Gita Ramaswamy: A revolutionary without a gun, who fought for landless madigas

The story of activist Gita Ramaswamy, the founder of Hyderabad Book Trust, which revolutionised Telugu publishing with its low-cost books, is a saga of relentless struggle against oppression: of caste, of family, and of feudal lords in Telangana

Gita Ramaswamy

Born into a Tamil Brahmin family, she rebelled against the oppressiveness of rarefied privilege all her life. The story of activist Gita Ramaswamy, the founder of Hyderabad Book Trust, which revolutionised Telugu publishing with its low-cost books and has published over 400 titles since its inception in 1980, is a saga of relentless struggle against oppression: of caste, of family, of society and of state. It’s a story of the quest for revolution, and the audacity of hope.

A revolutionary without a gun, Ramaswamy — who gravitated towards Naxalite movement in the 1970s and took up the cudgels against the influential Reddys on behalf of the landless labourers of Ibrahimpatnam (Telangana) in the 1980s  — has fought against the caste diktats and for a fairer world for the marginalised with unwavering faith (in herself and the people around her, including her husband Cyril Reddy) and unfaltering determination.  Her only weapons: grit, courage and conviction.

In Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of A Lapsed Revolutionary (navayana), Ramaswamy recounts her five-decade-long journey through the rugged and rock-strewn landscape of the Deccan during which she lived with the agricultural labourers of Ibrahimpatnam, who were cheated out of their  lands by the Reddys and  lived in bondage. She had arrived there in 1984 as a disillusioned 30-year-old woman, a failed idealist whose hope for revolution had briefly faded.

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A life less ordinary

Fourth of five sisters, Ramaswamy was raised in an orthodox Brahmin family, with roots in Kerala. She grew up amidst rigid strictures around food, dress and codes of conduct. Her father, K.H. Ramaswamy, was an engineer with the postal department. Since his job was transferable, the family spent most of their lives outside Tamil Nadu.  Her mother had been prevented from going to school by her brother, who had torn her only set of good clothes. “She dinned it  into us that being a woman meant a life of suffering, and that education was the only way to escape the worst of it,” writes Ramaswamy, underlining that her mother’s story left a deep impact on her and she vowed never to be caught in the same situation as her mother, even if it meant cleaving herself from her family.

Ramaswamy’s battles began early. While still in school, she was forced to confront Brahmin taboos involving eating outside (a strict no-no) and menstruation (no menstruating woman could touch a thing in the house). “My rational and emotional selves coalesced in a unified rebellion against the superstitions practised at home,” she writes.

In the early 1970s, when Ramaswamy was studying at Osmania University,  a few groups of Naxalites were active in Andhra Pradesh. She followed a few friends of hers, including Cyril (brother of George Reddy, a student activist, who was murdered by rightwing goons) when they joined CPI-ML Chandra Pulla Reddy group — the Andhra Pradesh Revolutionary Communist Party. She had joined the party in the fiery idealism of youth, but had soon grown weary and exasperated by the unlikelihood of democratic functioning since it remained deeply and stubbornly hierarchical.

She had arrived in Ibrahimpatnam after having escaped the Brahminical clutches of her family, which had tried to cure her of Naxalism by giving her electric shocks for 22 days. The psychiatric treatment had scrambled her memory and killed her childhood passion for mathematics. After she had somehow escaped to Osmania after the horror at home (Madras), she was in a state of mental disarray and disquiet; she was set to marry Cyril, but she failed to recognise him.

When the Emergency was clamped down, her days were filled with fervent activity; several of her party members had to  go in hiding; many others  suffered in its throes. As a comrade, she had  organised massive agitations, including those against the rise of prices of the essentials. But when she left the party in the post-Emergency ferment, a part of her yearned for activism.  The paranoia of the Emergency haunted her for several years till she learnt to regain her confidence and poise.

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When the Emergency was lifted, she came to Delhi — after a brief stay in Chandigarh — and spent two years teaching the Balmiki community in Ghaziabad; this was the time when she also contemplated suicide.  The longing to do active political work took her to Ibrahimpatnam. But prior to that, she established Hyderabad Book Trust in 1980, and published some overtly political books in Telugu by leftists and Ambedkarites; many of them translation of books in English. Swept along by the idea of revolution but frustrated with the blinkered politics of the time, Ramaswamy was looking for an avenue to work with the people at the grassroot level when she arrived in Ibrahimpatnam. It changed the course of her life.

Such a long journey

Early in 1984, Ramaswamy was working on her women’s health book, Savaalaksha Sandehaalu: Sthreelu-Aarogyam, Samskruti, Rajakeyalu (A Million Questions: Women’s Health, Culture, Politics) with the feminist group Stree Shakti Sanghatana, which was formed in the late 1970s and focused both on feminist activism and scholarship.

Ibrahimpatnam is about 30 km to the south-east of Hyderabad in Ranga Reddy district. It was here that Ramaswamy launched her struggle against bonded labour. Before Independence, the area was under the dominion of the nizams, during which  a vast network of feudal lords, called doras, administered and controlled the lands. Not only did they maintain private armies, they also laid down the law in their villages, and extracted free services from the artisanal castes, and from the ‘service castes’ like malas and madigas (Dalits). When the Telangana armed struggle, the Communist-led insurrection of peasants, swept through most parts of the nizam’s state, it challenged the exploitative nature of landownership in the region.

Ramaswamy, by making landless madigas aware of Minimum Wages Act and the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, emboldened them to defy injustice. For instance, in Eliminedu, when she gave a lecture, the workers struck work. It was in Eliminedu that Bhoopal Reddy, a tyrannical landlord, ruled with an iron fist and a gun. As Cyril and Ramaswamy carried out their movement, landlords started pushing back. But she prepared the people to defy injustice. And to resist.

As the activity of Ibrahimpatnam Taluk Vyavasaya Coolie Sangam/Agricultural Labourers’ Union”), the union or ‘Sangam’ that she helped establish in the mid-1980s became popular, scores of young people, who fell in love and found it difficult to marry because they belonged to different castes, sought her help. Sangam organised several inter-caste marriages, defying the conventions.

“It was a long journey, from the thrill and dismay of being a Naxalite, to becoming a publisher, to then ending up becoming an instrument in the independent struggles of the largely dalit working class in Ibrahimpatnam,” writes Ramaswamy.