The CC of CPI(ML) Red Star which met on 16th June, in the context of the untimely departure of com. Sivaram, PB member and Odisha state committee secretary of the party on 28th May night, and before the party could come out of the shock, the departure of com. Sharmistha, another PB member, General Secretary of the AIRWO, and Central Executive Committee member of the TUCI on 13th June, as another big shock to all comrades, which immensely pained them. While comrade Sharmistha also played an important role in the formation and development of the World Women’s Conference also, comrade Sivaram, in the course of 28 years of consistent work based on the ideological political breakthrough achieved by the Party built up the most active communist organization surrounded by class/mass organizations and people’s movements in a backward state like Odisha starting from a scratch, starting our work among the slum dwellers of Bhubaneswar.
The Central Committee resolved that the loss of these two young, militant, mass leaders who enormously helped in developing the party line, to build the party and class/mass organizations and in developing many important mass movements, is not only a great loss to CPI(ML) Red Star, but to the entire communist movement. The Central Committee pays homage to them, upholding their great revolutionary contributions; and calls upon all party comrades to march forward to fulfill the revolutionary tasks for which they fought with communist conviction and determination all through their life.
The departure of com. K T Raju, secretary of the party district committee, Salem, and state executive committee member, and com. Govind Raj, secretary of the party district committee of Dharmapuri, are a big loss not only to the Tamilnadu state committee of the party, but to the party as a whole. The Central Committee pays homage to these departed comrades, heartfelt condolences to their families and calls upon the party comrades to march forward to fulfill the revolutionary tasks for which they were fighting and but still left unfinished.
During the last one and half years, as the attack of Covid 19 pandemic went on intensifying, a large number of leaders, activists and members of the different left organizations who were continuing their work among the people have lost their life. During the beginning of the Covid pandemic, it took away com. Jaswant Rao, CCM of CPI(ML) Class Struggle and U. Sambasiva Rao of the Caste Annihilation Movement. During the last few months comrades Mohammad Gouse, GS of the MCPI(U), Prof Lal Bahadur Varma (Itihas Bodh),Ram Jatan Sharma (CCC member of CPI(ML)-Liberation), Madhu, CCM of CPI(ML) Class Struggle, Muktar Pasha (CCM, CPI(ML) New Democracy), and Nagendra (vice president, Inquilabi Mazdoor Kendra) departed us. The Central Committee conveys its heartfelt condolences to their family members, to their comrades and friends.
Under the Covid 19 pandemic according to government statistics more than 3.5lakh people have lost their life. But there are reports that the actual count may be much higher, as dead bodies were found floating in Ganges and other rivers in UP and Bihar. If the large number of people died due to lack of medicine, oxygen, proper treatment, lack of hospital beds, even lack of food and livelihood etc are included the number may go up to a crore. They are victims of the insensitivity of a criminal ruling system with fascist character of its leadership. The Central Committee extends heartfelt condolences to their families, and stands with them at the time of their immense suffering.
CPI(ML) Red Star
16th June 2021
(Let us Study Sharmista’s Paper on Marxism and the Women’s Question; Help Building of AIRWO with Her Vision, Ensuring Rightful Role of Women in Party and in the Struggle for their Liberation!
Com. Sharmista is no more with us; but her contributions to the theoretical offensive to project a correct understanding of the Marxist contribution to the Women’s liberation, to develop this understanding , the organizational approach for it, and its practice according to the concrete conditions of today will be read, discussed and practiced for a long time to come, as a part of the class struggle. She has written many valuable articles on this question, in the AIRWO organ, as well as in many publications including the Red Star. When she was entrusted with the responsibility to write the paper on Marxism and the Women’s Question for the 2020 Central Party School, she told me: Comrade, this time I am going to write a paper keeping in mind our Resolution on Theoretical Offensive adopted by 10th Congress at Lucknow”. I said, ok go ahead. But as the dates of Party School was nearing, the paper was not received. After one or two reminders, she sent the paper with the a note “the second part has to be developed. But I shall explain in the School”.
In the School for CC members and selected comrades from different states, she said, “I will not speak about what I have written in the paper. But to show how mechanical, and often patriarchic was the communist movement towards women’s liberation, I will explain certain incidents”. Like the revisionists everywhere, in India also the CPI leadership was spreading the argument that, since the private property is the root cause of women’s slavery, once it is ended by the revolution, the women’s liberation also will take place. It was the same argument put forward when the question was raised why the party is not taking up struggle for caste annihilation, struggle against Brahmanical Manuvadi concepts, struggle against feudal and imperialist cultural values etc also along with, and as part of the class struggle from the pre-revolutionary phase itself. So, class struggle was, in effect, reduced to economism.
She sighted many examples of what happened to those who opposed this reformist approach. Many were eased out of leadership. Contrary to what was explained by Lenin to Clara Zetkin, though in name the ‘front organization’ concept was opposed, all mass organizations, including women’s, was not better than that. No serious efforts were made to politicize and bring women forward and to leadership, instead if they came forward they were put down. The communist party leadership always remained male dominated. In India, so far no women were elevated to become even a state secretary of the party, or as chief minister by the CPI or CPI(M). One interesting, but horrific incident she explained was what happened to the hundreds of women who had left their patriarchal families and joined the Great Telengana Struggle. Large number of women, influenced by the communist propaganda had become volunteers and squad members. In spite of forceful migration of Hyderabad state with Indian Union and dispatch of Indian army to suppress the Telengana struggle, it was continuing by spreading to new areas and adopting new tactics. But, when the CPI leadership approached Nehru government which was playing all tactics to politically disarm and destroy the revolutionary sections in the CPI, in order to get recognition for contesting the 1952 elections and to get the restrictions on the party removed, it cleverly demanded the withdrawal of the Telengana Struggle and dissolution of all secret party fractions active in many armed forces units. When the leadership surrendered, and accepted these demands, thousands of party members were court martialled and thrown out of the armed forces. In Telengana, the women who had joined the party had nowhere to go for continuing to their communist work as the movement was withdrawn; most of them had to return to their old patriarchal prisons! There was not even a serious discussion on this matter in the CPI. These women and fighters were told to wait for revolution, which it had really abandoned even before the ‘peaceful transition to socialism through parliamentary struggle’ of Krushchov was put forward by Krushchov in the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956! Was it just a mistake of only these parties, CPI, and then CPI and CPI(M) after 1964, who have degenerated to social democratic positions? The condition of the CR organizations which came up after the disintegration of CPI(ML) and other such groupings by 1972 were not different, or worse in the case of CPI(Maoist), and CLI groups which fervently argue for front organizations with the only task of supporting the armed struggle led by the ‘party which should be always underground’! The understanding of those who have mass organizations, either they are micro groups without any democratic organizational set ups, or pursue the same style of revisionist, reformist parties with regard to class/mass organizations.
It is in this context, the importance of the paper of com. Sharmista written for the Party School, given below should be seen. Mind it, it is not a AIRWO paper, but a paper written to educate the party on this question by a PB member of the party! Whenever I asked her to complete it, so that it can be published, she was asking for some more time. Then she became incapable of any such work from the beginning of April. Now our beloved comrade Sharmista has left us yesterday. Today when her body was taken from SSKN Hospital to Academy of Fine Arts for all fraternal organizations, comrades and friends to pay their tributes, a very large number of all of them came to show their love, affection and respect to her; then in a procession her body was taken back to SSKN Hospital in a procession, with the comrades singing the International, and raising slogans in her memory. Her body was handed over to the Hospital to help the students in their research work.
Though she was not well, she attended the PB meeting on 10th June and participated in the discussion on some issues also; especially when we discussed about two days’ online PB meeting in July for preliminary discussions on updating the present Party documents, followed by 4-5 days actual PB meeting in August to update and develop them in the 12th Party Congress, preparations for which we have already started. When one comrade raised the question of linking it with the proposals in the Resolution on Theoretical Offensive, she enthusiastically supported it. Then I reminded her promise to come up with concrete proposals based on the paper she has presented in the Party School, with a smile she said. Now, we have to carry forward to take up this task also.
So, we think it will be a tribute to her to publish this paper online today itself. Red Salute to you beloved Sharmista, You Will be Always with Us, Inspiring Us! - KN Ramachandran)
Marxism and the Women’s Question
Marx and Engels located the origin of women’s oppression in the rise of class society. Engels wrote The Origin of Family, Private Property and State in 1884 - a year after Marx's death. He used Marx's Ethnological Notebooks as well as his own notes as the basis of the text. The notebooks contained Marx's notes on Ancient Society by Lewis Henry Morgan. The Origin is a short book which dwells on Morgan's findings and puts forward an argument about the nature of "primitive" society, the rise of commodity production and, with it, the emergence of classes and the state. Engels contended that, for the vast majority of human existence, some 2,000,000 years (or 2 million years if we include other human-like species), people lived in small communities that were relatively egalitarian, did not contain systematic oppression by one group or another, and to whom concepts such as property and wealth would have had no meaning.
Humans had not yet learned how to cultivate plants or rear animals. These hunter-gatherer societies could sustain only a relatively small population which had to move on when resources became scarce. Sharing and communal living were the best way to ensure the survival of the group. There would have been a division of labour between men and women, but this did not mean the domination of one group by the other - each person would make the decisions about the activities they were involved in.
Rather than living in family units of two parents and their children, or an extended patriarchal family centering round the male elder, people lived in communal systems of kinship - children would be the responsibility of everyone.
The old kinship systems were centered on mothers because it was only possible to identify the line of descent through the mother. In such a setup only mothers would know with certainty who their children were and thus build up a network of blood relationships around that knowledge, giving every member of the group a line of descent and a role. The "household" was communal, and the fruits of women's and men's labour were shared among families. There was no separation between what we would now know as ‘housework’ and all other work - there was no public/private divide.
The new male-dominated family broke up this intricate, communal system by placing the family as the key economic unit of society, the means through which wealth would be owned and passed on. Rather than the woman being an equally important economic actor in society, she and her children became dependent upon the individual man in the family.
This change took place with development of production relations and growing people's ability to produce more than they immediately needed to consume. The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals meant goods could be produced for trade - commodities could be exchanged for other things or, eventually, money. More specialised tools became crucial to production, and thus very valuable property. Men tended to be the ones responsible for animal rearing and increasingly for agriculture - so they owned the tools and made the economic decisions, gradually increasing their importance in relation to women.
For the first time women's ability to give birth became a burden. This was partly because settled communities with greater productive capacity could sustain larger populations - in fact needed more labourers to work in the fields - and so women would tend to spend more time pregnant or with young children. But the main source of women's oppression was the separation of the family from the communal clan. Women's labour in the home became a private service under conditions of subjugation. This was the "world historic defeat of the female sex" that Engels wrote about:
"The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became a slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of women...has gradually been palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in milder form, in no sense has it been abolished."
As Marx noted, "The modern family contains in germ not only slavery but also serfdom, since from the beginning it is related to agricultural services. It contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and its state."
This defeat of mother right was a profound change in human relations caused, not by some latent desire in men to dominate women, but by the needs of commodity production and the way it developed. The monogamous family was "the first form of the family to be based...on economic conditions - on the victory of private property over...communal property". Along with domestic slavery came slave labour and the beginning of systematic exploitation. Once communal property was undermined this was inevitable - private property for some always means no property for others. Engels writes that this process "opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others."
Engels built upon Morgan’s theory in The Origin to develop, as the title implies, a theory of how the rise of class society led to both the rise of the state, which represents the interests of the ruling class in the day-to-day class struggle, and the rise of the family, as the means by which the first ruling classes possessed and passed on private wealth. He developed a historical analysis which located the source of women’s oppression. In so doing, he provided a strategy for ending that oppression. It is no exaggeration to say that Engels’ work has defined the terms of debate around ‘the origin’ of women’s oppression for the last 100 years. Most writers on the subject of women’s oppression have set out either to support or reject Marxist theory as laid out by Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Until the women’s movement of the late 1960s began to challenge male chauvinism, sexist assumptions provided the basis for broad generalizations. Claude Levi-Strauss, a leading anthropologist within the structuralist school, went so far as to argue that "human society...is primarily a masculine society." He argued that the "exchange of women" is a "practically universal" feature of human society, in which men obtain women from other men – from fathers, brothers and other male relatives. Moreover, he asserted that "the deep polygamous tendency, which exists among all men, always makes the number of available women seem insufficient." Therefore, "the most desirable women must form a minority." Because of this, "the demand for women is an actual fact, or to all intents and purposes, always in a state of disequilibrium and tension." According to Levi-Strauss, then, women have been the passive victims of men’s sexual aggression since the beginning of human society.
On the other hand, in its purest form, much of feminist theory rests upon more imaginations than facts. There is wide ranging supposition like men dominate women because they hold women in contempt for their ability to bear children–or because they are jealous of women’s ability to bear children. Men oppress women because long ago women formed a powerful matriarchy which was overthrown–or because men have always been a tyrannical patriarchy. Gerda Lerner argues in her book, The Creation of Patriarchy, "Feminists, beginning with Simone de Beauvoir… [have explained women’s oppression] as caused by either male biology or male psychology." She goes on to describe a sampling of feminist theories, all of which border on the outlandish: Thus, Susan Brownmiller sees man’s ability to rape women leading to their propensity to rape women and shows how this has led to male dominance over women and to male supremacy. Elizabeth Fisher ingeniously argued that the domestication of animals…led men to the idea of raping women. She claimed that the brutalization and violence connected with animal domestication led to men’s sexual dominance and institutionalized aggression. More recently, Mary O’Brien built an elaborate explanation of the ‘origin’ of male dominance on men’s psychological need to compensate for their inability to bear children through the construction of institutions of dominance and, like Fisher, dated this "discovery" in the period of the discovery of animal domestication.
In his introduction to the first edition of The Origin, Engels explains materialism as follows: “According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This, again, is of a twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species.”
Before class society, the idea of a strictly monogamous pairing of males and females with their offspring – the modern, ‘monogamous‘ family – was unknown to human society. Inequality was also unknown. For more than 2 million years, humans lived in groups made up of people who were mostly related by blood, in conditions of relative equality. This understanding is an important part of Marxist theory.
Human evolution has taken place over a very long time–a period of millions of years. The earliest human ancestors (Homo habilus) probably appeared some 2 million or more years ago, while anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) did not appear until 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. The earliest forms of agriculture did not begin until 10,000 years ago, and it is only over the last thousand years that human society has experienced much more rapid technological development.25 For most of human history, it would have been impossible to accumulate wealth – nor was there much motivation to do so. For one thing, there would have been no place to store it. People lived first in nomadic bands – hunter-gatherer societies – sustaining themselves by some combination of gathering berries, roots and other vegetable growth, and hunting or fishing. In most such societies, there would have been no point in working more than the several hours per day it takes to produce what is necessary for subsistence. But even among the first societies to advance to horticulture, it wasn’t really possible to produce much more than what was to be immediately consumed by members of the band.
With the onset of more advanced agricultural production–through the use of the plow and/or advanced methods of irrigation –and the beginnings of settled communities. In some societies, human beings were able to extract more than the means of subsistence from the environment. This led to the first accumulation of surplus, or wealth. As Engels stated in The Origin: "Above all, we now meet the first iron plowshare drawn by cattle, which made large-scale agriculture, the cultivation of fields, possible and thus created a practically unrestricted food supply in comparison with previous conditions." This was a turning point for human society, for it meant that, over time, production for use could be replaced by production for exchange and eventually for profit, leading to the rise of the first class societies some 6,000 years ago.
The crux of Engels’ theory of women’s oppression rests on the relationship between the sexual division of labor and the mode of production, which underwent a fundamental transformation with the onset of class society. In hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, there was a sexual division of labor–rigidly defined sets of responsibilities for women and men. But both sexes were allowed a high degree of autonomy in performing those tasks. Moreover–and this is an element which has been learned since Engels’ time–women not only provided much of the food for the band in hunter-gatherer societies, but also, in many cases, they provided most of the food. So women in pre-class societies were able to combine motherhood and productive labor–in fact, there was no strict demarcation between the reproductive and productive spheres. Women, in many cases, could carry small children with them while they gathered or planted, or leave the children behind with other adults for a few hours at a time. Likewise, many goods could be produced in the household. Because women were central to production in these pre-class societies, systematic inequality between the sexes was nonexistent, and elder women in particular enjoyed relatively high status.
All of that changed with the development of private property. According to the sexual division of labor, men tended to take charge of heavier agricultural jobs, like plowing, since it was more difficult for pregnant or nursing women and might endanger small children to be carried along. Moreover, since men traditionally took care of big-game hunting (though not exclusively), again, it made sense for them to oversee the domestication of cattle. Engels argued that the domestication of cattle preceded the use of the plow in agriculture, although it is now accepted that these two processes developed at the same time. But this does not diminish the validity of his explanation as to why control over cattle fell to men.
As production shifted away from the household, the role of reproduction changed substantially. The shift toward agricultural production sharply increased the productivity of labor. This, in turn, increased the demand for labor–the greater the number of field workers, the higher the surplus. Thus, unlike hunter-gatherer societies, which sought to limit the number of offspring, agricultural societies sought to maximize women’s reproductive potential, so the family would have more children to help out in the fields. Therefore, at the same time that men were playing an increasingly exclusive role in production, women were required to play a much more central role in reproduction.
The rigid sexual division of labor remained the same, but production shifted away from the household. The family no longer served anything but a reproductive function – as such, it became an economic unit of consumption. In the family, men as owners of the means of production and controlling the major share of production, came to be owners of the produce too, and the woman and children of the family became dependent on the man for their share of the produce. This also enabled the men to hold the woman in relative subjugation. Women became trapped within their individual families, as the reproducers of society–cut off from production. These changes took place first among the property-owning families, the first ruling class. But eventually, the monogamous family became an economic unit of society as a whole.
It is important to understand that these changes did not take place overnight, but over a period of thousands of years. Moreover, greed was not responsible, in the first instance, for the unequal distribution of wealth. Nor was male chauvinism the reason why power fell into the hands of (some) men, while the status of women fell dramatically. There is no evidence (nor any reason to assume) that women were coerced into this role by men. For property-owning families, a larger surplus would have been in the interest of all household members. Engels said of the first male "property owners" of domesticated cattle, "What is certain is that we must not think of him as a property owner in the modern sense of the word." He owned his cattle in the same sense that he owned the other tools required to obtain food and other necessities. But "the family did not multiply so rapidly as the cattle." Agricultural output also increased sharply–some of which needed to be stored to feed the community in case of a poor harvest, and some of which could be traded for other goods.
Obviously, every society across the globe did not experience an identical succession of changes in the mode of production. Chris Harman writes, "[T]he exact route from hunter-gathering through horticulture and agriculture to civilization did vary considerably from one society to another." But, “[t]he divergent forms under which class society emerged must not make us forget the enormous similarities from society to society.” Everywhere there was, in the beginning, primitive communism. Everywhere, once settled agricultural societies were formed, some lineages, lineage elders or "big men" could begin to gain prestige through their role in undertaking the redistribution of the little surplus that existed in the interests of the group as a whole. Everywhere, as the surplus grew, this small section of society came to control a greater share of the social wealth, putting it in a position where it could begin to crystallize out into a social class.
What is indisputable is that the onset of class society brought with it a universal shift toward patri-lineage–and, more importantly, the role of men as "heads" of their households. Engels was undoubtedly correct–with more supporting evidence today than when he was writing–that the rise of the modern family brought with it a degradation of women which was unknown in pre-class societies. Engels argued, “The overthrow of mother right was the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. . . . In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore the paternity of his children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.”
That the rise of the family was a consequence–and not a cause, as some argue–of the rise of classes is central to Engels’ argument.
Engels argued that the rise of class society brought with it rising inequality – between the rulers and the ruled, and between men and women. At first the surplus was shared with the entire clan – so wealth was not accumulated by any one individual or groups of individuals. But gradually, as settled communities grew in size and became more complex social organizations, and, most importantly, as the surplus grew, the distribution of wealth became unequal – and a small number of men rose above the rest of the population in wealth and power.
Engels didn't claim that there was a straightforward, one-way relationship between the development of the productive forces and the social relations - there is always a battle. But everything doesn't influence everything equally: "It is not that the economic situation is cause, solely active, while everything else [political, philosophical, religious, etc, development] is only passive effect. There is rather interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself."
Engels’ analysis is straightforward–it may need further development, but its essence is there, plain to see. The sexual division of labor which existed in pre-class societies, when production for use was the dominant mode of production, carried no implication of gender inequality. Women were able to combine their reproductive and productive roles, so both sexes were able to perform productive labor. But with the rise of class society, when production for exchange began to dominate, the sexual division of labor helped to erode equality between the sexes. Production and trade increasingly occurred away from the household, so that the household became a sphere primarily for reproduction. As Coontz and Henderson argue, The increasing need for redistribution (both within local groups and between them) and the political tasks this creates have consequences for sex roles in that these political roles are often filled by males, even in matrilineal/matrilocal societies. Presumably this flows from the division of labor that associates males with long-distance activities, external affairs, and products requiring group-wide distribution, while females are more occupied with daily productive tasks from which they cannot be absented.
Hence, the beginnings of a "public" versus a "private" sphere, with women increasingly trapped in the household in property-owning families. The rise of the family itself explains women’s subordinate role within it. For the first time in human history, women’s ability to give birth kept them from playing a significant part in production.
For Engels, there was a "historic defeat" because something fundamental changed in the economic base of society. We developed ways to produce a surplus, not by nature's bounty but by our own labour. If, as Engels argues, oppression arose alongside class society then is he saying that, once we get rid of class society, oppression will automatically disappear?
A fair reading of The Origin with an open mind makes it clear that the treatise contains no such assumption. No oppression can ever automatically disappear. On the contrary, an uncompromising fight against all forms of gender oppression serves to erode the base on which such oppression stands and paves the way for the uprooting of the base. For instance, the struggles against various aspects of women’s oppression like domestic violence and sexual violence sharpen and intensify the struggle against class. “The first condition for the liberation of women”, argued Engels, “is to bring the whole of the female sex back into public industry”. We have seen over the past few decades how structural changes in capitalism have led to a significant increase in the participation of women in the workforce in many countries worldwide. While this has undoubtedly had a positive effect on the ideas and aspirations of women themselves, as well as influencing social attitudes more broadly, women’s economic, social and personal autonomy are limited by the needs of capitalism. Engels went on to explain that “this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family’s attribute of being the economic unit of society”. The family as an institution and women’s role within it, have clearly undergone significant changes since Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Nevertheless, it retains an economic and ideological relevance for 21st century capitalism which is suffering from a systemic crisis and is riven with contradictions: a system which exploits women as low-cost labour in the workplace while defining their existence by their role in the monogamous family.
Capitalist ideology concerning women’s role and status in society has also evolved since the late 19th century, but the ideas and values of a system based on commodity production for profit and inequalities of wealth and power rest on, combine with, and perpetuate the residue of outmoded ideas of male authority and supremacy which have their roots in earlier class societies. As a consequence, women continue to experience violence, sexual abuse and restrictions on their sexuality and reproductive rights, while facing sexism, discrimination, gender stereotyping and double standards.
For Engels the basis for resolving the problems which women face in society entails “the transfer of the means of production into common ownership”. In this way, “the monogamous family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into social industry. The care and education of children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike…” In a socialist society, personal relations will be freed from the economic and social constraints which continue to limit them even today. The basis for true liberation will be laid. Close to 150 years after they were first written, Engels’s words regarding the ending of women’s oppression maintain all their force.
Part – 2
In the present day the women’s organization needs to be broad-based, encompassing the aspirations of all struggling women and gender rights movements, and attempting to bring together all resistances to patriarchy under one umbrella. However, since patriarchy today is nurtured and sustained by imperialism, and in every challenge to patriarchy the world order of imperialism is also challenged to some extent or the other, the general nature of the women’s organization will be anti-imperialist.
In our country, with the fascistic onslaught intensifying, there is need for the women’s organization to be particularly strong in order to combat state-sponsored patriarchal challenges. For that the women’s organization needs to break out of the stereotypical mould of being an appendage to a Party and develop independent organizing and agitating abilities. In our country it is the custom of political parties, ranging from right, centre to left, to have women’s wings as women’s organizations. The CPIM has one, the Congress has another and so does the BJP. Even struggling left organizations like the Liberation and others have their women’s wings which go by the name of women’s organizations. However, just as it is uncommon for these ‘women’s organisations’ to ever go against any position adopted by the Party they are associated with, so also it is rare for them to take up independent positions and struggles.
The primary objective of a women’s organization is women’s liberation, and this can be neither achieved nor struggled for by women who aren’t independent themselves. But it is most often seen that far from being an independent organization with distinctive positions on all questions pertaining to the unceasing attacks on women, the tendency is to tail the Party. Thus the independent assertion of women through their own organization remains a far cry.
The relationship between the Communist Party and women’s organization should necessarily be dialectical, independent of each other and yet each hammering away at class-divided society with a view to replace it with a new order. As struggling trade unions set their own agendas of struggle, but the Party remains a bulwark of support all throughout and helps the trade union to view the long-term goals without positing itself as a Grand Patriarch in relationship to the union, so also the women’s organization should at all times set its own agenda of propaganda and struggle, aided by the Party but never dictated by it or constrained by it.
The Communist Party has a great role to play in the educating and organizing of women. The exclusion of women from all important spaces has become a habit that must be consciously fought. Very often it is convenient not to have a woman or two in a meeting or gathering of a couple of dozen men, especially because including women would necessitate making separate logistical arrangements for them. But we are so used to viewing all space as ‘male space’ that the very idea of organizing a space for women appears downright troublesome. Very often women’s voices are ignored simply because the total unfamiliarity with the female voice makes it difficult for the Party to understand what is being tried to be conveyed. This is also obvious from the total invisibilisation of women not just in formal academia but also the history of the communist movement, both in India as well as abroad. History text books in Indian schools teach a wide range of modern, international historical events ranging from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune and the American War of Independence, the Emancipation of Slaves in the US, Emancipation of Serfs in Russia to the Boer War, and of course the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution and the two World Wars and chunks of the post World War scenario, the United Nations, Israel-Palestine, Cold War, et al. However, one chapter of history that is summarily and deliberately glossed over in all history books – left, right and centre – without exception, is the history of the International Women’s Suffrage Movement and its somewhat less-than-triumphant victory. Although this movement, dealing as it did with the question of citizenship rights for half the population of the globe, had a prolonged, fierce and chequered history, pitting citizens against citizens even as women and men united against governments on a fairest possible demand, and had an international character, it is one movement about which most of us know very little. Neither academic textbooks, nor progressive history books which tell us about the uninterrupted fight of the people of the world for democracy and rights, usually have chapters dedicated to the International Women’s Suffrage Movement, and while Abraham Lincoln remains a greatly famous name not merely for his leadership role in the Civil War but more so as the champion of the emancipation of the African Americans from slavery, the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement are forgotten names relegated to the pages of something that goes by the dubious distinction of ‘feminist literature’. Now take a look at the history of the International Communist Movement. Except for Rosa Luxembourg and Clara Zetkin and a handful others, the women leaders are inexplicably missing. Not that they weren’t there. Not that the ICM was largely a male-only movement. But tomes on the ICM will give you a different idea.
This invisibilisation of women has acquired such a degree of normalcy that it isn’t generally considered a part of what is broadly termed as oppression of women. This picture of violent inequality – where women are intruding ‘others’ in a world of men, for men and by men – however, remains a constant, be it in history or the living present. So the visibilisation of women’s struggles and their role in history remains an important duty of the Communist Party.
The most important challenges before the women’s movement today are the tendency to shy away from forming broad-based women’s organizations and the inclination to limit the organization by the position of the Party. AIRWO is an exception to this general rule. It is not an appendage of CPI(ML) Red Star, or any other Party for that matter. It calls itself revolutionary because it believes in the revolutionary reorganization of society for the achievement of the complete emancipation of women. But that is not to say that it is an organization for only women revolutionaries. It is an organization which aims at bringing together the ranks of women, all struggles of, by and for women, and all the liberatory aspirations of women into one united, yet diverse, platform committed to the uprooting of patriarchy.
To All Comrades and Friends,
Dear comrades and Friends,
Com. Sharmistha, PB member of the Party, General Secretary of AIRWO, and Central Executive Committee member of the TUCI left us at 3 pm today, in a hospital in Kolkata where she was admitted yesterday evening for serious abdominal ailments from which she was suffering for a long time. She became ill while participating in the election campaign at Bhangar and from that time she had to keep away from all activities.
Com. Sharmistha was in the forefront of the party activities as well as in women’s front and working class front. In developing the ideological, political line of CPI(ML) Red Star, as well as in building the party in W. Bengal she has played an important role along with other leading comrades. She was just 45 years old when she left us. She was a student of Presidency College and then Kolkata University from where she did the post graduation, and journalist course. She started her career as a journalist in The Telegraph. From the Presidency College days she was a militant student activist. In 2002 she left the job, and became a whole time activist in the CCRI. In 2009 CCRI became part of the CPI(ML) Red Star. During the last 12 years, as an active party leader, as General Secretary of the All India Revolutionary Women’s organization, and as the Central Executive Committee member of Trade Union Centre of India she has participated and led many important struggles.
On the question of women’s liberation she has written many important papers which has exposed the theoretical weakness of the communist movement from the beginning in developing a consistent political line and practice against the Brahmanical, Hindutua ideology and patriarchy based on Manumrithi, which is the theoretical basis of RSS and all reactionary forces, perpetuating the slavery of women and other genders. She has campaigned for revolutionary emancipation of women, and has led the AIRWO for last one decade, developing it to an all India organization. Extending her activities to international level, she has played an active role in the development of the World Women’s Conference, actively participating in its Conferences at Caracas (Venezuela), Nepal and Germany, and organizing the latest Conference at Bangalore in 2018.
Com. Sharmista was active in working class movement also from the beginning of her political career. When the neoliberal policies have turned 95% of the workers as contract/casual workers, and as the traditional TU movement of the old style, affiliated to ruling class and reformist parties have become stagnant failing to take the working class beyond economism, she was always eager to develop movement of the workers in the unorganized sector. One of the struggles of closed jute mill workers led by her had led to collision with the TMC government.
In initiating and developing the Bhangar movement , and the Committee for land and livelihood she played an important role along with com. Alik, who is her life partner also, and other comrades. She was arrested and jailed under UAPA. After coming out of the jail after six months, she again plunged in to the movement playing an important role in defeating TMC goons and winning five seats in Polarghat panchayat elections. Once the struggle was successfully concluded, she played important role in consolidation the party and mass organizations in that area.
She was vibrant and militant mass leader, a powerful speaker. Living in the Commune with com Alik and other comrades, she dedicated her life for the emancipation of women and all oppressed classes and sections, with uncompromising communist conviction and determination. Comrades Sharmistha was a real revolutionary mass leader who has contributed much in developing the revolutionary mass line under the leadership of the party. Her loss, just two weeks after the our another great loss, com. Sivaram leaving us on 28th May, a time when the communist movement is facing serious challenges, is not only a loss to our party, but to the whole communist movement. The Central Committee of the CPI(ML) Red Star appeals to all comrades and friends to organize memorial programs, and to dedicate ourselves to carry forward the revolutionary work for which com. Sharmistha has fought for all her life.
She is survived by her mother. The Party extends heartfelt condolences to her and all other friends and comrades dear and near to her. Com. Alik, her partner, who is the secretary of the W. Bengal state committee of the party, has announced that after a brief program when all comrades from different parts of the state including Bhangar shall pay tributes to departed leader com. Sharmistha, and her body shall be handed over to the hospital for helping the students’ research. Com. Sharmistha was our beloved, dear comrade, whose memory shall be always with us inspiring us to carry forward the revolutionary tasks.
Red Salute to our beloved dear comrade Sharmistha!
K N Ramachandran
CPI(ML) Red Star
13th June 2021
The Covid-19 Pandemic may not be gendered, but the response of the Indian government – as also other governments around the world – to it has been disproportionately gendered, with women having to face the brunt of the myriad crises borne out of the government’s abysmal failure coupled with lack of will to deal with the Covid-19 situation.
Numerous studies and reports have shown how the pandemic and the unplanned lockdown imposed by the Indian government have subjected women to increased domestic abuse and violence, decreased access to food, education and healthcare and growing joblessness. In this article, we shall attempt to show how India – where the female work participation rate is among the lowest in the world – has witnessed a sharp rise in female unemployment in the Covid-19 period, with experts opining that this sudden chucking of women out of employment might set back Indian women by 20 years!
Before the Pandemic
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index (based on pre-pandemic data), India ranks 112 among 153 countries in offering equal opportunities to women and men. India’s female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) — the share of working-age women who report either being employed, or being available for work — fell to a historic low of 23.3% in 2017-18, meaning that over three out of four women over the age of 15 in India are neither working nor seeking work. According to the Deloitte report titled ‘Empowering Women & Girls in India’ for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, of the slim percentage of Indian women who are employed, 95% or 195 million are employed in the unorganised sector or are in unpaid work. Among women in the prime working ages of 30-50, more than two in three women are not in the workforce, with the majority of them reporting that they are “attending to domestic duties only”.
Among those in the workforce, rural women work overwhelmingly in agriculture, while the most common jobs for urban women are of garment workers, domestic cleaners and ‘directors and chief executives’. The last may sound promising, but the fact is that “99% of women workers described as directors and chief executives were self-employed, of which around one-third worked as unpaid family workers,” economists Bidisha Mondal, Jayati Ghosh, Shiney Chakraborty and Sona Mitra found using 2011-12 National Sample Survey Office data. “Such women were mainly engaged within the self-help groups and co-operatives as partners and had thus been recorded as directors or working proprietors, even as their activities, for the most part, remained confined to food processing and garment manufacturing. A large proportion of self-employed women workers were also engaged in outsourced manufacturing work, typically characterised by low earnings, long hours of work and lack of any form of social protection.”
Further, the average working Indian woman works a longer week than her developing country counterparts. The average employed Indian woman worked 44.4 hours per week (in the April-June 2018 period) as against the developing country average of 35-36 hours, as per ILO estimates.
The unadjusted gender wage gap — the gap in the earnings of men and women in regular, salaried jobs, without accounting for differences in hours worked and educational qualifications — was significant. In rural areas, a male salaried employee earned nearly 1.4 to 1.7 times a female salaried employee, while in urban areas, salaried men earned 1.2 to 1.3 times a salaried woman. Indian women earn 35 per cent less on average than men. (The global average is 16 per cent.) Meanwhile, women are slightly under half of India’s population but can contribute only 18 per cent to its economic output.
The Pandemic and the Lockdown
Needless to say, the pandemic and the government response to it, have made these figures far worse and the consequent decline in Indian women’s right to dignified employment will continue to nosedive in the years to come unless urgent measures are taken to acknowledge and address this problem. A host of studies have highlighted the toll the government’s arbitrary and kneejerk response to the pandemic has taken on women’s employment.
Already, at least 4 in 10 women in India have lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey. In other words, between March and April of this year, an estimated 17 million women were rendered jobless, in both the formal and informal sectors.
As stated earlier, 95 per cent of the slim percentage of employed women in India is employed in the informal sector. This sector, in particular, has been dealt a crushing blow by the lockdown and the government’s refusal to help citizens with much-needed cash in the lockdown situation. It is likely that the informal sector will take much longer to revive than the organized sector, and this will have a devastating impact on its women workforce, who are the first to be thrown out of these jobs and the last to be taken back into employment.
Small and growing businesses (SGBs) have been hard hit by the government response to the pandemic. According to a report in the ‘Stanford Social Innovation Review’, the COVID-19 crisis is especially threatening SGBs in low-income nations. These developments will have a disproportionate impact on women. According to India’s sixth economic census, published in 2016, 13.8 per cent of business establishments in India are owned by women, a majority of which are microenterprises and self-financed. Many of these women-led businesses are found in sectors like tourism, education and beauty, which have been devastated by the COVID-19 lockdowns. Similarly, as discussed above, women mainly engaged within self-help groups and co-operatives as partners and thus recorded as ‘directors’ or ‘working proprietors’ are facing catastrophe as the unplanned lockdown and the equally unplanned ‘unlock process’ has demolished their fledgling enterprises.
According to a paper (titled ‘The Covid-19 Lockdown in India: Gender and Caste Dimensions of the First Job Losses’) published by Ashwini Deshpande, Professor of Economics, Ashoka University, “Women who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase were 23.5 percentage points less likely to be employed in the post-lockdown phase compared to men who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase. Male heads of household were 11.3 percentage points more likely to be employed in post-lockdown phase, compared to female heads of household who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase.”
Deshpande made a further point in her paper. “”While women and Dalits have suffered disproportionately more job losses, risky, hazardous and stigmatized jobs are exclusively their preserve,” she wrote. “All frontline health workers are women; manual scavengers are exclusively Dalit. Thus, for several women and Dalits, the choice seems to be between unemployment and jobs that put them at risk of disease and infection and make them targets of vicious stigma.”
The truth of Deshpande’s words was reflected in a series of strikes by ASHA workers in different states and finally a nationwide protest in early August demanding protection, better and timely pay, and a legal status ensuring minimum wages. Nearly 6 lakh Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers, apart from staff of anganwadis, National Health Mission (NHM) and other schemes participated in the protest.
One of the new sources of women’s employment in the last few decades has been government schemes, especially in the health and education sectors, where, for example, women work as Anganwadi workers or mid-day meal cooks. During the pandemic, ASHA workers, 90% of whom are women, have become frontline health workers, although they are not recognised as “workers” or paid regular wages. Thus, they came out in huge numbers protesting inadequate assistance from the government in the fight against COVID-19, including lack of safety equipment, payment of salary and even risk allowance. They also opposed moves to privatise basic services at government hospitals and in nutrition schemes.
According to an Economic Times report, “The scheme workers have been demanding the government withdraw the proposals for privatisation of basic services including health (including hospitals), nutrition (including ICDS and MDMS) and education, make the centrally sponsored schemes like ICDS, NHM and MDMS permanent with adequate budget allocation and give them minimum wages of Rs 21000 per month and pension of Rs 10,000 per month besides providing them with other benefits of ESI and EPF.”
A survey by the Azim Premji University, of 5,000 workers across 12 States — of whom 52% were women — found that women workers were worse off than men during the lockdown. Among rural casual workers, for example, 71% of women lost their jobs after the lockdown; the figure was 59% for men. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy also suggest that job losses in April 2020, as compared to April 2019, were larger for rural women than men.
A rapid rural survey conducted by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS) showed that in large parts of the country where rain-fed agriculture is prevalent, there was no agricultural activity during the lean months of March to May. In areas of irrigated agriculture, there were harvest operations (such as for rabi wheat in northern India) but these were largely mechanised. In other harvest operations, such as for vegetables, there was a growing tendency to use more family labour and less hired labour on account of fears of infection. Put together, while agricultural activity continued, employment available to women during the lockdown was limited. Employment and income in activities allied to agriculture, such as animal rearing, fisheries and floriculture were also adversely affected by the lockdown. FAS village studies show that when households own animals, be it milch cattle or chickens or goats, women are inevitably part of the labour process. During the lockdown, the demand for milk fell by at least 25% (as hotels and restaurants closed), and this was reflected in either lower quantities sold or in lower prices or both. For women across the country, incomes from the sale of milk to dairy cooperatives shrank. Among fisherfolk, men could not go to sea, and women could not process or sell fish and fish products.
Similarly, non-agricultural jobs came to a sudden halt as construction sites, brick kilns, petty stores and eateries, local factories and other enterprises, employing a significant number of women, shut down completely.
In recent years, women have accounted for more than one-half of workers in public works, but no employment was available through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) till late in April. The first month of lockdown thus saw a total collapse of non-agricultural employment for women. In May, there was a big increase in demand for NREGS employment. However, with male migrant workers returning to their native places in large numbers during the lockdown, and thus creating a new pool of ‘unemployed workforce’ in the villages, rural women workers are now more likely to be pushed out of their jobs to accommodate the men and even in jobs under the NREGS women are now more likely to bow out in favour of women. This, by the way, is no contradiction or conflict between men and women – it is simply the gross failure of the government to provide jobs to all its citizens and protect the most vulnerable section – women – from sudden joblessness.
In a study of 176 female workers in informal sectors in Delhi, Shiney Chakraborty, a research analyst at the Institute of Social Studies Trust found that a majority of women reported a loss in income, but at the same time, 66% of the respondents reported an increase in unpaid work at home and 36% reported increased demands of child and elder care. Only a quarter reported any help from their spouses in household chores.
The lot of domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women, has been especially hard. In 2008, for the very first time, domestic workers were recognized as workers in the Unorganized Sector Social Security Act, 2008. Official ILO statistics place the number of persons employed as domestic workers in India at 4.75 million, of which 3 million are women. But this is considered as severe underestimation and the true number is supposed to be more between 20 million and 80 million!
According to a survey conducted by Domestic Workers’ Rights Union (DWRU), Bruhat Bangalore Gruhakarmika Sangha (BBGS), and Manegelasa Kaarmikara Union, as many as 91% of domestic workers were not paid salaries in April and 50% of workers, who were above the age of 50, lost their jobs. Similarly, a survey by the Domestic Workers Sector Skill Council (DWSSC) found that nearly 85 per cent of domestic workers were not paid for the lockdown period. An eight-state (Delhi, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu) random survey by the DWSSC – a non-profit organisation under the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship – found that 23.5% of domestic workers have migrated back to their native place. While 38% of the domestic workers said that they were facing problems in arranging food, around 30% had no money to survive the lockdown period. However, contrary to elite pre-conceived notions, 98.5% of domestic workers were aware of the precautions that should be taken to be safe from COVID-19. DWSSC’s survey was conducted in April. Four months down the line, domestic workers are still in distress as they are still largely unable to get back to work and access wages.
Across India, only 14 states have notified minimum wages for the domestic workers. In these states, the workers can file a complaint seeking redressal but in the remaining states including in the national capital, they do not have any such recourse. Hence there is a need for uniformity.
The report further stated that in many affluent communities, these domestic workers face discrimination. The rich consider the domestic workers as the carriers of the virus.
The present situation across the country is that because of the unjust stigma associated with domestic workers as carriers of the virus, coupled with declining incomes in middle income families as a result of job losses and wage cuts faced by them as well, domestic workers are facing unemployment and wage cuts on an unprecedented scale.
Even in the organized sector, women employees have faced disproportionate job losses and wage cuts. In India, women form a large section of the teaching community, but teachers in private schools have been subjected to wage cuts across the last few months.
Now, as the government has declared phased ‘unlock’, in as unplanned a way as it had declared the ‘total lockdown’, women workers who have not lost their jobs yet are facing every threat of doing so. With trains, buses and other forms of public transport still not running normally, women – who are much more unlikely than men to either own or access private means of transport – face the threat of being terminated from their jobs for the simple reason of not being able to reach their workplace regularly and on time.
Further, as India initiates phased ‘unlock’, with requirements that businesses operate with fewer employees, trends toward mechanisation are also likely to pick up pace. Because women are generally relegated to menial tasks within production processes, their jobs are often the first to go when firms automate.
The Road Ahead
The Pandemic and anti-people government policies have thrown the country into a whirlpool of excruciating poverty and hopelessness. But for its 600 million women, the impact has already been worse and is likely to be devastating unless proper corrective measures are adopted.
Research from the World Bank suggests the pandemic will drive more than 12 million Indians into poverty. Women are likely to be over-represented among the new poor. Needless to say, women’s employment must become a priority in recovery efforts. This, contrary to the government’s present policy of demolishing labour laws and giving corporates a free hand to exploit workers, will require government directives to curb any attempt to retrench the women workforce. For employees of enterprises that have folded up as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown, it should be the task of the government to provide alternate employment opportunities to women. In rural areas, reservation for women in jobs under MNREGS should be considered. Women’s participation in the rural economy should be given a boost by facilitating their access to the market and putting in place policies to ensure that they get a fair price for their produce. Women’s large scale employment in the manufacture of masks and sanitisers should be facilitated. Enabling measures to ensure women’s continued participation in employment should be implemented. Government financial support – substantial and not token – to domestic workers to tide over this crisis is a must. Alternate employment avenues for domestic workers thrown out of employment should be explored and put in place. New institutional provisions that leverage women’s empowerment at the community level will have to be actively considered.
Recovery from the pandemic and its aftermath has to be viewed through the lens of gender. According to Kadambari Shah, Sahil Gandhi and Gregory Randolph (Shah is a senior associate at IDFC Institute, Mumbai; Gandhi a visiting scholar at Brookings India and a postdoctoral scholar at the Lusk Centre for Real Estate at the University of Southern California’ and Randolph founding partner of the JustJobs Network and a PhD candidate in urban planning at the University of Southern California), “The policy response must be structured around rebuilding economies and societies in ways that empower women to lead safe, productive and fulfilling lives.” With women’s employment being crucial to not only their independence from patriarchal oppression but also to the development of society as a whole, it is essential that women’s organizations across the country unite and put pressure on the government to do whatever is essential to ensure that existing social and economic inequalities for Indian women are not deepened but bridged
Spectacularly Enough, ever since the unplanned lockdown imposed by the Modi government in late March, the ongoing people’s movement in Bhangor has reached new heights, with women and men taking to the streets on a regular basis to seize their rights. As a result, in Bhangor, at least, the government and administration have been compelled to actually give the people what they have promised – rations, relief after Amphan and special relief to those whose livelihoods have suffered due to the lockdown – instead of keeping the same confined only to notices and paperwork, as has happened in most other parts of the state as well as the country.
Although it is true that there have been sporadic struggles on similar issues in some other parts of the state, with success being achieved in a few places, the struggle in Bhangor has surpassed them all in terms of grit, vigour and magnitude. This deserves special mention, because only a couple of years ago, in August 2018 to be precise, when the historic anti-powergrid movement of Bhangor had forced the government to enter into dialogue with the Jomi Jibika Bastutantro O Poribesh Raksha Committee (Committee for the Protection of Land, Livelihood, Ecology and the Environment), that is the People’s Committee leading the movement, the entire leadership – both the political leadership of CPI(ML) Red Star as well as the local leadership of Bhangor, had been mercilessly maligned by a large section of the ‘left and democratic forces’ for ‘surrendering’ to the government.
Indeed, leaflets and pamphlets signed by leaders of these ‘left and democratic forces’, accusing us of ushering in a ‘Black Day’ and signing a ‘black deal’ with the government, were circulated in Bhangor and elsewhere and posted rampantly on social media. We, especially the authors of this article, were labelled as ‘traitors’ and our detractors glibly claimed that through a nefarious, underhand deal with the Trinamool government, we had prepared the ground for the Trinamool to firmly establish its autocratic rule all over Bhangor, and very soon we would be forcing the villagers to shout slogans hailing discredited Trinamool leaders. Our detractors, many of them leaders of ‘left’ organizations, stooped to the level of deliberately and actively circulating stories of our being gifted with a crores-worth flat in a posh part of the city in return of ‘surrendering’ the movement!
What had, in fact, happened? The main demand of the movement, from the beginning was that the government should open an unconditional dialogue with the Committee leading the movement. The government had responded by slamming terror charges against practically the entire leadership of the Committee, locking up people in jail for months and obstinately refusing to begin any dialogue. Rather, ministers of the Trinamool government openly claimed that they would go all out to crush the Committee leaders like so many ants. However, after a fierce struggle of 2 years, and especially when it became abundantly clear that even the arrest of the principal leader of the movement, Alik Chakraborty, would by no means succeed in suppressing the movement, which by then had spread across an entire Block and was rapidly spreading to other areas, the government was forced to eat humble pie and convene a meeting. Not only so, the government was forced to sit for a dialogue with not just the village leaders of the Committee but also those whom it had always labelled as ‘outsiders’ and steadfastly refused any interaction with. The meetings with the government went on for 3 weeks. When the dialogue began, Alik Chakraborty was still in jail (actually in police custody). At the first meeting, only Committee representatives of the village, and no political organizer from outside, were allowed. The village activists firmly told the government representatives that the Committee included political organizers from outside too and they would have to be invited to the next meeting, otherwise the Committee would not attend any more meetings. Thus, at the second meeting, 2 political organizers who were also members of the Committee participated along with the village activists. This meeting ended with all participants telling the government that no dialogue would be meaningful, or need be continued, if Alik Chakraborty was not released forthwith. The government buckled and Alik, who by then had already obtained bail in most of the 40-odd cases against him, soon obtained bail in the remaining cases. The government had no choice but to invite him to the next meeting. After a series of meetings, in which 47 people from the villages and 3 political organisers (that is 50 Committee representatives in all) participated, the government being represented by the District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police, a representative from Nabanna (WB government headquarters), PGCIL officers and a host of other officers, a solution was finally reached.
The government was forced to sign a written agreement with the people of Bhangor, backing away from the initial powergrid project, promising compensation on a scale unheard of in the history of popular movements in recent years and, also unprecedentedly, declaring in writing that all criminal cases against activists in the course of the movement would be gradually withdrawn. It was in Bhangor that for the first time in India peasants were given compensation for electric lines running high over their land.
This historic agreement – which could have been used as an example for other ongoing and future people’s movements – was treated with unconcealed contempt by those ‘left and democratic’ forces who had wanted the strife and bloodshed to continue unabated in Bhangor without any resolution. Their ill-formed idea had been that if the strife continued, if more village people were injured or imprisoned or killed (while they themselves remained safe in the city), then they could take out fashionable rallies against the government from time to time and decry the lack of democracy in West Bengal, all from the safety of their offices or drawing rooms. The Trinamool government had made it very clear from the beginning that its targets were CPI(ML) Red Star and, later, to some extent, MKP, apart from the village people, and that no one outside these two political streams were likely to be arrested. In fact, throughout the course of the movement, no one from any political or democratic organization, apart from the aforementioned, were arrested. So most of these sections actually wanted no resolution to the problem because they were safe and, if any more bloodshed occurred, it would be common villagers who would be injured or killed, and they could ‘capitalise’ on these atrocities to secure their vested interests. The CPIM was particularly irked by the resolution of the problem because if the atrocities on the people of Bhangor continued till election year 2021, then their rapidly sinking electoral prospects would receive a much-needed boost. The CPIM spent several pages of the Bengali daily ‘Ganashakti’ in maligning us as traitors.
The problem is that all this led to a handful of ordinary people, supporters of the movement, to become confused and first begin to wonder and then believe that the CPI(ML) Red Star leadership had betrayed the movement and sold their souls to the Trinamool.
However, the people of Bhangor, who had faced the guns and bombs, police cases and atrocities, for two years, and were yet determined not to surrender, decided that the question had to be settled democratically. A series of village committee meetings were held, with thousands participating, where the various aspects of the movement and the pros and cons of signing an agreement with the government were discussed threadbare and thoroughly debated. The end result was that the people of Bhangor, almost unanimously, were united in their support of the historic agreement. In this they showed far greater political maturity than the so-called ‘left and democratic forces’. They realized what a great victory would be achieved by the agreement with the government, how enormously it would expand the democratic space and were determined to build on it and further consolidate their wins. The small section of left and democratic forces, which stood by our side and resolutely upheld the agreement, advised us not to be discouraged by the slew of slandering that we were facing because time alone could and would prove the truth.
They were absolutely correct. Today, we can hold our heads high and declare that we had committed neither crime nor mistake in signing the agreement with the government. The Bhangor agreement has not only resulted in consolidating the unity of the people of Bhangor, but also encouraged the people to carry on the struggle in a greater sphere. Just as they are fighting to extract and realize every promise the government made, so also are they leading rallies for the release of Varvara Rao, Dr Kafeel Khan and other political prisoners with equal vigour. The torch rallies and demonstrations they organized, demanding the release of political prisoners, in recent weeks, were indeed massive and magnificent.
At the same time, the people have developed a strong local leadership from among themselves. Today the situation is such that the people’s movement in Bhangor is strong enough to fight against the administration and win any local demand that was being denied to them. The local leadership has matured to the extent that this is happening frequently, they are leading and winning such struggles frequently, without the physical presence of any political leadership from outside.
Recently, when corruption was detected in the distribution of NREGA work, they gheraoed the Panchayat office, blocked roads, and compelled the administration to immediately rectify matters. When corruption was detected in the distribution of relief materials after the Amphan cyclone, they again gheraoed the responsible officers, compelled them to initiate enquiry against those who had undeservedly received relief material by virtue of their political clout, and provide money and materials to those who were truly affected by Amphan. Around 1150 families affected by Amphan, whose names had been submitted to the administration by the Committee, have received compensation so far – a feat once more unmatched in most parts of the state.
The people of Bhangor are now capable of crushing any unholy force that tries to rear its ugly head in the region.
This is possibly the only region in West Bengal where the BJP has not been able to unfurl its flag. The Trinamool’s Arabul Islam – who only three years ago had been the undisputed leader and much feared henchman of the region – and his men have gone into hiding. They dare not enter the area dominated by the Committee. Though Arabul Islam’s gang seized some Panchayat seats in the area by the simple expedient of not allowing elections to be held, their Panchayat members are now not allowed to enter the Panchayat office, or even the area, by the people of Bhangor. The villagers have brought a no-confidence motion against them and submitted a mass petition to the district magistrate to this effect. The Panchayat is now solely run by the 5 members of the Committee who were able to contest the elections, and thus win, and run in a manner that has people saying that not in the last 40 years has a fraction of the work been done that is now being regularly by the Panchayat!
Still, sad but true, some remain under the misapprehension that the movement in Bhangor is long dead, we have allowed the powergrid to be built, Trinamool has got its way and some even told us that they had heard that the BJP was making inroads into Bhangor!
Be that as it may, the fact remains that the movement had compelled the government to sign an agreement and back away from its original powergrid project and reduce it to a regional substation. Through this agreement, not only were the present interests of the movement secured, the oath was taken to go ahead determinedly towards the future, long-term objectives. The spirit of the fighting people of Bhangor is today proving that, back then, the leadership had not been wrong.
Actually, just as there is contradiction when a struggle begins, so also is contradiction present at every bend and curve of the movement. In the course of such contradictions, it may even be possible to be misunderstood or misjudged by friends. But if we are overwhelmed by the fear of being misunderstood or even, maligned by our friends, then we will cease to be guided in the interest of the development of the movement. Such shortsightedness, though it may help keep our ‘friends’, will definitely lead the entire movement into jeopardy.
The task of the leadership is to analyse and understand every bend and curve of the movement and guide it towards its final objective, whatever the temptation may be to succumb to the pull of populism.
Let us end with an example from the freedom struggle of neighbouring Bangladesh. Shortly before the National Liberation War started, when the Pakistani army had begun to brutalise Bangladesh, President of Pakistan Yahya Khan, fearing the retaliation that the Bangladeshis had already started, inviting the leaders of Bangladesh to a meeting. Most of the important leaders of Bangladesh held firm to the position that there could be no meeting unless the Pakistani army was withdrawn from Bangladeshi soil, and boycotted the meeting. But Sheikh Mujibur Rahman participated in the meeting called by Yahya Khan. As a result, he was maligned as an agent of Yahya Khan! However, history proves that it was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who went on to lead the National Liberation War of Bangladesh and emerged as the undisputed leader of the people.