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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 27, New Delhi, June 19, 2021

The Woman Who Was Not Afraid of Being “Unfeminine”: A Friend’s Tribute to Sharmistha Choudhury | Nandini Dhar

Friday 18 June 2021

by Nandini Dhar *

Communists have their own mortuary rituals. The customary final red salute, the corpse wrapped in the red flag, the slogans and the final farewell with the Internationale – the communist death is a colourful and noisy affair. I participated in all of them, trying to keep my composure intact. Yet the truth is, all through that morning on the 14th June, I avoided looking at Sharmistha’s face. The stillness of death is not what I wanted to remember about her. The grotesqueness of the two cotton balls stuck in her nostrils is not what I wanted to remember her by. What I wanted to hold on to, and will hold on to, are the dimples on her chin. The slightly shy, but thoroughly mischievous smile. The ease with which she could launch into curse-words without uttering a single profanity. The quick anger. The steely determination. Razor-sharp analysis of situations, often done through her characteristic wit. And so much more.

I met Sharmistha Choudhury in 1995, when I joined Presidency College as a student in the department of Sociology. Sharmistha was a year ahead of me, a student in the Philosophy Department. Sharmistha wasn’t a Marxist yet, nor was she part of the Presidency College Students’ Association (P.C.S.A), the organization within which most of the radical-left students of the college organized themselves. Rather, Sharmistha was committed to a zine called Nehai. Nehai was distinctly feminist in its orientation, and had succeeded to organize quite a few women students, who, otherwise, did not quite feel comfortable within the overtly political, radical-leftist cultural environment of PCSA. Since quite a few of us, including Barnali Mukherjee and myself, were associated with both Nehai and PCSA, the lines between the two were often blurred. On the campus at large, Nehai activists came to be understood as integral elements of the radical left spaces within the college campus.

Nehai was short-lived, as many such initiatives are. Yet it left an indelible mark on those of us who were participants. Two of the original members of Nehai – Sharmistha herself and Barnali Mukherjee – became whole-timers within the left movement. Others continued to work in different capacities within the broader spaces of the democratic and women’s movements.

I mention Nehai not only because this was one of the spaces within which I worked with Sharmistha every day — indeed, it was as Nehai activists that our friendship was formed and cemented — but also because this is one of the least appreciated arenas of her short but illustrious life. Much has been written in the last few days about Sharmistha’s involvement in the working-class movement. Much has been written about her being the only woman member in the Politburo of CPI (ML) Red Star. Of course, we all know her as one of the mass leaders of the Bhangor People’s Movement against Powergrid, and how the movement caused her incarceration under the draconian UAPA. But there was a pre-history to this, something embedded in larger issues.

Our individual lives are never exclusively individual. This is even more pertinent for someone like Sharmistha who lead an immensely public life, within and in between multiple political collectivities. Yet from a very young age, Sharmistha’s primary belonging lay within a kind of left-progressive feminist politics. Nehai gave her an initial space to enact that politics. Without that space, there probably would not have been any Sharmistha Choudhury, as we have come to know her later. It is worth thinking about how forms of organizing directed specifically towards young women – whether zines or full-blown organizations – can lead them towards other forms of left-revolutionary politics. Much thought also needs to be devoted to zines and little magazines like Nehai, through which young women on the left have and continue to organize themselves, in the absence of larger left-radical organizational-political spaces where gender can be discussed with the seriousness that it deserves.

Ours was a weird generation, pitted between the glorious and the heroic accounts of the left movements that spanned the decades from the 1940s to 1970s in Bengal, and the desolation of the neoliberal years yet to come. We witnessed many “historic” events – the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the fall of the socialist bloc, the demise of USSR, the slow emergence of a privatized education sector, and India’s signing of GATT in 1992. Yet in all of these events, now recognized as momentous, there was a kind of pessimism writ large. It was a pessimism which told us, socialism and communism were “obsolete”. Secularism was passe. Sharmistha and I were two of those few who embraced the obsolete and passe. In that sense, we were also deeply anachronistic.

In 1994-1995, while terms like “liberalization” and “globalization” were being tossed around and while the revolutionary students’ movement in Bengal was responding to such through its own critique of the increasing privatization and commodification of education, one could still enjoy some of the institutional vestiges of the older forms of liberal capital. Our college fees were abysmally small, College Street retained much of its old world charm, and two young women, Sharmistha and me could dream of finding a place for ourselves within this world on our own terms. What those terms would be, exactly, we were not quite sure. But this much we knew: they would have to include a rejection of the roles that the world had ordained for us as middle-class women.

The spectre of globalized capital was very much in the horizon, and even though we were stupid and naïve in the way idealist, left-minded youth often were, we knew our lives would not have the luxury of denying the aggressive onslaught of this emerging form of capital.

Within the four walls of an elite college such as Presidency, this could be felt in the increasing class, cultural and rural-urban divides amongst the students. Like many of the Nehai and PCSA activists, Sharmistha, too, came from a small town. Bengali literature and cinema have often celebrated the moment of the male protagonist’s arrival into the city from a small town or a village. Yet, surprisingly, very few narratives have explored what it meant for young women from small towns to come to Kolkata and claim the city on their own terms. Sharmistha did exactly that. In her claiming was the story of her progressive politicization.

The radical-left circuits of our youth did not have a culture of vibrant gender analysis. Although the autonomous women’s movement had achieved quite a bit, we did not feel the presence of its organizations inside our college campuses. Feminist organizing, even of the liberal variety, was largely unknown. At the same time, the presence of an emerging neoliberal feminism could be felt in the debates around India’s participation in beauty contests, as beauty queens gained a new ideological ground in civil society, and a general feeling amongst our non-left classmates and friends that “women’s emancipation” could be attained through individual achievement, through joining the corporate world, or simple careerism. Interestingly, very few of those women identified themselves as “feminists.” But Sharmistha did. As did the rest of us.

In the context of recent debates on patriarchy within the left, it should be noted that while the left in India is indeed by and large patriarchal, left women have often assumed vanguard roles in feminist organizing in a wide variety of spaces. Sharmistha stepped into the world of left-revolutionary activism beginning with her participation in the women’s movement. Embedded in that participation was an understanding that feminist politics is never complete without a collective political agenda. Consequently, Sharmistha would devote much of the rest of her life moving between the spaces of the Communist movement, as is evident in her deep involvement with CPI (ML)-Red Star, and the autonomous women’s movements. Possibly, in being one of the founding members of All India Revolutionary Women’s Organization (AIRWO), she found a synthesis of sorts between these two.

For women who choose to work within the Communist movement in the way that Sharmistha did, there are several dilemmas. On the one hand, gender as a political category remains, by and large, out of the purview of Communist political discussions, debates and programs. To integrate gender into the political agenda of the Party, beyond tokenism, involves much additional labour – both political and emotional. This is especially true if you are like Sharmistha – highly educated, an articulate writer and speaker in English, short-haired, jeans-clad – for whom there is a dreaded term that is never too far away from anyone’s lips. Bourgeois feminist. Operating often as a curse-word, weaponized by male comrades to exclude any meaningful discussions on gender within organizational spaces, this term has long been used in left circles to discipline women activists like Sharmistha, to cut them down to size, to show them their “rightful” place. And the truth is many women submitted. They allowed themselves to be cut down to size by their male comrades.

But Sharmistha was not one of them. Sharmistha, as anyone who knew her personally would know, categorically refused to accept such disciplining. Sharmistha knew how to speak back. She knew how to make her voice heard over and above the cacophony of male voices. Unlike most women, Sharmistha was not afraid to be argumentative, garrulous and quarrelsome. Qualities that numerous men, even those in the Communist movement, do not like in women. It is safe to say Sharmistha was not afraid to be “unfeminine.” Because she was not afraid to be so, Sharmistha has also been successful in launching an ideological struggle on gender inside her party spaces. An ideological struggle that has inspired quite a few of her comrades – some of whom also happen to be men – to continue the work of evolving a specifically left-revolutionary feminism. To be a woman, a feminist and a communist like Sharmistha, was to fight multiple battles. The truth remains that for someone like Sharmistha, even the Party was never a “safe space”, a home or a refuge. This is a reality that often leaves deep scars on individuals.

As we mourn Sharmistha’s untimely death, we also collectively ponder on how Sharmistha struggled, in and through her failing health, to accommodate a monumental amount of complex work, within a political sphere where very few had any real understanding of what she was trying to do. In Sharmistha’s death, I am mourning the untimely loss of a dear and personal friend. But I am also mourning the loss of one of the very few political workers of our times, who understood the necessary centrality of gender in both anti-fascist and class-based struggles.

Adieu, my friend. You will be deeply missed. Always. As one misses a loved one. Yet it is in your absence that your words and deeds will come alive, as never before.

* (Nandini Dhar is a writer and a worker in the alternative media and women’s movements.)

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