A Conversation with Gita Ramaswamy on Land, Justice, and Friendship

Editor’s Note: In the following essay, A. Suneetha and R.V. Ramanamurthy present an overview of the recently published autobiography, Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary (Navayana, 2022) by Gita Ramaswamy and lead a conversation with the author. An excerpt from this book has been provided to Maidaanam by the publisher and can be read here: Stripping the Master of his Whip.

A. Suneetha is an independent scholar based in Hyderabad. She has recently co-edited A World of Equals: A Textbook on Gender. R.V. Ramanamurthy is a Professor in the School of Economics at the University of Hyderabad. His most recent publication is Agrarian Question: A Reader (2021). Gita Ramaswamy is best known for her work as a publisher through the Hyderabad Book Trust. She has authored several books and translated extensively from Telugu into English.

Histories and memoirs of the Telangana Armed Struggle (1946-51) have ensured that this conflict stands as an emblem of the struggle for land and freedom in the Deccan and South Asia at large. In Land, Guns, Caste and Women: the Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary (Navayana, 2022), Gita Ramaswamy demonstrates that such battles against exploitation continued well into the 1990s in different forms.

Through a fascinating account of local struggles over farm wages, bonded labour, and land rights around the city of Hyderabad in the 1980s, Ramaswamy’s autobiography casts important light on the figure of the Naxalite. This is a much needed antidote to the romanticized perspective promoted by the recent burst of popular Telugu films such as Virata Parvam (2022), Jayamma Panchayathi (2022), and Ma Nanna Naxalite (2022).

Land, Guns, Caste and Women provides a ringside view of local power elites, political classes, agrarian caste-class structure, and rural oppression. The discerning reader will gain a critical understanding of the political and social history of the Telangana region. 

Source: Navayana (2022)

Before we get into the book, a brief background on the struggle for land rights in the Deccan might be useful. Between 1850 and 1940, Telangana was under the government of the princely state of Hyderabad and followed a typical colonial mode of production. Agriculture was gradually commercialized through property rights, taxation, and commercial crops. The social hierarchy that accompanied Asaf Jahi rule and the colonial economy had distinctive caste and class boundaries. Hindu and Muslim jagirdars and deshmukhs were at the top, an intermediate strata of Reddy and Velama rights holders were in the middle, and Dalit and Backward caste tenant producers were at the bottom.

Farm Workers in Princely Hyderabad (1890s)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Between the 1950s and 1970s, many layers of the old land revenue structure were peeled away by the new Indian republic. The colonial jagirdari and other land holding systems of the old Hyderabad kingdom were abolished. Tenants were given protection from eviction through tenancy protection acts. Land tax was first reduced and then abolished.

However, following the suppression of the Telangana Armed Struggle (1946-51) and the merger of princely Hyderabad State into the Indian Union, political power shifted from the aristocratic jagirdars to the intermediate Reddy and Velama landlords. Emboldened by the newly won independence, these landlords returned to the villages and claimed land that had been redistributed to landless and lower-caste tenants by the Communist Party of India (CPI) in the armed struggle. 

The tenancy protection acts passed by the Indian Government in the 1950s could not protect the Dalit and Backward caste tenant producers. Between 1950s and 1980s, Shudra peasant castes like the Reddys not only annexed the properties of the older Hyderabadi Muslim jagirdars who had fled the cities but also proceeded to dislodge lower-caste tenants from their lands. 

The late 1960s saw the resumption of an armed struggle against rural exploitation by the CPI-ML or Naxalite parties. They championed radical land redistribution as the most efficient solution for ending the upper-caste monopoly on land. However, the Naxalite’s insistence on militant resistance was met with extreme state violence, extra-judicial killings, and brutal repression by the Indian government. Land grabs made by Naxal parties for the landless poor or the tenants were not allowed to acquire legal status. 

By the late 1970s, many activists had grown disillusioned with this path and begun to search for alternatives. Several set out to do what earlier movements had missed: legalizing or resuming land rights for the landless by using the land reform legislation from the 1950s.

Several significant struggles based on claiming legal rights took place in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. The struggles at Cheepurupalli, Anantapur, and Rampachodavaram come to mind. Alongside these, an important legal rights struggle near Hyderabad was led by the Ibrahimpatnam Taluq Vyavasaya Karmika Sangam (ITVCS).

Memoirs of the Lapsed Revolutionary situates itself in this new context of political activism. It tells the story of resilient villagers who struggled against the grim conditions of Ibrahimpatnam Taluq in today’s Ranga Reddy District of Telanganga. Led by an agricultural workers union, the ITVCS expanded its operations to more than 60 villages between 1983 and 1992. As a founding member of this organization, and as someone at the forefront of their struggles, Gita Ramaswamy narrates the group’s heroic efforts to confront injustice and exploitation in rich detail.

The first section of her book describes the world of student politics in the Pre-Emergency period. She explores how this post-Independence moment offered many men and women from middle-class backgrounds the opportunity to escape the pettiness of their communities and families. These movements helped broaden their social and political horizons and inspired them to think about challenging the prevailing status quo.

However, as Gita notes, the Emergency (1975-77) disillusioned her and many of her peers. It led to a reconsideration of the political parties they worked for and the political strategies they employed. Following this period, several such young people spread out to form various kinds of non-party and non-governmental unions and organizations. The period saw a flowering of autonomous women’s organizations, non-profit organizations, human rights formations, and many other types of organizations. 

Gita tells us that when she first reached Ibrahimpatnam, she discovered that the seemingly calm and peaceful landscape of the rural area simmered below with hundreds of tiny fires.

It wasn’t that the Dalit Madiga laborers or other poor of the area were passively waiting for people like her to arrive from the city and save them. Gita recalls many of the local workers who fought to claim possession of their lands long before her arrival. But the landlords of Ibrahimpatnam, as in many other places at the time, employed every tool at their hand to suppress, divide, manage, litigate, and physically attack the Madiga workers, backward castes, and village poor. Their efforts to resist landlord reclamations or demand fair wages were repeatedly met with severe violence until the formation of the ITVCS.

The second section of the book, much larger in length, describes the Sangam’s decade long struggle for fair wages, the abolition of bonded labour, and the reclamation of private and public lands by Dalit and backward caste tenants. It narrates how scores of villagers came forward to show that their land possession documents as tenants had been forged, torn, or stolen. It tells the stories of the people who went beyond the local village administration only to get their claims stymied at the police stations, village and mandal administration offices, and other local courts that were all staffed by the relatives of landlords. 

Through Gita’s depictions, the reader can see that the Dalit agricultural workers of Ibrahimpatnam were not simply the faceless or nameless mass of a larger movement. They were, in fact, the very core and leadership of the Ibrahimpatnam Taluq Vyavasaya Karmikula Sangam.

Shankaraiah, president of the ITVCS, with Gandu Narasimha to his left
Source: Author

The reader comes away from her account with unforgettable portraits of several women and men – Elimineti Chandramma, Gattu Ramulamma, Bacchamma, Shankariah, Buggaiah, Pothuganti Narasimha, Dilli Jangiah, Eliminedu Muthyalu, Ravula Ramulu, Satyamma and others. These Dalit workers fought their precarious battles against the powerful of the district – the Reddy landlords, who enjoyed a combined social, economic and political power. 

Satyamma’s ITVCS member card
Source: Author

Gita tells us that these local leaders educated her, tolerated her upper-caste foibles, set the agenda for ITVCS, determined the political strategies, and faced the brunt of resistance from the powerful in the struggle. They were the ones who reoriented the Sangam from battles against the annual farm servants system into battles around the reclamation of stolen land belonging to the Madiga and other marginal caste tenants.

And when the attacks came, from the Reddy landlords and the police, they were the ones who bore the violence. The Sangam members, including the author, were attacked more than half dozen times, while the number of police cases filed against them were too numerous to count. But like armies of little ants taking on an elephant, Gita tells us that the Madigas and the other marginal groups fought tiny and persistent battles in the local courts, revenue courts, and labour courts. 

What comes across strikingly to the reader is Reddy Raj/State that was established post-1956 after the formation of the Andhra Pradesh out of erstwhile Hyderabad State and the Madras Presidency. The creation of this new state re-established landlordism with a new vigor across rural Telangana. The Reddy Raj of Telangana expanded beyond the old Hyderabadi Patel-Patwari system of rural administration to dominate the politics, judiciary, and urban administration of the region.

Memoirs of a Lapsed Revolutionary is remarkable in transforming the gritty struggles of the underprivileged against grim realities into an optimistic narrative that speaks to the reader of today. In immortalizing the heroic efforts of the Ibrahimpatnam villagers, especially those from the Dalit Madiga communities, this book draws our attention to the valuable experience of local struggles in resolving the “agrarian question. It also gives an important indictment of the imbrication of caste and class in the Indian context. We need many more accounts that reveal the specificities of these struggles for land and freedom.

Ramana: Congratulations on writing a fantastic book! For scholars and activists interested in the politics and history of modern India and Telangana, your book offers a window into the recent past. These were decades that profoundly influenced the generation that came of age before globalization. But the book seems to have struck a chord with the post-globalization generation as well as people across different political streams. What do you think is resonating with such a broad readership? 

Gita: It surprises me too! I think what resonates with the post-globalization generation are the universalist principles of empathy, justice for all, and the personal commitment to these that the book somehow seems to represent. The book also throws open the possibilities for work in different areas. Younger readers who have spoken to me have articulated precisely this feeling, so disproving the casual cynicism of the older generation that younger people are ‘aspirational.’ 

Suneetha: There have been many accounts of the Telangana Armed Struggle by the CPI, its leaders, and its critics. Take, for example, P. Sunderayya’s Telangana People’s Struggle or Stree Shakti Sanghatana’s We Were Making History. This is in direct contrast to the paucity of accounts like yours that document the Naxalite and non-Naxalite movements for economic and social justice in Telangana and Andhra. Why do you think this is? What has prevented the creation of even a simple chronicle of these important struggles and movements in this region? 

A list of Telangana Armed Struggle Accounts
(open in new tab for larger image)
Source: Vikshanam, July 2006

Gita: The most important aspect is the total underground nature of the Naxalite movement in the two Telugu states. How can they publish anything when they are being constantly raided by the police and military? Their laptops, phones and papers taken over? There must be some writing going on but it may take a long time for us to see its publication.

Besides, there are far more splits in the current movement when compared to the earlier one. Whoever leaves the party or forms another faction is automatically a ‘renegade.’ How do you reconstruct a history which has `renegades’ at every turn? How do you even honestly recount a personal history when a friend or comrade is no longer one?

Those who have left the Naxalite movement are also writing. But these are extremely guarded accounts. Kobad Ghandy’s Prison Memoirs disclaims his involvement with the Maoists even though he was a central committee member for decades! Madan Gopal’s Rainbow Years was completely fictionalised.

Let us not forget that the earlier writings on the Telangana armed struggle were equally guarded where crucial questions were concerned: the killing of informers and civilians, the unequal treatment of men and women cadre, the seduction of women denkeepers by some male leaders, the total neglect of pregnancies and consequent childbirths, the abandonment of children…

Suneetha: This is an interesting insight into why so few people have written about such a crucial part of our recent past. This is a past that has a direct bearing on the politics of both Telugu states and something that has influenced and shaped so many of our lives. Did you also need some nudging from friends then, to write? Could you tell the new reader a little about the process of writing this book?

Gita: No, friends did not nudge me because most of them do not know the contours of my work. It was my junior colleagues at Hyderabad Book Trust, the ones who come from Ibrahimpatnam, that asked me to write this account.

What really pushed me to it was when I thought that it would aid the process of my recovery from the strain of the long illness and death of my husband, my partner of 42 years. I wrote the autobiography in 2017, three months after he died, and put it aside. The two-month Covid lockdown in 2020 gave me time and I picked it up again, wondering if I could work on it. When I sent the second draft to a friend (also a publisher), this was when it became a book-in-the-making. It came back with over a thousand queries, forcing me to really work on fine detailing.

Ramana: In the first part of the book, you speak of your experience as a Left party student activist. You mention of how alienating the language of the left was, especially terms like “semi-feudalism.” However, when we come to the second part of the book, your description of rural Telangana seems to denote these very conditions. As a reader, we wonder why you chose to avoid the term? 

Gita:  You have caught me out there! Yes, it is true that my narrative seems to denote the very term I detested. Maybe it is the context of the term that is important? The Left used terms without substantive explanation – the term ‘semi-feudal’ was used to point to similarities in China’s conditions before 1949 and justify armed struggle. It was not meant to throw light on what was happening in India’s villages. My part of rural Telangana was semi-capitalist, this denoted the way the agricultural economy was developing in that region. Personally, I dislike using jargon! And ‘semi-feudalism’ is so stereotyped and over-used.

Ramana: Throughout the book, you highlight the stark poverty, drudgery at the landlord’s fields, and the powerlessness of the workers. You also describe the simmering anger and the hunger for land. Do you suggest that the villagers wanted something which the Parties were not prepared to see?

Gita: The parties do not listen to the villagers. They enter an area with their pre-conceived ideology and work to bending the villagers to their programme of action. Working with villagers for them is a means to an end – a means to building a red corridor, win a few more Assembly seats, recruit more cadre…

Listening to the villagers is not part of any party programme at all. The issue is not of the lack of preparedness of the parties to see what the issues in the villages are. The issue is that they do not see that their first primary duty is to listen. The party comes with a prepared ideology and a programme to implement. People are just a part of their agenda – they are not central to it. The party makes the revolution, aided by the people.

Ramana: In setting up the ITVCS, you state that everyone wanted it to be outside the Leftist parties of the time – the parliamentary CPI (M) and the non-parliamentary CPI ML parties. However, the narrative suggests that your earlier engagements with the ML party prepared you for the Ibrahimpatnam struggle in terms of what Sangam should or should not do. Can you comment on this? 

Gita: Yes, of course, there is absolutely no doubt that my earlier engagement with the ML prepared me for work in Ibrahimpatnam. It also indicated what I should do (the positive of the ML) and what I should not do (the negative of the ML). What does our desire to be outside the pale of Leftist parties have to do with what I learned while in it? 

Ramana: Yes, the desire to avoid the established Left had to do with several factors mentioned in detail in the book: centralized control, non-education of the cadres, inability to think outside the given categories or adapt to the ground reality. Armed struggle was too far away considering that even the legal rights around wages, the annual servant system, tenancy rights, and assigned lands required enormous effort to materialise. Can you say a little about the Sangam’s work for those who have not read the book yet? 

Gita: The Sangam organised strikes for wage increases, helped bonded labourers repudiate debts, helped the poor access welfare schemes and government entitlements, organised campaigns against caste atrocities, and created an awareness about Ambedkarite anti-caste ideology. It took up all land issues of the poor. 

Suneetha: Did you ever imagine that so much could be done through the labour courts, revenue courts, mandal revenue offices, etc. when you started? I am thinking specifically of the Jabbargudem village land struggle. 

Gita: I certainly did not expect that so much could be done through the labour and revenue courts or the government offices when I began my work. But of course, none of this would have been possible without a robust organisation of the poor themselves – this was the single most important element in working through the official system.

Suneetha: Your book ends with you leaving the Sangam in 1992. Did the Sangam continue its existence and work, after you chose to leave? Why did they choose to follow the path they did? 

Gita: The Sangam, as the ITVCS called itself, existed only loosely after 1992. Each village continued on its path. However, connections between villages suffered. If the Sangam had to be revived, someone or another would have had to take up leadership. A team would have had to evolve around the new leadership. This did not happen. No single person could invest the energy and resources needed to build a team – although they did try to do so together. 

Ramana: You describe the Sangam’s work in detail throughout the book – the meetings in the Dalit Madiga vadas [neighborhoods] and the participation of women and men until 1992. Can you tell us if and how such practices survived or evolved after 1992?

Gita: I do not have first-hand knowledge of this but I would imagine that they are continuing, if in a depleted form. The energy and drive that was present when the movement was active before is no longer be there. 

Suneetha:  You speak with tenderness of the Madiga and other marginal caste women and the guidance they offered throughout the struggle. You mention that they did this even though they could not fully participate in the struggle to the extent they wanted to. These women come across as heroic but absolutely human, leaving a mark on the reader. For several younger Madiga women, we hear you remain a role model in these villages. It is a rare account of the difficult friendship that can exist between savarna and Madiga women. How did you manage to do this? 

Gattu Ramulamma, a close friend of Gita Ramaswamy
Source: Author

Gita: I did not have to ‘manage’ to do this. I came to love them and they, me. Doesn’t love transcend caste?

Suneetha: Yes, it seems to. You mention how women like Ramulamma, Bucchamma and others guided you during the Sangam meetings. They told you when not to speak and ignored some of your ‘radical’ suggestions but also surrounded you with love and affection. Looking back all these years later, what do you think enabled creation of these bonds? Was it that they saw your commitment and your vulnerability as a woman? That you gave up your urban privileged life to live in the harsh conditions of the village? That you were willing to listen to them?

Gita: All of the above, I think! Besides, apart from being willing to listen, I was always willing to recognize and apologize for my mistakes, of which I committed many!

Suneetha: You seem reluctant to offer an analysis of the struggle that you were part of. That is, you don’t place it historically among the other movements of the time or in terms the larger effort to reclaim land rights in the region. Do you feel that the existing frameworks are inadequate or underdeveloped?

Gita: I leave analysis for those who want to write PhDs or advance their academic career. I am tired of analysis. Every academic has commented ad nauseam over the last fifty years and the movement against injustice and for equity hasn’t moved one bit because of this. It is work on the ground that has led to change. Sorry for being nasty if it seems so. 

Ramana: Are you suggesting that we need a different kind of analysis or intellectual approach to understand these movements? One that understands the issue but can also strategize and not stop at reflecting from a distance? An intellectualism that makes space for others? That works with the limitations of oneself and others to resolve the problem at hand? Like those who were your comrades – CK, Cyril, Bojja Tarakam, or Sankaran? 

Gita: How well you put it! Yes, of course. 

Suneetha: Why did you take so long to write this important book? Was there something that held you back from writing it? Was it because land and struggles over wages have ceased being fashionable? 

Gita: My generation, or those who retained the ethos of my generation, did not speak of the work we did. The work spoke for us. This was the sole reason. Cyril, Tharakam, CK, or Sankaran may not have approved my writing of this book because they may have felt – like others did – that I am `beating my own drum.’

No, land and wage struggles being unfashionable today has nothing to do with my not writing it. I was and am not worried about political fashions or styles. I needed to recover from the strain of my husband Cyril’s long illness and death. I felt that writing this account would help release my energies.

Publishing it was never part of the plan – writing it was.

Gita Ramaswamy
Source: Prathik Cherian

Editor’s Note: An excerpt from this book has been provided to Maidaanam and can be read here: Stripping the Master of his Whip.