“Communists must be the foremost […] but they are not the only fighters for democratic change”: Anuradha Ghandy’s Lasting Legacy

Anuradha Ghandy’s political career started in 1972 when she was a student at Elphinstone College in Bombay where she came in contact with the student organization called the Progressive Youth Movement or PROYOM, which was inspired by the ongoing Naxalite movement. She became one of its active members and later one of its leaders. In 1982, she shifted bases from Bombay to Nagpur in response to the growing unrest amongst the mill workers there and the adjoining Gadchiroli district. Ghandy wrote extensively and constantly on a host of socio-economic and cultural issues in various periodicals. In her writings, one sees the enmeshing of the superstructure and the base within the cultural realm. Her writings combine Marxist theory, revolution, and social activism with culture in order to wield culture as a tool of dissent and agency, and see culture as its own movement supplementing, and being supplemented by, its political and economic contexts. When talking about culture as its own movement, one is not suggesting it as being divorced from socio-political and economic struggles, but rather highlighting how the cultural space bolsters and is in turn bolstered by these other spaces. In fact, in her essay, “Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement,” Ghandy forcefully opposes the neoliberal and postmodern treatment of culture as the sole site of resistance, and calls it an anarchist and disorganised reaction against a highly organised capitalist system and its state – one that is doomed to fail.

Important among Ghandy’s works are her documentations of the struggles of the mill workers in Nagpur and Bombay during the 1980s, and her vehement critique of the censoring of the working class literary culture like the Dalit literary movement and the small magazines by the Maharashtra government. Throughout these works there is constant considering, questioning, and revising of the relationship between revolution and democracy, and how they are interconnected with culture, which then allows us to read proletariat, Dalit, and feminist literature in a more sensitised and meticulous manner. In Ghandy’s writings, one sees the astuteness with which she comments on crucial theoretical issues within Indian Marxism and provides concrete analysis of the specific features of the society that have complicated class struggle in India. Hiren Gohain while reviewing her work opines that Ghandy’s writings are indicative of “a practice oriented attention to both historical heritage (and burden) of Indian society and the major bourgeois intellectual and ideological currents that have emerged in contemporary discourse about society and the state, in the face of an acute consciousness of looming crisis in the given social political order.” (35-36) 

In “Cotton Flower… the Best Flower!…?” (1985), Ghandy documents the struggle of the cotton farmers in Maharashtra to procure fair pricing for their crop. Her essay reflects a conspicuously Marxist synthesis of political economy, sociological understanding, and cognisance of history when relating the plight of a below-poverty-line farmer. In “A Pyrrhic victory: Government Take-Over of Empress Mills” (1988), one sees the laying bare of the brutal lack of consideration towards the livelihoods of the common people in corporate-government alliances while also warning against the idealisation of the idea of a liberal, modern, progressive society free from evils like unemployment, hunger, poverty, etc. Inversely, in another essay titled, “Inchampalli-Bhopalapatnam Revisited” (1986), Ghandy also warns against the romanticisation of the idea of reverting to a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial society as a peaceful and conflict-free way of life, reminding us of the oppression and human degradation such a society inflicted on its people. The essay, “Small Magazines: A Significant Expression of People’s Culture” (1982) strongly critiques the gagging of the subaltern literary culture like the Dalit literary movement and the small magazines by the Maharashtra government.

Her other significant contribution has been the insertion of the caste question in the Indian Marxist rhetoric. Her pioneering essays, “Caste Question in India” (mid-1990s, unpublished) and “The Caste Question Returns” (1988) provide an incisive analysis of the relationship between the caste system and the existing relations of production within the Indian society thus shifting the caste question from the superstructure to the economic base. (Ghandy 76) She examines the roots of the caste question and the problems it poses to contemporary India (also a question hitherto ignored tenaciously by the Indian Left), and is spot on in relating it to feudalism and the consolidation of class in India.

One of Ghandy’s inquiries into the early debates about the caste question within Indian Marxist politics, in addition to the actual addressing of the question itself, is the acknowledgment that casteism inhabits both the base and the superstructure. She substantiates this claim by explaining how the beginnings of the caste system lay in the period of transition from a simple tribal economy to a surplus-extracting agricultural economy, in the subjugation of the tribal communities through wars and their forcible assimilation into the village culture. The caste system thus evolved along with the growth of an exploitative agricultural economy wherein the class of people that controlled the state and the land needed caste to keep the masses enslaved. (86) The development of elaborate rituals and religious philosophy embedded and solidified the caste system within the psyche of the society. Hinting at a possible fetishisation of caste, Ghandy observes that “the uninterrupted history of caste over thousands of years have [sic] given it a resilience and autonomy of its own, which has its own impact holding back the process of change.” (87) 


British colonialism, Ghandy continues, led to a growth in capitalist relations, which, instead of uprooting the old feudal structure and replacing it with capitalist means and relationships of production, only disturbed it and transformed the society into a semi-feudal one. Capitalism in India thus grew along with and integrated itself into the pre-capitalist trappings of colonial India. Modernity, a typical side-effect of capitalism in Europe, then, did not come to India as a revolutionising force that could truly democratise the society and its values, but rather merged with the outdated and conservative outlook of the caste Hindu society. This is where, according to Ghandy, left wing parties have failed the country. The Indian Left did not view the agrarian struggle as anti-feudal and so, did not see the significance of attacking the caste system as part of their struggle. Additionally, because of their mechanical linking of the base and the superstructure, they believed that the common economic struggle will do away with the caste system. “Ideologically, they replaced dialectical materialism with mechanical materialism.” (85) The CPI (ML), Ghandy observes was able to pinpoint semi-feudalism as the main target of revolutionising the society, which helped them establish a wide base amongst the rural Dalit and tribal communities, but they too fell prey to social dogma around the caste system and eventually became mechanical as well. 

Anuradha Ghandy’s other significant contribution has been her understanding of feminism and its role in Indian communism. Her essay, “Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement,” (2006) was written when she was underground and working closely with the adivasi women in the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (KAMS) (Revolutionary Adivasi Women’s Organization) in Bastar and Maharashtra. The essay argues for a cohesive and integrated women’s movement to fight the triple threat of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy with greater force. (Ghandy 199) Her theorisation not only helps us understand the place of gender in the culture of communism, but also the impact and place of communism in Indian feminist cultures.

In “Philosophical Trends,” Ghandy analyses the feminist movements that have taken place over the years originating primarily in the advanced capitalist countries in Europe and North America, and exposes the theoretical gaps within them. Similar to her analysis of the caste question, she makes the argument that feminists need to have a proper understanding of the role of capitalism and feudalism in the exploitation and oppression of women. More importantly, she suggests that patriarchy is not a class-neutral institution, but has been working in collusion with feudalism and capitalism to further the discriminatory and oppressive character of all three. Failure to understand this is what has failed the feminist endeavour thus far. Without devising a way to fight the triple threat of feudalism, capitalism, and patriarchy, true democracy cannot be established. 

Ghandy then moves on to the history of feminist struggle in India where she begins with movements inspired by the coming of liberal reformist thought in British India. She critiques these for being purely upper-caste and upper-class movements since their main focus was on rituals like sati, widow remarriage, etc. However, Ghandy points out that there did exist parallel leftist movements led by the likes of Savitribai Phule, Jotiba Phule, Tarabai Shinde, Pandita Ramabai, Muthulaxmi Reddy, Ramabai Ranade, and others that focused on the struggles of women of the working class and oppressed castes. Following the West, things got complicated post the 1970s in India with the advent of neoliberal capitalism, the Naxalite movement, the emergence of socialist and revisionist parties like the CPI and the CPM, etc. She reveals how different political parties have been using the woman question for their own political gain, which leads her to the conclusion that the “sisterhood of women cannot form the basis of women’s movement for democracy.” (202) Although the urban liberal women leaders oppose such reactionary politics, their opposition to the use of force under any circumstance as a means of overthrowing class rule will lead to a plateauing of the movement and its eventual failure. More importantly, such a stance deprives them of the solidarity of the militant mass movements in different parts of the country. In “Anuradha Ghandy; A Brief Life Sketch of a Great Revolutionary with a Hurricane Smile,” Amit Bhattacharyya says that this is the most significant part of her argument – “that the strategy of bourgeois feminism is not to unite women with the working class and peasantry and fight the system unitedly, but rather form small women’s groups advocating lifestyle changes within the system.” Ghandy has a similar critique of the socialist feminists who, she claims, “have left this question [of integrating with and bringing about a revolution] question aside, in a sense left it to the very revisionist and revolutionary parties whom they criticize. Hence their entire orientation is reformist” (194).

Within all these essays one is faced with the question of whether or not an armed struggle is the only viable path towards an all-encompassing Indian revolution. Ghandy is correct in observing that parliamentary politics has been of little help of lasting worth in addressing the basic problems of the working masses of the country, and there is a very great danger of fascist mobilisation out of disillusionment (“Practical Socialism” 453). Hence the urgent need for alternative non-utopian strategies that do not lead to “momentary palliatives or slow demoralisation.” Ghandy’s preferred alternative is a revolutionary women’s movement as part of a Marxist mobilisation of the broad masses for the overthrow of the state, the ruling class, and the ruling castes. Women’s movements need to be an integral part of the revolutionary forces, not only making women equal participants with men, but also sharing the leadership of these forces with men. “The struggle for women’s liberation cannot be successful in isolation from the struggle to overthrow the imperialist system itself.” (Ghandy 199) Ghandy thus talks about the bringing about of a more sustained understanding of the democratisation of the society. 

Democratisation was to be achieved through a “thorough revolutionisation of all economic, political and social relations.” In a highly significant concession as a communist, Ghandy suggests that though communists must be the foremost fighters for the democratic revolution in the country, they need not be, and are not, the only fighters for democratic change (emphasis added) (83). She accepts that the revolution that is to take place in India must be democratic, and not socialist, and so, must be inclusive of fighters of democracy coming from non-communist ideologies and movements especially those emanating from the oppression of caste and gender. Hiren Gohain’s analysis becomes important here as he opines that the term “revolutionary” cannot serve as an umbrella term for contexts that actually require more patient enquiry and innovative thought (Gohain 35). Communists need to understand these movements and ideologies, participate in them, and link them to the overall democratic reorganisation of society through the seizure of state power.

In all of Ghandy’s work, one sees a genuine effort to extract theory from the domain of the intellectual bourgeoisie and make it available to the masses. As Terry Eagleton says, “Theory… does not emerge at just any historical moment; it comes into being when it is both possible and necessary, when the traditional rationales for a social or intellectual practice have broken down and new forms of legitimization for it are needed” (90). Ghandy strives towards a mature application of basic theoretical ideas of revolution and dissent by way of releasing creative energies of the working people for productive innovations and social reform in hopes of acquiring the agency and ability to manifest the most sincere and accurate effects of capitalism’s deviously protean framework, and manipulate these effects for the deployment of subversive and revolutionary tactics so as to achieve a truly democratic society.

Works Cited


Bhattacharyya, Amit. “Anuradha Ghandy; A Brief Life Sketch of a Great Revolutionary with a Hurricane Smile.” Asian Speaks, 12 April 2020, http://asianspeaks.com/anuradha- ghandy-a-brief-life-sketch-of-a-great-revolutionary-with-a-hurricane-smile/.


Eagleton, Terry. The Function of Criticism. Verso, 2005.


Ghandy, Anuradha. “Small Magazines: A Significant Expression of People’s Culture.” (1982) Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy. Edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books, 2011, pp. 433–7. 


Ghandy, Anuradha. “Practical Socialism: Not Socialism but Pure Fascism.” (1984) Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy. Edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books, 2011, pp. 451–6. 


Ghandy, Anuradha. “Cotton Flower … the Best Flower! … ?” (1985) Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy. Edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books, 2011, pp. 443–50. 


Ghandy, Anuradha. “Inchampalli-Bhopalapatnam Revisited.” (1986) Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy. Edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books, 2011, pp. 351–62.


Ghandy, Anuradha. “A Pyrrhic victory: Government Take-Over of Empress Mills.” (1988) Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy. Edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books, 2011, pp. 391–7. 


Ghandy, Anuradha. “The Caste Question Returns.” (1988) Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy. Edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books, 2011, pp. 79–91. 


Ghandy, Anuradha. “Caste Question in India” (mid-1990s, unpublished) Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy. Edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books, 2011, pp. 7–78.


Ghandy, Anuradha. “Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement.” (2006) Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy. Edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books, 2011, pp. 145–209.


Gohain, Hiren. “Towards a Revival of Revolutionary Ideas.” Economic & Political Weekly, vol. 47, no. 18, pp. 35–40.

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