Long before the name of Comrade Sharmistha Choudhury became well known as a political prisoner during the Bhangar movement, she was a dedicated worker and leader of the Communist mass movement.
As a student, she was first associated with the PCSA group in Presidency College. Then she was with the CRS group. But even before that, she had immersed herself in feminist ideology and published a feminist magazine during her student days. There are many stories about her from that time. For example, marching almost alone once, after finding no support; or her affectionate nickname “Thechu” among friends, derived from the principal’s sarcastic “Here comes Margaret Thatcher” jibe. After graduating in philosophy from Presidency College, and completing a postgraduate degree in journalism from Calcutta University, she first worked as a journalist in The Telegraph. She was always vocal about state oppression and state-sponsored violence against women. And for that reason she was always rushing off to sites of violence, whether in Nandigram or in Bastar. Less than two years into her journalistic career, she quit her job and after much family turmoil, disregarded her mother’s objections and left home to become a CPI (ML) Red Star wholetimer.
Later, Sharmistha Chowdhury became a member of the Central Committee of the CPI (ML)- Red Star. She was the general secretary of AIRWO, the women’s wing of the party. She was proficient in writing in both English and Bengali on theoretical aspects of Marxism or Marxist feminism. Sharmistha was one of the leaders of the movement against the power grid in Bhangar. She was a much-loved figure in the villages of Bhangar. She was arrested in connection with the Bhangar movement and was charged under sections of the UAPA. That charge remained until her death, and she was out on bail. At the same time, she was also a leader of the movement of the workers of the Lumtex factory in Khardah.
In the final days of her life, before the West Bengal Assembly elections of 2021, she took an active part in the anti-fascist “No Vote to BJP” campaign. She was one of the conveners of the platform, “Bengal Against Fascist RSS-BJP”. On 13 June 2021, Sharmistha Chowdhury shocked all her comrades, friends and colleagues and died of a heart attack at SSKM Hospital, Kolkata. Although she had recovered from Covid, doctors believe she died of post-Covid complications. On 14 June, activists of mass movements, political activists of different parties, farmers of Bhangar, and workers of Lumtex factory, marched in procession and brought her body from the hospital to the forecourt of the Academy of Fine Arts.. A small memorial service was held for Comrade Sharmistha. The body was then donated, according to her wishes, to students of anatomy.
The untimely departure of Comrade Sharmistha is an irreparable loss to the communist people’s movement. But her ideals and her fighting spirit show us the way. The following article by Sharmistha Chowdhury on the women’s movement in Andhra Pradesh is actually unfinished. It was found in Facebook posts by her. After promising to write several instalments, she did manage to write two pieces in October 2020. These two installments were published as a single piece in Bama. What she said about the role of women in the communist movement in Andhra Pradesh in the 1940s, and the limitations of the attitude of the communist movement towards women, also applies to the Tebhaga or the later Naxalbari movement in West Bengal.
The posts were originally written in Bengali, our friend V Ramaswamy came forward to translate it into English. Read the Bengali piece here.
It was the 1940s. In Andhra Pradesh, the Communist Party of India decided to induct more and more women into all their movements. It was a far cry at that time for girls to go out on the streets, even going to school was not common then, and child marriage was the norm. Women had no social, economic or political freedom. In such a situation, women came out of their homes in groups following the initiative of the Party, and jumped into the work of the Party with great enthusiasm.
Manikonda Suryawati, Tapi Rajamma and Kondapalli Koteshwaramma used to be out on the streets, selling the Party’s mouthpiece Prajashakti. Boys would tease them and taunt them in various ways, but the communist girls were irrepressible.
The Praja Natya Mandali (People’s Theater Group) was formed. They would reach out to people through the medium of drama. A daring proposal was out forward, that the female characters would be played by girls, not boys. Fearing public embarrassment, the girls began to hesitate. The Party leaders explained, ‘Why won’t you act? In Bengal, you can see Rabindranath’s very own cousin, Devika Rani, acting in dramas and movies.’ Eventually the girls overcame their inertia and agreed to act. The play was a great success. After that the money raised by staging plays in many places was donated for famine relief work in Bengal.
Mahila Sangams were established. Communist girls began to campaign in the villages about the general subjugation of women, and the specific problems they faced in life. They spoke against child marriage, advocated widows’ marriage and women’s property rights; and they also raised awareness about the need to use a toilet, and also about other issues related to women’s lives. And together with that, the general line of the party was of course also broadcasted.
Under the leadership of Dr. Komaraju Achhamamba (probably the first president of the Andhra Mahila Sangam), training in hygiene was given to female and male comrades. She used to campaign about the need for the supervision of childbirth by a doctor, not only among the party comrades, but also in the villages. But the Communist Party could not retain women and leaders like Dr. Achhamamba. She later joined the Congress and contested on behalf of the Congress in the 1956 general election, and was elected a Member of Parliament from the Vijayawada constituency.
The question of women’s property rights began to surface in the women’s movement in India in the 1940s. Renuka Roy took the matter to the Central Legislative Council. As a result, the British government formed a committee headed by B.N. Roy to look into the matter. When the representatives of the committee visited Andhra, they were given a memorandum on behalf of the Mahila Sangam, signed by 50,000 women, the main thrust of which was the claim of women’s rights to equality and property. Based on the committee’s recommendations, the British government made some changes in the law in favor of women’s property rights. That was a significant victory for the Andhra Mahila Sangam.
It is not the purpose of this article to describe the activities and evolution of women’s organizations in Andhra Pradesh. I wrote all this only to show how deeply and sincerely the women’s question was thought of in the 1940s, on the initiative of the Communist Party.
It seems unbelievable that even till the final years of the 34-year Left Front government in West Bengal, let alone the question of toilets in rural areas, no sanitary toilets were constructed even in any jute mill workers’ quarters in Kolkata and adjoining urban areas; there were only service latrines. And back in the 1940’s, communist women in remote villages of Andhra Pradesh had been campaigning about the need for toilets!
I have already mentioned the issue of property rights of wives. The Mahila Sangam had encouraged direct participation of women in land-related work. The organizers themselves worked on farmlands so that other women could see them and come forward. They got home-bound women of the backward areas of that time – those who did not have the social right to education and employment – involved in farming, as one of the means for their liberation. This signified connecting them to social labour, and that was the underlying motive guiding the effort.
Manikonda Suryavati was elected the first state secretary of Andhra Mahila Sangam in 1947. She used to trudge from village to village by foot. She also went to jail after the Party was banned. In the 1950s, she was elected panchayat president of Nandamuru village thrice in succession. She donated 25% of her own land to build toilets for village women. She was elected a member of the Legislative Council in the 1950’s. She used to hand over the entire remuneration she got as MLC to the Party. The Party gave her a humble allowance, and she managed with that.
Inspired by the then communist leaders, Suryavati sold all her property and donated the money to the Party. We have always heard stories of various communist leaders donating part of their property to the party. From Rajeshwar Rao to Sundarayya to Snehangshu Acharya to Sitaramaiya, everyone had done so. But how easy was it for women to do that six or seven decades ago? Women did not even have any legal right to their ancestral property. But notwithstanding that, to realize that she had a share and to then donate that to the party – was truly exceptional.
But this exceptional task had been done by Manikonda Suryavati and Leela Sundarayya. Both of them were Party wholetimers. When Suryavati was eighteen, her parents got her married to Subbarao. Suryavati entered leftist politics holding Subbarao’s hand, as it were. But very soon, she left Subbarao’s hand and started working independently. Gradually, both of them came to work as Party wholetimers. After marrying P. Sundarayya, Leela Sundarayya too quit her job and became a full-time political activist, and she worked as a wholetimer for her entire life.
It is these women who form our history, who represent our heritage. So why did the retreat take place? Where did this arrangement for husband as wholetimer and wife as employee come from? Across the entire left movement? It existed in the CPI and CPI(M) of course, but how did this extensive practice begin even among the Naxalites? And for that matter, how did the women’s organization, which was focused on the specific issues of women, and on the goal of their emancipation, get transformed into a frontal organization that serves as the mouthpiece of the Party by presenting the Party’s agenda?
Speaking on male dominance in the Party, Kondapalli Koteshwaramma wrote in her autobiography: “Our party introduced us to the idea of equality. They told us, a man, a woman, or a Dalit, are all equal. They took us out of the house and into the public domain. We were able to do what we did because of the freedom that the Party gave to women. But whenever the girls did better than the boys in something, mail chauvinism raised its head. Not that there was any animosity or suppression in particular, but there was an automatic reaction. Actually, hadn’t the men of our Party also come from the same society? So it will take time for these ideas of male superiority to go away. The Party believed that these issues would go away on their own if they could establish an egalitarian society.”
This thinking on the part of the Party that Koteshwaramma refers to, not only represented mechanical as opposed to dialectical thinking in the context of the conscious fight against patriarchy, it was also a huge obstacle. The idea that a society based on equality would suddenly come into existence one fine day, and gender inequality would disappear, is not at all scientific. It is not possible to establish an egalitarian society without a conscious fight – against gender inequality and for the goal of equality. After the socialist revolution in Russia, the Zenotdel was formed – it was the women’s section of the central committee of the Communist Party of Russia. Zenotdel’s work had two aspects: to try to solve the specific problems of women in post-revolutionary Russia; and, by bringing the problems of women to the fore within the party, to frame the policies of the Party and the government accordingly.
Actually the realization of the simple fact that the women’s question is a distinct theoretical question, the theoretical and practical solution of which is an inevitable revolutionary task, was, at least in the communist movement in India, extremely limited. Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property … was therefore never regarded as one of the most important works of Marxism-Leninism; and Bebel’s Women in the Past, Present and Future got lost somewhere along the way!
Marxism is a philosophy of equality. Hence the issue of gender equality is not denied in the Communist Party, nor can that ever be done. But equality does not just mean giving women a place next to men – that is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Unless there was a goal to liberate women from the backward situations in which they had historically been confined, to liberate them from traditional inequalities and from various forms of neglect and oppression, gender equality could not advance beyond mere good intention.
In the book, We Were Making History, published by Stree Shakti Sanghatana, we find two seemingly contradictory statements in the narratives of women who jumped into the mass struggle in Telangana: (1) the party gave us freedom; and (2) the party used us.
- Sugunamma. At the age of nine she became acquainted with the activities of the Party and joined. At the age of fourteen, she was already a reliable courier. She had left her home. She stayed in various ‘dens’ of the Party. She applied for membership. At that time, membership in the Party was not given before the age of sixteen. But because of her performance, an exception was made in her case. In We Were Making History, Sugunamma says, “Women often joined the movement because they couldn’t bear the hardships they had to face at home.” The Party wanted to show the rest of the world that women too were in the Party. So the party would declare that dowry should not be demanded for marriage, and that women should also be given equal rights in property. Women were viewed as equals in the Party. But the Party never saw women’s issues as political or ideological questions that needed to be discussed and analyzed. It was a lot like fulfilling a formality.”
When the Telangana struggle was withdrawn, and the ban on the Party was lifted, Sugunamma, like many female comrades, who had spent many years in underground communist life, was told to return home. But can it ever be the same for a man to return home and for a woman to return home? Especially for a rebel woman who had spent so many years in unknown shelters, mingled with so many people, engaged in so many kinds of activities – wasn’t ‘going back home’ nothing but a great regression for her?
Sugunamma says, “Basavapunniah said to me – ‘Sister, what do you want to do? We have no work! Go, stay at home.’ I was stunned. After using us for so long, they were now saying, ‘Go home!’ How would they understand the situation at home? And how would I explain that to them? The pain! The mental torture!”
The experience of women like Sugunamma is that of many, many warrior women in the Telangana struggle and the communist movement.
Regalla Achhamamba. She was married at the age of ten, and came in contact with the Party through her husband. Then came the sudden arrest of her husband. Regalla held on firmly to the Party. She was barely literate. The Party sent the young girl to a medical training camp run by a doctor. That training made Regalla essential to the Party and to the guerrilla fighters. And thus began Regalla’s life as a squad member. There was no one else but her to administer injections, to give medicines for common ailments, and to sew wounds. Having attended to patients ranging from a comrade wounded in a tiger attack in the jungle, to a fighter with bullet injuries, even many, well-known doctors would admit defeat in the face of her experience. She became so indispensable that while travelling from one camp to another, two people were assigned to accompany her to provide her security. The same Regalla Achhamamba was expelled from the party on charges of ‘immorality’. She was left to walk mile after mile through the jungle in a penniless state, her sari tattered, with no place to go, with nothing. In such a situation, she reached another Party camp in the jungle. The leadership there listened to her, talked to other leaders, and arranged for her to return to the Party. It was decided that she would be kept under observation for the first few weeks because of the allegations against her, and if her behavior was satisfactory, then she would be given back her membership. The leader who questioned her said, “Driving her away is like driving away a milch cow. Who will take her place? Who will do her work?” Be that as it may, Regalla was taken back on the basis of such ‘honorable’ thoughts, and she continued to treat not only comrades but also common people in squad after squad, in jungles and in villages, right until the Telangana struggle was withdrawn. In her memoirs, Regalla says that there was something like an outbreak of a kind of deadly sore among the people of the militant Koya community. But she discovered that penicillin injections and a special ointment healed the wound. Thus she became popular among the Koyas. There had been no news regarding her husband ever since he was arrested. So Regalla was advised by the party to remarry – because protecting the ‘character’ of a single woman was a difficult task. Regalla married Mohan Rao, one of her leaders. The marriage did not stand in the way of her work, as the Telangana struggle was on in full swing at the time, and Regalla was a much-needed figure in the struggle.
What happened after the struggle was withdrawn? All of them came out of the underground. Regalla’s husband remained in politics, while she was swept away by the sea of family life. The knowledge and the experience she had acquired, which could have been invaluable in spreading the Party across the vast countryside of Andhra, were all in vain. Regalla could have helped build a rural medical workers’ force, baptized in communist ideology, but she (together with many more women like her) was sent back by the Party – back to the siege of family life.
There’s no end to the examples. It is undeniable that with the calling off of the Telangana struggle following the lifting of the ban on the Communist Party, the return of the warrior women to their homes was widespread, and this was at the behest of the Party. The same thing happened with the warrior men, but as I said before, there is a stark difference between men returning home and women returning home. The former meant leisure, while the latter meant a return to slavery.
This problem has existed in the communist movement in India from the very beginning. I will not go into the incident of M.N. Roy abandoning Evelyn Trent-Roy – without criticism, without opposition – I’ll write about her later. But the reality is that women’s participation in the Party has been seen in terms of a division of labor, a division between physical labor and intellectual labour. Women were brought into and kept engaged in the fight-movement, in processions-meetings. They did that after overcoming many social barriers and after crushing superstitions because they had got the taste of freedom. But what happened after that? When the situation was not one of a face-to-face battle? When the situation was one that required sorting out the thinking, so as to create the background to building the struggle? When the work was largely intellectual? What did the Communist Party think about the participation of women in that situation?
One finds a hint in the words of Mallu Swarajyam. Swarajyam was one of the women activists mentioned in Sundarayya’s book, Telangana People’s Struggle and Its Lessons. The book was probably published in the early 1970’s. Sundarayya proudly writes about Swarajyam, saying that she was now one of the important leaders of the Party [CPI(M)] in Nalgonda district, and that her husband was a member of the Andhra State Committee. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Swarajyam was elected MLA twice. Sundarayya said that Swarajyam was an extraordinary orator and an efficient organizer.
What Sundaraiya did not say – and it is doubtful whether he or they have thought about it at all – is that Swarajyam had to return to the family fold at the end of the Telangana struggle. She fought against that, she told the party that she wanted to work for the Party. But the Party clearly declared that it was not possible to keep both husband and wife as full-time workers. And so, naturally, Swarajyam had to step down in favour of her husband. She had to attend to running the family. During the Sino-Indian war, when the communists were being arrested en masse, the party reached out to Swarajyam, and said to her, “You have to come forward in this difficult time.” And Swarajyam too returned to the life she had left behind, without a word in protest. In her words, “If I have been able to survive in politics for so long, that is only half of me, not the full me. I was never able to give as much as I could have. The reason for that was my family. Who would take the responsibility of the family?”
I will end today’s chapter with a comment by Swarajyam in the context of how girls are rendered jobless, or left in the hands of their own ‘fate’ at a time when there is no confrontation, but it is a period of patient building. At the end of the Telangana struggle, Swarajyam says, “What’s to be done with the women – became a question. When the struggle was over, they [the party leadership] decided that unmarried women should get married, and that married women should go back to their families. The men could take up studying law. Our opinion did not count at all. Until then, we hadn’t ever thought about having a family, having children, or raising children. They said it was not possible for us to be a Party Commander or an Area Organizer. So they told us to ‘wind up’, and we were shocked. That was a terrible mistake in the context of the turn that the struggle had taken. The form of the armed struggle had changed. So they retained the necessary army of cadres for the legal movement. Although nothing had yet been decided, or implemented, in regard to what that particular movement would be. They not only told the womens to go back, they also gave the men the option to go back. But the men had the opportunity to study and work in society. While the women didn’t have that opportunity ”
Women leaving the battlefield and returning home in droves, returning not to build something new but to become enslaved by the ‘old’ that had been forsaken – has there been any review of how much this regression harmed the entire communist movement?