Gita Ramaswamy’s Land Guns Caste Woman review: The voice of a revolutionary

In her political memoir, Gita Ramaswamy pulls no punches as she critiques the Indian Left, observes what ails the judiciary and explains why the poor cannot get justice

June 17, 2022 03:25 pm | Updated December 09, 2022 05:12 pm IST

Gita Ramaswamy’s Land Guns Caste Woman is the story of an empowered woman deeply uncomfortable with 1980s feminist groups’ blinkered, Anglo-centric approaches.

Gita Ramaswamy’s Land Guns Caste Woman is the story of an empowered woman deeply uncomfortable with 1980s feminist groups’ blinkered, Anglo-centric approaches.

Gita Ramaswamy’s Land Guns Caste Woman is a book like no other. It is the story of a Tamil Brahmin woman who tries hard to shed the privileges of her caste and rebels against its oppressiveness throughout her life. It is the story of an educated middle-class intellectual who is absorbed into the Naxalite movement during the Emergency, only to eventually discover that the “possibility of democratic functioning in a party so deeply hierarchical was bleak.”

It is the story of an empowered woman deeply uncomfortable with 1980s feminist groups’ blinkered, Anglo-centric approaches; a liberated woman witness and victim to a group of feminists descending on her house to assault her husband violently. And at the core of the book is the most important story of them all: her decade-long association with the historic and successful wage struggle led by the landless Dalits of Ibrahimpatnam.

She braves threats to her life and wrongful litigation, but the efforts of the Ibrahimpatnam Taluka Vyavasaya Coolie Sangam succeed in reclaiming 14,000 acres of land for the Dalits and result in the abolition of bonded labour and the release of thousands with all dues paid. Most of all, the Sangam succeeds in fostering fraternity among the Dalit Bahujan castes.

Fighting tradition and intolerance

It takes an incredibly brave woman to call her extended Brahmin families “cesspools of inequality, hidebound tradition, and intolerance.” Her mother’s admonitions to her in childhood are abridged and distilled versions of the Manusmriti: “My mother’s daily injunction to all five of us was: ‘Don’t trust any man, don’t even trust your own father. If you sit next to a boy, you’ll get pregnant.’”

Gita chronicles how she constantly debrahminises herself and this forms the bedrock of her self-transformation: she is almost surgical in this process, and a reader is compelled to applaud her. The Naxalite sections of the book have very Anuradha Ghandy vibes, but lacking comparable conviction, insight, and intellectual rigour, they smack of adventurism and discontent. Sometimes, the self-flagellation is painful to watch. Whatever you end up feeling about this, the book itself is a treat to read. Throughout the book, the ultimate saving grace is the self-awareness and rare honesty exercised by the author.

She parachutes into Ibrahimpatnam as a revolutionary and remembers how she “often suggested beating up landlords. I suggested burning their haystacks, cutting their phone connections, throwing their motors into wells, and several such minor violent acts. This was not simply due to my Naxalite background... I could think of no other reaction. People never agreed.” It would have been easier for her to come out as a constantly politically correct person by suppressing and glossing over the many slip-ups. Instead, we have been offered a refreshingly, unflinchingly genuine book.

Gita’s memoir inadvertently opens Pandora’s Box of mental health issues among the fraternity of activists. In her own candid admissions, there is an uneasy equation of social work with an antidote to mental illness. She writes how starting the Hyderabad Book Trust was “a drug against my depression”, and how “the balmiki saved me from a complete collapse with their affection and demands on my time and energy.”

I hope that such stark truth-telling will eventually lead to honest conversations about mental health among activists instead of the valiant, misguided idea that throwing oneself into mass movements is a way to sublimate, forget/ fight one’s depression. Her commitment to a life of struggle ensures that the book remains a political memoir. Whenever the writing gingerly forays into revealing some personal aspect of her life, the reader is left asking for more. As a younger woman who has moved in and out of relationships with fellow activists and has watched activist couples either market themselves as an inseparable package (buy one get one free) or pollute the public sphere with their toxic equation, I looked forward to reading how Gita balanced her public life alongside her partnership. This is a terrain without manuals, without field guides, without memoirs. The book keeps its secrets.

Fierce critique of the Left

On Cyril, her comrade and husband, she writes, “He had no problem with me being the more public figure and supported me in more ways than I can tell.” Where and how does one encounter this strange and mythical creature: an Indian man who is content playing second fiddle? How does the ego tussle play out between fellow travellers committed to a life of activism? Perhaps, if she finds the time, and feels generous enough, these are other books that she could share with us.

I’m aware of the dangerous pitfall that in the space of a review, it is always easier to point out what the book does not do, as opposed to what it actually does. Reading this book with a mixture of reverence and critical outlook, I have to confess that it is difficult not to be impressed by the rich history, experience, and emotion it contains. This memoir of a lapsed revolutionary shies away from any trace of docility; it is a fierce critique of what is wrong with the Indian Left, what ails the judiciary, and why the poor cannot get justice. It is a celebration of how grassroots organisations and struggles can shift the status quo. Engaging with her work, reflecting upon these histories will also provide the necessary course correction for resistance politics today.

Land Guns Caste Woman; Gita Ramaswamy, Navayana, ₹599.

The writer is a poet, novelist and translator.

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