HOMAGE TO PAPPA UMANATH Long Live Ponmalai Pappa!
The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) expresses deep sorrow over the demise of its patron and founder member Comrade Pappa Umanath at Trichy on 17th December 2010, after a brief illness. She was 81 years old.She was a towering leader of the women’s movement in Tamil Nadu, who had inspired innumerable young women to become activists of AIDWA. Her long and relentless battle against women’s oppression and for the rights of the working people continued till the last days of her life. Although she was not keeping good health, which impaired her ability to travel, Pappa remained actively in touch with political and organizational developments. Just a few days before she passed away, letters went out to the leading AIDWA activists in the state in her beautiful, clear handwriting, exhorting them to complete their membership on time! Such was her deep and unswerving commitment to the women’s organization, which she herself contributed to building up in a big way.
Pappa Umanath was born in Kovilpathu- a village near Karaikkal, in Tamil Nadu on the 5th of August 1931. She was the third child of her parents, Alamelu and Pakkirisamy, who named her Dhanalakshmi. Tragedy struck early in life, when her father died, rendering them almost destitute. Her mother, widowed so young, and with three small children to take care of, moved to Trichy, where her brother worked with the Golden Rock Railway workshop in Ponmalai. This shift proved to be a crucial one that had a tremendous impact on their lives.
Alamelu began running a mess for the workers of the Railway Workshop, and supplemented the meagre earnings by selling home made snacks. Dhanalakshmi was not only one of the brightest pupils in her class, she would help her mother with the various domestic chores as well. The sprightly girl with her boundless energy was affectionately called ‘Pappa’- little child - by the workers. It was a name that stuck with her for life.
During the freedom struggle
Those were heady times, and the thirst for freedom from foreign oppression was all pervasive. The working class movement had recognized that demanding rights of workers and rights to independence from the British were part of a common struggle. The Railway Workshop was the school in which Pappa learned her first lessons about the struggles of the working class and the Freedom Movement. She came in contact with labour leaders like M. Kalyana Sundaram, J.P. Purushothaman, Anandan Nambiar, Athikesavalu Reddiar and many others. The news about World War II, the scourge of fascism, the brave resistance put up by the Soviet Union to the Nazi invasion, were momentous historical events that served to shape her early consciousness. In India, the Freedom Struggle was gaining momentum. The terrible Bengal famine of 1942 added to the discontent and anger against British rule. These developments on the international and national front inspired youngsters like Pappa to join the struggle against the British.
Pappa was an avid reader, and would go through all the pamphlets and magazines brought out by the Railway Union regarding the struggles of workers, and political events in the country. Pappa joined the Balar Sangam- the Childrens’ Association - where classes were held explaining the political issues and current developments. She would take notes, and then conduct similar classes educating other children. Her organizational skills and her communicative abilities were both in evidence during these formative years. The Balar Sangam collected funds for those affected in the Great Bengal Famine, and the children would sing about the distress and suffering of the people of Bengal. Pappa proved to be an enthusiastic volunteer during meetings and conferences where leaders would come and discuss many issues, and she learnt a great deal from them. Though she had to regretfully drop out of school when she reached the eighth standard, for lack of resources, she did not allow this to hamper her political education. She improved her reading and writing skills by herself, and started working as the sub-editor for Thozhilarasu, a publication brought out by the railway workers union. She later taught herself to read petitions and letters given to her in English. She would actually take time out and teach women to read and write. One such beneficiary was Chidamabaram Padmini.
Among the leaders who visited Trichy, and who inspired Pappa greatly was K.P. Janakiammal from Madurai, who came there after being released from prison. She had been arrested by the British for engaging in anti-war propaganda - the first woman in South India to be arrested for this offence. She had organized peasants in Thuvariman district of Madurai to till the lands in defiance of eviction orders issued by landlords. Her rendition of Bharathiyar songs electrified people to join in struggles and campaigns. K.P. Janakiammal taught the children of the Balar Sangam patriotic songs. Pappa became an ardent admirer of Janakiammal, and followed in her revolutionary footsteps. They were later both active in building the women’s movement in Tamil Nadu.
Pappa’s clashes with the police began when she was barely 12 years old. In 1943, the workers of Ponmalai decided to take out a protest rally in support of the non co-operation movement, defying the police ban. Pappa’s slogans were among the loudest, and she demanded to be arrested. She was most disappointed that the Court ordered her release for being too young. Her courage and militancy in the face of repression remained her defining characteristics all through her life, before and after Independence. She was arrested many times for challenging the police, and the state. Having witnessed the brutality that could be unleashed against striking workers by the management and by the police, in a police firing that claimed 5 lives, she learnt to crusade relentlessly against this collaborative repression.
In 1945, at the height of the freedom struggle, Pappa joined the Communist party at the age of 14. She came into contact with many leading communists, and involved herself in different kinds of party activities. When party members sold party literature and news magazines, and also went around with drums and megaphones - speaking to the people, and trying to disseminate information as widely as possible. Pappa was in the forefront of these campaigns. The sight of a young girl in her teens indulging in such revolutionary activities, shoulder to shoulder with men, created discomfort within the conservative elements. Pappa was often criticized for her activities. However, her mother supported and encouraged her firmly. Pappa‘s firsthand experience of prejudice against women coming into public life was something she never forgot. She fought against this mindset relentlessly, and was outspokenly supportive of young women activists who were subjected to slander. This was one reason why a number of young women were able to come into the movement in Tamil Nadu.
In 1948, the Indian Government decreed a ban on the Communist Party, and many communists were arrested. The midnight knock on Pappa’s door came as expected, but she resourcefully kept the police occupied, so that the papers in the house, the addresses of party members etc. could be destroyed. The party recognized the skills of mother and daughter, and they were sent to Madras party headquarters, to help the comrades functioning underground. Alamelu assumed the name of Lakshmi, by which she was known subsequently.
During this period, Pappa met Comrade Umanath, who had given up his studies to become a party member and activist. The two of them decided to get married, which they did in 1952. There was no tying of the mangal sutra, and no elaborate rituals or celebrations. The marriage remained a dynamic and meaningful partnership for 58 years, each supporting the other, both growing into senior leaders of the communist movement. Pappa was a member of the Cenral Committee of the CPI(M) till her failing health prompted her to ask for some respite. Despite the many hardships that they faced, including periodic arrests, they brought up their three daughters as self-confident and socially aware citizens. There was no division between the personal and the political life for Pappa. She would address political meetings, with Kannamma, Vasuki, or Nirmala by her side, clinging to her saree pallu, or trying to grab the mike. Pappa demonstrated to many activists through her own example that it was possible to inculcate political thinking and progressive values in one’s children, and to bring them up as capable professionals, and leaders of the movement. She had the remarkable ability to combine domestic work and political work effortlessly and effectively.
In 1950, the police raided the Madras Communist Party office, and arrested Lakshmiamma, Umanath, and Pappa, along with others. 17 year old Pappa was beaten up, but the police could not extract any information out of her. Protesting against the indignities inflicted on prisoners, and the miserable conditions in the Saidapet sub-jail, Lakshmiamma, Pappa, and other inmates went on a hunger strike. After 10 days, the health of the prisoners began deteriorating. 22 days after the fast, Pappa’s mother, Lakshmiamma passed away. Grief stricken, Pappa requested permission for a last glimpse of her mother’s body. The authorities agreed, but on one condition – that she should resign from the Party. Pappa refused, and was unable to get a final viewing of her mother. To her lasting regret, Pappa never learnt how the body was disposed of by the police. Lakshmiamma was the first woman martyr to die in jail. Then, as well as later, the communist prisoners launched ceaseless struggles for the human rights of all prisoners, even at great personal risk. During one of their stints in Vellore jail, K.P. Jankiammal and Pappa went on strike, demanding that the common prisoners should be treated properly, though this greatly aggravated Janakiammal’s asthma.
After their release from jail, Pappa went back to Trichy, and started organizational work in earnest. She was a powerful public orator, with tremendous energy. During a campaign to propagate the issues being taken up by the agricultural workers’ union, she is reputed to have addressed 23 meetings in one day, along with the famous people’s poet Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, who reportedly sang 50 songs.
During the 1970s, K.P. Janakiammal and Pappa worked hard to lay the foundations of the Jananayaka Madhar Sangam (JMS) in Tamil Nadu. In 1973, the first preparatory convention was held in Dindigul, followed by the first conference in Tiruvarur, where K.P. Janakiammal was elected as President and Pappa became the General Secretary. She continued in this post for the next 20 years, and then as its president till 1998. Initially, the organization was successful in enrolling working class women members. Huge struggles were conducted on the issue of ration cards, and a better public distribution system. In one historic rally, demanding water, and ration, the charismatic Chief minister of Tamil Nadu, MGR, who could send women into raptures, found that the AIDWA rally under Pappa’s leadership could not be easily deflected from its objective. Though he came personally to the rally, hoping to draw away the women, such was their commitment that the rally continued on its way with added vigour! On both the issues of water and ration, AIDWA in Tamil Nadu was able to win crucial demands. Even now, water supply through tankers is being undertaken in many areas, a core demand put forth by us. The demand for a ration shop for every 1000 households was also successfully achieved. These were issues that brought the JMS into close touch with large sections of ordinary women.
Subsequently, as the organization diversified, more middle class members began to enter the organization. Leaders like Mythili Sivaraman who came in from a Trade Union background gave a new impetus to its growth. The organization started dealing with multidimensional issues, including those of violence against women. This was also the period when the Emergency was announced. Pappa’s forceful speeches, laced with wit, were popular across the state, as she toured the districts extensively, building up the movement.
In 1981, the first National Conference of AIDWA was held in Madras, and Pappa played an active role in the framing of its Constitution. The movement in Tamil Nadu gained immensely from her forthrightness, and her tremendous organizational skills. Pappa would never hesitate to speak her mind, and was bluntly critical of any kind of wrongdoing. She was totally fearless when taking up cases of atrocities against women. Many issues of custodial violence were transformed into state level campaigns against police repression. In one landmark case, when a bogus Godman called Premananda threatened her with dire consequences, for leading a protest against his sexual abuse of young girls, she effectively converted it into a potent mass issue. Premananda finally landed in jail, a much chastened and wiser man. During her tenure as an MLA - a seat that she won from Trichy - she was one of the most respected, indeed, feared speakers in the Assembly. She would ask uncomfortable questions, and since her preparation was thorough, the DMK Government would be forced to respond to her queries without prevarication.
In 1986, Pappa visited Russia, along with Mythili Sivaraman, to attend the International Peace Conference that was being held there. On this memorable occasion, she met the astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, an event which gave her great pleasure.
Pappa ‘s calls for organizational expansion through powerful membership campaigns gave an added thrust to this task. During the 7th National Conference, her call for breaching the one crore membership mark at the national level was converted into an achievable goal.
She would be in constant touch with the district leadership, and would follow up on decisions tirelessly. She was also very concerned about the family situation of the activists, and was known to keep track of their problems, and extend help when needed. She was also a good fundraiser, with a broad range of contacts which she used for the movement. These skills played a major role in the state level expansion of AIDWA.
AIDWA dips its flag to salute to this extraordinary leader. We extend our condolences to her family and friends. Her absence will be deeply felt by the organization. Indeed, the only way that we can pay our tribute to such a leader is by taking forward the tasks that remain unfinished. We pledge ourselves with renewed vigour to the creation of a more equal and equitable world, a world without oppression and exploitation, a world which Pappa and other founder leaders like her fought to create.
She rests in peace at the same place where her political life was born - Golden Rock, or Ponmalai.
Ponmalai Pappa Amar Rahe! Long Live Ponmalai Pappa!.