Keywords: Gender issues, women’s issues, communist party, economic independence, Marxist feminist
This is an account of my visit to the home of Ajitha, the fiery activist who has been championing the cause of women in our state, in the company of a couple of my friends. A visit to her home is never complete until one meets her Ma. As Ajitha ushers us into her Ma’s room, she greets us. Her smile is effusive, as resplendent as the river Mandakini after whom she is named. She enthusiastically turns the pages of one of the issues of Samyukta handed to her by her daughter and says, “Very impressive! You’re doing a very good job. I wish this journal my longevity”. She is an avid reader, as is revealed by the books lining her bedside shelf. The latest addition there is The da Vinci Code, gifted by a friend. Most of the other books, she says, are from Anweshi Library. We are about to ask Ajitha about this library, when her daughter Crargi pops into the room, takes the key of the scooter from the key hanger, and rushes out, with a “bye” trailing in the air. Ajitha calls after her, “Gargi, you better return Anweshi’s books quickly.” I urge her to speak about this library about which she is so spirited, and Ajitha goes down memory lane, back to the early ‘90s, where the current phase of her life had its beginning.
“By the end of the ‘80s I’d been convinced about one thing — that without putting women on the track of economic independence, the battle for women’s, empowerment would be a lost cause. It was thus that I set up a tailoring unit in Kozhikode, to provide self-employment opportunities for women. It did considerably well. However, not all the clients there were people who needed to get something stitched. There were many who came there with badly bruised bodies and souls, seeking solace and guidance, It was clear that the tailoring house could not suit our needs. I realised that economic independence for women becomes meaningless without the mental strength to contain and sustain it. So in 1993, along with a few friends, I set up Anweshi — a counselling centre for women. There were a few counselling centres functioning in this city then, but none where women, especially of the poorer sections of society, could walk in freely and pour out their woes. We did not have adequate infrastructural facilities to house a full-fledged counselling centre, but we did not want to give up, considering the pressing need for such a place for women.”
“We realized then that the problems faced by women were compounded due to their constraining upbringing and their lack of exposure. A library, we felt, had to be set up, exclusively for women. We went on a fund-raising drive, and in December 1995, we got Anweshi Library and Reading Room for Women inaugurated by Sara Joseph. It was set up in a tiny house. It was rather difficult to accommodate our counselling centre in this house which shared walls with other houses, sealing of all possibilities of privacy. It was evident that we had to move out, a realisation that became irrevocable when our library was inundated by heavy floods in July 1997. The floodwaters, which rose to a height of 8 feet, destroyed all our books. But our spirits were in no way dampened. We raised more funds, this time with a musical evening with the singer Satheesh Babu. We moved to a new rented house in February 1998.”
“In the meantime, I got actively involved with Kerala Stree Vedi, a forum we set up in the year 1996, to address issues like the increasing incidence of violence against women. The infamous Ice cream Parlour case had its origin around this time. If I start speaking about that, I will not be able to conclude it today, so I leave it unsaid now. I am waiting for the final legal verdict. I will pronounce my own verdict after that, in a book I plan to write on the whole issue. But back to Anweshi now, which had to be backed up strongly. The Kerala Stree Vedi activities made me aware of the large funds allocated for women’s welfare by the Central and State Governments. But unless one has strong political clout, it is impossible to get even a whiff of these. So we had to knock at other doors for financial aid. I heard about the UN Population Fund, which had separate funds to support Gender Issues. We applied, and Anweshi, along with 26 other NGOs was selected for the funding programme. It continued for three years, during which period we were truly enabled to solidify our base and diversify our activities. We recruited professional hands for our counselling work, legal aid, library assistance and community work.”
We were indeed making good progress, when, unfortunately, the UN withdrew this proganune from its agenda. However, I must add that in their report on the activities of the 27 NGOs they funded, Anweshi’s work was graded and listed at the very top. But their grades could not translate into funds needed to mobilise our work. It was then that my friend Leela Abraham, faculty at TI SS, Bombay, told me about the Sir Dorabjee Tata Fund. We submitted an application, and within no time, they released a sizeable fund, which continues to date. With this fund, we have made much progress, both quantitatively and qualitatively. We have now moved to a larger building which houses our short-stay home. It is meant for women who have nowhere to go, having had to flee their homes and families, or pushed out from their dwellings for one petty reason or the other. Our place offers them a safe roof and solace for their wounded souls. We have a proper office, the library is doing well, and we have bought some land, for the construction of our own building. We were helped in this venture by the singer K.S.Chitra, who sang for our fund-raising programme, along with S.P. Balasubramaniam.”
“Today, Anweshi has come into her own, and has truly spread her wings far and wide. We organised various seminars, workshops and symposiums on gender issues. We also organised a major film festival of women filmmakers from all over the world. We have been able to stage strong protests against many an inhuman act perpetrated in our state. I must say that our untiring efforts have surely gone a long way in conscientising our society against patriarchal systems that blindly victimise women. The crusade is by no means over. We encounter all kinds of stumbling blocks enroute, but we will continue : whatever the odds.”
I asked her to speak about her introduction into politics and the greatest political influences in her life. I remarked that maybe her father was the greatest influence in her life and it was this hero worship that led to revolutionary politics in her early life.
“In January 1967, my father was arrested on the previous day of a bandh called by the Marxist Party. He was one among the two or three people arrested in the name of the bandh. All except my father were released on bail the next day itself. My father was released only after five days of unjust imprisonment. We heard that the party had refused to get him released on bail. This affected me deeply., that was when I first thought seriously of entering politics.”
“My father was a very willful man. After his break up with the Communist Party, he had fallen into bad times and was leading a deteriorating life. It was after this that he started having Naxalite connections and began promoting Maoist literature. There was considerable improvement in his condition. I was naturally impressed with the ideology that lifted him out of that pit into which he had fallen. It was with such a mindset that I approached that political ideology. I started reading Mao, while studying for my pre-degree. In June 1967, I stopped studies and plunged into full time politics.”
We proceed to ask her about the Naxalite movement. “The Naxalite movement in Kerala was initiated by my father — the Kunnikkal group. We had a romantic dream about revolution — the dream that the enemy will burn to ashes in the flames of revolution. We used to qualify ourselves as the revolutionaries in the Indian Communist Party.”
We were curious to find out her impression regarding society’s approach to women. Immediately she replied that prison life was what taught her about how society really viewed women.
“The treatment meted out to women prisoners was deplorable, especially if they happened to be prostitutes. Moreover, women wardens in the prisons were the most ignored employees.”
We wanted to know what inspired a spirited person like Ajitha to settle down to a married life with Yakoob, the new generation Naxalite, younger to her in age. “Father’s death had plunged our family into the depths of insecurity. All around there was hostility and nothing else. At that time I decided on this marriage, which father might have objected to. Mother was worried whether I could adjust to a person belonging to another culture. But she did not object to my decision. Religion, as far as our relationship was concerned, was not an issue at all.”
We remarked that she seemed to have moved a long way away from her early days of violent revolution. She was defensive in her response.
“I have always been concerned about social issues. I have never shied away from reacting against injustice. Right now I realise that all my resources ought to be diverted towards addressing the problems faced by women. But I am equally concerned about other problems that plague our society. Our economic crisis, corruption, the problems of the agriculture sector, the drug and liquor mafia, globalisation. We don’t realise the pace at which we are hurtling down the path of total destruction. We have become blind victims of neo-colonialism. To suit the needs and demands of the agents of globalization, we have overhauled our agricultural pattern itself. We don’t produce food grains anymore. We just have cash crops. With a heavy debt to the World Bank, we are helpless in their clutches. Unless we firmly refuse to repay these loans and go back to our own system of agriculture, we are doomed. The only industry that is being boosted in our state today is that of tourism. We call ourselves God’s own Country, but we don’t see the trenches that are being dug around us, the traps that are being laid for us. The sex-industry is being promoted on such a large scale. Kerala is known today for dealings in drugs, liquor and women. You see, women are going to be the worst affected by the present situation. The severe cash-crunch will lead to increased trafficking of women, the limp economy will burden women physically and mentally.”
We asked her about the unequal and unhealthy relationship that existed between men and women in Kerala at present. “People are much suppressed in Kerala. The segregation between men and women should change. There should be opportunities for men and women to interact in a healthy manner. Family structures not based on economic interests can solve this problem of inequality. Children should be the responsibility of the state.”
What about her thoughts on feminist activity as a leftist movement and what about her political leanings?
“There is a call from many women activists to launch a political party that will really take up the cause of women. But I am not fully certain about it I have doubts and conflicts regarding that. We need a change in the political system, sure, but will a new party solve the problem? I don’t know. Whether it was Bodhana or the Navodaya Mahila Samajam or Kerala Stree Vedi or Anweshi, I have always sought an independent stand, free from the influence of political parties. Political parties are only patriarchal institutions. So gender issues will be relegated to the background if we hitch ourselves to some political party. We will be rendered mute there. It is absolutely essential for us to maintain a dynamic stand of independence; otherwise feminism is a lost cause.”
“Socialism is my ideal, then and now and always. I have been heavily influenced by Mao. It was through Maoism that I was introduced to Marxism. I have always believed that Marxism has never addressed gender issues. Every other problem becomes subservient to class-struggle in Marxism. Marx himself was blind to this problem; whereas Mao, who had stated that women in China face four forms of oppression., when men face only three, was conscious about gender-related problems. There are certain lacunae in Marxism, and these can be filled with a feminist approach. So I would call myself a Marxist feminist. I’m neither a radical feminist nor a radical Marxist, for me the two need to be mutually reinforcing to effect the much needed social change.”
BINDU AMAT. Lecturer in English at the Providence College for Women, Kozhikode, Kerala. Involved in many women support activities. Is the Secretary of the Women’s Cell of the college.