An inspirational Communist leader and doer till the end
Ahilya Rangnekar, inspirational Communist leader and one of the last surviving members of the generation that participated in the freedom movement, died in the early hours of April 19 in her home on Bhao Daji Road in Mumbai. She was 87.
A former member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), founder-member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, corporator of the Bombay Municipal Corporation for 19 years from 1961 and CPI(M) member of Parliament elected from Bombay North Central in 1977, the diminutive and doughty Ahilyatai was an activist and doer till the end. She was a much-loved fighter for people’s causes in Mumbai and Maharashtra, and a public figure who commanded respect across the political spectrum.
Born in 1922 in Pune as the youngest of eight children, Ahilya grew up in a household that was steeped in the progressive ideas of Maharashtra’s leading social reformers. She was a brilliant student and sportsperson. As a 20-year-old, Ahilya led her first political struggle soon after the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi in August 1942 and the death of his secretary Mahadev Desai. She was arrested and jailed in Pune. Early in her life she came under the political influence of her elder brother B.T. Ranadive, who later became a leading figure of the working class and the Communist movement in the country.
Ahilya joined the Communist Party soon after she graduated in 1943, and became active in the Girni Kamgar Union in Bombay, participating in major struggles such as the general strike in support of the mutiny by the Royal Indian Navy ratings in 1946. Along with other women activists, she founded the Parel Mahila Sangh in 1943, which became the hub of the progressive women’s movement in Maharashtra.
Following Independence, Ahilya was among the leaders of the struggle in support of the Hindu Code Bill of 1950, a movement spearheaded by Babasaheb Ambedkar and vehemently opposed by M.S. Golwalkar and others of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. She was renowned also for her fearless participation in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement that started in 1950, a role that prompted Acharya Atrey, the leading Marathi poet and writer, to refer to her as “Ranaragini Ahilya” in a poem.
Those who know Mumbai will remember her as a dynamic corporator who (in collaboration with socialist leader Mrinal Gore) worked untiringly to improve civic amenities for the city’s poor and deprived. In a biographical interview with me in 1998, she described her work as a corporator thus: “I had connections in different areas and worked among the poorest people — slum dwellers and shantytown dwellers, contract workers, anganwadi workers and home-based workers, women who worked at home for no wages. We fought for the rights of women, fought for better water supply, fought for the rights of hutment dwellers and so on.”
Despite frail health and failing eyesight in her last years, Ahilyatai continued to remain active and engaged with politics and people.
Her last public appearance was on March 8, 2008, when she spoke at a women’s convention on the occasion of Women’s Day.
Ahilyatai is survived by her two sons, Ajit and Abhay Rangnekar.
The funeral will be held on April 20.