women from the Left has had a lasting impact on the politics of the State. Following this, women were put on ration monitoring committees at the district level. The government developed a kit to check pilferages, which was distributed to activists to facilitate monitoring, since the shop owners usually mixed sugar with rava (semolina).
This intervention set out different priorities in terms of the political agenda in the State. Today, our State is known for its policies on some of these counts, but it is not always recorded that they came in response to movement-led initiatives. The ‘cradle scheme’ for baby girls outside primary health centres (PHCs) and other government-run centres also came in the wake of activists and scholars like Vasanthi Devi drawing attention to female infanticide in Madurai, Usilampatti and Salem. Of course, there were gaps in follow-up in all these areas.
What were some of the other interventions that resulted in advancing institutional and procedural support?
After 1991, several organisations in Madras came together for setting up the Women’s Action Forum for Communal Harmony. The focus on violence against women remained, while other interventions led to the setting up of family courts. Today all the districts have women police stations started in response to our campaigns. Hostels for nurses came after the murder of a trainee nurse in Salem in June 1993, along with a demand for women members on advisory committees to monitor the functioning of welfare institutions. These campaigns gave women’s organisations like AIDWA unprecedented visibility, for we stood up for women in the remote areas in the State. G. Thilakavathi, the first woman Inspector General of Police in Tamil Nadu, understood their significance and responded favourably.
The problem of children working in hazardous industries such as Sivakasi was a major one. We tried to help take forward the education of girl children through the K.P. Janakiammal Trust, set up in memory of one of the founders of AIDWA. To counter the adverse media reporting and portrayal of women, we set up a Media Monitoring Group. Mangai, the well-known theatre activist, was associated with this group for many years. During these years I continued to write for Tamil publications such as Dinamani and Ananda Vikatan , along with The Hindu and the Indian Express . Such writing helped to set the tone for public discussions. In 1980, I became the editor of the popular Magalir Sindhanai , which has a circulation of 13,000.
Were efforts made to draw in other organisations to undertake joint activities and build united platforms, exploring common concerns?
We knew that apart from building mass campaigns, we needed to widen the influence as well as the support base of the women’s movement. All through, our effort was to bring together different women’s groups on a platform and develop a common understanding. These included the Penurimmai Iyyakam, the Young Women’s Christian Association, National Federation of Indian Women, Women’s Collective, Initiatives; Women in Development (IWID) and others. I was also keen to bring together a group of writers, intellectuals, and professional women, often holding different ideological positions, who acted as a support group. These included Vasanthi Devi, Bader Sayeed, Salma, Sharifa Khanam, V. Geetha and others, and some bureaucrats such as Anuradha, Sheela Rani Chunkath, and Qudsia Gandhi. Many of them became close friends.
Being involved in struggles on the ground, were you able to travel to other places?
I visited China in 1980 and wrote about the experience of socialist China. This was long before the CPI(M) established its relations with the CPC [Communist Party of China]. I went alone, having arranged it with the All-China Women’s Federation, and spent more than three weeks visiting different parts of the country. N. Ram helped arrange the trip. But there were issues. I had gone without the CPI(M)’s permission, and on my return, reading my account of what I had seen there, E.M.S. Namboodiripad [the then CPI(M) general secretary] called me and said: “I hope you will not do this again.” After this, I also visited the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] and some East European countries.
How do you see the changes in the international context since the end of the 1980s?
The collapse of the USSR and the changes thereafter have weakened the forces against imperialism, giving it an opportunity to directly intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Iraq is calling the US’ bluff, the Latin Americans are still trying to assert and we need to learn from them. Just when there is a need to advance the politics of peace, the ruling party in India is reading all the signs wrong, getting cosy and closer to the imperialist power.
In the women’s movement globally, especially the Beijing Plus Five Conference (2000), activists had taken note of the impact of globalisation on women worldwide. Women have been the worst sufferers of war, internationally; women’s movements see war as a concern since it directly impacts gender justice. More interventions on behalf of women are needed from an internationalist, anti- imperialist perspective.
Looking back on your work and experiences, how do you see the future?
My involvement with the CPI(M) and Left politics gave me a mass orientation which formed the basis of my activism. We engaged with issues on a practical day- to-day basis, even as we reflected on the theoretical aspects, taking note of the historical experience of socialism. Understanding what socialism promises to women in their fight against patriarchy, oppression and exploitation remained a continuous challenge.
I worked with vastly different sections—landless agricultural workers, mostly Dalits and women, those working in the docks, in corporate industries, quarries, transport and mills across the State, as well as the huge slum-dwelling population in this ever-growing city of Chennai. Our ideas were continuously evolving, as we planned our strategies and interventions. Our debates reflected the experiences gathered elsewhere.
The World March for the Eradication of Poverty and Violence against Women in New York in 2000 brought together women from all over the world. They spoke up against the growing onslaught of imperialism and neoliberal capitalism, which generates affluence for the few and deprivation for the rest. The message of the World March, in which I participated, was that growing poverty and inequality have to be opposed by confronting the consensus that is sought to be built around contemporary capitalism. That is the historical truth.
As we end this, I would add that in the early years, during our college days, my friends and I would discuss how unhappy we were with the teaching, it being so abstract and distant from the social reality. We were very shy then and would not confront our teachers, but we were unhappy with what we got from our formal education. It is for this reason that we always took a special interest in drawing students into our movement. Students today are more critical, more demanding, more aware of their rights. That still gives me hope for the future.