Patriarchal misogyny in the Communist movement

Sumanta Banerjee

The Kerala LDF government’s minister M.M.  Mani (who is also an important CPI-M leader), sometime ago stirred up a controversy by making    some objectionable   statements against women social activists, at a public meeting.  His target of attack was the women’s organization called `Pembilai Orumai’, which had mobilized female plantation workers demanding better wages and working conditions. He had reportedly accused them of indulging in an orgy of drinking and other activities, during their month long stir in Munnar in 2016. 

After the CPI(M)’s veteran leader Achyutanandan, and some women members of the party took him to task for his unsavoury comments, Mr.  Mani  went  on  the defensive, denying   that  he  had  ever  used  derogatory  terms  against  women  in  his  speech,  and  blamed  the  media  for  distorting  his  utterances  -  the  usual  ploy  resorted  to  by  politicians  when  caught  for  their  intemperate  comments  in  public.  But what is intriguing is that the Communist chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan glossed over Mani’s utterances by dismissing them as his “rustic style” of speaking.  Should   `rustic style’ allow derogatory   reference to women? 

When applauding the raw rusticity of the subaltern spokespersons in their language of protest against the ruling classes, we often tend to ignore the misogynist prejudices that sometimes creep into their jokes and sayings.  In the course of my research (spanning several decades) in the popular culture of   Bengal, and the politics of the Communist movement from the 1950s till the Naxalite phase today, I have come across numerous expressions of such misogyny by folk poets of the past, as well as political leaders of the present, who have emerged from the grass roots.  The recent controversy over M.M. Mani’s remarks reminds me of an incident which I heard about during one of my reporting assignments in the Bardhhaman district   in West Bengal in 1969.  The local CPI(M) leader Benoy Krishna Konar (known for his `rustic style’ of speech) at that time, had addressed a gathering of adivasi and dalit peasants, and had reportedly promised to deliver to them `fair-skinned women from the homes of the landlords.’!   Later, Mr.  Konar graduated to a top position in the state headquarters of his party.  He continued to stick to his `rustic style’ of rhetoric, even after three decades.  During the anti-Left government agitation in Nandigram, when Medha Patkar and other women social activists planned to visit the area, Konar urged his women party members to greet them by ‘lifting their saris and showing their bare buttocks’   as a mark of protest. Is this how his party treats its women members?

Lest  I be  accused  of  targeting  the  CPI(M)  alone  for  the  misogynist  mindset  that  influences  the  behavior  of  its  leaders,  I  should  turn  to  the  CPI(Maoist),  which  despite  its  claims  to  an  alternative  revolutionary  style  of  practice,  quite  often  betrays  the  same  hypocritical  instincts  of  the  prevailing  political  and  social  culture,  when  it  comes  to  treating  women.  One of the famous Indian Maoist leaders of recent times, the late Koteshwar Rao (known as Kishenji), guided the Maoist movement in West Bengal during the first decade of 2000.   He literally worshipped   Mamata Banerjee (a thoroughly unscrupulous, anti-Communist politician) as his `Didi,’ and mobilized his followers to vote for her (although his party officially followed the policy of boycotting elections) - just to get rid of his party’s bête noire, the ruling CPI(M).  With his help to a large extent, Mamata came to power in West Bengal - and quite predictably, once Kishenji had outlived her purpose, soon after as the chief minister of the state, she got rid of him by presiding over   his killing   in a false encounter.  But let us excuse Kihansi’s naivete - or his party’s political opportunist   deals with Mamata to oust the Left Front government.  Let us instead listen to Kishenji’s tribute to his wife, in an interview with a couple of journalists in 2009: “My wife Maina is now in Dandakaranya…We met in Hyderabad when I was state secretary (of Andhra Pradesh) and she was a comrade.”   He then added that they did not have any kids, because “the leadership expects the women in our party to undergo sterilization after marriage.” (Interview with Romita and Aveek Dutta in Mint, 29 May, 2009).  What about the men in the party?  Shouldn’t they undergo sterilization?   Given the frequent reports of women members of the CPI(Maoist) deserting the party because of sexual exploitation, it is about time that its leaders   investigate into these allegations, and come out in public with the steps that they had taken to stop it.

Yet, the Indian Communist movement can boast of a   long list of brave women leaders from the 1940s onwards - Godavari Palekar (who led the movement of the Adivasi Warlis in Maharashtra), Ahilya Rangnekar (again from Maharashtra); Kalpana Dutta (a revolutionary from the days of the 1930 Chittagong Armory Raid - who later joined the CPI and married its general secretary P.C.  Joshi), Manikuntala Sen, Renu Chakravarty and Kanak Mukherjee from West Bengal; K.R. Gowri Amma from Kerala, Lakshmi Swaminathan (the legendary leader of the INA’s women’s brigade, who later threw in her lot with the CPI-M), among many other similar heroines. These women Communist leaders fought against the traditional patriarchal social hegemony, and opened up the path of emancipation and empowerment for their sisters from the underprivileged classes.  Today, barring   Brinda Karat and Subhasini Ali (the other comrade from their generation, Srilata Swaminathan passed away recently), we hardly find any outstanding and outspoken woman leader in the Communist movement.     

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Oct 15, 2019

Sumanta Banerjee[email protected]

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