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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 52, December 17, 2022

A Personal Tribute to Gita Ramaswamy Based on Reading Her Book, ’Land Guns Caste Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary’ | Anand Chakravarti

Friday 16 December 2022, by Anand Chakravarti

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by Anand Chakravarti

Introduction: Why Am I Writing This Piece?

Fundamentally, it is an exercise in self-criticism because it charts the politics of a person who devoted a part of her life to serving the marginalized — which I also aspired to do, but failed. Gita Ramaswamy’s book [1], by presenting a model of selfless work and the inherent challenges, shows that it requires exceptional commitment to bridge the gulf that separates noble aspirations from the practise of a mode of existence leading to their realisation. It is no doubt true that there are others who have transcended the boundaries of caste and class and dedicated much of their lives to serve the cause of the downtrodden. Those who I can immediately think of include the late Anuradha Ghandy, Kobad Ghandy, the late Father Stan Swamy, Binayak Sen, the late Ilina Sen, Himanshu, Sudha Bharadwaj, and Bela Bhatia; and there could be others who do not occur to me at the moment. However, the appeal of Gita’s book is that it presents the reader detailed information on her involvement with the marginalized, which includes her role in their politicisation. The reader can, in a sense, watch the unfolding of her commitment to the victims of caste and class oppression. Her endeavours show that for those driven by altruism, selfless involvement in the lives of the downtrodden is just an everyday matter.

Gita’s involvement with the dalits in Ibrahimpatnam taluka in Ranga Reddy district of the former undivided Andhra Pradesh (now in Telengana), in particular their struggles for better wages, freedom from bondage, and land rights, led to a head-on confrontation with the dominant caste and class forces. On reading the accounts of the various conflicts, much is revealed about the social base of state power and, indeed, the repressive character of the Indian state as it is experienced by the poor. This is subject that I also wish to highlight.

The Collapse of Grand Ambitions

Not unlike Gita, I too was an idealist, stemming from my belief that the promises associated with India’s independence from colonial rule had not been fulfilled. In the course of my undergraduate education in Delhi University (from 1957 to 1960) I became aware that a vast majority of the people continued to live in poverty. Therefore, it was apparent that the state had failed to deliver social, economic, and political justice to the marginalized. I was somehow convinced that only a revolution could bring about a genuine transformation in the lives of the poor. I remember my interview, in 1960, for admission to the Master’s course in Sociology at Delhi University, at which I was asked why I proposed to study this subject. My naive answer, informed by my idealism, was that the discipline would equip me to work towards transforming Indian society. Though, fortunately, I secured admission in spite of a rather inappropriate answer, I recall that at that moment I genuinely thought that I should forsake my conventional, middle-class existence, and plunge into doing something that would be transformative from the standpoint of the poor.

The M.A. Sociology course was certainly not a formula for social change. Somehow, I plodded along, but after qualifying for the Master’s degree in 1962, the idealistic urge possessed me again. At that time, the Sarvodaya movement led by Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) happened to be in the news. As I understood it, the movement demanded working among the rural masses to persuade the rich to donate some of their land (bhoodan) to the landless poor. This notion of Sarvodaya was not unrelated to JP’s definition of the movement: ‘the real aim was not redistribution of land but to establish the idea of sharing: those who have more should share with those who have less. This was the idea behind bhoodan.’ [2]

For roughly two months in the latter half of 1962, I became a Sarvodaya worker, based in Patna, functioning under the wing of Tripurari Sharan, one of JP’s close associates. I accompanied him on his tours to villages that had been touched by the movement. However, based on these visits, it seemed to me that the social transformation that the movement aimed at was still a distant dream. Small, donated, tracts of uncultivated land had reportedly been brought under paddy cultivation (parti se dhanhar) by the donees, but, largely, it appeared to me that the dismal living conditions of the landless poor had remained unchanged. In my view, based on the little that I knew of the revolutions in Russia and China, a radical transformation in the conditions of the poor in India demanded an upheaval on similar lines. I remember arguing passionately about this with Tripurariji, who, not surprisingly as a dedicated Sarvodaya worker committed to social change through persuasion and a change of heart, did not take me seriously. It did not also occur to me then that my thinking was fundamentally opposed to the ideology of the movement I had joined. Indeed, without realising it, I was a complete misfit.

Before I could do any serious soul searching about my position as a Sarvodaya worker, I fell ill with jaundice, and returned to Delhi to recover at my parental home. Significantly, my departure from Patna also marked the end of my activism, because I did not return to the movement after my recovery. However, I continued my association with JP, and at his suggestion I joined the Gandhian Institute of Studies at Varanasi at the end of March 1963 as a research scholar. This too was an abortive exercise as I failed to focus on any problem to research on, and I resigned from the Institute within a few months. After returning to Delhi, I registered for the Ph.D. degree at my ‘home’ Sociology department in Delhi University. This was the beginning of my serious entry into the academic profession, which ended formally in April 2006 after a teaching career of 41 years. In sum, my idealism had gone for a toss barely two months after joining the Sarvodaya movement way back in 1962. The sad truth is that I did not possess the courage to pursue my convictions concerning a major fault line in Indian society. It is precisely from this standpoint that Gita Ramaswamy’s work as an activist shows that she possessed nerves of steel and an exceptionally elevated altruistic disposition.

Gita — the Revolutionary

Gita’s activism, as revealed in her book, does not conform to a homogeneous pattern, and underwent change over time. While dwelling on various phases of her activism, my main concern is with showing how in each of them her focus was on the interests of the marginalized, while her own self-interest mattered little.

There was nothing extraordinary about the first two decades of her life. She grew up in a middle-class Brahmin family. Her father was an engineer in the Posts and Telegraphs Department and her formal education proceeded along conventional lines. Beginning in a convent, she completed her school education in a Kendriya Vidyalaya. Her days as an undergraduate student of science at Osmania University marked the beginning of her politicization, which was triggered during the aftermath of the murder, in 1972, of George Reddy, a progressive student leader, whose politics echoed the anti-establishment student movements in Europe and elsewhere. Before his death, he and his friends had formed a group called Progressive Democratic Students, which later assumed a formal status as the Progressive Democratic Students’ Union. Gita’s association with the group, in her words, sparked in her ‘the hope of changing the world’ (p.45). Further, as she writes, she ‘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 marginalized’ (p.47). Fundamentally, like many others (including myself, as mentioned earlier), she too was disillusioned by the ‘failure of the independence project’ (p.47), and she decided to become a Naxalite in 1973. She joined the group led by Chandra Pulla Reddy, and was ‘swept along by the idea of revolution’ (p.57).

The idea of revolution sustained Gita as a Naxalite, but only for a few years because she rejected the authoritarian mode of functioning by the leadership. There were also serious differences on the use of violence, which Gita and her partner Cyril (the younger brother of George Reddy) regarded as counter-productive, because of the infinitely superior violence of the state. Moreover, it was also self-defeating because Naxalite factions fought each other in the struggle for supremacy: ‘violence by the party ... was cruel, intentional, and more a statement of power than a necessity’ (p.90). The question of the people’s welfare or concern for their living conditions hardly seemed to matter in the movement. Significantly, an extremely refined practice of politics followed Gita’s renunciation of Naxalism in 1976. As pointed out by her poignantly, she ‘still had political dreams’ (p.99), and accordingly had ‘strong reasons to continue working with people’ (p.92). This demanded ‘work that directly led to mobilizing people on their problems against the state and the wresting political power’ (p.99, emphasis added). The dawning of this political common sense explains the new phase in Gita’s life. It sustained her interventions in the lives of people constituting the lowest strata of society, initially in Ghaziabad (in Uttar Pradesh) from 1977 to 1980, and later in Ibrahimpatnam taluka from 1984 to 1992.

It was purely by chance that Gita intervened in the lives of balmikis (manual scavengers) in Ghaziabad. She and Cyril had left Hyderabad in 1976 to escape from the police during the Emergency. They stayed in Chandigarh with Cyril’s eldest brother, an I.A.S. officer. After the lifting of the Emergency in March 1977, they moved to Delhi. For a brief period of six months Gita took the beaten path by working at the National Council of Educational Research and Training. However, guided by her inner urge to work among the deprived, she rejected a conventional occupation. Though she qualified to become an officer in a bank, she declined the offer of employment. It is indeed remarkable that she and Cyril, in spite of being total strangers, then scouted around in totally unknown territory in Ghaziabad in search of a location inhabited by people considered as the dregs of society. Having found a colony of balmikis, they lived in a rented room close by.

For more than two years, Gita taught the balmiki children English and their women sewing. Cyril was then employed in the Public Enterprises Centre for Continuing Education, but he too participated in teaching the balmiki children. On the face of it, Gita’s work among the balmikis was unconnected with what she herself regarded as political work based on her Naxalite past, as mentioned earlier. However, from a broader standpoint, teaching the balmiki children had undeniable political overtones because it empowered them to cope with formal education and qualify for employment in the tertiary sector, and thus emancipate themselves from manual scavenging. Therefore, as Gita herself acknowledges, though her work among the balmikis ‘was not going to lead them to overthrow the state,’ it nevertheless made her realise ‘that there was no straight path to revolution, and that possibly, revolution was not a single goal but a million achievable goals every day in every sphere of life’ (p.99).

Undeniably, though, it was not so easy to reconcile the idea of revolution in the Naxalite imagination with the ‘everydayness’ of empowering the balmiki children through education. The tension in Gita’s psyche was palpable, for she even contemplated suicide. In spite of this, she carried on her work as a teacher. Having spent more than two years among the balmikis in Ghaziabad, she sought fulfilment in another direction. For some years, from 1980 until 1984, the Hyderabad Book Trust (HBT), an organisation co-founded by her, met this need. HBT aimed at filling the lacuna in Telugu literature of progressive material focussing on ‘the actual problems and contradictions within society’ (p.111). Towards this goal, HBT published works by Telugu authors as well as translations of outstanding writings in other languages.

After four years of dedicated work at HBT, in the course of which it became viable and extremely popular, the urge to work among the underdogs again possessed Gita. Certain questions reverberated in her mind: ‘could a non-ML [Naxalite], non-violent, yet militant movement be built? Could humanism and democratic practice be made integral to a people’s movement’ (p.129)? Therefore, when she first arrived in Ibrahimpatnam in August 1984 through her contacts, the burning desire to seek practical answers to these questions drove her to work among the most underprivileged stratum of the local society. The madigas (a Scheduled Caste) then became her principal concern.

The madigas were numerically preponderant among the landless poor in the area, eking out a livelihood by labouring for the dominant caste reddy landowners. The agricultural labourers here comprised two categories: those employed on a daily basis as casual labourers, which included both men and women, and those, always male, bonded to their employers as farm servants. As one learns from Gita’s writing, the relationship between the reddy employer and the madiga labourer was profoundly asymmetrical as the latter lived a sub-human existence, devoid of dignity, and barely surviving materially. It was even worse for madiga women, as they lacked bodily autonomy, and were subject to sexual exploitation by reddy men. In such circumstances, it was indeed unthinkable that the madigas could demur even mildly at the iniquities thrust upon them by the reddys. As one of the former said, ’ “Can a madiga ask a question of the dora [reddy landlord]?” ’ (p.395). Gita pointedly states that a reddy in the rural setting ‘was always a tyrant ... [culpable of] crimes of bonded labour, low wages, usurping land which was not [his], brutalizing the poor, appropriating the bodies of their women’ (p.139). This scenario ignited her revolutionary impulses. It was a challenge that she took head-on.

The guiding principle of Gita’s interventions in Ibrahimpatnam was that acquiescence to a regime of exploitation and oppression, in spite of the resentment it generated, was not cast in stone. If the madigas could develop a sense of solidarity and a capacity for resistance, they could change their existential conditions. It all began one evening in 1984, when Gita spoke at an informal meeting of about twenty agricultural labourers in the village Cheeded. Talking about the Minimum Wages Act and the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, she suggested that it was for them to take advantage of such enabling legislation to improve their living conditions. At that moment she did not realise that her words had somehow fired the imagination of her audience, who, having learnt for the first time that such laws existed, felt inspired to channel their resentment against their employers into resistance. As recalled by her, ’I was amazed to find the next morning that the agricultural labourers had decided to strike work’ (p.166). On the third day of the strike, the landowners agreed to negotiation, resulting in an increase in the wages of both casual labourers and farm servants — though the increase was still short of the statutory wages.

The success of the strike in Cheeded stirred labourers in other villages to imagine their relations with their oppressors differently. The idea of resistance now caught their imagination, and they asked Gita to visit them with her core supporters. From then on there was no looking back. Her principal task at the villages she visited was to inform the labourers about the laws concerning wages and bonded labour. Significantly, the women labourers were among the active participants during these meetings, and she was ‘totally drawn into their warm embrace’ (p.180).

A landmark in the transformation of the labouring population in Ibrahimpatnam into a political force was the setting up of a union, registered with the labour department in Andhra Pradesh in March 1985 as the Ibrahimpatnam Taluka Vyavsaya Coolie Sangam (ITVCS). The members referred to the body simply as the Sangam. Gita was elected as the General Secretary, while one of the leading madiga activists became its President.

A horrendous event that occurred a few months after the formation of the Sangam brought about a major change in Gita’s understanding of her role in Ibrahimpatnam. In July 1985, a kamma mob killed six madiga men in the coastal Andhra village Karamchedu in Prakasam district. As reported by her, a simple protest by a madiga woman against the uncalled for beating of a madiga youth by a kamma youth had prompted the vicious attack on the madiga colony. Kammas dominated in the region, in part because of their control over land, but also because of their overwhelming presence in sectors outside agrarian society, such as real estate, cinema, television, and journalism.

The Karamchedu killings somehow metamorphosed Gita’s involvement with the dalits in Ibrahimpatnam. Thus, she writes, ‘Prior to Karamchedu, my own focus on the madigas of Ibrahimpatnam was hazy’ (p.207). Though she does not spell out its implications, it seems to me that until that moment the poor working conditions of the madigas was the only consideration that had propelled Gita to associate with them and spark the spirit of resistance. However, the carnage expanded her thinking on the situation because ‘it brought a class-caste perspective ...’ (p.207). I read from this statement her realisation that the conflict in Ibrahimpatnam was not simply a matter concerning the local madigas and the reddys. In fact, the madigas were up against an entire social order dominated by the reddys, corresponding to the dominance of the kammas in coastal Andhra. Encapsulated within this order was an amalgam of social superiority, economic dominance, and political power. In short, the reddys possessed overwhelming social power. From this standpoint, it is not difficult to understand why ‘from 1985 onwards’ (p.207) Ambedkar’s critique of caste assumed significance in Gita’s practise of politics.

The Karamchedu massacre also influenced Gita’s mentality, because she began to look at the world from a dalit perspective, which caused some dissonance in her social life. The new phase in her life is conveyed in the following words, ‘This [the massacre]led me to view problems and events the way dalits did and caused a serious discordance in my life and some kind of a break with the friends I had earlier. I began feeling odd, a stranger, an outsider, to my old world’ (p.413).

It is apparent that what may be termed ‘the Karamchedu moment’ imparted new meaning to Gita’s work with the Sangam. In time, it became a truly dynamic force — the springboard of a movement that caught the imagination of the underclass in the entire taluka, leading to tangible achievements in terms of an increase in wages and the liberation of bonded labourers. She writes that ‘things were happening at a rapid pace at that time’ (p.188), and ‘the movement spread far by the sheer will of the people’ (p.189). Undoubtedly, she was the dynamo powering the change: ‘people saw me as an instrument (p.188). Indeed, she had stirred them to the core: ‘they adopted me and took me into their hearts’ (p.189).

Though the landed reddys reacted fiercely to the challenge by the movement to their hitherto uncontested power, the labourers ‘were now emboldened, and in a mood to defy injustice’ (p.217). By the end of 1985, the Sangam, that had initially covered only four villages, spread to many other villages. In the course of the next five years, the movement covered nearly sixty-five villages spread over seven mandals. Its agenda included the question of land rights for the landless, as described below.

The landless labourers also had certain land rights, which were ruthlessly denied to them by the dominant reddys. These included: the right to cultivate government land; the right to land in excess of the ceiling; the right to cultivate land belonging to local temples; the right to cultivate land that had by default not been entered in the government records; and, finally, the right to access the land originally held by Muslim landlords who had fled during the Telengana movement in 1948.

As the Sangam had caught the imagination of the marginalized as an instrument for securing their rights, it inspired those who had been denied their land rights to urge the organisation to expand its agenda. Indeed, this issue became the principal concern of the movement. As Gita herself realised, ‘The political mobilization that comes with land struggles cannot be compared to anything else ... Fighting for wages was one thing; land was something else entirely. It is the key for any work in the countryside [because] the wresting of the monopoly of a few over the land breaks the very spine of systemic exploitation’ (p.324).

Beginning in 1986, Gita, with Cyril’s help (by then he had qualified to practise law), took on the mammoth task of deciphering the scraps of evidence produced by the victims of dispossession, which brought her face to face with officials at the mandal office, ceiling records office, and the local court. The effort to ‘understand the relation of land to paper [land records]’ (p.270) was critical for building up a strong case for the restitution of the land rights of the dispossessed. The task also entailed court battles. Much of the time Gita was up against a wall because officials were not just upholders of the status quo, but, more ominously, subject to the power of the reddys. Even if an official happened to be sympathetic or cooperative, it did not necessarily make any difference to the situation. For instance, she refers to a tahsildar who was a ‘good man’, but ‘he was not powerful enough to stand up to the reddys and too afraid to tangle with them’ (pp.252-53).

The struggle for land rights went beyond the building up of a well-documented case supporting the victims of dispossession. In a show of strength, the Sangam encouraged its members to occupy the disputed tracts and proceed with cultivation. The reddys regarded this as an intolerable challenge to their domination and retaliated with all the forces at their command. In the ensuing battle, the police revealed itself to be an extension of reddy power, forcing Gita to confront various police officials. This was indeed a most humiliating experience: ‘every time I entered a police station to help a landless labourer... I noticed that the sub-inspector had all the chairs removed and himself sat on the only remaining chair. Sometimes he ordered the removal after I entered ...’ (p.277). There were also occasions when police officials stooped to obscene levels, causing her to ‘further detest the police’ (p.277).

Though the ‘lives of landless dalits were transformed by [their] struggles’ (p.325), they had to pay a heavy price. Their challenge to the hierarchy based on the coalescence of caste and class power created a flashpoint in their relations with the reddys. As a leading figure in the struggle, Gita faced a violent attack by a reddy mob in April 1988 over the issue of bonded labour, which nearly took her life. In spite of this, she carried on fearlessly. In another village, where there was a conflict between the Sangam and the reddys over the possession of a tract, she and her landless supporters faced an armed mob fearlessly. It was a high point in her life, which she recalls ‘was a moment of total freedom — I was flying like a bird in the open skies ...’ (p.332). In April 1989, the reddys again attempted to kill Gita. Though she escaped, one of her supporters Juttu Narasaiah was grievously injured and died later. The attackers, while looking for her, had pounced on Juttu to force him to reveal where she was hiding. However, he did not yield: ‘he supported the movement and saved [Gita’s] life at the cost of his own’ (p.361).

By 1992, the year Gita decided to return to Hyderabad, the Sangam had decisively challenged reddy dominance in Ibrahimpatnam. Speaking authoritatively, one of the members declared, ‘ “We had successfully broken the reddy rule over the taluka” ’(p.426). Regrettably, from the standpoint of her associates in the Sangam, she left them because she ‘was burnt out ...’ (p.421). Indeed, they felt abandoned. One of the aggrieved said,‘ “When you stopped work, we did not understand why you gave it up just when we were succeeding. We were in a state of shock ... Where do we go from here, we wondered, with some desperation. It took us some time to get back on our feet again” ’ (p.426).

For Gita, however, the year marked a turning point in her life. Then thirty-eight, the urge to become a mother suddenly struck her on seeing a one-year-old infant at a friend’s house in Hyderabad. The baby was startled on sighting her, ‘and bounded across the room faster than a bolt, to take shelter behind her mother’ (p.424). Reacting to the moment, Gita writes, ‘My heart wrenched — a strong wrench. My villagers loved me, worshipped me. My friends loved me, so did my husband. But no one loved me and needed me so absolutely as that baby needed her mother at that moment. I wanted that love, that need. From that moment, my life changed. I wanted a child ...’ (p.424).

Though the transformation in Gita’s life may be regarded as a spectacular retreat from her political activism, her glorious contribution to the empowerment of the dalits in Ibrahimpatnam between 1984 and 1992 remains undoubtedly a shining example of altruism. To realise her vision of ‘a society that is equal, just and humane’ (p.416), she had found ‘an entire community to love, and be loved by in return ...’ (p.414). There was indeed what I regard as an extraordinary demonstration of the love Gita had ignited in the hearts of the people whom she had served. Even though the members of the Sangam had felt abandoned when she left them to become a mother, she was so much in their hearts that they regarded the daughter that was eventually born as their child too. Sometime in 2012 or 2013, when Gita’s daughter was about twenty, some members of the Sangam from one of the village influenced by it, presented her with a cheque for three lakh rupees. Though Gita protested vehemently (’ "I did not work with you for payment ..." ’ [p.427]), she gave in when they said, ’ "We didn’t give you money. We respect your sentiments. We gave it to your daughter, for her education — she is our daughter too" ’(p.427, emphasis added). This is undoubtedly one of the most moving moments in the book.

Gita’s Struggles and the State

My principal concern here is to highlight how the underclass in Ibrahimpatnam and the other areas touched by the Sangam experienced state power, based on the material in Gita’s book. The very fact that the marginalized in this area had to struggle against violent odds for decent wages, freedom from bondage, and tenancy rights, testifies to the salience of forces preventing them from accessing a better life. More specifically, their struggles show that the organs of the state which are, in principle, ordained by the Constitution to secure social, economic, and political justice, are, in practise, antagonistic to their interests. Arguably, the Constitution is a blueprint for a just and humane society, and this fundamental premise should inform the working of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. However, the actual conduct of the state betrays this benign expectation, and Gita’s book, by drawing from her experience at the grass roots, provides a graphic demonstration of this failure.

Ironically, therefore, the exercise of state power, instead of being progressive and liberating, is actually regressive and repressive. In one telling sentence, Gita points to her realisation that the operation of state power is indeed status quoist: ‘I slowly discovered 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’ (p.322, emphasis added).

The answer as to why the Sangam had to contend with hostile organs of the state lies simply in the all-pervasive presence of the reddys in them. Therefore, the Sangam was up against an entire social order powered by the members of this caste. Arguably, in spite of the success of its local struggles in various villages, as mentioned in the earlier section, the big picture marked by caste and class power remained unchanged. Indeed, this was the meaning of what I have called the ‘Karamchedu moment’ in Gita’s understanding of the social milieu in which she was operating.

The pervasive character of reddy power is strikingly evident in the conflicts over land rights. The significance of land in this context goes beyond its importance as the principal means of production in the agrarian economy, or just as a resource for material well-being. From the standpoint of the reddys, their control over the lives of the landless dalits was inextricably bound up with their control over land. Therefore, access to land by the latter would emancipate them from a state of abject dependency. Powerfully summing up the situation, Gita writes, ‘If dalits — who for centuries have been slaves and bonded labourers — came to own and till their own land, however modest, they would not have to stretch their hands before the bloodsucking doras [reddy landlords]. The wresting of the monopoly of a few over the land breaks the very spine of systemic exploitation’ (pp.323-24, emphasis added).

A key figure in the matter of officially, and legally, affirming the ownership, control, and use of land at the village level is the patwari. As the official keeper of land records, he is the gateway to any change in the link between land and paper, or in the pattern of land control. According to Gita, most patwaris were reddys, and therefore, the power that they derived from their caste status reinforced their formal position as custodians of land rights. One gets a sense of the power of patwaris from her observation that ‘often, the patwari could get the [district] collector transferred due to his long association with the district minister’ (p.345). Therefore, it is not surprising that the landless were up against a wall in every sphere that entitled them to cultivating rights: whether it was in government land, in ceiling surplus land, in temple land, or in evacuee land. Even the officials at the mandal level in the revenue bureaucracy ‘were subservient to [the patwari] and unwilling to help a poor labourer and risk antagonizing the powerful’ (p.345, emphasis added).

It appears that on the occasions when the Sangam met with success, it was due to favourable interventions by officials at the district level. Gita states that ‘in general, there was an inverse relationship between an official’s place in the hierarchy and their friendliness with the poor’ (p.345). For instance, ‘the new recruits to the IAS were idealistic at the start of their careers and often helpful’ (p.345). However, in spite of such positive responses, the overall picture of preponderant reddy power remained intact. Thus, she makes the pointed observation that the landowners possessed the political clout to ensure that ‘their cronies’ got posted to Ranga Reddy district, where she was located (p.346).

It is clear that a seamless connection existed between land control in the rural setting and politicians who operated in the formal corridors of power, because they shared the same social background. Indeed, the MLAs were instruments of the landed: they were ‘totally at the beck and call of the big landlords’ (p.370). In this capacity, the former’s control over the executive was overwhelming. Not only did they intervene in the working of the land revenue administration — as they could ‘pressure the district officials against even the smallest decisions that were favourable to the poor’ (p.319) — they also played a lethal role by prompting the police to unleash violence against the poor. Referring to the local MLA and the MP, Gita writes, ‘They were the ones who were in the pockets of local landlords and got the police to act’ (p.369). Not surprisingly, the local MP was instrumental in the posting of a particularly notorious police official in Ibrahimpatnam, who, allegedly, had been directed by him to ’wipe [the Sangam] out of existence’ (p.379).

It is undoubtedly ironical that the police, instead of acting as protectors of the constitutional rights of the poor and the marginalized, are actually instrumental in upholding the interests of the dominant in the countryside. The perversity of police conduct worried Gita deeply, prompting her to write to the Economic and Political Weekly (27 May 1989), expressing her anguish: ‘ “When Naxalites kill landlords, there is immense police repression ... Why is it that when landlords kill poor labourers, politicians still hobnob with them, attend meetings with them, and the criminals are able to abscond with impunity? Their family members are not picked up and tortured to reveal the whereabouts of the absconders. Their houses are not raided, their guns are not seized. While we are certainly not calling on the police to do such things, we wish to point out the double standards operating ...” ’ (p.362, emphasis added).

Gita describes several incidents showing that it is axiomatic for the police to come down with full force on the landless if the latter dared to challenge the illegitimate occupation of land by the reddys. This included government land, with regard to which the police had no locus standi to proceed against the landless.

A truly horrendous instance of police brutality cited by Gita occurred in 1985 in the village Ajillapuram in the neighbouring Mahbubnagar district. The dalits of the village had received grants of bhoodan land from the reddys as far back as 1951, in the very presence of Vinoba Bhave, who happened to visit the village. Even though the donation had been recorded, the reddys denied the dalits concerned actual possession of the tracts. Twenty years later (in 1971), they plucked up the courage to enter the land and cultivate it, but the reddys resisted them with violence. However, the dalits did not give up, and year after year they made fruitless attempts to resume cultivation, in spite of the police teaming up with the reddys to crush them. Sometime in 1985, police brutality broke all bounds, prefaced by an utterance that made the nexus between the police and the reddys crystal clear: ‘ “Sons of prostitutes, how dare you cultivate the landlords’ land?” ’ (p.397). This was followed by a brutal assault on the labourers, leading to the death of three of them within a month. Even more shocking is the fact that the magistrate before whom they were produced by the police ‘did not ask them how they were injured and why the blood still flowed from their broken bodies’ (p.397).

It is deeply disturbing that a police official (a sub-inspector) actually defended the attempt on Gita’s life by the landowners for securing the release of bonded labourers (as mentioned in the preceding section). Recalling the episode, she writes, ‘He abused me and blamed me for the attack. “What else will people do if you take away their jeetas [bonded labourers] and their land? ... You should learn your lesson not to go around villages like this and disturb law and order” ’(p.329, emphasis added).

Regrettably, and not unexpectedly, the same status quoist mentality possessed even senior police officials. When, in June 1987, Gita protested with the Deputy Inspector General of Police against the atrocities perpetrated by a sub-inspector against landless labourers who had occupied government land, his response was, ‘ “This is what is bound to happen if you upset the prevailing law and order” ’(p.275, emphasis added). However, in spite of the magnitude of police repression that the Sangam had to contend with, it is indeed remarkable that it did not diminish its spirit of resistance. Gita captures this mood of defiance through the following words, ‘We were never to feel guilty or ashamed for being victims, we had to fight back. If we feared mere mortals like the police, our days were numbered’ (p.417, emphasis added).

In principle, the judiciary is expected to play an enabling role by providing a legal stamp to the legitimate claims of the landless. The Sangam, after all, aimed at securing social, economic, and political justice, which coincides precisely with one of the solemn precepts in the preamble of India’s constitution. However, in the light of the fact that the landless in Ibrahimpatnam had to contend with social forces that were antithetical to their interests, it seems unlikely that they would have received the support of the judiciary. What else should one understand by Gita’s observation that ’the courts rarely appreciate the concerns of the poor since [they are] usually composed of people from the dominant castes’ (p.255, emphasis added)? The poor encountered a rock at the very outset of the judicial process because most lawyers happened to be reddys. As she points out, ’The judicial bar ... was almost entirely reddy. All the advocates were linked either directly or through marriage with the prominent reddy landlords [against whom the Sangam was] fighting’ (p.347). In such circumstances, it was indeed improbable that the landless would get justice even when the reddys committed murder. Gita cites the trial of the reddy landowners accused of killing Juttu Narasaiah in April 1989 (as mentioned in the preceding section). In spite of a massive effort on the part of the Sangam to bolster its case, the killers were acquitted, corroborating her woeful general observation that ‘every time [the Sangam] had gone to a criminal court with a private complaint against powerful people, we had failed’ (p.381, emphasis added). Subsequently, she would, in despair, tell any person who approached her for help in his search for justice that, ’If you seek justice from the criminal system in India, you will fail’ (p.382, emphasis added).

There is no better way to conclude this tragic story of the subversion of justice than by quoting Gita’s citation from the Twenty-ninth Report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (1987-90). Zeroing on to precisely the issue of the denial of justice to the landless, the commissioner B. D. Sharma, an exceptionally enlightened bureaucrat, wrote, ’ " If [the entitlement to cultivating rights] is not allowed in our system there is only one conclusion — that the system has allowed an easy device for ignoring the valid rights of the poor. This process may be legal, but it can neither be said to be just nor it is [sic] in consonance with the spirit of our Constitution. The dissonance between law, justice and Constitution is clear in this situation ..." ’ (p.383, emphasis added).

Concluding Remarks

It is perhaps a truism that had I the spine to pursue my youthful desire to serve the poor, the course of my life is likely to have run on lines parallel to those of Gita and others like her. I honestly regret that I did not have the strength of character to put my aspirations into practise. It is true that while pursuing my professional life as a sociologist I carried out field research focussing on marginalized groups in two villages in Bihar. However, this engagement resulted only in writing about class relations, poverty, and the complicity of the Indian state in maintaining structures of caste and class domination. Though my empathy for the poor and the exploited motivated my research, it was worlds apart from actual involvement in their lives to better their existential conditions. Therefore, I can only admire those who possess the capacity to renounce the beaten path and devote themselves to making a difference to the wretched of the earth in our society. I believe that Gita’s Ramaswamy’s contribution to the lives of the dalits with whom she worked embodied this supreme virtue, and the present essay simply documents this phase in her life. It is a tribute to her exceptional political commitment from someone who shared the same vision, but gave up at the very beginning.

[1] Navayana Publishing Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2022 (Pp 427, Price Rs 599, ISBN: 9788194865414)

[2] Jayaprakash Narayan, Towards Total Revolution, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1978, p.78 (emphasis added).

(Author:Anand Chakravarti, Former Professor of Sociology, University of Delhi email:anandchakravarti41[at]gmail.com) 


[1Land Guns Caste Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary - Navayana Publishing Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2022 (Pp 427, Price Rs 599, ISBN: 9788194865414

[2Jayaprakash Narayan, Towards Total Revolution, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1978, p.78 (emphasis added).

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