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Central Role of Women in the Struggle for Telangana

Kalpana Kannabiran

At the time when the movement for the State of Telangana reaches its peak, and even as the leaders of this movement craft the contours of this state that is one step towards liberating the people of this region from a history of economic, political and cultural oppression, it is important to think about which way we would like to go. As somebody who believes in Telangana statehood, not as part of a general argument about the efficacy of smaller states alone, but as indispensable to the dignity of the region, I raise these questions with the aim of pushing for a greater democratization of the movement. There are unresolved issues that need to be addressed and there are leaders of integrity, with a radical vision and political astuteness like Kondandram and Ratnamala, who have the capacity to take difficult questions on board and turn them into strengths.

One pillar for the demand for a separate Telangana is the fact of economic hegemony and the appropriation of the assets in Telangana by the ruling classes and business interests in Andhra. Indeed what sets the Telangana movement apart is the fact that it is led by persons with a proven commitment to civil liberties and human rights. This is in stark contrast to the Samaikya Andhra movement. This however, is only the starting point. Having a leadership with a socialist vision in a region, which has seen the worst forms of feudalism and continues to grapple with the worst forms of caste discrimination and exploitation of adivasi communities, it becomes imperative to outline the economic contours of the new state. This is even more important because the power of the movement today, although the result of years of silent work and campaigning in each district by civil libertarians committed to the cause, is within the grasp of mainstream politicians of different hues who see in the new state unlimited political opportunity. It is of course necessary to broaden the base and create inclusive platforms by converting political opportunism into a commitment to justice. But what will be the non-negotiables in that platform, apart from the demand for a separate state?

What sets Telangana apart from other "small states" is that six decades ago, it witnessed the armed struggle against imperialist and feudal forces; three decades ago it provided the epicentre of the most vibrant civil liberties movement in the country. What sets Telangana apart as well, is not just that the Marxist Leninist resistance to the state attained its most powerful and most creative forms here, but importantly that the most trenchant critique of the patriarchal bases of Marxist-Leninism came from this region in the aftermath of the Emergency, leading to the formation of the first autonomous women's rights groups in the country in the mid 1970s.

The history of the Telangana region is a history of political radicalism and resistance to forces of conservatism across the board - ranging from fundamentalism and feudalism to authoritarian "democracy" to dogmatic and patriarchal communism. It is this history of Telangana that will set the new state apart. At a time when global capitalism has eaten into our economies and our lives, Telangana having paid a particularly heavy price, we need to draw on our history of political radicalism and set out the non- negotiables - resistance to virulent capitalism and discrimination being an important part of state policy. The opposition to economic inequality and hegemony that provides the primary justification for the emergent state must travel its full course and draw an irreversible roadmap for the equitable distribution of resources.

The second pillar of the demand for a separate Telangana is the fact of cultural hegemon. The Telugu film industry is the worst offender - the criminalizing of Telangana language and the people of Telangana in popular culture reaching levels that undermine the dignity of the people of the region. Culturally, what sets Telangana apart is its composite culture and the strong presence of the Deccani language till recently not a language spoken by Muslims alone, but increasingly becoming so; and the presence of a strong and visible Muslim community.

In the aftermath of Gujarat, the state's war on terror and hindu nationalist propaganda has driven a deep wedge of mistrust and exclusion - Muslim youth in Hyderabad [the heart of Telangana] becoming targets of suspicion, illegal arrests and detention. Sixty years ago, this region witnessed a historic struggle against imperialist-feudal-capitalist-communal forces, and forged a common identity based on shared values of justice and equity. In recalling that struggle, we need to ask ourselves what conscious measures we have taken in crafting our struggle to give voice to minorities - voice and visibility can only be effective through shared leadership. And in this we need to move beyond a token presence of the mandatory "minority representative" in the leadership. The meetings must address not merely the Telugu-speaking people of Telangana but the Urdu-speaking people as well, a sizeable section. We can scarcely forget that Telangana will be a bilingual state - with Telugu and Urdu as official languages with equal focus.

Speaking of feudal and cultural domination, the central focus of the Telangana struggle was the liberation of women from violent subjugation. And the participation of women in this struggle is historic - Mallu Swarajyam and Chityala Ailamma continue to be widely revered icons. Three decades later, Telangana, more specifically Hyderabad, was the centre of the emergence of the autonomous women's movement which put the articulation of women's rights in place nationally - the agenda that was drawn up then continues to influence public policy and party politics across the board even today. And Hyderabad continues to be remembered as one of the few cities in the country that witnessed the birth of the second wave women's movement.

As progressive women who support the demand for the Telangana state, we act in the faith that this leadership, given its stated commitment to democratic ideals and equal citizenship will exercise duty of care in matters as important as this. It is time now for us to look around us and ask, where are the women leaders? That women, equally with men are the architects of this movement, there is no doubt. What needs a second look, however, is what is the space women occupy in the official deliberations on state formation? While it may be argued, rather simplistically, that nobody obstructs women's elevation to leadership, or even their entry into the political arena, the more pertinent question has to do with how women's leadership is being enabled and built consciously on equal terms with men.

Adivasis of the Telangana region have a history of resistance against all forms of hegemony and today continue to provide vital support for the movement. This is a struggle that goes back at least to the early 1940s, when Gonds under the leadership of Komaram Bheem fought state repression. In the present context, across different adivasi communities in the region, the Telangana movement has seen the emergence of adivasi leadership at different levels. Dialogues with adivasi communities in this region have demonstrated their unswerving support for a separate state.

Over the past several decades, especially in Independent India there have been concerted struggles waged by these communities in different parts of the state for control over resources and land as well as struggles against forced displacement. Adivasis of this region were the first to define the meaning of self-rule, building it around control over resources, knowledge and culture. We have often spoken of the resources in the Telangana region. Since these resources - coal, water, minerals, forests - are an inalienable part of the homelands of the Gond, Koya, Kollam, Nayakpodu, Chenchu and other tribes, decisions on resource utilization must be a matter of adivasi self determination, because a failure on this count will amount to recolonisation. This brings us back to the question of Adivasi voices and visibility in the processes leading to state formation.

Within Adivasi communities, importantly, there is a diversity of location, identity and experience that has been central to any dialogue or contestation on their rights. And they have secured important gains through courts and on the ground. This dialogue and contestation is one that characterizes every vulnerable community - the specific situation of Telugu Muslims, the need for Madiga reservation, the situation of Dalit and Muslim women and the specific experience of different adivasi communities in the region. We must, in building a common platform keep sight of this diversity, and make every effort to be representative in real terms, difficult though the task may be - through a sharing of leadership in significant numbers - rather than be satisfied with a representation of issues alone.

The agenda for Telangana is born out of the lives and struggles of diverse communities in the region. The leadership of the struggle must give voice to the contribution of these diverse constituencies in order to be truly representative - and the burden of ensuring that this movement strikes a different path is on the progressive civil liberties leaders in the movement. It is well within the realm of the possible because the social and intellectual base that supports the movement is its strength. At this time we need to move beyond assuming that representation will follow after the struggle has achieved its goal, because representation, for us is a defining component of the goal itself.

This article is the result of discussions between the author, Sagari Ramdas and N. Madhusudhan and presents a shared perspective.

Sanhati, January 23, 2010. This article is an English translation of the article in Telegu that appeared in Varta.