The occasional series on South Asian political life and public culture continues with Roshan Shahani’s review of Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy (eds. Anand Teltumde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books 2012). Dr. Roshan Shahani retired as reader and head of the Department of English at Jai Hind College, University of Bombay, where she taught for thirty-nine years. She serves as a trustee for SPARROW, the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women. A slightly different version of the review was first published in the SPARROW July 2013 bulletin.
One has almost begun to dread the coming of March 8 for International Women’s Day has become a celebration by, of, and for celebrities. However, “far from the unseeing eyes of the media, far from the flash and glitter of TV cameras,” March 8 has been celebrated differently. Anuradha Ghandhy–a senior Maoist activist, whose untimely death in 2008 has been mourned by family, friends, fellow activists, and, of course, the tribals she worked with—-takes us “deep into the forests and plains of central India, to the backward regions of Andhra Pradesh and up in the hills among tribals,” where celebrating March 8 meant women and children marching through villages in Bastar and other remote regions to demand schooling, blocking roads to protest against innumerable rape cases, and speaking out against rampant economic exploitation. If there have been changes wrought in these regions, it has been in large measure thanks to the ideology and activism of men and women like Anuradha, often hunted down as Maoist-terrorists.
Among the articles included in this anthology, “The Revolutionary Women’s Movement in India” foregrounds the peasant movements in the tribal regions of central Bihar, Andhra, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra. One of the first issues that the movements confronted was the exercise of feudal privileges over the wives and daughters of field laborers, especially Dalits. The movements also played a major role in taking up the issue of wages and the economic exploitation of laborers. Women plowed the land, cut the harvest, toiled at home, but were not permitted even to step onto the threshing floor or the granary. In every sense of the term, women could not reap the harvest of their hard labor. Their participation in traditional rituals was restricted, so was their role in community decision-making matters. Their sexual exploitation by contractors, forest officials, and the police was, of course, notoriously well known. What perhaps was not as well known was Anuradha’s relentless work in these regions, especially among the Gond tribes. In the late 1990s, and throughout the famine of 1997, this revolutionary was working with the affected and was deeply involved with the organization, KAMS ( Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan) and with the women in the guerrilla detachments. Many young girls, as she mentions, left the relative safety of home and family to join the guerrilla movement. She mentions the martyred deaths of women whose names we would never have known—-“there was Rathakka, the housewife from AP who died at the sentry post while defending her comrades, Emashwari …who died at her post during a raid on a police station, young Raje who died of a snakebite, Swaroopa who died giving a heroic fight in an encounter.”
And then there was Anuradha.
A committed Maoist-Leninist, Anuradha was nevertheless aware of the anomalies within the revolutionary movement. She admitted to the fact that women were under patriarchal constraints within the movement and therefore their exploitation was double-fold; thus the need to create the consciousness that “women need revolution and the revolution needs women.” Contained within the selection of essays is one devoted to the expressions of the Bastar women of their woes as well as their fighting spirit that beckons them to throw off their shackles.
You give birth to girls and boys, but your name is nowhere sister,
The store is full of paddy, but girls cannot get it sister.
At a tender age they are married sister,
If she says she won’t go, they beat her sister….
But then a cry rents the air….
The land and sky are equal, women and men are equal
The red flower, sister, is flowering
Let us follow the path of the red flower and struggle.
I will go forward toward a red dawn
Most of us feel uncomfortable at the very mention of terms like ‘Naxalite,’ ‘Maoist,’ ‘guerrilla tactics’–they conjure up scenes of violence and of untold horror. In this context I would like to mention my experience of teaching Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi. My students reacted to the violence in the short story because Dopdi, the Naxal tribal, meets violence with violence, wherein the author refuses to arouse pity as much as she does terror. The narrative foregrounds the question of who is the perpetrator of the violence. In such narratives, fictional or real, the traditional helpless victim’s metamorphosis into an avenging figure must be viewed as an act not only of courage but of a political commitment which a pacifist attitude would deem violent. Women like Anuradha have followed the trail of tribals like Dopdi; such a person could never have remained a liberal activist, working within the framework of the law. Further, her work, by which I mean her activism as much as her writing (which stems from and is intrinsically linked to her activism) radically questions what constitutes violence and what constitutes the law.
Hence Anuradha’s assertion, in the wake of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, that the Indian state was “one of the greatest perpetrators of violence against women.” The essay, “Changes in the Rape Law” (March 2003) points to this irony. The essay opens with the callous statement of a prominent politician: “there’s nothing new about women being raped. It’s been happening for years.” The individual politician’s statement, made in Parliament in the wake of the Gujarat carnage represents the voice of the state machinery; significantly, the same politician, in another context, had thundered (also in Parliament) that a rapist must be shot dead.
The changes in the rape law that Anuradha advocates are relevant not just in the aftermath of recent happenings. These changes are relevant because rape “has been happening for years” and also because rape has been accepted for years especially in war zones and in tribal territories, through mythical, historical, and contemporary times. Against populist notions of crime and punishment and the awarding of the death penalty, Anuradha had pointed out that the higher the punishment awarded, the fewer would be the cases of conviction. She also voiced the apprehension that there would be greater chances of the rape victim being murdered, since the penalty for both crimes was death. A more complex reason, she was quick to point out, was that linking the act of rape with the act of murder would reinforce the feudal view that a woman raped was as good as dead–that she had now nothing to live for. A decade has gone by since she wrote this piece, speaking vehemently for attitudinal changes on part of sections of the state, the judiciary, the armed and police forces, the media and the mindset of the public. The law would be purely cosmetic unless there was “a revolutionary change in society and people’s thinking.” One wonders how many more decades will pass us by before such a change might come.
The essay, “Fascism, Fundamentalism and Patriarchy,” published in the aftermath of the Gujarat violence of 2002 is, similarly, a savage indictment of the rise of violence and patriarchal forces in Gujarat in the global context of neoliberal policies. It looks at the need for strengthening democratic forces in society as a way of breaking the feudal mindset that underpins patriarchy, implicit in disturbing instances of violence.
One agrees with the editors that the essay, “Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement”, originally published in booklet form (March 2004), moves beyond textbook information about the histories of the women’s movements in the West as well as in India, although even at that level it is a comprehensive analysis of the various movements. As always, Anuradha’s theoretical understanding is grounded in ideological activism. As Arundhati Roy suggests in her foreword to the book, it would seem as though Anuradha as writer was seeking the path that she felt she must follow as activist, rejecting what to her seemed detrimental to a revolutionary stance. “Anuradha tries to tell us (and herself) why she became a Marxist-Leninist and not a liberal activist, or a radical feminist, or an eco-feminist or an Ambedkarite.” Anuradha argues against an autonomous women’s movement because patriarchy could not be delinked from capitalism, imperialism and feudalism all of which were, in fact, reproducing patriarchal structures. The bourgeois approach also segregated the peasantry and working class women from the privileged middle classes.
“Scripting the Change” seems a very appropriate title for the assorted collection of Anuradha’s writings. She has been responsible, however, not only for writing passionately about the need for change. Both she and Kobad Ghandhy, and many others whose names might forever remain hidden from the pages of history, have been responsible for changing people’s lives and attitudes; they have, as it were, “changed the script.”
Anuradha followed “the path of the red flower…towards a red dawn.” It was not an easy path physically, intellectually, or emotionally, through deep jungles and impenetrable forests, far away from the accustomed comforts and easy familiarity of our lives. “She was different,” says Arundati Roy, echoing the voices of all who knew her. And yet, this revolutionary was never distant or unapproachable. To end on a personal note–even more than admiration, I felt and still feel deep affection for Anu. The face that appears before me is exactly like the photograph on the back cover of the book: a beaming smile, twinkling eyes behind large glasses, one long plait (which I remember my children used to love to unravel.) She was a good friend, a warm host, a welcome visitor, and a helpful neighbor—one whom you could approach, as you could Kobad, even in the middle of the darkest and rainiest of nights, as I had once done, and be sure that help was near at hand. Our paths have diverged—both of them have taken the one less traveled and that has made all the difference.