How Gita Ramaswamy Threw Off Orthodox Upper Caste Chains To Live And Work With Dalits

Gita Ramaswamy, a 'lapsed revolutionary', weaves an intriguing tale of land, caste and gender, which deserves a much wider audience.

At a glance, the bright cover is highly appealing. It’s the striking picture of a pair of soulful, benevolent eyes that dare to dream. Despite its serious title, Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary, the book captivates the reader in me.

It is a memoir of a well-known activist, Gita Ramaswamy, who is also the founder of Hyderabad Book Trust (HBT).

Born and brought up in an orthodox Brahmin family, Gita rebelled and joined Osmania University where she came across the legacy left by George Reddy, a student activist. As a non-Brahmanical world opened up to her, she underwent a drastic transformation. Later, she met Cyril, George Reddy’s brother, whom she married. They plunged into politics, went underground during the Emergency, spent the days teaching the Balmiki community (scavengers). Disillusioned by the party, she left it and formed HBT. A visit to Ibrahimpatnam, Telangana proved to be a turning point in her life.

While the first part of the book is about Gita’s struggle as a woman, the latter part is about her struggle against the system. Her writing is simple, lucid, bold and honest.

I have seen how Brahmanical orthodoxy works…

As a Savarna woman, I have witnessed how rigid our society is, “protecting” their “rights”. Gita’s experiences validate the truth that while men lay down rules and diktats, women act as watchdogs. That’s how deep patriarchy runs.

When Gita calls herself a ‘judgemental Hindu’, I cannot help but smile. Well, at one point of time I was like her, evaluating everything and everyone from a seat of privilege. Very few of us recognise that the system is claustrophobic. The women are desperate to rebel. And rebellion happens at various stages of life and at various levels.

Intercaste marriages or inter religious marriages were a taboo then. I realise with a start that things haven’t changed, for I faced the same ostracism when I married a Bengali OBC refugee.

Caste, class, and gender – reasons for violence

This part of the book made me reflect that while there have been many Savarnas who have fought for the cause of the Dalits, how many have been able to rise above the ‘Savarna Saviour complex’? How many have really been effective in embedding themselves into the very fabric of the community that they were working with?

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From my experience working at grassroots level, it’s always easier to cry foul from a position of privilege. But giving up that seat of power and harnessing empathy to a community’s level of helplessness makes one different. It’s very often this ‘empathy gap’ and our inherent unwillingness to relate to a marginalised community’s plight that is the problem. Backed by our caste and class, we tend to occupy a position of superiority and wield it to our advantage.

But Gita Ramaswamy was an exception. She questioned her own Savarna identity, stood in solidarity with the Madigas, provided unfaltering support, exposed her fragilities, lived life in complete harmony with them, stood up for them whenever needed, faced many threats to her life, and did not reap any of the benefits that she could have by the accident of her birth. In her words, “you needed to help them to the space they were entitled to and they loved you.”

Our grassroots level experiences shape us, for they enable us to comprehend our inner strengths and channelize them towards larger goals.

Isn’t it always the woman who suffers, no matter why?

A woman’s life has always been under the scanner. Her choices, her decisions always questionable.

When the Emergency ended, a majority of men went back to their old lives of privilege. But the women were left disillusioned. They had lost their identities built during the protests and were required to return to domesticity.

That makes me question – why are women always at the receiving end? For they are easy baits?

Gita too, despite being a well-known name in revolutionary politics had to face many obstacles to get people to listen to her, accept her beyond her gender. And in the course of that, she discovered a new entity residing in herself, which her male comrades had to take seriously.

I see hope when I read that she was part of a brigade who were young and bold, vocal and relentless. Her male comrades, who were patriarchal, changed when they joined the movement. They treated women as their equals. Isn’t that the need of the hour – a movement that would transform our men and rip patriarchy away from our mindset?

Gita Ramaswamy calls out to every woman to overcome hurdles and move ahead. Her words, “Every decision meant that the world around us changed a little more and it always came at a price” are almost prophetic, for she inspires us to look beyond our mundane existence and strive for something that is larger.

The memoir is a pathbreaker, for this is the first time a Savarna woman has written about these oppressive practices, and how she battled against them to reclaim her identity. The book leaves me highly critical of the seat of privilege that I have always occupied and taken for granted.

Want a copy of this book?

If you’d like to pick up Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary written by Gita Ramaswamy, use our affiliate links at Amazon Indiaand at Amazon US. You can also buy it directly from Navayana, who publish Dalit literature – do check the endorsements for this book on their page.

Women’s Web gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!

Image source: Navayana, and book cover Amazon.

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About the Author

S Sen

Sreemati Sen holds a Masters in Social Work from Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan. She is a Development Professional, specialised in Psychiatric care of Differently Abled Children. That hasn’t stopped her from exploring other fields. Years read more...

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