Editor’s Note: For an overview of this book and a conversation with the author, click here.
Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary by Gita Ramaswamy, published by Navayana Press, ©2022 by Gita Ramaswamy. All Rights Reserved.
CHAPTER ELEVEN: STRIPPING THE MASTER OF HIS WHIP (Excerpt)
By June 1985, ITVCS [Ibrahimpatnam Taluk Vyavasaya Karmika Sangam] had four full-timers—Shankaraiah, Buggaiah, Ramulu and myself. The three of them received Rs 450 per month (plus actuals for travel), while I had a Sruti fellowship of Rs 500 per month. Sruti is a Delhi-based non- profit running fellowship programmes since 1983 for young activists in the age group of twenty-five and thirty-five. I never drew any income from ITVCS or HBT [Hyderabad Book Trust] from 1984 to 1998 and paid for my Gungal room myself.
Our total monthly budget was about Rs 2,000. We had little travel expenses because we cycled or walked. We were fed by villagers so there was little other expense. In 1988, I became an Ashoka fellow and received a princely sum of Rs 3,000 every month from 1988 to 1992. The fellowship is given for what in NGO- speak is called ‘social entrepreneurship’.
Things were happening at a rapid pace at that time. Wages were rising, I was part of this euphoric movement, but nothing was in my hands. I was a symbol. People saw me as an instrument. Such a beginning proved good for me. Decision making had not been given to me, so I did not have to exercise control and was never burdened by it in the days to come.
Programmes were never decided in small meetings of a few worthies. These were taken only in big village meetings where the entire population of the poor turned up and where intense discussions and quarrels took place. Some sessions lasted hours, meandering towards irrelevance. But a consensus emerged miraculously out of the seeming confusion. It took about four years before I truly became part of the decision-making process. Till then, I was always asked to shut up by the local leaders.
The perceptions the villagers had of me never bothered me while I was there. They liked me, I liked them. Never again did I have to pay for a meal. I was invited to eat in every madiga house. In some years, when I became a ‘leader’, some madiga leaders, particularly Mantri Ramulu of Manchal, tried to get me to dress and posture in a certain way—like Indira Gandhi. I was too far gone in a general rejection of propriety. I used to wear salwar kameez in the beginning, and had long plaited hair and a small bottu (bindi) on my forehead, without jewellery of any kind.
The villagers saw that I spoke authoritatively to the higher officers (the tahsildar or the circle inspector of police) in English; I was not deferential to them. They concluded that I came from some privilege. They saw that I was kind to them and especially concerned about their women and children. I did not sit on a chair when others sat on the ground. I did not eat what others did not have on their plate. I followed their instructions in most things. I was mostly listening and asking. They adopted me and took me into their hearts. In India, we have the mother/goddess–prostitute binary categorization of women. I too was slowly assigned the matronly role.
Back then I was still a quiet, background character, and the movement spread far by the sheer will of the people. Several new villages filed petitions under the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act. In the meantime, we did not wait for the MRO [Mandal Revenue Officer] to release the bonded labourers; we encouraged them to stop work themselves.
This led to considerable outrage on the part of the landlords who demanded their money back. Quoting the law, the bonded labourers refused to both repay the loan and return to work. As a consequence, they found it difficult to get regular work. Many families made it thanks to their wives’ earnings. Several labourers had to seek employment in other villages.
Throughout this period, we held a number of meetings and demonstrations, both at the mandal level and at the district collectorate. The MROs reacted differently in different places. Most of them pleaded ignorance of the act and so I had to carry printouts that I could hand over. They said they only followed the copies of laws given to them by the government. Some contested the occurrence of bonded labour saying that since the labourers were given monthly wages, they could not be bonded. One MRO on an enquiry in a village went to the extent of threatening the labourers with arrest if they continued to boycott work.
Such bullheadedness meant that we had to seek relief from a higher authority. We filed a writ petition in the high court, asking it to direct the authorities to enquire into the petitions that had been submitted by the bonded labourers. The government machinery was again forced to move. Our reporter friends again came to our rescue, publicizing the events widely.
While this was happening, we organized the labourers to file petitions for recovery of back wages before the deputy commissioner of labour. The Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act confined itself to releasing the labourers and providing rehabilitation while the Minimum Wages Act provided for the recovery of back wages if the wage paid was below the minimum. Further, those cases where particular MROs did release labourers from their illegal bonds were helpful as evidence in claiming the back wages. Women of the villages who used to work in the landlords’ courtyards or houses as domestic labourers for a pittance were also mobilized to file recovery petitions, calculated on the basis of the time spent daily and the actual amount received.
According to law, the onus of proof is on the employer who has to be able to prove that he or she has maintained records, paid minimum wages and so on. If the landlord could not prove (by means of registers and salary slips) that he was paying the minimum wage, the jeeta [bonded laborer] could be awarded the difference in wages of six months to one year. When this became clear, many landlords were open to compromise.
Registration under the Trade Union Act entitles the union to present its case directly through the affected worker or through the union representative without the mediation of a lawyer. This has been utilized by all the organized trade unions in the urban sector. The organized trade unions, to give them their due, have transformed the arena of the labour courts into a comparatively people-friendly one. Workers and employers were provided similar benches to sit, the office was open to workers and their representatives at all times, and the staff did not patronize or abuse workers. I do not know if this practice continues today.
Our proceedings in the labour court in Hyderabad initially, and later in Ibrahimpatnam, were hilarious. As an official (general secretary) of the Sangam, I was entitled to participate in the proceedings and serve as an advocate. The landlords were represented by a high-profile lawyer called Satyaveera Reddy. We filled the benches provided in the court, while the landlords preferred to stand, sometimes for hours, because they could not bear to sit next to the labourers.
The landlords’ lawyers could not, unlike us, be present at every hearing thanks to their preoccupation with other civil or criminal cases where they got most of their money. In time, we requested the court to have its proceedings in the Ibrahimpatnam inspection bungalow which was more accessible to the labourers. Here, hundreds of our villagers were able to attend and the landlords had to pass through rows of jeering women and men to get to the court.
In most hearings, the landlords tried to prove that the labourers in question had not worked with them, and we argued the opposite. We asked the landlords how much land they had, how many labourers they engaged to cultivate it, and most importantly, to show their registers of employees. Labour laws make the maintenance of registers mandatory. The landlords could not show how they cultivated their land and had no registers to show the name and number of labourers under their employ.
I barely followed any of the expected court decorum since I didn’t know any better. The landlords’ advocates were always outraged by this, while the mild deputy commissioner of labour, Madhusudan Reddy, who presided over the hearings, could only advise me; he seemed to be sympathetic to our cause. I was particularly unruly and freewheeling where examinations-in-chief and cross-examinations were concerned. I often rattled the landlords with targeted questions.
As per the Evidence Act, ‘examination-in-chief’ is conducted upon a witness by the party that calls the witness for giving evidence; the examination of that witness by the adverse party is called ‘cross-examination’. The labourers were equally unruly when they were examined, during both examinations-in-chief and cross-examinations. Added to that, their language was not refined. They used ‘dengadam’— ‘fuck’ and its spectacular variants—frequently, stunning the landlords’ advocate into silence. Madhusudan Reddy gently remonstrated with the witness but this happened so frequently that he simply gave up after a point.
Our witnesses recounted a number of incidents to prove that they had worked with the landlords in question, leaving no doubt in anybody’s minds that the landlord’s stand was fraudulent. Never had the reddy advocates been forced to tolerate such forthright madigas. After a few sessions, the advocate of the landlords resigned his vakalat in disgust, refusing to argue cases against yokels.
The landlords were now unrepresented, and no advocate was willing to risk his self-respect in such an unruly court. This led many of the landlords to then start compromising. We won in all the cases that were not already compromised through out-of-court negotiations. Several thousand rupees exchanged hands, with the labourer profiting this time. We later went on to file workmen’s compensation cases too and won spectacular victories. All accidents—snake bites at the well, collapse of a house during construction, accidents during work—were covered under the archaic Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1923. All in all, the labour court was a wonderful place.
We also tried hard to get the labour officers to do their actual job of inspecting the shops and fields, enquiring about the wages and timings, filing cases and seeing them through. Each assistant labour officer had about three mandals under him, but with no provision for secretarial assistance, stationery or transport. While most labour officers were happy to collect their ‘monthly’ from the shops, some were proactive. We got them to file cases under the Minimum Wages Act and ensured that they had stationery and help in moving from place to place.
If you consider the actual material gains from today’s standpoint, our victories may appear small. However, to us, they meant the world was changing, the ground beneath us was shifting. In an undated note from June 1985, I mention the following as our accomplishments:
Amount recovered [back wages facilitated by the labour department]: Rs 17,880
Bonded debts written off: Rs 61,220
Relief for bonded labourers released by government: Rs 20,700 (@Rs 500 each)
Rehabilitation @ Rs 4,000 each = Rs 3,00,000 [implies seventy-five bonded labourers released till that time]
Since most of the jeetas [bonded laborers] and agricultural labourers were madigas, the attitude of the majority of the other marginalized castes was one of passive solidarity. They admired the way we fought the landlords. They were watching and waiting to see who would emerge stronger—the madigas supported by the Sangam or the reddys.
We filed petitions with the revenue authorities and the police to prosecute the landlords employing bonded labourers and not simply stop at the fulfilment of welfare measures. At this, the landlords of Yacharam and surrounding villages filed a petition in 1985 in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, challenging Section 12 of the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act dealing with the prosecution of those keeping bonded labourers. Justice Sardar Ali Khan passed an interim order staying further prosecutions under the act and this was vacated later by us.
The same year, on 25 July, the Ibrahimpatnam taluka panchayat samiti passed a resolution voicing concern over the fallout of the implementation of the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act. The resolution, in a reference to ITVCS, said that some extremist forces were at work, dividing the farmers and the labourers. The samiti resolution warned the government that if the bonded labour business was not reviewed, it might affect agricultural production in the area as farmers were finding it increasingly difficult to engage any labour for their operations.
Samiti president Yadgiri Reddy went on record to claim that 90 per cent of the cases were bogus. The landlords led by Yadgiri Reddy and the district minister went in torn clothes to chief minister NTR to complain about our work and tell him about their distress and that they were being forced to cease agricultural operations. This was publicized widely in newspaper reports.
During NTR’s tenure, he had designated one minister for each district to supervise and monitor both government and TDP activities. On a visit to Cherlapatelgudem in early 1986, the district minister and minister for labour P. Indra Reddy, who was active in the PDSU between 1973 and 1975 and had gone to jail during the Emergency, told labourers who were on strike for higher wages, ‘You must not ask for minimum wages in the dry areas. All demand for minimum wages should be made only in irrigated areas.’