Review: Land, Guns, Caste, Woman; The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary by Gita Ramaswamy
“Why don’t we kill him?” was Gita Ramaswamy’s suggestion when a fellow party member wanted to surrender
“Why don’t we kill him?” was Gita Ramaswamy’s suggestion when a fellow party member wanted to surrender. She was underground with her comrades during the Emergency in India in the mid-1970s — a defection to the police risked exposing their shelters. A decade later, in the Sangam, a collective working for land and wage rights near Hyderabad, she advocated assaulting landlords and even killing one because “it was easier to get acquitted in a murder case than get justice”.
These vignettes exemplify the candour with which Gita reflects on her life and experiences in her memoir Land, Guns, Caste, Woman. While her views on violence are more nuanced than these anecdotes suggest, her sharing the long, sometimes embarrassing, journey to arrive at these conclusions makes them more interesting.
Born in Solapur, Maharashtra, in 1953 to an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family with roots in Kerala, Gita grew up in cities across India. She went to college in Hyderabad, where she joined a Naxalite group in 1973. Gita is critical of how certain Communist factions reduced disparate issues to “three conceptual mountains”: semi-feudalism, semi-colonialism, and comprador bourgeoisie. She riles against their contention that the end justifies the means; their centralised, hierarchical structure; their caste and gender blindness; and some leaders’ double standards for themselves and the cadre.
Disillusioned, she left the party in 1976. Evading the police, she moved to Ghaziabad, where she taught children from the marginalised Balmiki caste. In 1980, she co-founded the Hyderabad Book Trust, which became known for its low-cost books and translations from across the world.
Her work with bonded labourers in Ibrahimpatnam resulted in the formation of Sangam, a trade union, in 1985. Over the next couple of years, the Sangam facilitated the release of 1,500 bonded labourers officially and another 1,420 unofficially. They freed 14,000 acres of fields from the landed gentry’s control, enabling a transfer of assets estimated to be worth over ₹11,200 crores to landless labourers.
The book has the ingredients of a compelling memoir. Gita is an engaging raconteur with delightful turns of phrase, so it seldom bores or exhausts despite its 427 pages. No wonder movie magnate Ramoji Rao wanted to make a film on her — a prospect that horrified her. Memoirs are often inward-looking, but Gita skirts this by using her experiences as a launchpad to chronicle the world around her. The memoir’s decentring of the self might also partly be due to the collaborative efforts that went into its making. In the preface, Why I had to write this book, she explains how she reconnected with her Sangam colleagues “not just to refresh my memory but also to more thoroughly reconstruct the framework of the movement that had changed us all”.
Gita retrains the critical lens with which she looks at power dynamics and social movements on herself to expose her ignorance, failings, hypocrisies, and caste and class privileges. She is forthcoming about the limitations of her work with Sangam despite the collective’s many victories. Yet, she avoids the extreme of constant self-flagellation, which can often be another form of self-indulgence. Gita also flags the stories she wanted to excise from the memoir and grievances that have persisted over decades.
But these are middling compared to the book’s other achievements. It provides an insightful account of how dominant castes appropriated lands despite land ceiling laws, the importance of land ownership for the dispossessed, what goes into organising people, fighting for Constitutional rights, and the arduous, often elusive, quest for justice. While her impressions and conclusions draw from a part of rural Telangana, they apply to many regions across India.
Throwaway observations and anecdotes intersperse these knotty, sometimes distressing, subjects, which keep the book from getting overwhelming or tedious. Gita goes into raptures describing Telangana’s boulder-strewn landscape and lists the names of picturesque rocks: mekalagutta (rock with a goat’s face), bollonigutta (white rocks), kondengulagutta (inhabited by langurs), etc. While she partially attributes poor diets in the region to poverty, she adds how papaya trees were plentiful, but people avoided the fruit and how the government’s rice subsidy displaced millets from people’s plates. Gita dedicates a page to open defecation — it was a “part of wholesome rural life, a time of socialising with friends”, which she abhorred. She explains how a rumour that she carried a pistol in her sling bag, which her colleagues did not dispel, possibly kept her safe. However, that did not deter a rampaging mob from making her run for her life in 1988.
It is interesting how Gita shunned ideological purity for political expediency. She met people across party lines (BJP, Congress, CPI) to garner support for the Sangam. Sangam members canvassed for the CPI (M) candidate in elections — not because they espoused its work or policies, but because it wouldn’t harass the Sangam as the Congress did. Her experience provides a road map to the setbacks, internal dissensions, mental health struggles, and repression that activists might face and strategies to deal with these.
Most of all, her memoir is a heady reminder to not give in to despair when confronted with seemingly intractable power. While it barely touches upon this topic, her journey shows the possibilities of resistance, the diverse forms it can take, the alliances one can build to realise a shared dream, and the unexpected ways in which social and political change can materialise.
Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.