April 03, 2022

Swarajyam, a Fallen Flower in the Orchard of Red Blossoms

S Punyavati

THERE fell another flower in the orchard of red blossoms. Her life was an open book with precious lessons for every woman. She was an institution in herself for women in public life. Com Mallu Swarajyam, a flower in the orchard of the red blossoms, fell today.

Com Mallu Swarajyam, the veteran communist and torchbearer of the historic Telangana peasants’ armed struggle, passed away on March 19. With a rich experience in public life spanning over eight decades, she lived a complete life and died at the age of 92 years. Her influence over the last four generations of Telugu people, especially the Telugu women, is unmatched. 

Even though many women have participated in and led the Indian Independence movement, the Telangana armed struggle and the women’s liberation movements, it is very rare that we can find one who continued to walk the path of revolution. Com Swarajyam is one such exceptional woman who continued to live a public life and supported people's movements till her last breath.

The multi-faceted woman was an artist, a revolutionary, a public representative, a women’s rights activist and a mother. Nobody ever saw the braveheart shed a tear as she struggled and withstood the many problems of life, both on political and personal fronts. In her long life as a revolutionary, the only few times one could see her in low spirits was when she remembered the martyrs of the movement, when people’s leader Gaade Srinivas Reddy was murdered and when her husband Com Mallu Venkata Narasimha Reddy died. 

Com Swarajyam began her journey as a people’s leader at the early age of 11 by instilling a fighting spirit among the most oppressed people of the times, the women agricultural labourers. She wrote and sang songs to inspire the women agricultural labourers to break the chains of bonded labour and revolt against the landlords. 

It was a time when the atrocities of the landlords knew no boundaries and even lactating mothers were forced to labour on the fields. It was a common practice among the landlords to demand the new mothers show their full breasts to be allowed a break to breastfeed their children. It was at this time that Com Swarajyam sang to appeal to the men on the fields to revolt through her famous Uyyala songs. 

She would sing

“Dear men, Uyyala 

Ploughing the fields, Uyyala

Devoid of pus and blood are you?, Uyyala

Why don’t you revolt, Uyyala”

Under the cover of the Uyyala songs (Uyyala, meaning the swing) that women sang while working on the fields, she would call upon all the workers to unite and fight against the landlords. Her powerful words moved men and women to plunge into action and as a true revolutionary she succeeded in igniting the fighting spirit among the toiling workers.

Com Swarajyam rebelled against the atrocities of the Telangana landlords in her youth, she joined the Telangana Armed Struggle that began in 1946. She began building the movement in Nalgonda, Warangal, Peddapalli and Bhupalpally districts at the age of 16 and for seven years, she continued to work among the people of Telangana away from home. She worked among the tribals of the region and commanded a squad of revolutionaries till she was 23. She married a member of the squad, Com Narsimha Reddy, after the movement ended.

She did not try to build the movement sitting in air-conditioned rooms and travelling in air-conditioned cars. The beginning days of her family life reminds us of the iconic movie ‘Mother India’. She took up family responsibilities when her husband dedicated his life to building the communist movement in the state. She raised her children by farming her land. However, she never abandoned her responsibilities as a revolutionary and continued to keep abreast of the political developments of the country. She went everywhere she was needed and continued to inspire people to join the people's movement and continued to lead her personal life with the same fighting spirit she built the movement with. 

Com Swarajyam continued to fight for women's rights all through her life. She used every opportunity to highlight the direct link between the feudal system and the oppression of women. She lived her life by the values she preached, of independence and liberty. She told stories about how she would rally groups of children to stop child brides from being forcefully sent to their in-laws’ houses. 

An ardent advocate of women's rights, Com Swarajyam insisted that women members of the Telangana armed struggle should be given firearm training. She identified leadership qualities in a tribal woman Nagamma in her squad and encouraged her to lead. She stressed the importance of women’s consent in marriage and also fought for the right to divorce. She also fought for women’s property rights.

Anyone who raised issues of women, marital problems or sexual problems have always been criticised in our society and it is only such champions of women’s rights who make history. 

As an MLA, Com Swarajyam did not fear raising issues that were uncomfortable to hear for the elite men in the assembly. However, she did not shy away from raising basic essential issues of women like sanitation problems, drinking water problems and the lack of maternity care services in the state. She turned a deaf ear to those who criticised her and called her “toilets’ Swarajyam” for raising those issues. 

Com Swarajyam’s stance and action in the case of Ramija Bee is one classic example of her highest level of consciousness and awareness. Ramija Bee, a Hyderabadi woman was raped by the police and in an attempt to escape punishment, the police attempted to malign her character. The false propaganda was so strong that it swayed the opinion of many. However, Com Swarajyam, who was an MLA at that time, extended her full support to Ms Bee and fought to bring justice to her with the same fervour that she had fought the armed struggle. 

Her speeches in Telangana slang touched peoples’ hearts. She would always share her experiences of the armed struggle to teach the party cadre about building peoples’ movements. Quick and decisive, Com Swarajyam never dilly-dallied with any issues.

Com Swarajyam is one among the many great women who stood by their decisions and braved the consequences. It was during her time as an MLA that a farmer’s oxen and bullock cart were seized by the bank for failing to pay his loan and were kept in a police station. He sought Com Swarajyam’s help and in a bid to help the poor farmer, she openly challenged the police and forcefully took over his oxen and bullock cart and gave them to the farmer. Her actions were rapid and she was a guerrilla in the jungle of people.

Com Swarajyam played a remarkable role in acting as a bridge between the two Telugu regions of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. At a time when Telangana was under the Nizam’s rule, Andhra Pradesh was ruled by the British. The people of the two regions had different cultures, spoke in different slang but were however united by the spirit of revolution. Many leaders of the Telangana armed struggle took cover in Andhra Pradesh. Com Swarajyam toured Andhra Pradesh to collect funds for the Telangana armed struggle and it is said that she was presented with a garland of rupees during one such fund campaign. Her astounding public speech in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh demanding to ban liquor in the then united Andhra Pradesh has drawn huge crowds. She lead the procession with thousands of women to thwart a liquor store auction in the Subbareddy Stadium and warned the government to pay heed to their demands. 

As a advocate of women's right to property, she worked with the committee appointed by the then Chief Minister of the united Andhra Pradesh, NT Rama Rao. As part of the study conducted by the committee, she toured across the state. Along with comrades Suryawati and Udayam, Com Swarajyam brought across the demand that women should have a right to a share in ancestral property and to a share in their husband’s property as well. They held a public meeting with thousands of women on this issue where they held a signature campaign. Later, the signatures were handed over to the CM. Com Swarajyam also played a key role in formulating demands for toilets for women, maternity services, womens’ Polytechnique colleges and Karate coaching for women in colleges in the state. 

Even though Communists do not attach high value to positions and accolades, it is important for the current generation to know the responsibilities Com Swarajyam took up in her life as a revolutionary. She worked to rebuild the women's movement and toured across the united Andhra Pradesh along with comrades Manikonda Suryawati and Moturu Udayam. She played an active role in organising political training classes for women in 1967 in the Guntur district and the AIDWA state conference in 1974. She was elected as the Andhra Pradesh state president of AIDWA in the conference held in Suryapet in 1980 when Com Udayam was elected as the secretary. She continued to work as the state president of AIDWA for 21 years, until 2001. She played a key role in organising AIDWA state conference in 1984 in Miryalaguda wherein the great Telangana warrior Com Ilamma was felicitated. 

It is remarkable that even though Com Swarajyam was born into a family of rich landlords, she was loved by agricultural labourers and farmers across all castes. She was regarded as a representative of the movement they built for land and wages. She was seen as a representative of the anti-bonded labour movement and an anti-caste oppression activist. She has never been viewed as a representative of her caste and was loved by people of all castes. She was appreciated by leaders of all women's associations, including those from the upper caste because her voice echoed the voices of lakhs of ordinary women. Despite having little education and never having set her foot in a school, the experts have always considered her to be one among them owing to her vast experience in the Telangana armed struggle and the great knowledge she gained from those experiences.

One cannot help but wonder if for her experiences as an armed revolutionary, a farmer, a mother and a communist who witnessed society change its face from before the Independence to today, life itself has conferred a PhD to her. 

I worked with her for 10 years. We worked together as secretary and president of AIDWA, as CPIM Central Committee members. We have shared our thought with each other. We have shared love and affection with each other. We also had our share of disagreements.

A void filled our hearts when Com Suryawati died. It was at that time that Com Swarajyam called upon everyone not to dwell in grief and share their memories of Com Suryawati with everyone. It was this call that resulted in a memoir book “Mahila Udhyama Manipusa Manikonda Suryawati”.

Today, the same void fills our heart as Com Swarajyam left us. Our duty, however, lies not in shedding tears for her as she never liked to cry. What she preferred was to groom women into duty-bound activists. She always said that we should create history with our actions. Having lived 80 years of her life as a revolutionary, she did create history. With her passing, a chapter in history as ended and a new one has begun.