October 18, 2020

100 Years: In the Fight for Women’s Emancipation

Brinda Karat

THE Communist Party from its inception in 1920, tried to combine Marxist theory and practice in the specific context of socio-economic conditions in India to take forward the fight for women’s emancipation. The Party’s understanding on the “Women’s Question” evolved through its own direct work particularly the work and experience of women communists. Today when under the BJP-RSS reactionary regime, all the gains of women’s movements are sought to be reversed, the work of the Communists in defence of women’s rights at every level makes them the staunchest allies of women’s struggles.

There were three critical issues in which the communists brought a new vision to the fight of women for equality within the freedom struggle:  first, the issue of women’s exploitation as members of the working classes and the intrinsic link between the struggle for women’s emancipation as being part of the struggle against feudalism and capitalism; two, the issues of women’s citizenship and more specifically the struggle for abolition of the caste system, and three, on the question of violence against women sanctioned by tradition, religious scriptures and prevailing capitalist cultures.

The Defence statement of the 18 communists charged in the Meerut Conspiracy case in 1929 was an important early statement by Indian communists reflecting this. It said, “The cloak of sentiment that surrounds the family has always been used to cover its use as a means of exploitation. We claim that it is only under socialism will the use of the family for the exploitation of women and children cease…The status of women has traditionally been one of inferiority to men and at times actual slavery…the emancipation of women that is taking place in the Soviet Union...is the way forward...” Communists even while declaring war on class exploitation were making a strong critique of patriarchal family structures.


As part of the freedom movement, while the mass of women were being moved into the mobilisations of civil disobedience, salt satyagraha, Communists working in the trade unions were organising big actions of working class and peasant women, in the textile mills of Bombay, the bidi workers of Sholapur, the agricultural workers and poor peasant women in Bihar, Bengal on their basic issues for wages, for land, for dignity. Some of these major workers mobilisations were led by the All India Trade Union Congress.  Formed in 1920, it quite soon came under the influence of communists. One of the first organisers was Santosh Devi who joined the AITUC soon after its formation and started work among the jute workers and their families in Bengal. Parvati Bhore in Bombay and then in the decade of the thirties and forties others like Ahilya Rangnekar, Ushatai Dange,  Vimal Ranadive and many others were involved. With the formation of the All India Kisan Sabha in 1936 and the important role played by communists,  peasant women came into the large mobilisations on issues of land and dignity. Tebhaga, Telangana, the Surma Valley struggle, all these are landmarks in the struggle of India’s working people, its toilers, for economic and social justice in which women were not only equal participants but often leading organisers, the red flag in their hands.

Class based actions by women under the leadership of the Party pushed the challenge to prevailing social norms even further. It was a double challenge to patriarchal cultures, from both the class and the social angle.

Godavari Parulekar’s work among the Warli adivasis in Thane, Maharashtra started in 1945, brings out this point quite sharply. In the struggle against the brutal exploitation of the landlords, adivasi women who joined the struggle described the feeling of liberation when their participation in the class struggle changed the social relations between them and their oppressors through the power of collective action, enabled them to speak out against the horrific systematic sexual violence they faced at the hands of the landlords.

In Tripura, under the leadership of Dasarath Deb Barma, it was the Communist Party which brought literacy and social consciousness among the most exploited tribal communities, in particular tribal women. This resulted in the huge upsurge against the forcible collection of feudal “titun” leading to the martyrdom of three tribal women.


The “within class” unequal relations between a man and a woman also faced challenges initiated by women themselves. The writings of participants in the Telangana armed struggle of the peasantry raised many such issues. Women questioned existing equations within families often deciding to end “arranged” marriages because their partners did not support the struggle.  P Sundarayya gives several such examples in his writings. Mallu Swarajyam herself an active participant describes how the Party encouraged women to speak out. Although the men in the movement were not comfortable with the questions as recounted, women raised the questions also of sharing of domestic work if both were active participants in the movement. Thus communist women helped by the Party pushed the movement for women’s equality at various levels forward within the united movements of both men and women and played a pioneering role within the movement itself.

The important lesson is that while class struggle transforms the consciousness of women participants it equally expands the nature of the struggle itself by including within it the important aspect of fighting all aspects of sex based discrimination within the movement. This strengthens class struggle. Several decades later, B T Ranadive, the pioneer of building separate working women’s committees and platforms within the trade union movement, which in the initial stages faced a great deal of resistance, famously said “When Marx said ‘Workers of the World Unite’, he was not speaking of just male workers.” In other words, the class struggle itself has to fight sex based class exploitation by capitalism.


Much of the work of the early communists was in the field of anti-caste struggles for social reform and for the liberation of dalits.  This had a big impact on women of the most oppressed castes. At the same time the demeaned status of women among the upper castes was also taken up, such as the movement led by EMS among the Namboodiris of Kerala which also had a lasting impact.
It was a logical development therefore that at the time of the Hindu Code Reform Bill debate and struggles, communist women were in the forefront of the struggles for support for the reform. The fight for the Hindu Code Reform Bill became intertwined with the fight against the caste system as far as the movements led by communist women were concerned. In the decade of the forties and till the decade of the fifties, the issue of reform in Hindu laws saw big struggles of women.
Equally the struggle against caste oppression taken up by the earlier communists and specifically that of dalit women situated at the social crossing of systemic birth based caste inequality, class exploitation and gender oppression have been consistently organised by communist women. The Hathras case is an example of how relevant the understanding and work of the communists against caste has been and still is.


In the earlier years, communist women worked in joint organisations of women like the AIWC which included Congress women with the aim of mobilising all sections of women against the British rule. However their emphasis was on reaching out to the poorer sections of women and raising their demands as part of the broader movement. The uncompromising fight against caste and for secular values also had its impact on organising and soon it became necessary to form Left oriented women’s organisations. Meanwhile another important initiative by communist minded students had taken place within the AISF, the broad students organisation which had been formed in 1936. Three years later, in 1939 in order to better organise girl students, a girl students committee was formed which had Kanak Mukherjee as one of the first convenors and which also included Kalpana Dutt, the heroine of the Chittagong Armoury raid. Communist women in different states took the initiative to form Mahila Samity’s in several states in the forties as for example in Kerala, Tamilnadu, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh.  Notably in Bengal in 1942, communist women took the initiative to form the Mahila Atma Raksha Samity with the main focus to work among poor women in the context of the terrible famine sweeping Bengal. Renu Chakravarty in her seminal book ‘Communists in Indian Women’s Movements” describes the work of the pioneers.

The state based mahila samity’s came together to form the National Federation of Indian Women in 1954 in which communist women worked along with others. Taking forward the traditions of the freedom struggle, many of the state units or sections of the units in the NFIW started working independently separate from the NFIW. Later in 1981, these units merged together to form  the Left oriented All India Democratic Women’s Association, which has emerged as the largest women’s organisation in India, with a mass membership of over one crore women. However although communist women work in this organization, it cannot be described as a communist women’s organisation. Although this organisation has a political approach towards women’s emancipation, it is not a communist organisation or a “front” of the communists as sometimes wrongly described. Not only does it have its own constitution and agenda which is independent of any political party, the vast majority of its members have no party affiliation.


The communist role in taking forward the struggle for the emancipation of women got a big fillip with the formation of the CPI(M) in 1964. Taking the early role of the Communist Party forward, the CPI(M) in its Programme for People’s Democratic revolution in 1964 and later in the updated Party Programme in 2000, it has provided ideological clarity of a class based approach to women’s emancipation.

In the 2000 updated Party Programme,  a significant addition in the People’s Democratic programme section is ‘Suitable support systems in childcare and domestic work will be part of the thrust to democratise family structures.”  Thus the programme brings in an important Marxist position against the sexual division of labour and the need to expand democracy into the “sacrosanct” sphere of the family. There is a specific reference to the fight against caste and gender oppression as part of the agrarian revolution. The Party Programme indicts “five decades of bourgeois landlord rule (which has) perpetuated patriarchy in every sphere.” Significantly, the CPI(M) Programme describes the exploitation of women at different levels “as women, as workers, as citizens.”
This understanding was further elaborated in the Central Committee document on the “Party’s Perspective on Women’s Issues and Tasks” adopted in December 2005. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the CPI(M)’s approach to the “Women’s Question” including the  Marxist approach to domestic work.


It is within this framework that the Party in today’s situation takes positions and organises struggles on issues directly connected to women. It is not possible to mention all the interventions in the decades since the formation of the CPI(M) but it is sufficient to say that there has not been a single issue concerned with the status of women, the struggle for equality and rights in all spheres including within the family that the CPI(M) has not been in the forefront of the struggle. The fight against neoliberal policies of the Party has included the specific problems and demands of women. CPI(M) members of parliament and in state assemblies have been the staunchest allies of women’s movements pushing forward legislations on equal rights and for justice. The struggle against violence on women in contemporary India, the defence of the rights of young women and the demand for autonomy to make self choice partnerships, the support of the demand for decriminalisation of same sex relationships, the defence of minority women and their rights and so on, have been issues on which the CPI(M) unlike most other parties has taken an unambiguous stand in support of women.

The commitment is as true when the CPI(M) has led governments in states as in West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. The Kerala LDF government is an example today of the pro-woman stand of the Party, through numerous policy interventions to enhance women’s status including the Kudumbashree movement of self-help groups, unique in the country and taking social reform forward such as on the Sabarimala issue. Earlier, the Left front governments in Bengal and in Tripura had taken significant initiatives in the field of education and health which made a difference to women’s lives. In particular, the land reform movement in Bengal and the distribution of joint pattas in the name of men and women and also pattas to single women, were pioneering steps in giving women equal rights in land much before the changes in property laws were made. Similarly, the present movement for one third women’s reservations in parliament was preceded decades ago by the historic decentralised panchayat system in Bengal with one third representation for women through which the Party led movements ensured the representation in decision making bodies of the poorest section of women in rural Bengal.


The development of the communist movement has seen the tremendous work and sacrifice of communist women shoulder to shoulder with their male comrades and in particular when the Party has been under severe attack and repression by the ruling classes, especially in West Bengal and Tripura. When we remember and salute our martyrs on the historic occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Party, we recall that among the countless martyrs are the brave women martyrs who sacrificed their precious lives for the red flag and in the struggle for social and economic emancipation and for the cause of Socialism.