Latter-day revolutionary memoir

EducationWorld November 2023 | Books Magazine

BR-1Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary
Gita Ramaswamy
Pages 432

Memoirs of Indian revolutionaries are few and far between. This book relates to revolutionary struggles in the post-independence period

Memoirs of Indian revolutionaries are few and far between. Those relating to revolutionary struggles in the post-independence period are nearly absent. In this sense Gita Ramaswamy’s Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary is an important watershed.

Divided into 25 sections, it covers the period from her childhood to 2013, by which time she was living the life of a “lapsed revolutionary”. Beginning with her childhood, Ramaswamy discusses her early experiences of growing up in an orthodox Brahmin family. From the point of view of class and caste, this accident of birth provided her several privileges, especially those related to education.

Her relatively comfortable socio-economic background gave her an opportunity to receive quality education in some of the best convent schools in Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai). That her mother was unable to receive even basic education due to her family’s conservative views, a fact sensitively stressed by the author, this was indeed a privilege. Even though Ramaswamy’s family was open to the idea of her getting the best education, when it came to menstrual taboos, they did not make an exception.

According to the author, an important turning point in her life came when she began her studies in Kendriya Vidalayas, at the age of 14. For it was here that she was exposed to scientific ideas, which besides being liberating, provided her opportunity to question prevailing superstitions and rituals. The years spent at school not only gave her self-confidence, but also made her aware, as she notes, of the atrocities committed against women. And perhaps, it was this training which gave her confidence to oppose acts of cruelty like domestic violence, which her sister faced routinely.

Following graduation from school she joined the prestigious Osmania University in Hyderabad, where her intellectual and political education continued unabated. At university, Ramaswamy voraciously read the works of English, Russian and French writers, as well as of various feminist writers, which familiarised her with “a rational, liberal world where there were explanations for everything”.

No major surprise that while she was still at Osmania she came in contact with a Left-wing students’ group, whose leader George Reddy was brutally killed in April 1972 by students of the Right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad students’ organissation. Thus, in a sense, 1972 was a year which signalled the beginning of Ramaswamy’s political career. In due course she emerged as an excellent orator and was invited to political meetings of Left-groups all over India. She reveals that for quite a long time she was able to keep her family in the dark about her involvement in student politics. In 1973, at the height of the Naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh, the author along with some of her college mates, joined the Chandra Pula Reddy group (CPI-ML) of the Communist Party of India — Marxist Leninist. This was a crucial turning point in her political career.

Once in the CPI-ML, Ramaswamy started developing her political ideals through active participation in their programmes and activities. A section of this memoir discusses the activities of the party and the role played by her at length in forming the Progressive Organization of Women. This group started an aggressive campaign against sexual harassment. Simultaneously, Ramaswamy got involved with the Progressive Democratic Students Union’s movement against rising inflation. However, her political activism, as she notes, came to a sudden halt due to the national internal Emergency declared in June 1975.

There follows a vivid account of developments which took place simultaneously during this period, with long term implications for Ramaswamy, both personally as well as politically. Dropping out of college, going underground, living with strangers and conducting party meetings only at night, were problems she faced and endured. In an attempt to lure her away from the Naxalite movement, her worried parents made her return home. They believed she was ‘brainwashed’ into joining the movement. And to ‘cure’ this problem they subjected her to three weeks of electroconvulsive therapy, which permanently changed the author’s personality.

Apart from other issues it damaged the functioning of her brain, affected her memory, and lowered her self-confidence and vitality. While the Emergency years opened up the floodgates of problems for Ramaswamy, the period also brought her into contact with Cyril Reddy, the younger brother of the slain student activist George Reddy. Ramaswamy met him while she was underground and after a few months, they were married. Cyril in due course, as the book shows, became a strong supporter of women’s causes.

The volume outlines at length, Ramaswamy’s underground days. She, her husband and fellow comrades, were forced to remain underground for long periods of time due to government repression. However, they also became aware of the violent upheavals and reign of terror that the CPI-ML had unleashed in the forest areas located in different parts of Andhra.

These developments resulted in Ramaswamy and her group becoming disillusioned with the party and eventually in November 1976, a chunk, comprising 20-30 student activists, including Ramaswamy and Cyril, resigned from the primary membership of the Party.

A new chapter in the author’s life began after she left the party. She was the driving force in initiating a militant but nonviolent struggle of Dalit agricultural labourers against the feudal Reddys in Ibrahimpatnam, a suburb of Hyderabad. Subsequently, in 1985, she established the Ibrahimpatnam Taluka Vyavasaya Coolie Sangam or Ibrahimpatnam Taluka Agricultural Labourers’ Union. The organisation used the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, 1976, to liberate bonded labourers in the area. The activities of the Sangam and Ramaswamy’s pivotal role comprise the final part of this memoir.

Written lucidly, with some rare black and white photographs, the book provokes interest from beyond the circles of Left intellectuals and activists. Given that memoirs of Indian women revolutionaries and activists are not easy to come by, Ramaswamy’s Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary will have wide appeal as an important contribution to Indian Left intellectual history.

Amol Saghar (The Book Review)
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