In Memory Of Comrade Srilata Swaminathan

 (This tribute to Comrade Srilata by Kumudini Pati first appeared in Mainstream.)

SRILATA Swaminathan was not only a comrade, with whom I worked for almost ten long years in the women’s movement led by AIPWA; she was a dear friend,with whom I could discuss literature, art, folk music, food, cultures and even Yoga, Ayurveda and Vipassana. She came from an illustrious family of Madras, and had joined the ML movementthrough her interaction with the working class, for whom she was doing plays, while in Delhi. Srilata was the daughter of the famous lawyer and Advocate General of Tamil Nadu, S. Govind Swaminathan and the granddaughter of Veteran Member of Parliament Ammu Swaminathan. She was the niece of Captain Laxmi Sehgal of the legendary Azad Hind Fauj founded by Subhash Chandra Bose. Her other paternal aunt was Mrinalini Sarabhai, the versatile dancer and choreographer, who had founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts. Srilata had imbibed much of the creativity and versatility of her ancestors, and, of course, her political moorings had been indirectly shaped by ‘Ammu Dadi’ and ‘Laxmi Bua’. She was one of the most interesting and lively women I have seen in the ML movement. She was a personality who could attract people cutting across gender and class lines with ease; she could chat and joke with women from rural Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan, could go into polemics with Left leaders from other streams, drive her jeep through the dust-laden roads of rural Rajasthan during elections, sit on the floor to eat bajra roti and hot chilli chutney with village folk, join the women of Assam in a Bihu dance or do a jig with the adivasi women of Jharkhand. And, men and women of all ages loved her frankness, her gaiety andhumour.

Srilata in NSD

It must have been her talent in dramatics had made her join the National School of Drama in Delhi, from where she graduated in 1968. Srilata told me she had taught eminent actors like Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. I happened to see Srilata’s name appear in connection with an episode in NSD, which was recounted by Naseer. Confesses Shah, in his book ‘And then One Day: A Memoir’, “One of my last performances in NSD was the lead in a production by Srilata Swaminathan, of a play called Marjeeva (the Living Dead). It didn’t excite me terribly, but in NSD, we were powerless to turn down any part we were asked to do. When we started moving the action, Srilata, instead of instructing the actors asked us all to move the way we felt we should and when we felt we should. I interpreted this trust of the actors’ choices and regard for their abilities as sloppiness on her part and kept insisting on being given a ground plan of the moves; I was incapable of performing without one, lazy devil that I was, could not be bothered coming up with anything on my own. Add to it my natural boorishness and arrogance, and the fact that at that stage, I understood nothing of what an actor is supposed to do but still managed to put up an all-knowing attitude, and you’ve got one noxious mix. With saintly patience, Srilata kept telling me that I could move when and where I pleased and I kept insisting she tell me when and where I should move. The situation became an impasse and ultimately about a fortnight before the play was to open, she threw in the towel and resignedly worked out my moves because I refused to do so myself. I had not only contributed nothing, I had mistrusted the faith she had in me and had messed up an opportunity to explore this quite novel and what should have been really exciting approach to acting. It was quite a few years before what Srilata was trying to do sank into my brain, but then I could only apologise to her for my earlier stupidity.” I noticed during my stay with Srilata, that Naseeruddin would send some monetary contribution for the Party’s election campaign in Rajasthan. I had been to NSD to attend one of the festivals of the institution with Srilata, when Sri Devendra Raj Ankur was the Director. It was for the first time that I was seeing so many of the NSD alumni greeting her with great reverence. There I came to know that Srilata had worked with the famous playwright Ebrahim Alkazi. It was awe-inspiring to visit NSD and see the archives with her.

When we had gone for a Trade Union meeting to Ahmedabad, I had the occasion to visit the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts. Together we had watched a play enacted through shadow puppetry, which I had seen there for the first time. And, Srilata was a lover of vintage music of the 60s and 70s. During tea breaks, when serious debates were on in the Central Committee, she would sing songs sung by John Denver, Jim Reeves, Nina Simone and Elvis Presley. And, her rendering of the Internationale was so full of feeling and energy that I sometimes got nostalgic. Many a time she would recite from memory the poems of Swift, Yeats or Shelley. And, of course, she was a voracious reader, her favourite authors being Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

I also learnt from her that she had many friends among the community of cultural personalities, like Arundhati Nag, Girish Karnad, Suhasini Mulay, the late dancer Chandralekha, the late Zohra Segal, Usha Uthup and Anjolie Ela Menon and many more. Many of our interests were similar – art, literature, music and dance, and of course, good cuisine, so we exchanged notes and often enjoyed the lighter side of life together. We also tried to use innovative ways of attracting people to the movement, like designing masks for our demonstrations, using songs and methods used in street theatre to attract crowds, etc. We even used a symbolic bonfire in place of ‘HolikaDahan’ to set afire the many evils that plague women.

Handling the Media

It was in fact, Srilata who had introduced me to The Indian Women’s Press Corps, of which I became a member, as one of the correspondents for both AadhiZamin and Liberation. Later, we had quite a few press conferences there, especially the joint press conference on the Women’s Reservation Bill. Coming to handling Press Conferences, Srilata was confident and witty; she could be polite but often sarcastic if a journalist tried to belittle the initiatives of the Left-led organisations, as was quite common in Delhi. So I would give her the mike, and she would make sincere efforts to speak in good Hindi; so that the Hindi media persons could follow the nuances of what was being said. And, she would plan everything meticulously, down to the last detail – the Press Invitation, the banner that would be put up, the Press Releases in Hindi and English and the tea and snacks. She did not depend on offices, as she had so many friends in Delhi that we could use any house or computer for our work, and take printouts in a cyber café. I admired her for her Hindi typing, which was so perfect that we never had to depend on others for preparing our press releases; in fact after every programme we would go to the offices of all the Newspapers and personally deliver the press release at the reporting desks. In the process, I got acquainted with many women journalists, who were quite sympathetic to our cause- Mrinal Pandey, Usha Rai, and Gargi Parsai, to name a few.

Do it Yourself

I was so greatly inspired with Srilata’s ‘do it yourself’ policy, that I went on to learn Hindi typing myself. And, I must say, it has stood me in good stead till today. Srilata was never deterred by the fact that she was a woman. I remember how both of us had set out on a poll campaign in some areas of Rajasthan. Suddenly, the jeep that Srilata was driving had a flat tyre and could go no further. We were in a desolate area, with no petrol pump or garage in sight. I was worried as those were not the times of mobile phones. Srilata got down and took out a jack. She hiked the jack to raise the tyre, and began to open the nuts so as to remove the punctured tyre. I was a bit stunned to see her rolling the tyre out and placing it near the roadside. It seems that the Stepney was also punctured, and there was no way out, so Srilata stood on the middle of the road and waved to a truck; she got the driver to help her lift the tyre onto the truck and plonked herself beside the driver, saying “chalo kisi mechanic ke paas, tyre theek karwana hai”, and he dare not refuse! Within half an hour she was back and fixing the tyre. Srilata was extremely punctual, professional and independent. She never asked help for things she could learn to do, and this lesson I can never forget: “if you running a women’s organisation, you should be able to do everything yourself, including earning money. The moment you display your weaknesses, you can be taken for a ride”. She never complained…till the last day of her life. Srilata loved children and she would always remember to wish children in Party families on birthdays or buy books and chocolates for them.

Work in Rural Rajasthan, the IPF and the Women’s Movement

Srilata was inducted into the CPIML(Liberation} in the early 90’s and began building the Party structure in Rajasthan with the help of her partner, Comrade Mahendra Choudhary, who belonged to Jhunjhunu. She told me how theirs was a love marriage and he had been working in the underground Party of Kanu Sanyal before they met. She became a member of the Central Committee soon, and she felt that the work in Rajasthan would develop only if the leaders had a national perspective. And, indeed, she was proved right.The only thing that many comrades in the Party often feared was Srilata’s mercurial temperament and instant bouts of temper, which nobody could control. In her own words she would blow her top like steam pushing up a cooker whistle, but her anger would subside within minutes and she would hold no grudge against comrades working with her. When I first met Srilata as a political activist, she had joined the Indian People’s Front, which was the open, electoral front built by the CPIML. She had been active as President of the Rajasthan Kisan Sabha. She was very open about the fact that her husband, who was also a whole-time worker in Rajasthan Kisan Sabha was not very enthusiastic about joining the Front immediately. But she was patient and asked the Party leadership to give ample time for him to understand. In the beginning, I was a bit surprised to see a woman coming from an upper-middle class background leading an organisation of kisans. Srilata told me she was quite comfortable working with them, but it had taken a long time for her to change their attitude towards women, even towards women in the leadership. In one of the election meetings in Jhunjhunu, I saw women coming and sitting with one yard long veils covering their heads. They sat at a distance, not on the same carpet as the men. Although this was something alien for a woman coming from her background, Srilata had accepted it and she felt it wasn’t any use giving a lecture to them as to why they should shun the veil and uncover their faces. They had been born and brought up in that culture and had been following it through generations; it was not their fault. Maybe, they felt more comfortable that way in the village setting, and would change things if they needed, in their own way, she said. So she went on to speak on issues like MSP, water crisis, cheaper inputs and electricity. She also spoke about the loot by the multinationals who were into agro-business, about loan waivers during times of farmers’ distress, against genetically modified seedsand made a demand for civic amenities in the villages. I thought her accent was anglicised and alien to the local people. I even told her so, but people seemed to understand what she said. They clapped and cheered; they laughed at times and sometimes fell silent or became serious.For the first time I had heard the word “Dakin” from her; she told me women were branded witches or dakins in the village and were ostracised. They could even be stripped,raped and killed. There was the case of an adivaasi woman, Dhaapu Bai inTonk district who had been brutally sexually assaulted with a broken bottle by 8 musclemen, because Dhaapu’s husband was brewing liquor locally, affecting the sales of liquor contractors. We had organised a protest demonstration in Jaipur under the banner of Rajasthan Mahila Sangathan. After the Bhanwari Devi case, there were several other cases of violence on women including the horrific gang rape of a girl in the JC Bose Hostel and the case of rape by a Jain Monk. Later, Srilata had organised a state-level seminar on the issue of violence against women. PUCL had also participated, and the JC Bose Hostel rape was discussed in detail. It was here that the need for a comprehensive law against all kinds of violence on women was felt. It was planned that this law would be drafted by AIPWA with the help of lawyers and women activists.

In Rajasthan, it was not easy convincing the men. In some Party households, Srilata would try to convince the men to change their attitude towards their wives, sisters and daughters. She would jokingly ask, “Does it benefit you in any way if the women remain in Purdah? Are you afraid of other men gazing at your women? Would it not be better, then, to have the men cover their eyes, when women pass by?” As President of the AIPWA, Srilata had a Marxist approach on the women’s question and wanted the Party to take up issues of women instead of leaving gender questions to the women’s organisation. “When we women are working in the Party, the men should try to understand and be sensitive to problems of women”, she felt, i.e. the women’s question is very much a political question. She played a key role in raising the profile of the newly established AIPWA to the stature of a national women’s organization, giving the left-led women’s movement a relatively autonomous character and keeping alive its movemental character by constantly energising the women’s organisations at grassroots level, for which she used to visit many States and interact with women in the local units closely.

During that period, she worked tirelessly, visiting different states to ensure that at least in 10 States there would be some practical initiative by the local unit of the women’s organisation once in every few months, and that there were at least three to four national programmes in Delhi every year. She personally ensured that struggling women from other streams joined these AIPWA initiatives. Srilata remained very conscious that the organization was live and did not get reduced to a name-board organization with only a few ornamental leaders, as many tend to become. She gave her best to sustain dynamic practical political initiatives at all levels. And she was all for the Women’s Bill – in fact many campaigns were conducted on the issue all over India. The other issues AIPWA took up for a series of workshops in different districts, was the Impact of Globalisation and Communalism on women. A successful Workshop on ‘Problems of Women Workers’ was held under her leadership in Jharkhand and another on ‘Tasks for the Women’s Movement and Organisation Building’ was held at Patna. In all the organizational meetings, Srilata would insist on beginning the discussion with the International and National Situations and their impact on the Women’s Movement. And it did help in broadening our understanding. She had a great role in helping to bring out and sustain the magazines of the organisation, AadhiZameen and Women’s Voice, as she was conscientiously involved in the collection of hundreds of subscriptions from women belonging to other organizations and states.

The Trade Union, Human Rights and the International Department

Srilata was an active member and leader in the AICCTU, and her role was not restricted to Rajasthan. She would help in co-ordinating with leaders in other states and help them through her network of legal experts and senior lawyers in Delhi. She was also part of Central delegations meeting the Labour Minister. I had also accompanied her in joint delegations to the Human Rights Commission or the Home Minister on issues like army atrocities in Assam and the AFSPA, police terror in areas of Bihar, rape and killings in areas of revolutionary Left movement activists in Jharkhand, and State repression in Singur and Nandigram. She built a strong network with leaders of the Left in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, Australia, Sweden, Canada etc. and helped to get women delegates from these countries for the AIPWA Conference in Delhi.

Faith in Alternative Therapies

Srilata was able to relate with women of all ages, so she talked to my mother about her interest in reading and her faith in alternative therapies, when she visited Allahabad. She also enjoyed ‘neem pakora’ that was a favourite in our house.I had also learnt how to make karelas with tamarind paste from her. I also remember Srilata telling me that many poor tribal people in the villages were superstitious but they were more sensible regarding issues related to healthcare, so she had to speak to them in a different language altogether. They were afraid of allopathic medicines, so local village doctors used herbs to treat them. It was through her interactions with them that Srilata had learnt a lot about natural cures for common ailments, and she used them successfully in the course of her work in the countryside. It was in this context she mentioned her experiment with auto urine therapy. She told me how she had learnt the basics in Banswada district, among the Bhil adivasis and had later got several books on the subject from Sri Morarji Desai. The treatment had helped her and she had cured her oedema and sores caused by failing kidneys with it too. I once had a long discussion with her and she was of the strong opinion that allopathic drugs provided symptomatic treatment but led to several side-effects in the long run. Moreover, the pharmaceutical industry was into a lot of profit-making, caring little about the long-term impact on patients; also, they were extremely costly and unaffordable. Her article ‘My Incredible Recovery Story’ is available on and she has shared it for the benefit of patients suffering from incurable ailments.

Srilata was always open to new ideas, and at the same time, was a disciplined Communist. These are rare qualities in comrades with a middle or upper-middle class upbringing. I am fortunate to have shared a golden decade of activism with her and will cherish her memory as a dear friend and committed comrade-in-arms.

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