Home > 2017 > In Memory of Comrade Srilatha Swaminathan

Mainstream, VOL LV No 13 New Delhi March 18, 2017

In Memory of Comrade Srilatha Swaminathan

Sunday 19 March 2017

by Kumudini Pati

Unique Persona

Srilatha Swaminathan was not only a comrade, with whom I worked for almost ten long years in the women’s movement led by the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA); she was a dear friend with whom I could discuss literature, art, folk music, food, cultures and even Yoga, Ayurveda and Vipassana. She came from an illustrious family of Madras, and had joined the ML movement through her interaction with the working class, for whom she was doing plays while in Delhi.

Srilatha was the daughter of the famous lawyer and Advocate General of Tamil Nadu, S. Govind Swaminathan, and the granddaughter of veteran Member of Parliament, Ammu Swaminathan. She was the niece of Captain Laxmi Sehgal of the legendary Azad Hind Fauj founded by Subhash Chandra Bose. Her other paternal aunt was Mrinalini Sarabhai, the versatile dancer and choreographer who had founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts. Srilatha had imbibed much of the creativity and versatility of her ancestors and, of course, her political moorings had been indirectly shaped by ‘Ammu Dadi’ and ‘Laxmi Bua’.

I must admit, she was one of the most interesting and lively women I have seen in the ML movement. She was a personality who could attract people cutting across gender and class lines with ease; she could chat and joke with women from rural Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan, could go into polemics with Left leaders from other streams, drive her jeep through the dust-laden roads of rural Rajasthan during elections, sit on the floor to eat bajra roti and hot chilli chutney with the village folk, join the women of Assam in a Bihu dance or do a jig with the adivaasi women of Jharkhand. And, men and women of all ages loved her frankness, her gaiety and humour.

Srilatha in NSD

It must have been her talent in dramatics that made her join the National School of Drama in Delhi, from where she graduated in 1968. Srilatha told me she had taught eminent actors like Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. I happened to see Srilatha’s name appear in connection with an episode in the NSD, which was recounted by Naseer. Confesses Shah, in his book, And then One Day: A Memoir, “One of my last performances in NSD was the lead in a production by Srilatha Swaminathan, of a play called Marjeeva (the Living Dead). It didn’t excite me terribly, but in NSD, we were powerless to turn down any part we were asked to do. When we started moving the action, Srilatha, instead of instructing the actors, asked us all to move the way we felt we should and when we felt we should. I interpreted this trust of the actors’ choices and regard for their abilities as sloppiness on her part and kept insisting on being given a ground plan of the moves; I was incapable of performing without one, lazy devil that I was, could not be bothered coming up with anything on my own. Add to it my natural boorishness and arrogance, and the fact that at that stage, I understood nothing of what an actor is supposed to do but still managed to put up an all-knowing attitude, and you’ve got one noxious mix. With saintly patience, Srilatha kept telling me that I could move when and where I pleased and I kept insisting she tell me when and where I should move. The situation became an impasse and ultimately about a fortnight before the play was to open, she threw in the towel and resignedly worked out my moves because I refused to do so myself. I had not only contributed nothing, I had mistrusted the faith she had in me and had messed up an opportunity to explore this quite novel and what should have been really exciting approach to acting. It was quite a few years before what Srilatha was trying to do sank into my brain, but then I could only apologise to her for my earlier stupidity.”

I noticed during my stay with Srilatha that Naseeruddin would send some monetary contri-bution for the Party’s election campaign in Rajasthan. I had been to the NSD to attend one of the festivals of the institution with Srilatha, when Sri Devendra Raj Ankur was the Director. It was for the first time that I was seeing so many of the NSD alumni greeting her with great reverence. There I came to know that Srilatha had worked with the famous play-wright, Ebrahim Alkazi. It was awe-inspiring to visit the NSD and see the archives with her.

That reminds me, when we had gone for a trade union meeting to Ahmedabad, I had the occasion to visit the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts. Together we had watched a play enacted through shadow puppetry, which I had seen there for the first time. And, Srilatha was a lover of vintage music of the 1960s and 1970s. During tea breaks, when serious debates were on in the Central Committee, she would sing songs sung by John Denver, Jim Reeves, Nina Simone and Elvis Presley. And, her rendering of the Internationale was so full of feeling and energy that I sometimes got nostalgic. Many a time she would recite from memory the poems of Jonathan Swift, Y.B. Yeats and Shelly. And, of course, she was a voracious reader, her favourite authors being Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I also learnt from her that she had many friends among the community of cultural personalities, like Arundhati Nag, Girish Karnad, Suhasini Mulay, the late Chandraleka (dancer), Zohra Segal, Usha Uthup and Anjolie Ela Menon and many more.

Many of our interests were similar—art, literature, music and dance, and, of course, good cuisine, so we exchanged notes and often enjoyed the lighter side of life together. We also tried to use innovative ways of attracting people to the movement, like designing masks for our demonstrations, using songs and methods used in street theatre to attract crowds, etc. We even used a symbolic bonfire in place of Holika Dahan to set afire the many evils that plague women.

Handling the Media

It was, in fact, Srilatha who had introduced me to the Indian Women’s Press Corps, of which I became a member, as one of the correspondents for both Aadhi Zamin and Liberation. Later, we had quite a few press conferences there, especially the joint press conference on the Women’s Reservation Bill. Coming to handling press conferences, Srilatha was confident and witty; she could be polite but often sarcastic if a journalist tried to belittle the initiatives of the Left-led organisations, as was quite common in Delhi. So I would give her the mike, and she would make sincere efforts to speak in good Hindi; so that the Hindi mediapersons could follow the nuances of what was being said. And, she would plan everything meticulously, down to the last detail—the press invitation, the banner that would be put up, the press releases in Hindi and English, and the tea and snacks.

She did not depend on offices, as she had so many friends in Delhi that we could use any house or computer for our work, and take print-outs in a cyber café. I admired her for her Hindi typing, which was so perfect that we never had to depend on others for preparing our press releases; in fact after every programme we would go to the offices of all the newspapers and personally deliver the press release at the reporting desks. In the process, I got acquainted with many women journalists, who were quite sympathetic to our cause—Mrinal Pande, Usha Rai, Gargi Parsai, to name a few.

Do it Yourself

I was so greatly inspired with Srilatha’s ‘do-it- yourself’ policy, that I went on to learn Hindi typing myself. And, I must say, it has stood me in good stead till today. Srilatha was never deterred by the fact that she was a woman.

I remember how both of us had set out on a poll campaign in some areas of Rajasthan. Suddenly, the jeep that Srilatha was driving had a flat tyre and could go no further. We were in a desolate area, with no petrol pump or garage in sight. I was worried as those were not the times of mobile phones. Srilatha got down and took out a jack. She hiked the jack to raise the tyre, and began to open the nuts so as to remove the punctured tyre. I was a bit stunned to see her rolling the tyre out and placing it near the roadside. It seems that the stepney was also punctured, and there was no way out, so Srilatha stood on the middle of the road and waved to a truck; she got the driver to help her lift the tyre onto the truck and plonked herself beside the driver, saying “chalo kisi mechanic ke paas, tyre theek karwana hai”, and he dare not refuse! Within half-an-hour she was back and fixing the tyre.

Srilatha was extremely punctual, professional and independent. She never asked help for things she could learn to do, and this lesson I can never forget: “If you are running a women’s organisation, you should be able to do everything yourself, including earning money. The moment you display your weaknesses, you can be taken for a ride.” She never complained... till the last day of her life.

Srilatha also loved children and she would always remember to wish the children of Party families on birthdays or buy books and chocolates for them.

Work in Rural Rajasthan, the IPF and the Women’s Movement

Srilatha was inducted into the CPI-ML (Liberation in the early 1990s and began building the Party structure in Rajasthan with the help of her partner, Comrade Mahendra Choudhary, who belonged to Jhunjhunu. She told me how theirs was a love marriage and he had been working in the underground Party of Kanu Sanyal before they met. She became a member of the Central Committee soon because she felt that the work in Rajasthan would develop only if the leaders had a national perspective. And, indeed, she was proved right. The only thing that many comrades in the Party often feared was Srilata’s mercurial temperament and instant bouts of temper, which nobody could control. In her own words, she would blow her top like steam pushing up a cooker whistle, but her anger would subside within minutes and she would hold no grudge against comrades working with her.

When I first met Srilatha as a political activist, she had joined the Indian People’s Front, which was the open, electoral front built by the CPI-ML. She had been active as the President of the Rajasthan Kisan Sangathan. She was very open about the fact that her husband, who was also a whole-time worker in the Rajasthan Kisan Sangathan was not very enthusiastic about joining the Front immediately. But she was patient and asked the Party leadership to give ample time for him to understand.

In the beginning, I was a bit surprised to see a woman coming from an upper middle-class background leading an organisation of kisans. Srilatha told me she was quite comfortable working with them, but it had taken a long time for her to change their attitude towards women, even towards women in the leadership. In one of the election meetings in Jhunjhunu, I saw women coming and sitting with one yard-long veils covering their heads. They sat at a distance, not on the same carpet as the men. Although this was something alien for a woman coming from her background, Srilatha had accepted it and she felt it wasn’t any use giving a lecture to them as to why they should shun the veil and uncover their faces. They had been born and brought up in that culture and had been following it through generations; it was not their fault. Maybe, they felt more comfortable that way in the village setting, and would change things if they needed, in their own way, she said.

So she went on to speak onissues like MSP, water crisis, cheaper inputs and electricity. She also spoke about the loot of the multinationals who were into agro-business, about loan waivers during times of farmers’ distress, against genetically modified seeds and made a demand for civic amenities in the villages. I thought her accent was anglicised and alien to the local people. I even told her so, but people seemed to understand what she said. They clapped and cheered; they laughed at times and sometimes fell silent or became serious.

For the first time I had heard the word “dakin” from her; she told me women were branded witches or dakins in the village and were ostracised. They could even be stripped, raped and killed. There was the case of an adivaasi woman, Dhaapu Bai, in Tonk district who had been brutally sexually assaulted with a broken bottle by eight musclemen, because Dhaapu’s husband was brewing liquor locally, affecting the sales of liquor contractors. We had organised a protest demonstration in Jaipur under the banner of the Rajasthan Mahila Sangathan. After the Bhanwari case, there were several other cases of violence on women—the horrific gang rape of a girl in the J.C. Bose Hostel and the case of rape by a Jain Monk, to name a few.

Later, Srilatha had organised a State-level seminar on the issue of violence against women. PUCL had also participated, and the J.C. Bose Hostel rape was discussed in detail. It was here that the need for a comprehensive law against all kinds of violence on women was felt. It was planned that this law would be drafted by the AIPWA with the help of lawyers and women activists. In Rajasthan, it was not easy convincing the men. In some Party households, Srilatha would try to convince the men to change their attitude towards their wives, sisters and daughters. She would jokingly ask, “Does it benefit you in any way if the women remain in purdah? Are you afraid of other men gazing at your women? Would it not be better, then, to have the men cover their eyes, when women pass by?”

As the President of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, Srilatha had a Marxist approach on the women’s question and wanted the Party to take up issues of women instead of leaving everything to the women’s organi-sation. ‘When we women are working in the Party, the men should try to understand and be sensitive to problems of women,’ she felt, that is, the women’s question is very much a political question. She played a key role in raising the profile of the newly established AIPWA to the stature of a national women’s organisation, giving the Left-led women’s movement a relatively autonomous character and keeping alive its movemental character by constantly energising the women’s organisations at the grassroots level, for which she used to visit many States and interact with women in the local units closely. During that period, she worked tirelessly, visiting different States to ensure that at least in 10 States there would be some practical initiative by the local unit of the women’s organisation once in every few months, and that there were at least three-to-four national programmes in Delhi every year. She personally ensured that struggling women from other streams joined these AIPWA initiatives. Srilatha remained very conscious that the organisation was live and did not get reduced to a sign-board organisation with only a few ornamental leaders, as many tend to become. She gave her best to sustain dynamic practical political initiatives at all levels. And, she was all for the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill—in fact many campaigns were conducted on the issue all over India. The other issue the AIPWA took up for a series of workshops in different districts, was the impact of globali-sation and communalism on women. A successful workshop on ‘Problems of Women Workers’ was held under her leadership in Jharkhand and another on ‘Tasks for the Women’s Movement and Organisation Building’ was held at Patna.

In all the organisational meetings, Srilatha would insist on beginning the discussion with the international and national situations and their impact on the women’s movement. And it did help in broadening our understanding. She had a great role in helping to bring out and sustain the magazines of the organisation, Aadhi Zameen and Women’s Voice, as she was conscien-tiously involved in the collection of hundreds of subscriptions from women belonging to other organisations and States.

Trade Union, human rights and International Department

Srilatha was an active member and leader in the AICCTU, and her role was not restricted to Rajasthan. She would help in co-ordinating with leaders in other States and help them through her network of legal experts and senior lawyers in Delhi.

She was also part of Central delegations meeting the Labour Minister. I too had accom-panied her in joint delegations to the Human Rights Commission or the Home Minister on issues like army atrocities in Assam and the AFSPA, police terror in areas of Bihar, rape and killings in areas of the revolutionary Left movement in Jharkhand, and State repression in Singur and Nandigram.

She built a strong network with leaders of the Left in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, Australia, Sweden, Canada etc. and helped to get women delegates from these countries for the AIPWA Conference in Delhi.

Faith in Alternative Therapies

Srilatha was able to relate with women of all ages; so she talked to my mother about her interest in reading and her faith in alternative therapies, when she visited Allahabad. She also enjoyed ‘neem pakora’ that was a favourite in our house. I had also learnt how to make karelas with tamrind paste from her. I remember Srilatha telling me that many poor tribal people in the villages were superstitious but they were more sensible regarding issues related to healthcare, so she had to speak to them in a different language altogether—they were afraid of allopathic medicines, so local village doctors used herbs to treat them.

It was through her interactions with them that Srilatha had learnt a lot about natural cures for common ailments, and she used them successfully in the course of her work in the countryside. It was in this context that she mentioned her experiment with auto urine therapy. She told me how she had learnt the basics in Banswada district, among the Bhil adivasis and had later got several books on the subject from Sri Morarji Desai. The treatment had helped her and with it she had also cured her oedema and sores caused by failing kidneys. I once had a long discussion with her and she was of the strong opinion that allopathic drugs provided symptomatic treatment but led to several side-effects in the long run. Moreover, the pharmaceutical industry was into a lot of profit-making, caring little about the long-term impact on patients; also, they were extremely costly and unaffordable. Her article ‘My Incredible Recovery Story’ is available on http://detox.net.au/detox/urine-therapy/my-incredible-recovery-story/ and she has shared it for the benefit of patients suffering from incurable ailments.

Srilatha was always open to new ideas, and at the same time, was a disciplined Communist. These are rare qualities in comrades with a middle- or upper middle-class upbringing. I am fortunate to have shared a golden decade of activism with her and will cherish her memory as a dear friend and committed comrade-in-arms.

The author is a freelance journalist and independent researcher in women’s studies. She is also a former General Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), and was a leader of the CPI-ML (Liberation).