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January 12, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/Ajitha

'Everybody in Wynad knew Varghese was brutally murdered by the police after torture'

The Naxalite movement, which stormed Kerala in the 1950s and '60s, withered away by the end of the '70s, sending most of the people involved into oblivion. A few, however, have managed to keep their revolutionary ardour alive and work to improve society. One such is Ajitha.

After her release from prison in 1977 after a nine-year incarceration, Ajitha tried to play the role of conventional housewife for a while, marrying and giving birth to a child. Until 1988, when a conference of women's organisations in Bombay stirred her into action again and she founded an organisation called 'Bodhana' (Awareness), based in Kozhikode (Calicut).

At that time, however, the women's movement was in its infancy in Kerala and Bodhana died a premature death after the fourth conference of women's organisations in Calicut. Ajitha then set up another organisation called 'Anweshi' (Searcher) in 1993, which she says has grown out of its infancy and now commands attention.

Anweshi came into the limelight with the exposure of the sensational Calicut sex scandal involving several top politicians and influential public figures. It has goaded the police machinery into action, though the politicians have so far managed to evade the net.

Ajitha, however, is not one to give in easily. After an agitation yielded no result, she moved the Supreme Court to get the politicians, including Indian Union Muslim League leader P K Kunhalikutty, arrested.

Ajitha worked briefly with the Janadipatya Samrakshana Samiti (Committee to Save Democracy), founded by former Communist Party of India-Marxist leader K R Gouri 'Amma'. But she soon found that she could not adjust with the ways of the veteran politician and parted company.

In an exclusive interview with D Jose and Shiny Jacob, the doughty fighter dwelt on her past, present and future struggles. Excerpts:

How did you come into the Naxal movement?

My father Kuthikod Narayanan and mother Mandakini were revolutionary workers. Naturally, their activity influenced me greatly. By the time I reached the pre-degree stage [class XII], I could not stop reacting against the injustices taking place around me.

I found study a major hindrance to my plans. So I dropped out of college in the second year and joined the Naxals. What followed was a life of adventure, moving from one place to another with various missions. Ultimately I landed in the hands of the police and remained in prison for nine years.

When I came out of jail, the movement had faded away. Though the revolutionary spirit that guided me into the movement was still alive, the circumstances were no longer conducive to revive the movement. So, like my colleagues, I chose to remain content with a mundane life. I married Yakoob, who had worked with us, and looked after my only daughter Gargi, who is now doing her pre-degree.

What were your main tasks in the movement?

My initial task was to prepare materials for educating the rank and file. I used to translate and distribute almost all the materials we used to get from China. We also formed a study group called 'Nangal' (We), which was very popular in the Fifties.

The Naxalbari uprising of 1967 was a real eye-opener to the Naxalites in Kerala. We were shocked to learn that the Marxist-led government in West Bengal opened fire on farmers who took up weapons for their rights.

Kerala was also under Marxist rule then. The incident taught us that the Communists were ready to sacrifice their ideals for power. This led to a lot of resentment in our rank and file against the Marxists. We decided to strengthen our force and formed a co-ordination committee and started a magazine called Idathupaksham (The Left) from Ernakulam and prepared ourselves for revolutionary actions like the Naxalbari incident.

The year 1968 turned out to be a milestone in our movement. It was in September-October 1968 that we decided to take up arms against the perpetrators of injustice. Our target was the Madras Special Police camp set up at Pulpally to deal with the farmers who were agitating against the attempt by the forest and Pulpally Dewaswom authorities to evict nearly 7,000 farmers who had settled down in a forest area and have been engaged in cultivation for years. As no political party was prepared to come to the aid of the toiling farmers, we decided to intervene. We formed an action group under Varghese, who was subsequently shot down by the police.

After travelling for days, we reached the MSP camp at Pulpally and executed the wireless operator and the sub-inspector who was in charge of the camp. Later we attacked the houses of two landlords and distributed the food grains stocked there to the tribals.

The failure of the Telicherry operation under my father and the death of one of our leaders in a bomb explosion demoralised us. Subsequently, many left the movement. We persisted despite lack of food for several days. But I was caught by the police and landed in jail by the end of 1968.

What was the role of women in the Naxal movement?

I am no more a member of the Naxal movement. But I can say with pride that the experience I gained in the movement has stood me in good stead to fight for women's liberation.

The women were always in an inferior position in the movement. I was highly disturbed by the loss of opportunities on account of being a woman. The men either showed a protective approach towards women or treated them as a sexual commodity. They considered the support the revolutionaries got from their wives and mothers as their duty. They did not realise that these innocent women had to suffer a lot because of their actions. The police and the authorities constantly harassed them. They also failed to appreciate our intellectual capacities and human feelings. Marriage was prohibited for revolutionaries as the party felt it hinders freedom. Later, however, the party allowed marriages approved by it. If anybody fell in love with those who did not like the party, it acted like a feudal lord.

How were you attracted to the feminist movement?

I had questioned the discriminatory approach towards women while working as a Naxalite. This naturally crystallised into feminist feelings within me. The 1988 conference of women's organisations encouraged me to plunge into a full-time feminist activist. The women's movement in Kerala was in its infant stage then. I gave shape to Bodhana and it entered society with the agitation against the murder of Kunhibi. We also dealt with several other dowry death cases and organised an agitation for reopening the Mavoor factory.

Why did you scrap Bodhana and form Anweshi?

Bodhana was guided by a kind of romantic ideal. Anweshi is more or less down to earth. We started studying and investigating issues and then organising agitations. It was a transformation from radical feminism to socialistic feminism.

When we implement certain ideals there are bound to be pitfalls. In the process of correction we come up with new movements and organisations. We are seeing the disappearance of several women's organisations in the course of time. The main reason for the weakness of women's organisations is the lack of political awareness among women. Society maintains a silence towards the burning issues of women. We confront many hardships in the process of stirring up society.

In the early days, the Left movement dragged away many women activists working in independent organisations. I think the confederation of Streevedi that we have formed by bringing together more than 40 women's organisations in the state is a strong network. I firmly believe this will be able to function effectively.

Why did you join the Janadipatya Samrakshana Samiti?

I joined the JSS with the firm assurance that it will fight for the tribals, women, and other less privileged classes. But Gowri Amma could not break away from the power politics in which she had got entangled for years. She tried to save IUML leader P K Kunhalikutty from the Kozhikode sex racket.

What about the political forum formed by the former Naxalites?

I did not join the organisation as I thought the role of being an ex-Naxalite is not any qualification. If you evaluate their work, it can be easily seen that they could not make any impact in Kerala society.

How do you evaluate your organisation's success in the Kozhikode sex scandal?

Several top people, including a former minister, are involved in the racket. As they are influential people the police investigation did not take the natural course. We had approached the high court against this. Unfortunately, the high court rejected our petition. This forced us to move the Supreme Court and I am hopeful [of a favourable verdict].

This is not to say that I am fully satisfied. A democratic government will have to be accountable. Let the Communist government be accountable to the women in Kerala at least. We have sufficient evidence to show that Mr Kunhalikutty was involved in the racket.

How do you view the revelation made by a police constable that Varghese was shot by the police and not killed in an encounter as claimed?

Everybody in Wynad knew Varghese was brutally murdered by the police after torture. But I consider the truth revealed by the police constable as a significant act. The constable, Mr Ramachandran Nair, has not told the full truth. It is probably to show that he had no direct role in the act. But I take his revelation in positive spirit. I feel it involves the violation of the human rights and a judicial inquiry is a must.

What is your view on the controversy surrounding Deepa Mehta's film Fire?

Deepa Mehta has criticised an upper-caste Hindu structure. The opposition to the film from certain fundamentalists is unfortunate. I don't think lesbianism is the issue against which they are agitated. Their ire is against the attack on the Hindu structure. This should be fought tooth and nail. Otherwise it will invite other dangers.

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