‘Left, farmers’ movement ignore distinction between peasants, labourers

Gita Ramaswamy in conversation with Siddhesh Gautam and Aatika Singh at Navayana book launchat Kunzum cafe 2022

Interview with Gita Ramaswamy, author of “Land, Guns, Caste, Woman—The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary”

Aatika S | TwoCircles.net

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In this interview, the author talks about the situation of landless Dalits labourers in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh; her own personal and political journey among the landless Dalit laborers of Telengana in the 1980s to help them reclaim 14000 acres of land; treatment of Ambedkar by the Left movement. She also dwells on reasons as to why it takes several Dalits and Adivasis lives for savarna system to take notice the rampant atrocities and discrimination.  

Memoir writing these days centres mostly around the crisis in idealism, personal suffering and lived experience; exactly the themes that your book touches upon repeatedly. In this sense is your story more civilisational than personal?
I lived a life so much in public spaces, hence it is possible that the reader gets a sense that the story is more civilizational than personal. For me, the personal was always linked to the political and I couldn’t separate the two. I had little life outside the political, at least in the period I dealt with in the memoir. Besides this, my generation rarely spoke about ourselves, it was considered self-promotional. This is the background in which I could have subsumed the personal and emphasised the political. Meena Kandasamy did remark in her The Hindu review, ‘I looked forward to reading how Gita balanced her public life alongside her partnership. This is a terrain without manuals, without field guides, without memoirs. The book keeps its secrets.’

The book tells us that the revolution is everyday as your journey combines both idealism and ideology. However you still do not possess the necessary lived empiricism required to fully understand a Dalit life. How do we then together take the small steps towards a revolutionary and democratic future?
I acknowledge that I do not and can never fully understand a Dalit life, or any other life, for that matter. Every person is special with different upbringings, childhood neuroses and gendered experiences. Every community has different shared experiences which others cannot understand fully. Unless the person herself explains herself to others, how can we understand her? The issue here is not so much understanding as of empathy. Listening, respecting the other’s voice, making ample space for it, and taking no decisions which affect her without her deciding it – these would be the ways we move forward for a revolutionary and democratic future. For a person/activist from the dominant community/gender/region, listening carefully is the first prerequisite.

You write, “I agonised about the little girl that my mother once was and vowed that I would never be caught in a similar situation. In a way, she was probably the first feminist I knew.” As much as I relate to your sentiment, I refuse to see my mother as a first feminist since women are heavily conditioned under Brahmanical patriarchy to not be feminist, I believe. What according to you marks the difference in our feelings towards our mothers?
Yes, I used the word feminist which was not quite right. Feminism encompasses all oppressions and my mother had pro-caste sentiments. But she believed that Brahmin women needed to fight for equality with Brahmin men in the family and that, for me, was a good starting point. As a little girl, unaware of other marginalities and oppressions, this was the only thing I saw which made a great impression on me. 

In the late 1960s, ABVP was active at Osmania University, as mentioned in the book. Even today universities like JNU, HCU, Jamia etc remain increasingly marred by them. Why couldn’t the student movement in India build itself on more inclusive grounds?
When politics are not inclusive, how can the student movement be so? In the late 1960s, the ABVP was active in Osmania University but was decimated by 1972 with the fight led by George Reddy. It took them more than two decades to recoup ground. You raise two issues here: one, that the ABVP dominates student landscapes today, and the second, the student movement is not built on inclusive grounds. As far as the second issue is concerned, the student movement was dominated by the Left and liberal persons who come from dominant castes and therefore easily ignore caste (and gender) issues. They have links with Left political parties who have the same framework of thought. The Ayodhya movement further increased the divide among all students. Until we learn to be more inclusive and work together on common goals, I don’t see the situation changing.

You succeed in highlighting a nuanced difference between a farmer and a labourer. The point was largely missed by the farmer’s movement, in 2020-21 as well. The Dalit worker remains the most marginalised and unorganised. What are your thoughts on this?
All pan-India statistics go to show that the Dalit worker in the countryside is the one with the least entitlement in the land. In the two Telugu states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, while Dalits are around 11% of the population, they do not even own 1% of arable land. Owning land is not simply owning an asset which yields some income, however meagre it may be, it also signifies a higher status and access to other entitlements from the state, be it a bank loan, tenant benefits, subsidy on fertiliser and pesticide, remission of bank loans, etc. 

The Dalit worker has to depend on her income from wage labour. This being precarious and available only for three months of the year in many villages, she migrates seasonally with her family to other fertile lands where sugarcane and commercial crops are grown or to urban areas to work as a construction labourer or in other occupations. As a migrant, she faces double trouble; her ration card does not work here, she is not eligible for the widow/old age pension in the new area and has to be physically present in her village to ensure that she can draw and keep her entitlement, her children’s education is disturbed, her teenage sons may turn to low-level criminal activity, her daughters may be easily molested in the new close environment, the quality of life in terms of purer air, greater space, better food and living habitat is far lower. 

The collapsing of the categories of peasant and labourer in the Left and farmers’ movements is common and ignores the sharp distinction that a piece of land can make, not just in terms of livelihood, but as collateral in the event of a crisis. Ambedkar asserted that land was not simply a matter of economics but also of social status and hence, “a person holding land has a higher status than a person not holding land” (BAWS, Vol. 15, p. 913).

You write, “We did not feel the need to justify the party’s blindness to various areas. The more practical and structural influences of caste in everyday life were not yet interrogated in the Left circles. You could join the Left with all your Brahminness intact and still be comfortable.” The statement rings extremely true even today. Can we say that the Left has remained myopic and stagnant all this while basking in moral righteousness?
Yes, it has. Even while Left publishing houses publish Ambedkar, their non-Dalit cadre does not read Ambedkar, they only pay lip service when a Jayanti or vardhanti comes up. Ambedkar is used for political benefit. They have not once critiqued their blindness on the caste question, nor have they retracted their openly stated opposition to Ambedkar made over the years. One can wonder why this is so despite the numbers of Dalits in Left organisations. I think the concept of democratic centralism (more plainly, authoritarianism) could be one cause for the lack of reflection. Dalit cadre does not/cannot question rigorously without affecting their positions in the party. When they do, they invariably have to leave it. 

It took the incident of Karamchedu in 1985 for you to realise the extent of the prevalence of caste atrocities and discrimination. Even today, savarnas only understand the gravity of the situation when one of us is murdered, lynched or dies a tragic death. Why?
Because we ignore Dalit lives all around us, we ignore the squalid living conditions, the discriminatory private-government system of education and health, the less-than-living wages doled out to Dalits and their lack of entitlements in every sphere. We turn a blind eye when house owners refuse to rent living spaces to Dalits when university selection committees turn away Dalit candidates for appointments because the scion of an academically powerful family is waiting to fill the post when the daughter of the household help has to leave school because of a family financial crisis when Dalitwadas are refused public services like good roads, drains and regular water supply when we bargain with vegetable vendors for a few rupees but don’t bat an eyelid when we spend thousands at malls. Because we ignore them in real life, we understand some part of the travesty of justice only when they are killed. The tragedy is perceived only with a cruel end, not with the cruelty in daily lives.

You write, “Sometimes when I see my friends with their natal families, I get this feeling of loss, a void within me which can never be filled. I feel this profound sense that something precious has escaped me forever.” Most women would relate to this emotion as families are dens of oppression for us. Can there ever be an egalitarian reconciliation between the prey and the predator?
The tension between families as dens of oppression and places of refuge and regeneration remains, especially for women. We are not born to be alone, we are social people and very often, in times of crisis and old age, the family remains the social backup. Why did Babasaheb have to marry a second time when he was ailing? He had millions of followers, many of them willing to support him day and night. All movements have failed in providing the support that families provide, though at a heavy price. More and more, migration has forced people to live alone and in the West, we see that social contact is poorer than in India. Social contact and mutual help is crucial in maintaining mental health and till we have alternative structures that provide this, the family remains as the only, though oppressive, structure to cater to this need. It is possible that I wrote this because of my own personal situation. I am alienated from family, and from many dominant-caste friends because of my politics and I lost my partner. Living alone brings home the daily grind of loneliness. 

Dalits are increasingly being seen and written as foot soldiers of the right-wing by the Left. What are your thoughts on the same?
I think it was after the 2002 Gujarat genocide of Muslims that Dalits were seen and written as foot soldiers of the right-wing by the Left. The left also used Dalits as foot soldiers in their various movements and never gave them space to grow and expand organically in the various left movements. During the Telangana peasant movement of the forties led by the Left, Dalits were also participants, but when they saw that it was the middle peasantry that benefited and retained land that was distributed, they slowly moved away to the Congress. 

You sum up while writing, “to love and be loved in return for the first time in life.” The beauty of the sentence lies in its reverberation across the spectrum of people who have associated in any capacity with progressive movements. What today should be the role of love in social movements?
We downgrade the role of love in social movements, we are embarrassed to dwell on it, and we shy away from expressing all forms of love, be it romantic or platonic. Friendships are discounted at the altar of political correctness. When left parties split as they do frequently, precious friendships are broken up. When the categorisation debate among the Scheduled Castes started in the early nineties in Andhra Pradesh, friends turned enemies. When we work in a movement, we work for love; we love the people we work with and this is the oil that keeps the machine going. We fight and quarrel, we differ and disagree, yet we remain together because we love each other and try patiently to keep our differences to the minimum. Violence against anyone in the movement breaks this love and leaves us grieving. When members of a family quarrel, everyone helps to resolve it. When members of social movements quarrel, there is no mediation process to resolve the quarrel, instead, more groups arise.


Aatika S. is a fellow at the SEEDS-TCN mentorship program.