Mythily Sivaraman, untiring fighter for the rights of workers, women and victims of state brutality, dear comrade, friend and mentor to so many in the women’s and working class movements, succumbed to COVID-19 on May 30, 2021 at the age of 82. She was a lifelong communist.
Mythily grew up in a well-to-do Brahmin family in Chennai. She went to study at Syracuse University in the US in the mid-1960s at a time when the movement against the Vietnam war was at its height, when Black activism emerged in different parts of the country and a new wave of feminism was gaining strength. Mythily was an eager participant in the debates, discussions and campaigns around these issues.
After her graduation, she worked for nearly two years with the UN with the Committee on Decolonisation where she studied various aspects of colonisation and neo-colonialism. She was soon imbued with what was to be a life-long and passionate commitment to anti-imperialist struggles and she risked an illegal visit to Cuba that left an indelible impression of a new kind of society emerging.
Soon, Mythily gave up her UN job and returned to India, seeking people and organizations that she could work with. Her quest led her to meet Krishnammal and Jaganathan, followers of Vinoba Bhave, who were working with Dalits in coastal Tamil Nadu. It was with Krishammal and a CPI(M) member that Mythily visited Kilvenmani in East Thanjavur district immediately after the horrific atrocity in which 44 Dalit men, women and children had been burnt alive by the landlords. The embers of the blaze were still smouldering. Mythily wrote memorably:
“The scene was strangely reminiscent of a cremation ground, not so much an ordinary crematorium where dead bodies seek their painless extinction but an eerie place where tender childhood, bashful youth and loving motherhood met.
A few household articles, broken pots and pieces of bright glass bangles lay scattered. An emaciated dog lay still as if in a swoon outside a burnt hut while another kept sniffing the ground and whining. Feeble, moaning and muffled, tear-choked voices were heard and one noticed a few women and children looking lost and aimless.” (Mainstream, 1969).
It was her writings that made the name Kilvenmani resound.
Soon after this, Mythily joined the CPI(M) and plunged into trade union work almost immediately but continued to write about the conditions of landless Dalits in the villages. Her writings are rare examples of analysis and empathy and in her trenchant expositions of caste oppression, she never loses sight of its class aspect:
“Untouchability is planted deep in the Hindu social structure and the Hindu psyche. Its ritual origins may be a matter for dispute but there is very little else disputable about untouchability…The traditional relationship of the untouchables to Hindu society was a cruelly ambivalent one. By holy writ they were set aside from society as people whose touch defiles; at whose sight the ritually pure must shudder; who must do penance for their and their ancestors’ sins by serving their betters. Like any other ritual sanction this was enforced by a tyrannical socio-political hierarchy. The second – and crucial – aspect of the untouchables’ relationship with Hindu society was their indispensable economic function.” (Radical Review, which she edited, 1969)
Mythily started working in the Center of Indian Trade Unions with legendary working class leader, Com. V.P. Chinthan at a time of trade union militancy and of ruthless suppression of workers’ rights by the state government. She wrote several pieces delving into the workings of highly successful and highly exploitative corporates like Simpsons, TI Cycles, MRF, Metal Box and others. This was, however, only a small part of her trade union activities which comprised of everything from addressing gate-meetings, participating in long-drawn out negotiations and leading strike actions, demonstrations and protests.
At this time, she wrote a seminal and, perhaps, unique piece on The Relevance of Periyar: Caste or Class Struggle for the Radical Review in 1971. In this, she traced the roots and growth of the pre-independence anti-Brahmin movement in what was the Madras Presidency and the role played by Periyar. While Periyar’s vigorous promotion of rationalism, violent attacks on organised religion and, most especially, his revolutionary championing of women’s rights and castigation of hypocritical patriarchal norms met with her appreciation and approval, she was critical of the limitations of his understanding.
She says, in her article, “Like his approach to religion, Periyar failed to relate the inferior status of women to the socio-economic system of exploitation but attributed it exclusively to ‘Manliness’, a term connoting, according to him, the super-arrogance of man.” She was also very conscious of the fact that “Centred in the non-Brahmin lower castes, Periyar’s movement concerned the Harijans only marginally. Apart from the Vaikkom struggle of the 1920s, Periyar never took up any of the major causes of the Harijans”. This explains much about the often violent confrontations between dominant backward caste communities and Dalits in Tamil Nadu today.
Despite her critical approach, she made a case for a greater understanding by the left-wing of the changes wrought by Periyar in the existing social order and his impact on Tamil politics. She wrote, quite prophetically, that ‘Periyarism is still not a spent force’. Written in 1971, this still rings true even today.
Mythily confronted her comrades with an important question “Why Periyar? What has been the particular course of development of castes in Tamil Nadu and how has this related to the economic forces at play?…what should be the attitude of the Marxists to the problem?”
Mythily went on to write a series of articles through the ‘60s and 70’s on the DMK and the AIADMK. The questions she posed, the criticisms she made are as relevant today as they were five decades ago.
After the Emergency, Mythily’s life changed course again as she became more involved in the growing women’s movement in Tamil Nadu. She worked very closely with two intrepid veterans, K.P. Janakiammal and Papa Umanath in the state-level Democratic Women’s Association and then, in l981, in the Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Democratic Women’s Association of which she was a founder-member. Mythily now immersed herself in the study of women’s issues, in writing about them in Tamil for her organisation’s journal and other publications, in taking classes for women activists and members and in surveys, campaigns and struggles. Female foeticide, sexual violence and state violence were important issues that she addressed through all these activities.
One particular case in which her intervention proved extremely important was that of the inhuman atrocities perpetrated by officials from the forest, revenue and police departments on the inhabitants of a small, remote Adivasi hamlet, Vachati, in 1992 on the suspicion that they were supporters of the sandalwood smuggler, Veerappan. At least 18 tribal women and young girls were raped.
Mythily and Papa Umanath were the first to visit the village and interview the victims. It was Mythily who compiled and drafted the documents of the case that she represented before the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The state government was adamant in denying justice to the victims but Mythily and her comrades in the AIDWA and CPI(M) were relentless in their pursuit of justice. After 19 years of trials in the courts, all the accused were finally arrested and compensation was paid to the victims.
Mythily never enjoyed good health. She suffered from migraines and other ailments. Her commitment to the cause to which she dedicated her life made her think, write and work at a pace that took a heavy toll. Remarkably, in the 1990s, in the midst of constant activity and deteriorating health, she pushed herself to research and write a remarkable memoir of her grandmother, Subbalakshmi, who was married at 11 and became a mother at 14.
In her circumscribed life, Mythily recognised the lives of millions of Indian women, including those who belonged to a privileged background but were thwarted by overweening patriarchy. Her book Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive is a haunting and poignant tribute to both her grandmother and her own painstaking scholarship and determination.
The last 15 years of her life were overshadowed by her withdrawal from public life necessitated by the onset of Alzheimer’s. Her husband and comrade, Karunakaran, who had decided early in their marriage that she would be the activist because of her greater abilities and he would take care of other responsibilities in the home, her daughter, Kalpana and son-in-law Balaji, all lived with her. When she was well, all three of them were fully involved with her work and ventures and, when she fell ill, they cared for her with love and sensitivity.
Mythily left us on May 30 but she leaves behind not only memories of a valuable life but also a significant body of work that will provide illumination, direction and much wisdom for those who have chosen the path that she had and for many others.
Subhashini Ali is a former member of parliament from Kanpur and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).