'The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary' Intertwines the Personal With the Political

Gita Ramaswamy's lessons from grassroots activism and how middle-class activists should relate to working-class mass organisations hold much significance today.

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The personal and the political are intertwined so tightly in Gita Ramaswamy’s memoir Land Guns Caste Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary that it would be impossible to separate them. Another running thread is intersectionality: the way in which different axes of privilege and oppression interact, sometimes reinforcing each other but also sometimes working in opposite ways. 

The story begins with Gita growing up in a relatively middle-class orthodox Brahmin family: a privileged position from the standpoint of caste and class, allowing her to get a good education in convent schools in Bombay and Madras. Yet the gender discrimination her mother suffered as a child, prevented from going to school, made a deep impression on her, and she had her own experience of oppression as she encountered the strict Brahmin menstrual taboo. Being moved to Kendriya Vidyalayas from the age of fourteen, her study of science and participation in activities outside school helped her to become a self-confident young woman determined to escape the indignities suffered by women like her married elder sister, a victim of domestic violence.

Gita Ramaswamy
Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary
Navayana (April 2022)

At Osmania University in Hyderabad, she read feminist writers and got involved with a group of left-wing students whose leader, George Reddy, had been killed in April 1972 by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). She became an excellent speaker and travelled to political meetings elsewhere in the country, pretending to her parents that she was going to academic events.

In 1973, she and her friends joined the CPI–ML Chandra Pulla Reddy group as the Naxalite movement grew rapidly in the state. The women formed the Progressive Organisation of Women to campaign against sexual harassment, and with the Progressive Democratic Students Union got involved in the mass movement against price-rise that was sweeping through India.       

This hectic activism was upended when Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency in June 1975. Amid ubiquitous surveillance and arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings of activists, the party instructed its members to go underground, completely disrupting the lives of the cadres, especially the women. Students like Gita had to drop out of college, stay with strangers and could only meet party members – that too late at night.

This was the context in which she decided to marry a comrade, Cyril Reddy, who was the younger brother of George Reddy. Gita’s life was disrupted even more drastically when her parents lured her home and subjected her to three weeks of electroconvulsive therapy in the hope of reversing what they saw as the ‘brainwashing’ that had made her a Naxalite. The treatment changed her permanently, damaging her memory and other brain functions, her vitality and her self-confidence.

She, Cyril and their group of OU comrades remained underground because the repression continued, but became disillusioned with the party after hearing the accounts of friends who had been active in the forests: it was a lie that these were liberated areas, women were seduced, even raped, weeping mothers had to abandon their babies, and brother betrayed brother. The alienation deepened when Chandra Pulla Reddy and his wife Radhakka stayed with her and Cyril, and she found that they lived by completely different rules from those they imposed on their cadre. ‘“Don’t confuse us with the people,’ he said. ‘We are different. We are leaders.’” (pp.85-86). This contempt was reflected in the way the ‘people’ were expected to obey the leaders unquestioningly while popular issues were taken up only in order to recruit people into competing ML factions. A deeply hierarchical internal organisation combined with a dogmatic attribution of all oppression in India to semi-feudalism, semi-colonialism and the comprador bourgeoisie made genuine political analysis and debate impossible. 

Gita was troubled by the use of the state’s own methods by those claiming to overthrow it, and especially by ‘shocking stories of mindless carnage,’ in which the poorest suffered most, violence which was ‘cruel, intentional, and more a statement of power than a necessity’. Her doubts were shared by other comrades, but only she and Cyril engaged in open criticism of the party. In November 1976, a group of 20-30 of Gita’s and Cyril’s group of former students left the party, feeling that the revolution should be close to the hearts and lives of the people and not just focused on the capture of power (pp.88-91). The trajectory of being swept up by revolutionary enthusiasm, joining the CPI-ML, and then suffering gradual disillusionment is similar to the narrative in Revolution Highway by Dilip Simeon, another ‘lapsed revolutionary’. 

After staying in Delhi for some years, Gita and Cyril returned to Hyderabad in 1980 and were involved in setting up the Hyderabad Book Trust (HBT) to bring out progressive books – both translated and original – in Telugu. The low-priced books and booklets were aimed at encouraging a culture of debate on the left. Gita spent much of her time travelling around Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, meeting people and selling books. Cyril completed a law degree, began practising, and along with some colleagues set up Salaha to provide legal assistance to poor people and NGOs working with them.

Also Read: Excerpt: How Hyderabad Book Trust Pioneered Low-Cost Translations Into Telugu in the 1980s

Drawn closer to Dalit politics by her own attendance at their meetings to sell HBT literature and by Cyril’s association with Bojja Tharakam, the Dalit lawyer who fought the Karamchedu massacre case, Gita was inspired to try to form a non-violent yet militant movement of Dalit agricultural labourers in Ibrahimpatnam. This project occupies the bulk of her book. Caste is the most important marker of identity among these workers, and Gita reasons that while a dominant caste individual cannot be held personally responsible for the oppression practised by their ancestors, they must acknowledge and talk about it because they have benefited from it. Gita, a Brahmin, gains the trust and love of these workers by sharing their privations and being totally committed to fighting for their rights: an ever-expanding agenda. 

When Gita learns about the Minimum Wages Act in a Salaha workshop and conveys the knowledge to them, they discuss it among themselves and go on strike, winning a modest wage rise. But many struggles were undermined by bonded labourers, who had taken a loan from the landowners, were unable to pay it back, and were forced to follow orders to break strikes. So the next step was to use the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act to free bonded labourers. In order to win these battles, ‘we needed an organisation… we needed to present ourselves to the state as a legal entity,’ and therefore they registered the Ibrahimpatnam Taluka Vyavasaya Coolie Sangam (Ibrahimpatnam Taluka Agricultural Labourers’ Union) in March 1985 (p.186).

The Sangam went from strength to strength, using traditional as well as innovative methods of non-violent struggle to win wage rises and free bonded labourers, and going on to tackle problems like abolishing child labour, providing the children of Dalit labourers with an education, and fighting for the rights of people with disabilities. Crucially, they began fighting for their right to land, which had been usurped by landowners. Everywhere they met a solid wall of resistance from the landowners backed by the police, politicians (including those of the CPI and CMI(M)), and most of the judiciary and bureaucracy. Sympathisers with their cause among these groups were few and far between.

Gita Ramaswamy. Photo: D. Ravinder Reddy via Navayana

The problems that Gita fails to solve are ones that still plague us today: how to link up grassroots movements nationally and internationally to tackle issues that cannot be resolved locally. But her memoir provides us with an invaluable example of revolutionary activity based on the conception of socialism propagated by Marx and Engels, who believed that it was the working class as a whole which had to carry out the revolution.

Gita and Cyril also provide an example of how middle-class activists should relate to working-class mass organisations, putting their skills and expertise at their service, even offering advice, but leaving actual decisions to the workers. They also reflect on the successes and failures of the Sangam along with its members, and jointly learn lessons from them. For example, Gita was initially reluctant to get drawn into struggles for land, but then realised that without land, ‘The labourer remained a supplicant’ even after successful wage struggles (p.323). Gaining possession of the means of production (land) is in one sense a step forward from wage struggles, but given the scourge of farmer indebtedness and suicides in India, I would have liked to see more exploration of the possibilities of forming agricultural cooperatives.

The book is beautifully produced, with numerous black-and-white photographs adding to its value as a historical record. However, given the personal nature of the narrative, which is even intimate at times (when Gita writes about her physical and mental health problems, desire for a child, and betrayal by feminist friends), I feel ‘The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary’ should be the main title and the more impersonal ‘Land Guns Caste Woman’ the subtitle, which would also attract more readers.

Rohini Hensman is a writer and independent scholar whose book, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism, tackles the pernicious legacy of Stalinist imperialism.