Family, friends and fellow activists archive the work of 74-year-old trade union and women's rights activist, Mythily Sivaraman

The opening scene of a film on her life and activism is also one of its more poignant ones: Mythily Sivaraman, a prominent political and social activist in Tamil Nadu is in conversation with filmmaker and historian Uma Chakravarti. They are discussing the Kilvenmani incident: the brutal killings of Dalit agricultural labourers in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district that took place in 1969. But Mythily, once an active member of the CPI (M), a prominent trade union activist with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and one of the co-founders of the Democratic Women’s Association in Tamil Nadu, is struggling to recall the details.

Mythily had visited the site of the killings; her essays about the class struggle in the region had brought the issue on the international map. The incident was also a moment of political transformation for the young activist who had just returned from a stint in the U.S. More than three decades later, however, she is having trouble recounting details. “You know, this is called memory loss!” she says in the film, displaying a candour that seems rather characteristic of the spirited activist. As the film, Fragments of the Past, advances, the spirit of the activist and thinker comes through in several poignant moments, as she struggles against Alzheimer’s disease that continues to blur her memory.

But where individual memory has failed, there’s some comfort in collective memory: family, friends and fellow activists have stepped in to archive the life and times of the 74-year-old celebrated trade union and women's rights activist, who was also the vice-president of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). They have interviewed those who knew her closely extensively, and more recently, shed the dust off copies of her writings, scattered throughout the house in Chennai to recover the written word. Some of those important writings (1969-late ‘90s) are now part of a collection titled Haunted by Fire: Essays on Caste, Class, Exploitation and Emancipation, compiled by writer and historian V. Geetha, and activist and professor, Kalpana Karunakaran. 

The writings make up for the memory loss: details about the Kilvenmani incident and her visit are filled in with two essays in the book that was released in New Delhi last week. In these analytical writings, Mythily uncovers the issues at heart — an incident that was portrayed as a simple wage issue between communist and non-communist farmers that resulted in the violence, was, in fact, the result of a class struggle that had been brewing in the region. The Dalit agricultural labourers in the district had had a political awakening — they had begun organising under the ‘red flag’ of the CPI (M). Threatened by the political agency of the labourers, the upper-caste landlords launched a violent retaliation, an analysis that even the press of that time had failed to highlight, as she notes in the one of the essays. 

One of Mythily’s important pieces on the issue was published in the Economic and Political Weekly, but she also wrote for several publications including the Radical Review and the Mainstream. Writing was an important tool of activism for Mythily, co-founder of the socialist journal Radical Review in 1969 (along with N. Ram and P. Chidambaram, both of who quit eventually). The journal stopped publication in 1973, but Mythily continued to write as a correspondent for the EPW till the 1980s. 

“While going through her works, I realised that she is providing us as what is known in anthropology as a ‘thick description’,” says Kalpana, professor at IIT-Chennai and Mythily’s daughter. Thick description is a key concept introduced by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, and refers to interpretation of facts by providing specific details and context for interpretation of events. Indeed, as Mythily’s essays on issues such as the agrarian crisis, the Dravidian movement, the workers’ unions and their struggles go beyond a mere description of facts: they provide important background and context to events, capture important voices and details, and analyses data to lend meaning to those events. Her reportage and analysis of the MRF strikes in the 1970s, and the workers’ struggles against the management are especially relevant in the wake of the recent labour crisis in Gurgaon’s automobile industry.

Mythili’s writings were an extension of her activism, the bulk of which was around labour issues, says Uma. She cites Mythily’s active engagement with labour crisis in the Ashok Leyland and the TABLETS India factory struggles, and recounts her reputation as a “feared trade unionist of her time”.

In the late 1970s, women’s issues became the core of her work as a member of the CPI(M), and the DWA that later turned into the AIDWA. One of her well known initiatives was the campaign against the Vachathi mass rapes in 1992, says Geetha. Officials from the police, the forest and the revenue departments went on a rampage and raped and assaulted tribal women and young girls in the village of Vachathi in Dharmapuri district. It was Mythily’s efforts — a petition to the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, requesting their intervention — that resulted in the case being investigated by the CBI and pushed efforts for justice that came after 19 years of struggle in the courts.  

According to Geetha, Mythily’s skills of being able to organise different groups of women with diverse opinions, her skills in public speaking, her classes in feminist education for AIDWA members, her passion, energy and commitment to the causes that she believed in made her a popular leader of her times.  

For the stories behind that popular name, there is now the archive. 

(The writer is a Fulbright scholar and an independent journalist)