PAPPA UMANATH A Symbol of Courage and Commitment
Pappa Umanath, a revolutionary communist, inspirational and courageous leader, a member of the CPI(M) Central Committee, and one of the founders of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, passed away on December 17 in a hospital in Tiruchy at the age of 81. When her companion and partner of the last over 60 years, Comrade R Umanath, frail but strong, stood by Pappa’s grave raising his fist in a last moving red salute, thousands of men and women who had come to bid farewell to her, could not hold back their tears. Her grave lies in the very area where, as a 11 year old child, she had begun her political life among the railway workers of Golden Rock. Nearby is the memorial of the five railway worker martyrs who were brutally shot dead by the police in the historic railway workers’ strike of 1946. In the area is the place from where she was first arrested and where she faced her first lathi charge and beating by the police.
ALWAYS TRUE TO THE CAUSE
But the symbolism is not only related to the events in her life, but also to the fact that Pappa, the daughter of a working class family, was brought back on her final journey to the soil where she had taken her political birth. She thus, till her last breath, remained true to the class she was born in. Her burial at Golden Rock symbolised that class commitment. Pappa’s entire life was as straight as an arrow unerringly finding its way to its target, with the single-minded aim to mobilise the working class, particularly its women, in the struggle against capitalist exploitation and social oppression. As an orator, as an organiser, as a leader of women’s movement, as an elected representative of the people in the Tamilnadu assembly, she devoted her life to actualise the goals she believed in - the goal of revolution, the goal of Socialism.
Pappa’s long span of public life, covering almost 70 years, saw many ups and downs in the communist movement of which she became a member in the year 1945. She became an active participant in the national movement when she was just a child. The national movement had, of course, attracted many young students into active politics including school children. Pappa herself could study only till Class 8 because her widowed mother could not afford it. She used to tell her comrades later that the education she got was not from books but from the everyday struggles of workers and their families to live a life of dignity.
Unlike many other communist leaders who were attracted to the freedom movement through the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and later joined the communist movement, Pappa came through the Left trend through active work in the trade unions. She was not attracted by the Gandhi-led national movement. From the beginning she was a partisan for the working people. While the circumstances of her birth and early life, and most of all the experiences of her courageous mother Alamelu shaped her early political work, as she grew into adulthood she made conscious choices to fight for the red flag often at great personal cost. Around the same time, other great communist women leaders like Ahilya Rangnekar, Vimal Ranadive, Kanak Mukherjee and Janaki Ammal were already in the thick of the national movement. They too were seeking to link the movement for freedom from colonial rule to the movement for the working people’s emancipation. Pappa, junior to them in age, was seeking her own way to the ranks of the fighters. She worked during the day to help her mother run a mess for workers and at the same time she worked first with the children’s organisation in the railway colony, then with the union and later with the Ponmalai Women’s Association. Even though she had the support of her mother and the union workers, there were still strong prejudices against a young woman of Pappa’s age being allowed the kind of freedom of movement and action that she claimed, selling literature, speaking at meetings, visiting workers in their homes. Conservative society frowned on her activities.
Those years had a profound influence on Pappa. As a teenager who had grown up fighting for her right to independence, she strongly supported women’s autonomy in decision making, in making choices in their own lives, and she later implemented those beliefs when she had her own family. All her life, she maintained a healthy contempt against hypocritical petty bourgeois conventions concerning the ‘correct’ behaviour codes for women. She was steeled to withstand the economic hardships she faced even in later life, as a mother without much money to bring up her daughters. Those early years of hardship and struggle shaped her and she developed into an extremely strong personality. Those who knew her well recognised that the strong exterior hid a most kind heart, deeply sensitive to the sufferings and indignities in the lives of the poor, particularly poor women. She spoke her mind, indeed she was quite outspoken, whether she was addressing ministers, high government officials, or within her own organisation. This may not have endeared her to those who get cowed down by authority. This was a working-class quality that Pappa maintained till the end. She never spoke to please those around her. She was frank and honest in her assessments, in the expression of her opinions and views even when it concerned leaders, regardless of what others thought of her.
Pappa had immense courage. She was jailed many times before and after independence. She was arrested during the India-China war, again when she joined the CPI(M) after the party split, and then at the time of the war with Pakistan. Her first arrest was at the age of 12 when she joined a workers’ demonstration in Ponmalai against the British. She defied the police but when they arrested her and produced her in a court, she was let off because of her age. On another occasion, when the police came to arrest her and other comrades, she bit a policeman’s hand in order to help some of the comrades escape, for which she was badly beaten. In 1946, Pappa was in the thick of a workers’ strike. She was witness to the brutal firing on workers in which five workers were killed. She had already joined the Communist Party in 1945 and had been given important responsibilities. There was an atmosphere of terror in the area. Pappa, along with her comrades, went house to house, giving courage to the women and organising them to protest against the firing. In 1948, the party was banned. There was a fresh wave of repression against the communists and the trade union movement. The party shifted Pappa and her mother to Madras to help run one of the underground hideouts. It was there that she met Comrade Umanath and they got married some years later.
It was in this period that Pappa faced the most testing time. The police raided the den and arrested all the comrades. Pappa and her mother were taken to the Pallavaram police station. Pappa was badly beaten by the police who were trying to extract information about other comrades from her. The young woman remained silent. She and her mother were sent to a sub-jail where they were subjected to the most inhuman treatment. Every day, as punishment, they were asked to remove pots containing human excreta. When Pappa refused, saying she was a political prisoner, she was badly beaten and dragged by hair. She fought back, throwing an excreta-filled pot at one of the top officers. He had to beat a hasty retreat but she was subjected to more beating. Those physical scars remained for many years.
Pappa and her mother decided to go on a hunger strike along with R Umanath and other comrades. It went on for 22 days. Pappa was separated from her mother. She did not know that the condition of her beloved mother had turned critical. Her mother died alone, lying on the floor of her prison cell. Pappa was informed by a guard. Grief-stricken, she asked to see her mother’s body but was told that she could do so only if she gave her written resignation from party membership. Pappa, reliving that moment in later years, described how her terrible grief turned to anger against the system which had done this to her mother. She refused to give such a letter. She saw her mother’s body being taken out of the neighbouring cell. She did not cry out but wept in the loneliness of her own cell later that night, grieving that her mother’s last wish that her body should be draped with the red flag could not be fulfilled. This was a lasting regret that Pappa referred to in her recollections of those hard years. She could never know what happened to her mother’s body. However, such cruelty and personal grief failed to break her spirit, and she found the inner strength to deal with it. That was Pappa!
FIGHT AGAINST INJUSTICE
Another quality which stood out was her indomitable will and immense energy to fight against injustice. Her strength was in her connections with the real life of people. At the same time she had the capacity to turn individual cases of exploitation into collective protest agitations. She first displayed this talent and skill when she joined other comrades in organising the agricultural workers in Thanjavur -at a time when their organisation was still being formed. She used to meet the workers, particularly women workers, learn of their daily life and then turn those experiences into powerful agitations. Thus she was conscious of not imposing demands on the workers but letting the workers themselves decide the demands in a natural course. At one time, she toured through Thanjavur district with a well-known poet and singer P Kalyanasundrama. As she related to Parvathi Menon in her interview for an AIDWA publication, she had on one of these tours addressed 23 meetings in a single day. Few could match her energy and enthusiasm.
She brought this quality into all her political activities. Whenever there was a struggle and a case to be taken up, Pappa was always there. When Pappa was an MLA, it was known that she was one of the most accessible. Everyday she would turn up with a bundle of petitions, demanding a hearing from the minister concerned. It was said that the day Pappa did not come with petitions, ministers would jokingly say that Tamilnadu was peaceful on the day. In her work as a communist MLA, Pappa embodied the principle of taking the voice and demands of the people to the legislature. She was a link between the struggles in the street to the struggle in the assembly. During her tenure as an MLA, she won a following of admirers across party lines because of her constant interventions on behalf of the poor, particularly women, and because she never used her position for personal benefit.
Hers was a historic contribution in developing the women’s movement in Tamilnadu. She was greatly inspired by the work of revolutionary communist leader Janaki Ammal who had laid the foundations for a Left-oriented women’s movement in Tamilnadu and with whom she worked closely. In the post-Emergency period, there was a proliferation of feminist groups in various states. This was the time when Mythily Sivaraman, who was working with trade unions, brought that experience and a sharp political and ideological understanding to the women’s movement. Mythily’s contribution helped develop a strong team which later built one of the strongest contingents of women’s movement in India. Pappa was at the centre of it. I remember the days when we were discussing the AIDWA constitution; Pappa would always intervene. Even though she had to leave formal schooling after Class 8, she had developed herself through self-study. In fact she became the assistant editor of a trade union journal and developed into quite a journalist. Thus by the time she made the work among women her main focus, she had developed great skills in writing. Her contributions were significant. On the constitution she had submitted a note and had got it translated but was not satisfied with the translation. She then regretted that she did not have the opportunity to fully learn English and had always to depend on translators, some of whom she felt took shortcuts. But what was striking was that she was always open to new ideas. When the AIDWA was formed, there was a good deal of discussion on issues like domestic violence, dowry burnings etc. Some comrades expressed the view that these issues were not of much importance and would divide the class if we started organising women of working class families against domestic violence. Pappa totally and unambiguously rejected this position. In one such discussion, when I think EMS was also present, she said this was a non-class approach because it meant we supported alien trends among the workers.
An excellent organiser, she regularly travelled to the districts, attended committee meetings and especially paid attention to developing women activists into political workers. She spent a great deal of time with women cadre, nurtured them, helped them in their personal problems and tensions. She felt an acute sense of responsibility for women cadre and was always accessible to them. There are only a few leaders who know the family details or problems of individual cadre. Pappa took the trouble to know such details and always helped and guided the women in a time of crisis. She kept in touch with the district and local level cadre. She used to write them regularly at a time when there was no computer and no sms. She in fact wrote at least 50 letters a month. In her last days, she made enquiries about the membership quotas of the women’s organisation, got the addresses of all committee members and wrote to each one of them about the importance of expanding the organisation. At her funeral, many of the women related the stories of these letters and how they treasured them.
Building the party among women was one of her major concerns in the last decade of her work. At every meeting of a party committee, she raised the issue of politically developing women cadre. She laid great stress on political education and was strongly critical of the slow process of bringing deserving women into the party. In the discussions preceding the preparation of the Central Committee document on the perspectives on women’s issues, Pappa made valuable contributions with her wealth of experience --- from the functioning of branches to that of the higher committees. Her loyalty to the party was paramount and her concern was that the party should not be weakened by wrong trends concerning women’s recruitment.
For me, personally, and I am sure for many who have worked with Pappa, she was a pillar of strength -encouraging, supportive, affectionate, yet sharp in her criticisms of shortcomings. She had a great sense of humour, could sing well and often entertained us with her songs. I remember being astounded at her capacity to do so many things at the same time. This was when I was in Coimbatore for the national conference of the AIDWA, helping in the preparations. Pappa wrote, directed, suggested slogans and cooked all at the same time! She would insist on cooking lunch for us in the rented office, and this was usually the highlight of the day. The last time I saw her was many months ago, at her home in Trichy. Although not keeping well, she was cheerful and determined to attend the AIDWA national conference in Kanpur. But that was not to be. Comrade Umanath said she was till the end concerned about the organisation and movement, and constantly talked about it. Theirs was a partnership for over 60 years, a partnership where both worked selflessly for the party. The entire organisation stands with Comrade Umanath and the family members, their daughters Vasuki and Nirmala, and their grandchildren in this time of loss and sadness.
Pappa Umanath stood out as a woman who was, through sheer personal courage, determination and relentless hard work, able to develop from a young child who was named Pappa by the railway workers many decades ago, into a communist leader with a stature, one who synthesised personal integrity with an uncompromising commitment to the cause of revolution. Her contribution to the communist movement was significant; in particular she played a most crucial role in developing a mass based women’s organisation and struggles in Tamilnadu. Her work and her memory will continue to inspire those who fight for a better future for the working people of our country.
Long Live Comrade Pappa Umanath!