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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 10, March 9, 2024

The formative years of a communist organiser | Joydip Ghosal

Saturday 9 March 2024



An Education for Rita
A Memoir 1975-1985

by Brinda Karat

Leftword, January 2024

(Paperback) ISBN 978-93-92018-21-3

Brinda Karat, a former member of Rajya Sabha is one of the founders of All India Democratic Women’s Association. A member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India( Marxist) she penned down a memoir titled An Education for Rita, A Memoir 1975-1985. She dedicated the memoir to her comrades in the Kapda Mazdoor Lal Jhanda Union and Ashoka and Kalindi.

This book transports us to an unknown Delhi of yesteryears. Tumultuous events and political upheaval marked that decade. As a leading communist organiser she traversed through the meandering path of politics organising mill workers and women. This book helps us to peek into the intricate knot of emergency years, its repercussions and people’s steadfast fight against its atrocities. The period of emergency not only destroyed democratic rights and civil rights. It was also a targeted and concerted assault on the working class. According to the author it led to dismantling of the regulations which were seen as constraints to the thriving of no-holds-barred capitalism. It eliminated the basic right to unionise, to strike and protect. It was a blessing to capitalists and snatched away workers’ hard-won rights.

In a meeting in Kamla Nagar in north Delhi with the workers from Birla Cotton Textile Mill Brinda was asked to take a new name. This way Rita was born , a crusader for rights of the workers who fought against the savagery of ruling class.

In this book she provided a detailed description of her upbringing, how she was drawn towards communist ideals. She had given up her job in Air India’s London office in 1970. Her three years in London had upturned her life. She had a run – in with the management. Brinda demanded that Indian airline should allow their staffs to wear the national dress. Defying all odds she continued to wear saree. Bobby Kooka, the managing director wrote to her boss, a Scot agreeing to her demand. Through that protest she manifested her spirit of insubordination and established her rights.

During her London stint she joined band of marchers at the famous Grosvenor Square protest. The national liberation struggle of Vietnam greatly inspired her. That the small nation fought against the might of a powerful imperialist country drew her earnest admiration. Brinda started reading Marxist literature. To the Finland station by Edmund Wilson which traced the historical trajectory of socialist movement left a deep impression upon her. Student activist Suneet Chopra gifted her that book.

The ongoing incidents and political turmoil drew the young lady to West Bengal . From mid -1968 to 1969 she felt churning of thoughts inside her . She started feeling caged by jobs. The massive scale of people’s movement and fight for food and land strengthened Brinda’s resolve to stand beside the struggle.

In the chapter titled Family Ties she gave a detailed description of her family background. Her grandmother was the daughter of Hem Chandra Malik, a valiant fighter against the British. Hem Chandra and his nephew Subodh Malik were supporters of Anushilan Samiti. Her mother was also a supporter of Subhas Chandra Bose.

Her parents got married in 1939 when marriage across caste and community lines were rather unusual. Brinda had an eclectic upbringing.

When she decided to join the party her class origin was the greatest disadvantage in her effort to join the party. Party faced severe repression in West Bengal at that time. The documents of Madurai party congress in 1972 cited that 650 activists were assassinated in West Bengal during the preceding three years. She worked in university unit of the party. Sudarshan Ray Choudhury was the leader who guided her. She earned her party membership with a recommendation from the student branch in 1971. In this book she unequivocally declared that she was proud that she earned her membership during the tumultuous period of party’s history. She believed her work in Calcutta laid the foundation of her future work. But her desire was to do trade union work. P Sundarayya suggested her to shift to Delhi. During the normal times it would not have been possible. But during the emergency when open trade union activity was banned she got the opportunity. She got married with Prakash Karat within six months of her shift to Delhi. They choose 7 th November, the anniversary of Russian revolution as their wedding day. She did trade union work in Delhi’s textile mills. As soon as the owners got wind of unionising the workers got summarily retrenched. So workers had to improvise ways to organise. In labour conciliation process any registered union had the right to present workers. CITU affiliated General Mazdoor Lal Jhanda Union began representing workers. The main agenda of their work was to sharpen the class struggle against capitalist exploitation while organising the workers on their day-to-day demands. She noticed traditional working class politics had been weakened. As a result identity-based, sectarian , divisive politics rose. Communal politics had made deep inroads into the working classes.

According to her caste and communal politics were present in earlier times but there were countervailing mobilisation and ideologies. In 1976 when eviction drive started in Delhi it was not targeting any citizen on the basis of their religion . In contrast today bulldozer and eviction attack the minority community in a blatantly communal manner. In 1976 she fought again the demolition drive in Delhi. Under Sanjay Gandhi’s leadership it was presided over by Jagmohan. Decades later the poor Muslim inhabitants of Jahangirpuri faced the wrath of bulldozer. This time it was orchestrated by BJP government. They did not pay any heed to Supreme Court order. We saw the photo where she stood before bulldozer demolishing the homes and shops of poor Muslims in violation of Supreme Court order. During emergency years she took initiative to organize women. She unequivocally states that though there was political consciousness among the working class but the role of women in their families remained behind the curtain. In upscale apartments violence against women was often hushed up and “bruises are concealed with makeup and dark sun glasses to keep up the pretence of civilised elite culture.” In working class bastis there were no secrets.

Domestic violence went hand to hand with alcohol. She started organising women during emergency years. That unstructured meetings gave them spaces for speaking up and freewheeling discussion. Working class women who joined the left movement played defining roles in bringing the other poorer women into the movement.At that time many SFI activists were drawn towards the Party. D.P Tripathi, Ashoklata Jain , Prabir Purkayastha were prominent student leaders. The legendary leader of Telengana armed uprising Major Jaipal Singh left a deep impression upon her.

During the post–emergency years there was a palpable sense of optimism and she got involved in organising women’s movement demanding their rights. Women’s movement played a pivotal part in creating an environment for women’s participation in public life. Many women activists broke the restrains and began expressing their opinion. Her involvement with Janwadi Mahila Samiti (JMS), the Delhi unit of later day AIDWA gave her a scope to embark on a journey of discovery and learning. It led to a “slow shifting of my perspective towards understanding the multiple dimensions of women’s exploitation and oppression in a capitalist society.” It was because of their initiative and persistent effort that a large group of them from north Delhi participated in the historic United March on International Women’s day in 1980 against the Supreme Court judgement in the Mathura rape case.

Building area-wise network they held numerous meetings across Delhi and organised regular classes on wide range of issues like the reasons for women’s oppression and economic disparity, the meaning of women’s emancipation. They raised their voices against the horrific brutalities meted out to Rameeza Bee. It had also became clear that law enforcement agencies deliberately concealed the caste dimensions of sexual assault against women and court rarely intervened.

From January 1984 onwards in various committee meetings reports started pouring in about the increase in anti – Sikh propaganda and feelings fuelled by Hindu bigots. Brinda and her comrades held several meetings and on the eve of second conference of Janabadi Mahila Samiti the ethos of communal harmony was highlighted. They tried to explain the nefarious design of Sikh extremists and Hindu communal forces. Both forces were trying to reap dividend from the violence in Punjab. This book contains a detailed description of the violence in the aftermath of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the Party’s valiant effort to uphold the spirit of harmony and peace. She focused that that horrific experience brought home to us the dangers of underestimating communal forces. In several fact-finding reports the role of ruling dispensation and the connivance of state and law enforcement agencies with the perpetrators of mayhem were well documented. After perusal of the affidavits the Jain – Aggarwal committee recommended the registration of FIRs against RSS and BJP leaders. 14 FIRs were lodged against 49 of their leaders. “One of them, Ram Kumar Jain, had been the election agent of Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1980.”

She deeply appreciated the culture prevalent in the Party in Delhi and in her later life she found that often her own identity and several roles she played as activist and organiser were all conflated with her being Prakash‘s wife. But in her Delhi stint she as a Party activist did not have to deal with this additional scrutiny.

In the decades that have followed her responsibilities in the movement had taken her in different directions but she made no bones about the fact that the calling of workers to join the shift, sound of siren remained as a metaphor for all her leaning and clarion call to action.

Her interview with Karan Thapar in The Wire regarding this book was also very insightful. This book is not only a memoir of her formative years it is also a succinct commentary on contemporary political events. Anyone who wants to understand the trajectory of events and their unfolding and impact on Indian politics in 1970’s and 80’s should read this book.

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