Land, Guns, Caste, Woman, The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary is a compelling and important account of Gita Ramaswamy’s life as a Tamil Brahmin woman who moved away from her family and upbringing to join the Naxalite movement in the 1970s, and then left the movement to work with Dalits in Telangana as they struggled for wages, land and dignity. The memoir effortlessly weaves together the personal as well as the political facets of her journey. Indeed, it shows how the two cannot be separated at all.
Gita’s parents were so appalled at her becoming a Naxalite that they locked her up and subjected her to electroconvulsive therapy to “rebrainwash” her. Gita suffered from acute depression after leaving the CPI-ML, and learnt that this was common among women “because they usually made immense sacrifices to join the movement and work in it.”
Unlike men, however, most such women didn’t rejoin the mainstream but “stuck to a modicum of the politics that changed their lives. Do we retain our politics because we can’t return to the old family norms? Or is it that we have internalised the politics of change so much that we cannot discard them as men appeared to do?”
Towards radical activism
In Gita’s case, but also that of her husband Cyril Reddy, the latter seems to have driven their search for finding meaningful forms of political action. Both of them come across as extraordinary in their desire to learn from the poor rather than to preach to them. Indeed, Gita’s critiques of the Naxalites, and the mainstream left, throughout this book is that they think in large generalisations, preach to their followers, and operate in a hierarchical manner. And that they have been caste-blind.
Gita and Cyril started working among balmikis (manual scavengers) in Ghaziabad, teaching them English because that’s what the balmikis wanted. She then moved to Hyderabad to start Hyderabad Book Trust, a publishing house that made available “eclectic” books “that would contribute to raising the level of debate among activists.” But soon, “the old longing for active political life took hold of me again.”
Inspired by the work of people such as Shankar Guha Niyogi in Chhattisgarh, and AK Roy, the Dhanbad-based trade union organiser, Gita established contact with other such radical activists, many of whom had been part of the underground left at one time; some of them had now started NGOs which were “speaking a radical language at the time…they worked with malas, madigas and backward communities to unite them on rights-based issues.”
Through them, she became oriented to caste-based activism, and attracted to Ambedkarites, whose
“meetings were markedly different from those of the left... The people here were dark-skinned (compared to the fair-skinned savarnas predominant in left meetings)…The speakers did not rail on about the ruling class, the capitalists, and the three mountains that were imperialism, feudalism and the comprador bourgeoisie. Instead, they spoke of the daily lives of a class of people whom the left should have embraced from the very beginning. They spoke of how they were denied decent housing and employment in towns because of their caste and how they were deemed untouchables and kept at the outskirts of villages. They talked about the atrocities they endured and the exploitative conditions in which their children grew up.”
Soon afterwards, Gita moved to Ibrahimpatnam, some thirty kilometers to the south-east of Hyderabad where she lived and worked until 1992. She wanted to see if “humanism and democratic practice [could] be made integral to a people’s movement” – something that was to shape the rest of her political life.
When she moved there, she “assumed that class was the key concern of the rural poor.” But she soon found out that everything – wages, access to land, schooling and justice – was shaped by the caste question. In any case, when dealing with the poorest people, the two could not be conceptualised apart from each other because, “the castes that form the labouring classes in Telangana invariably hail from Scheduled Caste Communities.”
Land and the state
Gita takes the reader with her on her discovery of the complicated caste and land relations in Ibrahimpatnam after she moved there, living in a small room and cycling miles through the villages of the region. She writes that for her it was a “sharp learning curve. I was willing to suspend every belief and learn things anew.” She ate whatever people offered her, and began to enjoy even the simplest meal of rice and chillies because she was young and active.
But she confesses that it remained hard for her to defecate in the open while chatting to other women, as was the norm. We learn that the ruling community there were the Reddys, who are shudras but are powerful landowners, having once been the administrators of the nizams of Hyderabad. Forced labour called vetti, a form of slavery, was widely prevalent here, as it was all over Telangana.
The historic armed peasant rebellion in the 1940s, led by the communists, challenged this order – the communists established control over 4000 villages where land was redistributed, forced labour ended and wages were increased., but the struggle was violently suppressed by the state. Gita explains that “the struggle broke the backs of the bigger jagirdars who owned tens of thousands of acres, but the power structure in the villages remained unchanged for the most part.”
After independence, land reforms undertaken by the government were half-hearted and even these were openly flouted; land distribution was dictated by caste hierarchies – those who already were cultivators took the best land, the intermediate castes got some of what they had lost, and Dalits only managed to occupy common pastures and wastelands, and these too were encroached upon over time by the landlords.
If they had been tenant farmers, landlords feared they would now seek to formalise their rights, and evicted them. Land records were taken in lorries by landlords to Hyderabad, where retired revenue personnel altered them. In the 1960s, “a new market-oriented class of agrarian kamma gentry… enriched itself during the process of agrarian development and diversified into a wide range of non-agricultural economic activities…this class could not tolerate any dissension or challenge from the labouring castes, particularly the Dalits.”
The caste groupings and their inter-relationships in the area are as complex and intricate as elsewhere in India, but one pattern is clear – the overlap between poverty, landlessness and caste.
Gita’s work with Dalits was shaped by their struggles for basic rights to subsistence. The first movement she was involved in was for the implementation of minimum wages for agricultural labourers. It was through this movement that the Imbrahimpatnam Taluka Vyavasaya Coolie Sangam (ITVCS) was formed. It then fought for the abolition of bonded labour, and the recovery of the labourers’ back wages, and then moved to fighting for the rights of Dalit children to schooling.
As the movements became more ambitious, they brought the issue of caste into the open, and atrocities against Dalits escalated. A particularly gruesome incident at Karamchedu, where six dalits were murdered, “changed the face of Andhra Pradesh subaltern politics.” But Gita says that “at no time did I feel that our struggle – whether it was the larger Dalit movement in Andhra Pradesh or our own small movement in Ibrahimpatnam – was leading nowhere. We may have been losing battles, but we were winning the war. We were sustaining ourselves and changing destinies.”
The direction taken by the ITVCS was impelled not by any programme devised by Gita, but by the oppressed castes themselves. Gita explains that the Madigas themselves brought up the question of land rights, which was not what the union had in mind, as it had thought it would be confined to questions of wages and work entitlements.
Gita was “wary of the mistakes the traditional left had committed by getting small and middle peasants to join the union and dominating them with their demands.” But she now saw “the deep desire among Dalits to take ownership of land as a means of empowerment.”
One of the tenant farmers who demanded attention was a woman named Satyamma, whose father had been the protected tenant of a small holding. Usually whenever a farmer received a certificate saying he was a protected tenant, he was immediately evicted by the landlord. Satyamma’s father was not evicted – instead his land was donated by the landlord to the temple.
Years later, Satyamma, who had no brothers, wanted to get the property back. Gita turned her away several times because she wasn’t technically an agricultural labourer, only a woman demanding the right to first possess, and then cultivate, her land. Eventually Satyamma won her around, and she became one of the most radical members of the Sangham. The Sangham wove together questions of land, caste, the state, and gender because there was no way to address one without the other.
Land, Guns, Caste, Woman offers the reader rich meditations on the problems and possibilities of political and social change. As both atrocities against Dalits and police repression increased, Gita discovered, through endless battles with landlords, the courts and the administration that “The primary burden of administrative ethos and procedure, of general, civil and criminal laws, of judicial pronouncements and practices, of all these mighty institutions, was the maintenance and safeguarding of existing property relations.”
On the one hand, “Land struggles transformed the Sangam into a militant union.” On the other, the struggles also expanded the world of the Dalits – they associated with people beyond their own caste, and beyond their villages. Gita quotes Ambedkar on the way in which caste is an impediment to “an associated mode of living,” and how fraternity can only come from “social endomosis.” Land, Guns, Caste, Woman shows us how a radical movement creates the possibility of such associations.
Gita felt burnt out by the early 1990s. She alone could not tackle the increasing collusion of the state with the landowning classes. The communist parties who once had a larger vision had stopped pushing against the state and become more assimilated into its structures.
The Marxist-Leninist groups didn’t want to undertake the painstaking work on the ground of the kind the Sangham had engaged in. The NGOs didn’t want to confront the police. And her cadres didn’t want to leave the village and expand their reach, perhaps because they had too many responsibilities, but perhaps because, she writes, “their politicisation was not enough for them to do so.” The book leaves us thinking about what kind of politicisation is necessary or possible for change.
Towards the end of the book, Gita reflects, “As activists, if we want to persuade people to change their views and attitudes, we don’t need to deal with the state. We can work in civil society. Feminists, LGBT activists and Dalits do so. But if our goal is to change the fundamental balance of forces in politics, that means grabbing the state by the collar. We wanted to do both and failed.”
But I think the book suggests a more organic connection between “views and attitudes” and “the fundamental balance of forces in politics” – or, between civil society and the state. It actually shows how it was necessary to challenge the state precisely in order to change views and attitudes on the ground, and how through the movement, greater respect, including self-respect, was also gained, not just land, wages and rights.
It reminds us how crucial it remains to bring together caste and class in any vision or movement for a better India. But the greatest rewards of reading this book is that it leads us to these big issues through an accounting of the mundane, and the everyday. Because Gita Ramaswamy weaves her own story alongside the anatomy of a political movement, Land, Guns, Caste, Woman is both an important book and a deeply pleasurable one.
Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary, Gita Ramaswamy, Navayana.