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In memory of Mumbai’s Red Rose: Roza Deshpande’s death marks the end of an era of stalwarts who empowered the working class | Kumar Ketkar

Friday 25 September 2020

by Kumar Ketkar

A full 91 years of political life.

Her father, the celebrated and renowned communist leader, Comrade Shripad Amrit Dange was arrested in Mumbai by the British Raj in the famous Meerut Conspiracy Case. The year was 1929. Roza was just a few months old. The charge against Comrade Dange was that he and his revolutionary comrades had conspired to overthrow British rule by organising an armed uprising.

Roza met him in jail, with her mother, Ushatai, also a militant fighter.

She was named Roza, after the famous revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, (1871-1919), a Polish Marxist who later became a German citizen and joined the Communist Party. Luxemburg was arrested and executed by the police on charges of organising a workers’ rebellion to overthrow capitalism “once and for all”.

Exactly ten years after Luxumberg’s execution, Comrade Dange was arrested for the second time (the first time was in 1924 for the Cawnpore (Kanpur) Conspiracy, and this time, in 1929, it was for the Meerut Conspiracy). In their late twenties, the comrade and his wife, Ushatai were so inspired by the 1917 Bolshevik Communist Revolution that they decided to name their only daughter after the great Russian revolutionary.
Comrade Dange was released in 1933, when Roza was just four years old. She began to accompany her father to the meetings of the textile workers. Almost as matter of natural course, she joined the communist movement. In her teens, she started working for the Girni Kamgars Union, the mill workers’ radical organisation, even as her father went in and out of jail as part of the freedom movement.

In Mumbai, the only major industry then was textile, employing nearly two lakh workers. The Lalbaug-Parel textile belt was dominated by the Red Flags. Comrade Dange was known as the uncrowned Red King of the working class. Mumbai began to spread out, after the state Maharashtra was formed in 1960 and industrial belts emerged in the Sion-Ghatkopar-Vikhroli region, in Andheri-Borivali and in Thane.

Pharmaceutical units, the chemical industry and mechanical engineering factories operated in those areas. Roza started organising the workers there. She founded the pharmaceutical workers union, and led it for years. The wages and working conditions in the industry were extremely poor. If the workers in that sector enjoy a better life today, it is largely thanks to Roza’s pioneering work.

Comrade Dange won the Lok Sabha seat in 1957 and again in 1967 from Parel-Lalbaug by a landslide, mainly because he led iconic struggles there. Following in his footsteps, Roza contested a Lok Sabha by-election in 1974 and won by a large margin. Because of her strident militancy and fiery speeches, she became a sort of “darling” of Indira Gandhi.

At the time, Indira Gandhi was fighting her own battle in the Congress. The Jaiprakash Narain-led movement had challenged her authority. But Roza and her party — led by her father — chose to back her anyway. That became an extremely contentious issue, but Roza and her father stood by Gandhi’s politics.

One of the founders of the communist party, Comrade Dange had to quit the party in 1978-79 when his stand on Indira was questioned during a convention in Bhatinda. That was when Roza and her husband Vidyadhar (alias Bani Deshpande) took the lead, along with renowned communist and theoretician Mohit Sen, and formed the parallel All India Communist Party. Comrade Dange, in his eighties by then, was the leader of this parallel formation, but Roza was its main coordinator.

Despite its eminent leaders, that party did not attract a large nationwide following. But Roza was an eternal optimist and activist. She kept working.

She was deeply secular and also had an interest in philosophy because of her husband, a Sanskrit scholar. She also wrote a detailed biography of her father, which was released three years ago. She spent the last 12 to 15 years organising hundreds of papers, party documents, press clippings, photographs and correspondence. When she died on Saturday, in the truest sense, she had completed 91 years in political life.

The writer is a former editor and Congress Rajya Sabha MP

(Courtesy Mumbai Mirror)

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