June 06, 2021

Mythily Sivaraman: Revolutionary Fighter against Class Exploitation, Caste Oppression and Gender Inequality

Venkatesh Athreya

MYTHILY Sivaraman, a veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tamil Nadu, passed away in Chennai on the morning of May 30, 2021. In her death, the Party and the democratic movement have lost a dedicated fighter against exploitation, oppression and inequality. Comrade Mythily served the democratic movement with great distinction for more than four decades, contributing significantly to the work of AIDWA and CITU in particular. She had earned the love and respect of masses beyond the immediate fold of the Party and its mass and class organisations as well through her tireless work, her simplicity and accessibility, and her ability to communicate with all sections of the people.

Mythily went to the USA to pursue post graduate studies in the early 1960s. She spent the next several years in the US before returning to Chennai in 1968. The years that Mythily spent in the US were marked by the rising tide of popular movements against racism. This was also a period when tiny Socialist Cuba stood firm against mighty US imperialism (as it still does!).  The US launched a brutal war of aggression beginning in the mid 1960s against Vietnam which led to widespread anti-war protests on US university campuses opposing the US government’s war. In the UN and in other international fora, the socialist countries and the non-aligned movement raised their voices against imperialism and racism. Mythily, already sensitive to issues of justice and firmly against inequality and discrimination (going back to her teens when she would protest to her mother about her being made to do household work while her brothers were not required to do so!), found herself drawn to these powerful movements for equality and justice and against imperialism. Cuba and Fidel Castro were especially important inspirations.

After completing her studies, Mythily worked in the US for some years, including as a research assistant to the Committee on Decolonisation in the UN. These were formative years and experiences that transformed the academically inclined young Mythily into a person with a strong commitment to work for progressive social change as her defining characteristic.

If the US was in great ferment around questions of racism and imperialism when Mythily was there, Chennai and Tamil Nadu were also in ferment when Mythily returned to the city. In the village of Kilavenmani in the Kaveri delta, 44 agricultural labourers including children, women and men were charred to death by landlord goons for demanding higher wages and refusing to pull down the Red flag as demanded by the landlords. There were powerful working class struggles led by militants who went on to form the CITU in 1970, especially in and around Chennai city. Mythily plunged into work, with a careful survey that she carried out in Kilavenmani that gave her insights into the agrarian question. V P Chintan, a legendary leader of the working class in Chennai, read an article of Mythily’s on Kilavenmani and got in touch with her, requesting her to meet him for a discussion on  issues she had written about. She met VPC soon after. This was the defining moment that led to Mythily choosing to join CPI(M), and not long afterwards, to become a wholetimer of the Party. Her contribution to the Party led her to be a member of the Chennai district committee and later she served as a member of the state committee for two decades.

Mythily’s primary area of work in the 1970s was the trade union front. Chennai was then dotted with small and medium factories in many of which women formed the major segment of the workforce. Notable among the many trade union struggles that Mythily led, as a CITU leader, were those in Tablet, a pharma firm, Balu Garments and several other garment factories. Mythily also led, along with others, the struggle of quarry workers in several areas of Greater Chennai. Mythily’s work was by no means confined to a few small and medium factories. She served as vice persident/president in much bigger unions as well, including in Union Carbide and Metal Box companies. During the Emergency, when the senior frontline leaders such as VPC were forced to go underground, Mythily had to take on greater leadership responsibilities, which she did with distinction. Besides being an office bearer in many unions, Mythily was also much sought after by workers in struggle in many other factories and companies as a powerful and convincing speaker who could inspire confidence in the workers that their struggles were just and would succeed.

In 1979, when at the national conference of CITU in Chennai, the All India Coordination Committee of Working Women was formed, Mythily was part of its national leadership. She was the convenor of the Tamil Nadu Coordination Committee for many years. She was remarkably successful in expanding the scale and scope of operations of the committee under the banner of CITU into many middle class unions and associations in central and state government offices. She had a remarkable ability to put across her points gently, but firmly and convincingly, helping to overcome the hesitancy in many middle class employees’ organisations to be directly associated with the red banner of CITU!

Mythily was associated as a founding member and leader of the Democratic Women’s Association (DWA) of Tamil Nadu, along with legendary leaders Janaki Amma (president) and  Pappa Umanath (general secretary) in 1974. Later when the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) came into existence, the DWA-TN became a constituent unit of AIDWA. Mythily served for long periods as a key office bearer of AIDWA at both state and national levels. Her contribution to the work of AIDWA at both levels has been so widely recognised and appreciated that people sometimes tend to associate Mythily almost exclusively with her work in AIDWA and on gender issues. It is true that Mythily did outstanding work in these domains, and especially in taking AIDWA-TN into colleges and universities, and into broad based joint action platforms on specific gender issues in which many other women’s organisations with widely divergent political outlooks participated, thus expanding AIDWA-TN’s arena of operations both quantitatively and qualitatively. However, through all this, Mythily never wavered from a clear class perspective. Her understanding and practice of ‘united front’ tactics in the terrains of gender and social equality was marked by a clear commitment to the Party’s programmatic understanding.

Mythily played an important role in taking to a wider audience the message of class struggle against both landlordism and the bourgeois-landlord state that were embodied in the work of the Party and kisan front both prior to and in the follow-up actions relating to the Kilavenmani massacre. In the struggle for justice for the tribal women and men in Vachathi village, Mythily’s letter to the commissioner for SCs and STs on the facts of the case and requesting investigation and delivery of justice, following her visit to the village as part of a fact-finding team, helped break the state government’s attempts to whitewash the criminals and refuse to recognise the horrors perpetrated on the tribal people of Vachathi. It led to a proper investigation, finally bringing to book the criminals involved.

Mythily was a fine orator and a prolific writer as well in both English and Tamil. She had a very engaging style of presentation even in large public meetings where she could keep the audience personally involved in what she was seeking to convey, both by the simplicity of the words and sentences she uttered and by the demeanour of gentleness and earnestness in conveying her message. Her gentleness was not to be confused with weakness or hesitation of any kind. Mythily was tough as steel as well as crystal clear on all questions of principle, and her messages would reach the audience without any ambiguity. Besides contributing important resource material for use in Party education (her note on the women’s question, written for use in Party classes, for instance), Mythily has written many topical booklets for use in agitation and propaganda. She has also written scholarly articles that researchers find useful.

Farewell, Comrade Mythily! Red Salute!! You will always remain a huge inspiration in the struggle for socialism and a world free of class exploitation, caste oppression and gender inequality.

Mythily Sivaraman

THE Polit Bureau expresses its deep grief at the passing away of Comrade Mythily Sivaraman, veteran leader of the Party in Tamil Nadu and the women’s movement in the country.

Mythily Sivaraman played an active role in the trade union and working class movement in Chennai in the 1970’s. She was one of the founders of the Democratic Women’s Association in Tamil Nadu which later became part of the AIDWA. She served as vice-president of AIDWA.

She led many struggles against caste and gender oppression, notable of which was the struggle of the tribal women of Vachathi. Earlier she had conducted a searing investigation of the massacre of dalit agricultural workers in Kilavenmani in 1968.

A dedicated Marxist, she worked as a member of the Tamil Nadu CPI(M) state committee for more than two decades. Mythily wrote a number of important articles and booklets on class and gender issues in Tamil and English.

For over a decade, she was immobilised by a severe illness. The Polit Bureau pays tribute to her valuable contributions and conveys its deepest condolences to her husband, daughter and other family members.