The thinker Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd says “No other story of an Indian woman has ever been told like this”. In Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary, Gita Ramaswamy recalls her radicalisation first as a woman, her subsequent affinity with the Marxist–Leninist movement, and how she eventually came to work with the landless Dalits of Ibrahimpatnam in Telangana in the 1980s to help them reclaim 14000 acres of land.

In this excerpt, the woman who revolutionised Telugu publishing with the establishment of the Hyderabad Book Trust in 1980 writes of what it meant to be a student of Osmania University in the 1970s – and how the assassination of student leader George Reddy by ABVP goons impacted her own political and personal journey.

Before I joined Osmania University in June 1972, something had happened there that was to entirely change the course of my life. On 14 April, I was part of an inter-college team participating in a quiz at the University of Technology in the OU campus. At about four in the afternoon there was some agitation outside the building and the organisers told us that the quiz had been suspended. A student had been killed and there could be trouble.

“Who was the student?” we asked among ourselves. “It was a student tough called George Reddy,” I was told. Another case of student dadagiri, I assumed, and put it out of my mind. It was only when I joined campus that I learnt who George Reddy was and why he had been killed.

In the late 1960s, the campus’s atmosphere was pervaded by feudal attitudes, sectarianism and petty politics. By the time I arrived, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad was at the forefront of such activity.

The ABVP was the student wing of the Jana Sangh, the precursor of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was guided by the militant Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and a pracharak called Narayan Das was active on the campus. While the Jana Sangh was not much of a force in the rest of Andhra Pradesh, it had captured the OU campus.

This mafia controlled the university administration, the conduct of examinations, and also the student hostels and bastis scattered across the campus. George Reddy ended their stranglehold. In a short period of time, he and his small group of friends had created an atmosphere of dissent that set the stage for the emergence of a left–revolutionary student movement in OU. George Reddy had been influenced by the spate of revolutionary and student movements that were sweeping the world – in Vietnam, Cuba, South America, Europe, and of course, Naxalbari. His group formed the fledgling Progressive Democratic Students which then gave rise to the Progressive Democratic Students’ Union.

Vexed at losing its citadel, the RSS had George Reddy stabbed to death in the engineering college hostel on 14 April, in the presence of policemen. A case of murder was filed against nine people. All nine were acquitted. The state’s complicity in the murder led George’s friends and his brother Cyril to fight for retribution and justice.

Around this time, I befriended a small group of like-minded young men. This included my classmate, Pradeep Burgula, a staunch supporter of George’s. Pradeep’s brother Burgula Narsing Rao had been an active student communist during the Telangana armed struggle. His sister Rama Melkote was also a left-leaning liberal. There were Gopal and Sashi, two of my friends from my schooldays…

We came to form a loose group of leftists and made links with others on the campus. We often sat together, discussing politics and local events in Irani cafes, watching cricket matches; we went on long walks together and attended meetings of all kinds.

It was a warm group that took me quickly into its embrace. Gopal was affectionate and brash, Pradeep was quiet and circumspect, and Sashi was intellectual and somewhat unpredictable. I benefited immensely from this initiation into an outward-facing life.

The world had burst into full colour. I was introduced to books that sparked in me the hope of changing the world, I attended meetings where these matters were discussed concretely – all this with a group of attractive teenage boys. This was also when I fell in love for the first time in my life. We never got physical though.

I do wonder why our generation was restrained in these matters. Did the idea of revolution sublimate the sex drive? Or was it just the prudery of the society around us? I got close with others too and often wondered who would end up as my partner for life. It was an exciting time to learn to be sexual; I even propositioned an older man I admired for an affair since the men of my group were so circumspect. Sadly, he turned me down, though gently.

The time between 1972 and 1973 was truly one of ferment. I fell in love with the ambience on the campus. The politics of the left made great sense to me, from what I read and also in my interaction with the PDSU youth.

At this time, had I been offered admission into an IIT again, I would not have moved. I had found my calling. I was part of a generation that was in step with the tide of the new, radical and subversive events that was sweeping the world, led by the young and the marginalised.

It was one of those moments in history when it suddenly seemed that the coming together of many different acts of revolt could completely overturn our exploitative and oppressive society in its totality. There was the anti–Vietnam War movement in the US, the several anti-imperialist struggles in Africa and Asia, the Black Panther movement, the students’ movement in Europe, the incipient women’s liberation movement, and the Cultural Revolution in China.

In India, there was the frustration of a large section of people over the failure of the independence project, and the subsequent Naxalbari movement. We were sure that revolution was around the corner, and that we would be its protagonists.

I became more assertive at home. I was no longer simply questioning or being a little curious, but asserting how I wanted to live my life. When my family went on summer pilgrimages, as they usually did, I refused to enter the temples. I said that I had my monthly periods.

Now the arguments were no longer with my mother, they were with my father. He terrified me. If I came home late from a meeting, he stood at the gate, not allowing me in. He scolded me loudly for everyone in the neighbourhood to hear. I hated public confrontation, and his harangue, literally on the road, unnerved me.

Whenever I thought of giving up my dreams and giving in to my family, the alternative loomed so large – the mindless rounds of clothes, jewellery, pujas, temple visits, gossip sessions with other mindless people, marriage to a tyrant – and my resolve strengthened again. My sister’s fate made me realise that any life was better than that one.

In the summer of 1973, a year after I had joined OU, three young women joined the campus to pursue a postgraduate degree. They were a year senior to me, having already completed their graduation elsewhere. Lalitha, popularly known as Nandu, was Vimala Ramachandran’s sister, hence already known to me. She joined me in the mathematics department.

The other two were arts students – Rukmini Menon and Lalita. Rukmini, more popularly known as Minnie and formally as Meena Menon, was my sister’s college-mate and already an acquaintance. She was in love with Srikrishna of the PDSU and therefore readily joined us. Lalita was her classmate in MA political science.

The four of us had a wonderful time. Minnie was a beauty, a great mimic and a vivacious character. One saw her only in multicolour. She was to become a trade union organiser in Bombay in the 1980s with the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti (Mill Workers Action Committee) and a consultant at NGOs in the early 2000s. Lalita is a founder member of the feminist organisation Anveshi, and also works in an NGO, Yugantar. Nandu, quiet and cheerful, joined a bank but died of a heart attack within ten years, her baby barely a year old.

When we got together as a group and began reading and organising, we metamorphosed from helpless angry young women to being persons with entitlements. We were a small group of students who were consciously making our entry as citizens of India, but our rights seemed expendable.

I had seen girl after girl pulled out of the Koti Women’s College because their parents felt that schooling after a point was unnecessary. We only had a tenuous right to education. We could be married off to strange men and that could mean lifelong unhappiness; our parents needed to pay substantial amounts as dowry to placate our in-laws to accept us as household slaves; we had no public spaces where we were comfortable, we were sexually harassed on the roads, in classrooms, and in hotels; there were ugly hoardings everywhere that made commerce of our bodies.

This consciousness of being a citizen with rights rested firmly on my readings and political associations in the past year. Now, as a part of this loosely knit group of like-minded friends, this shift in thinking led us to some small organised activities. We ran an anti–sexual harassment campaign on campus, an anti-obscenity campaign in the city (where we blackened posters and advertisements that demeaned women), and were active on any forum that would have us.

We met frequently with B Lakshmi Bai, a progressive feminist who taught linguistics on the OU campus and had known George. She encouraged us to think, read and discuss. But then, the sectarianism of the left predictably raised its ugly head. After Lakshmi married someone from another political faction of the Marxist–Leninist parties, we sadly distanced ourselves from her because of the group politics of the time.

It might surprise young women to know what excited us in those days. For instance, we fawned over a teacher, Vanaja Iyengar, who taught mathematics at OU. Hailing from an orthodox Tamil brahmin family, she had studied at Cambridge, joined left students’ forums, married Mohit Sen, who later became a full-timer in the Communist Party of India, and returned to Hyderabad to teach here.

A beautiful and gracious woman, she smoked cigarettes in the teachers’ lounge and I often peeped in and tried to catch a glimpse of her smoking. It made my day when I did. Satyamma Srinath, who taught at Reddy College, zoomed past the OU campus on her scooter – how exciting it was to watch a woman do that. Veena Shatrughna, a feminist doctor, also drove a scooter, and what was more, she wore sleeveless blouses!

Then there was the episode of M Shantha’s (later to become Shantha Sinha) elopement. Shantha is one of the warmest persons I know, and one of my closest friends. She taught political science at the University of Hyderabad, set up the Mamidipudi Venkatrangaiah Foundation, spearheading the movement for the eradication of child labour, and went on to chair the first National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

In college, however, romance was in the air. Shantha fell in love with her classmate Ajay Sinha, but her orthodox Pudur Dravida family had an arranged marriage lined up for her, and she was confined to her home. Our friends in the PDSU plotted to get her out.

Mahipal Reddy dressed as a postman and went on a cycle to her Marredpally home. A car followed him close by. “Telegram for Shantha,” he called out and when asked to give it to a family member, he refused. “She has to sign it,” he said. When Shantha came out, she was quickly escorted to the waiting car.

There was another exciting elopement, this time involving Vijay Kulkarni – a close friend of George’s and one of the founders of the PDSU who distanced himself from the group after George’s death. He eloped with an MA student in the arts department who was already married, and the couple fled to Delhi.

These happenings were frowned upon by all elders, whether of left or right persuasion, but we saw them as challenges to conservatism and women’s oppression.

Land, Guns, Caste, Woman

Excerpted with permission from Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary, Gita Ramaswamy, Navayana.