Anuradha Ghandy: A Brief Life Sketch of a Great Revolutionary with a Hurricane Smile

Anuradha Ghandy was born as Anuaradha Shanbag in Mumbai in the State of Maharashtra on 28 March 1954 to a Gujarati mother and Kannadiga father. She was born in a political family, with her parents and maternal aunts all being members of the Communist Party of India(CPI). Anu, as she was fondly called by everyone, was thus brought up in a democratic atmosphere that made a deep impression on her mind. Her father was a well-known lawyer in the Bombay High Court and her mother worked as a social activist at a Women’s Resource Centre in Mumbai. She had one young brother who later became a stage artist and script writer in Mumbai. She was born and brought up in an intellectual and political climate that helped in giving her a progressive direction in life. In such a creative atmosphere, Anuradha excelled as a student in school, college and university.

Anuradha Ghandy started her political life at Elphinstone College, Mumbai in 1972. By then, vast areas in rural Maharashtra were witness to one of the worst famines in recent history. Anuradha was very much alive to her social surroundings and, quite naturally, deeply affected by the misery and sufferings that it caused to the poor people in the countryside. She went to the affected regions along with a group of college mates to get a first-hand experience of the plight of the poor. Despite the severity and the beastly face of the famine, the wretched and dying people did not lose hope and displayed indomitable courage to stay alive; that was a spectacle beyond her imagination. She learnt the most important lesson in her life—the lesson that poor and illiterate peasants were the real heroes and that there should be a path to turn worse situation into good. She began her quest for answers. When she got the answer, there was no turning back. A revolutionary that was to make a lasting impression on the Communist revolutionary movement in India was born.

The decade of the 1960s was a decade of revolutionary movements and national liberation wars. The glorious and historic struggle of the people of Vietnam and other countries of Indo-China against US aggression made a deep impression everywhere. The tempestuous progress of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) under Mao Tse-tung in the People’s Republic of China had inspired billions of youth and students throughout the world to storm the gates of heaven to create a brave new world free from exploitation and oppression. Such external factors made an indelible mark on Anuradha and many others of her time. Those events coincided with the historic Naxalbari struggle in West Bengal—‘a peal of spring thunder’ that started a prairie fire and turned everything upside down. Thousands of youth and students left their schools and colleges and went to the countryside to integrate themselves with the peasants, to become de-classed to create a beautiful world where human values would triumph over the lust for profits. Already shaken by the plight of the famine-stricken people, Anuradha was humbled by the supreme sacrifices of the first generation of Naxalite revolutionaries, many of whom, fighting for a great cause, were tortured and killed by state forces in the prime of their youth.

As a college student, Anuradha began taking part in social work among the poor. She came in touch with a student organization called PROYOM( Progressive Youth Movement), that was inspired by the ongoing Naxalite movement. She became one of its active members and later one of its leaders. She worked in the slum areas; that helped her witness the horrors of untouchability and the dalit movement. Marxism had by then entered her mental horizon and she sought to understand the basis of the oppressive and exploitative caste system and all other social ills in the light of Marxist teachings.

She did her MA and later MPhil in Sociology. Meanwhile, she also taught, first in Wilson College and then in Jhunjhunwalla College. Despite her extremely busy schedule, she never missed a single lecture. Her passion and diligence made her a very popular and effective teacher, a favourite among the students. Her thorough and conscientious approach was much loved by her students and respected by her colleagues. In November 1977, she married a fellow comrade, Kobad Ghandy at a small function involving only the family members on both sides.

During the post-Emergency period(1975-77), Anuradha emerged as one of the leading figures of the civil rights movement. From the early 1970s to 1977, thousands of Naxalites throughout the country were shot down in cold blood, tortured, maimed and imprisoned. The number of Naxalite political prisoners in West Bengal alone in March 1973 was 17,748 (See Statement made by Subrata Mukherjee, Police Minister, Government of West Bengal, Ananda Bazar Patrika, 17 March, 1973). If the number during the pre-emergency period is nearly 18,000 in West Bengal alone, then the total number of political prisoners in the country could not be less than 1,50,000. It was from 1972 when the Naxalite movement suffered a major setback, that civil rights bodies were formed and they raised the demand for the end of state repression and release of political prisoners. The Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights(APDR) in West Bengal was set up in 1972 and the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee(APCLC) in 1973 in Andhra Pradesh. Anuradha Ghandy was one of the initiators of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights(CPDR) in Maharashtra. She played a prominent role in the Civil Liberties Conference held in New Delhi in 1977, demanding the release of political prisoners. That conference was attended by such leading figures as V. M. Tarkunde, Govinda Mukhoty, Subba Rao, Sudesh Vaid and others. Her magnetic personality and persuasive capacity made many well-known intellectuals and prominent citizens come forward to endorse statements and campaigns condemning draconian laws and violations of democratic rights. She was one of the leading figures in the civil rights movements in the country till she left for Nagpur from Mumbai in 1982.

Her shift from Mumbai to Nagpur was in response to the clarion call of the revolutionary movement in the Gadchirolli district of Maharashtra. The impelling need was to spread the message of revolution from Mumbai to Vidarbha. Nagpur was totally unknown to her. She got a job of teaching Sociology to post-graduate students in Nagpur University. For political work in Vidarbha, she opted for work in trade unions as also among the dalit community.

In the work in trade unions, she focused on the construction workers and led a number of militant struggles. The most notable of them was the protracted strike at the Khaparkheda thermal power plant located at a place 30 kms from Nagpur being constructed by about 5,000 workers. The police resorted to firing and imposed a curfew in the region. She also organized the household labourers(molkarins) of Nagpur, workers in the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) companies at Hingna (Nagpur), railway workers, beedi(indigenous tobacco leaf) workers in Bhandara, powerloom workers at Kamptee—15 kms from Nagpur and other workers in the unorganized sector. Later she shifted to Chandrapur to help organize coal-mine and constructions workers there. She also developed links for joint activities with other progressive union leaders of the region, from Nagpur, Chandrapur, Amravati, Javalpur, Yeotmal and other centres. In course of these struggles, she was arrested several times and incarcerated in Nagpur Jail.

Unlike the traditional Marxists, Anuradha totally idenfied herself with the dalits and moved her residence to Indora, one of the largest bastis(slums) of Maharashtra. Although this was a stronghold of most of the dalit leaders, her incisive knowledge of B. R. Ambedkar and other sociological writings on the caste question seen in the light of Marxism drew large sections of the youth to the Naxalite movement. The cultural troupes and their performances, in particular, had enormous impact. She grew to become the open face of the Maoists in the dalit movement and one of the major speakers at most dalit functions in Vidarbha. Her painstaking work among the dalit community, organizing and rousing them against caste oppression, for liberation from the present man-eating system was an ideal example for any Marxist.

Anuradha wrote profusely on the dalit and caste question in both English and Marathi, presenting a class view-point of the issue countering not only the numerous post-modernist trends on this count but the wrong Marxist interpretations of the dalit and caste questions as well. Among her major articles on the dalit and caste question, one can mention ‘Caste Question in India’, ‘The Caste Question Returns’, ‘Movements against Caste in Maharashtra’, ‘When Maharashtra Burned for Four Days’, ‘Dalit Fury Scorches Maharashtra: Gruesome Massacre of Dalits’ and ‘Mahars as Landholders’. The most elaborate article was a 25-page piece in Marathi that came out in ‘Satyashodhak Marxvad’ explaining the Marxist standpoint on the dalit question linking dalit liberation with the task of the New Democratic Revolution in the country. Many years later, it was based on this original draft of Anuradha that the erstwhile CPI(ML) People’s War prepared the first-ever caste policy paper within the revolutionary Marxist movement in India. That draft categorically emphasized that in India the democratization of society was inconceivable without smashing the elitist caste system and fighting all forms of caste oppressions, most particularly, its crudest form—untouchability. In fact, many of the views expressed by her then in the mid-1990s have become the essence of the understanding of the ongoing Maoist movement in India.

Besides these two fields of work in Nagpur, there were many other events in which she played a pioneering role. Of these, we will mention two. The first was the Kamlapur Conference of 1984. By then, armed squads of the erstwhile CPI(ML) People’s War had crossed over from the state of Andhra Pradesh(now Telangana) to Maharashtra and the oppressed masses of the region were looking for an alternative. The Kamlaour Conference was being organized at that opportune moment to draw the oppressed poor within the revolutionary fold. A massive campaign, led by Anuradha, was carried out all over Vidarbha and armed squads did a huge mobilization within the forests. Despite the conference being ruthlessly crushed by the police, hundreds and thousands of people began proceeding towards Kamlapur—a tiny hamlet deep in the forests. Kamlapur, a nondescript village, soon became the bugle of revolution, of the right to rebel against injustice and exploitation, reverberating through the region for months together.

The second one was the proposed cultural programme of legendary balladeer Gadar in 1992 in Nagpur that had ignited the expectations of the masses from cross-sections of society. That, too, could not escape the attention of the ruling classes as the police ruthlessly prevented the programme from taking place. But Anuradha was not one to give it up. She had approached the best lawyer in town to move the court for permission to organize the programme. On that day, the court handed over the order to let the programme happen. But the police were scared of the people being witness to such a programme and had assembled beforehand at every corner of the venue where it was supposed to be held. People still recollect the diminutive Anuradha climbing onto to a motor-cycle to address the large crowd that had gathered on the streets outside the college hall which had been sealed by the police, despite a High Court order allowing it to take place. The big gathering that defied the police presence included a large number of journalists, professors, writers, lawyers and senior faculty members of Nagpur University. The police had plans to prevent Gadar from reaching the venue. But they failed. Gadar appeared in disguise to the consternation of the police. The frustrated police baton-charged everyone as they saw Gadar amidst the applauding people.

The programme could not take place. But this remained headline news for nearly two months. The message of revolution had already gone deep into the masses all over Vidarbha. It was none other than Anuradha who saw to it that the programme became planted in the revolutionary consciousness of the masses of Vidarbha through her dynamic and imaginative leadership.

Anuradha Ghandy worked in the Vidarbha region for fifteen years. She made an enormous impact in carrying revolutionary politics from Gadchiroli to the entire region. Along with others, she had built revolutionary working class movement as also a powerful revolutionary movement among the dalits. She also played a pioneering role in building up the revolutionary student movement and in attracting a vast cross-section of intellectuals, including senior professors, journalists, eminent playwrights and top lawyers of the region. On the martyrdom of the revolutionary poet, Cherabanduraju, she got his poems translated into Marathi and this Marathi translation of the poems had a huge impact and sold extensively throughout Maharashtra. She also played a role in the formation of the All India League of Revolutionary Culture (AILRC) in 1983. In 1985, as one of the main speakers at the Sindhri Conference of the AILRC, she was remembered by the activists of Bihar and Jharkhand who were attracted by the impact of that conference and the cultural performances. Many activists and friends in the region remember her fondly from those days.

Varavara Rao in his reminiscences on Anuradha Ghandy captioned ‘Remembering Anuradha Ghandy The New Woman’ recalled Anuradha’s role in the Sindhri Conference. “Anuradha’s expertise was revealed resolving the language question. A hot debate took place on the issue of link language throughout the night. I would remember the Sindhri Conference debate on the question of language forever. At that time KVR(K. V. Ramanna Reddy) and the representatives from Tamil Nadu and Kerala were on the side of English. Chalsani, Dani and the representatives from Bihar and Punjab and I stood for Hindi. When Anuradha realized that the debate was turning into a big confusion, she intervened by saying, ‘You are all debating like the proverbial horse being tied at the back of the cart’. She explained the executive by saying : ‘All Indian languages are national languages; first of all, all mother languages should be allowed to develop as official national languages in their own home states in the Universities, Secretariats and Higher Courts of law; then all these official national languages would recognize a language as a link language and for intercommunication. Her words remained as the final judgement for then and till now in the manifesto of the AILRC. Since then I have been reflecting the same ideas in all my essays on the issue of language or on Telangana. Such was the deep impact of her Sindhri speech on me that day…”.

The impact of her revolutionary activism was felt most strongly in her taking revolutionary politics to the dalit community and in arousing revolutionary consciousness among them. She lived and worked among the dalits day and night, strove to get declassed and underwent the process of both learning from them as also teaching them. She also helped build up the women’s organizations in Nagpur and Chandrapur.

From the Vidarbha region Anuradha shifted her base to Bastar in response to the call of revolution from the Dandakaranya region. The Maoist movement in its advanced stage needed the services of such comrades as Anuradha and she, without flinching, joyfully responded to the call. It took her deep inside the jungles of Bastar and she, despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, spent three years in the second half of the 1990s among the adivasis of Bastar and the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army(PLGA). It is said that she went out of her way to gather many a PhD studies on the Gond tribals for the revolutionary movement of Dandakaranya. Her friends would always recall her saying that those three years had been one of the most fruitful in her life where she learnt about the lives and struggles of the Gond adivasis in Bastar. She keenly observed and studied their lives, the painstaking way in which the movement was built up, focusing particularly on the lives of the women, their organizations, the KAMS(Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan/Revolutionary Women’s Organization of the Tribal People) and the women warriors in the detachments, which, according to Arundhati Roy, is “probably one of India’s best-kept secrets”. It is important to remember that all these were happening amidst heavy state repression at a time when the armed contingents of the mercenary paramilitary forces were tracking, through Drones or UAVs, every inch of the Bastar forests.

Anuradha spent most of her time in the Byramgarh area, which had been in the limelight for facing the brunt of the ‘Salwa Judum’ attacks. Although, during her stay there, she contracted malaria several times, it was never the dangerous falciparum type; besides, she was in the tender care of the local tribal people who showed great concern for her. Her tenacity to stay in such adverse conditions astounded even the local tribals. In fact, it was an undying revolutionary optimism and firm conviction in a better future that gave her mental strength. Ideas, Mao said, could become a material force. That became true for Anuradha, as also for many others in the movement.

During those days, Anuradha spent much time in taking classes, mainly for the growing leadership among the tribal women. She took classes on women’s health-related issues, oppression on women and the New Democratic Revolution, on imparting general knowledge, on the elementary aspects of Marxism etc. She helped draft handbills and wrote numerous articles for the local revolutionary movement.

Towards the last part of her stay, she was responsible for the West Bastar area covering what is known as the National Park region—another region affected by the onslaught of the ‘Salwa Judum’. During the famine in 1997, she was there in Bastar, which witnessed the death of hundreds of people from starvation. The Maoists resorted to the seizure of grains from the hoarders and distribution of those among the masses, thus preventing a major calamity. Like an upright person and true revolutionary, she never made a show of her own sufferings, always bearing pain, whether physical or mental, with dignity, without complaining or letting others know.

From Bastar she returned to Maharashtra and contributed immensely to the revolutionary movement there. She was also deeply involved in developing a perspective of the role of a revolutionary women’s movement. Her writings on the question of women include ‘Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement’, ‘The Revolutionary Women’s Movement in India’, ‘8 March and the Women’s Movement in India’, ‘international Women’s Day: Past and Present’, ‘Fascism, Fundamentalism and Patriarchy’, ‘Changes in Rape Law: How far will they help?’, ‘Cultural Expression of the Adivasi Women in the Revolutionary Movement’, ‘In conversation with Janaki’, ‘Working Class Women: Making the Invisible Visible’, ‘Women Bidi Workers and the Co-operative movement: A Study of the Struggle in the Bhandara District Bidi Workers’ Co-operative’ etc.

The life of Anuradha was one of a mass leader who developed into a revolutionary organizer. In her life span of fifty four years, she played many roles. She was associated with the formation of Vidyarthi Pragati Sangathana(VPS/Progressive Students’ Organization), Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights(CPDR), All-India League for Revolutionary Culture(AILRC), Stree Chetna, Akhil Maharashtra Kamgar Union(AMKU) and many other mass organizations based mainly in Maharashtra.

She was a prolific writer. She was closely associated with the revolutionary students’ magazine, Kalam—a magazine brought out in both English and Marathi. She was the architect behind the revolutionary Hindi magazine, Jan Sangram that was brought from Nagpur. She contributed regular articles under various pseudonyms such as Avanti, Janki etc to the revolutionary magazines, Voice of the Vanguard, People’s March and others.

Anuradha Ghandy wrote many theoretical and ideological pieces, both in English and Marathi, which addressed particularly the dalit and the women’s questions. She conducted many a polemic with those who took a post-modernist view on these questions. Perhaps the most significant contribution of her has been in understanding the caste question from a Marxist point of view. She based her arguments on an analysis of the economic basis of caste and how it manifests itself in both the base and the superstructure. She was one of those pioneers who linked the caste system to the existing relations of production. With deep insights into Indian history, she showed how the Indian feudal system was basically caste-linked and the ideology of Indian feudalism was Brahmanism. She further explained how the Dalit question and untouchability act as one of the main pillars of the caste system. Moreover, as a theoretician-cum-activist, she explained how the destruction of the caste system was intrinsic to any anti-feudal New Democratic Revolution and the creation of a truly democratic society.

The other issue that evoked much debate is the understanding of the gender question. She pointed out that by arguing for an autonomous women’s movement, the socialist feminists were in fact weakening the broader movement against capitalism, imperialism, feudalism and patriarchy. By placing patriarchy as the ‘main’ enemy of women, the radical and cultural feminists were actually de-linking patriarchy from the systems of capitalism and feudalism which produced it. By equally emphasizing ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’ as the reasons for gender oppression, feminists were bringing ‘reproduction’ into the economic base and negating the significant role of women in production. The most significant part in her argument is that the strategy of bourgeois feminism is not to unite women with the working class and peasantry and fight the system unitedly, but rather form small women’s groups advocating lifestyle changes within the system.

Anuradha sought to show through her work and writings that it was, in fact, by taking part in the revolutionary movement that women strove to throw off the shackles of patriarchy and hit hard at its roots. She was developing theoretical formulations on how ‘Women need revolution and the Revolution needs women!’. And like her counterparts in other countries, she too admitted that patriarchy existed within the revolutionary movement—the point was how to stay within it and fight against it, but not leave the movement and grumble about it. She concluded her piece, ‘Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement’ by stating “The Revolutionary women’s movement, under the theoretical guidance of Marxism, as it has been developed through experience by Lenin and Mao, has been successful in organizing women of the most oppressed castes and communities, the rural poor peasants and landless labourers. The movement has taken heed of the issues raised by the international women’s movement and considers the fight against patriarchy an integral part of the New Democratic Revolution. By studying the above trends critically, taking the positive points and integrating them with its theory and practice can it realize its goal of liberating the vast masses of Indian women while successfully completing the democratic revolution and moving ahead towards socialism”.

How did Anuradha breathe her last? She had just returned from Jharkhand in early April 2008 after taking classes amongst the tribals on the question of oppression on women. Little did she suspect that the high fever that gripped her whole body, already affected by systemic sclerosis, was the deadly falciparum malaria that would kill. She picked it up probably in the jungles. In the eyes of democratic Indian State, she was a dreaded ‘Maoist terrorist’, liable to be arrested or, more likely, shot down in a fake ‘encounter’, like so many other comrades of hers. When she got high fever and went to a hospital in Mumbai to have her blood tested, she left a false name and a false phone number with the doctor who treated her. So the doctor could not get through to her to tell her that she had contracted the potentially fatal malaria falciparum. Her organs began to fail, one by one. By the time she was admitted to hospital on 11 April, it was too late. She died on 12 April 2008. At the time of her death, she was a member of the central committee of the CPI(Maoist).

How was Anuradha Ghandy as a human being? Anuradha was an exemplary Communist. Pretence, falsehood, intrigue, ego, all these traits were alien to her. Her disdain for such traits grew in strength in course of her participation in revolutionary struggle. Her honesty and simplicity attracted all those who came in contact with her. She was gifted with a natural ability to connect and integrate with any environment, with cross-sections of people, be it tribals, dalits, construction workers, or the sophisticated academia or intellectuals, with her happy smile and child-like innocence and simplicity. If revolution was the struggle for a society with the finest sensibilities of humanity, then Anuradha Ghandy was the embodiment of that struggle. A person of high principles, standing up for what she believed in. Anuradha had the modesty to be a willing learner. At the same time, she was willing to acknowledge the positive in others, even with those she differed. While being creative and not stereotyped in her thinking, she was always firm on the proletarian line and the Marxist ideology. Her life was an inspiration to all women activists, where she could go well beyond the patriarchal limitations of this society and blossom into a revolutionary communist.

One can cite a few lines from a letter that Mao, in February 1937, wrote to his teacher Hsu Teh-Li who joined the Communist Party of China in 1927 when the revolution failed and later the Long March, at the age of 57. It shows Mao’s vision of what a Communist should be like. “You were my teacher twenty years ago; you are still my teacher; you will continue to be my teacher in future. When the revolution failed and many members left the party, even defecting to the enemy, you joined (the party) in the autumn of 1927 and adopted an extremely active attitude. From then until now you have shown through a long period of bitter struggle greater positiveness, less fear of difficulty, and more humility in learning new things than many younger members of the party…You know a great deal but always feel a deficiency in your knowledge, whereas many ‘half-buckets of water’(people of superficial knowledge) make a lot of noise. What you think is what you say or what you do, whereas other people hide filthy things in a corner of their minds. You enjoy being with the masses all the time, whereas some others enjoy being without the masses…For you, it is ‘revolution first’, ‘work first’ and ‘other people first’, whereas for some others it is ‘limelight first’, ‘rest first’, and ‘oneself first’. You always pick up the most difficult things to do, never avoiding responsibilities, whereas some others choose easy work to do, always shunning responsibilities…”(Jerome Chen, Mao Papers, p.5).

Comrade Anuradha Ghandy represented the best traits of a Communist revolutionary—traits that Mao so beautifully explains in his own simple but profound way. Anuradha lived for the people; she died for the people.

“In her death have,

…men become men,

Women become women,

Fighting day and night

For people and for Life”.

(This life sketch is entirely based on the following works:

  1. Remembering Comrade Anuradha! Remembering a Beautiful Life! Prepared by H. S. Shiva Prakash, Professor, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, on behalf of Comrade Anuradha Memorial Committee, 5th August 2008. (It is a collection of articles)
  2. Scripting the Change Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy, edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen with a foreword by Arundhati Roy on behalf of Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Committee, Daanish Books, Delhi, 2011.
  3. Realize the Dreams of Innumerable Martyrs…a Brave New World People’s March March 8th Special Supplement, March 2006.

Amit Bhattacharyya

This article was originally published in Toward a New Dawn, Vol IX Issue I (May June 2017)

C. Kistler

Also editor of Nouvelle Turquie.