Of the eleven martyrs of the agitation on June 2-3, 1977, one was a woman – Anasuya Bai.
The Chhattisgarh Mines ShramikSangh (CMSS), the first union under the red-green banner, set up seventeen departments in order to bring the entirety of a mine worker’s life under its umbrella. One of these was the women’s department that later took the form of the MahilaMuktiMorcha or women’s freedom front. The person whose death spurred workers to pledge to build their own hospital was also a woman – the union vice president Kusumbai.
Inspired by the success of the Dalli-Rajhara workers, the first workers to join the CMSS were the contract employees of the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) captive mines – the Danitola quartzite mines of Durg district, the Bilaspur dolomite mines of Hirri and Baradwar, the ChandiDongri Fluorite mines of Rajnandgaon, and the Ari Dongri iron mines of Bastar district. Gradually, the workers of the Bengal Nagpur Cotton Mills of Rajnandgaon set up the RajnandgaonKapdaMazdoorSangh, the Rajaram Maize Factory (Glucose factory) workers of Rajnandgaon set up the Chhattisgarh Chemical Mill MazdoorSangh, and the Chhattisgarh ShramikSangh was set up at the Bhilai Steel Plant. The poor farm workers of Raipur and Durg district were unionized within the Chhattisgarh GrameenShramikSangh. The Bhilai Workers’ movement of 1990 led to the formation of the Pragatisheel Engineering ShramikSangh and the Pragatisheel Cement ShramikSangh.
Everywhere the red-green organization grew in villages or cities, a local wing of the MahilaMuktiMorcha was also set up under the leadership of women workers.
The proposed goals of the MahilaMuktiMorcha were as follows:
- Development of women’s leadership
- Opposition to feudal exploitation of women
- Alliance with other oppressed groups in society
- Opposition to capitalist exploitation
- Dissemination of new values within the working class
The oldest branch of the CMSS, the Dalli-Rajhara branch, exemplified the importance given to women in the Chhattisgarh MuktiMorcha organizations. Both men and women had jobs razing or breaking rocks in the manual mines. Only male workers were involved in transporting, i.e. loading trucks with broken rocks. The ratio of women to men among the mukhiyasor leaders in different parts of the mines mirrored the ratio of women to men among the workers. Since there were no women in transporting, there were fewer women mukhiyas in that area.
Whether it was a movement for the trade union’s monetary demands or other socio-economic-political agitation of the CMSS, women leaders and women workers were always in the forefront. I already mentioned the martyr of 1977 – Anasuya Bai. In 1981, CMSS leaders were arrested under the National Security Act (NSA) in an effort to break a workers’ agitation. The women of Dalli-Rajhara violated section 144 and took out a large procession demanding the release of the leaders. The police arrested them and abandoned them in a far away forest along with their little sons and daughters. The women, traveling on foot, made their way back to the city with great difficulty and kept the movement going.
The women workers of Dalli-Rajhara established the right to maternity benefits through their struggle.
I have already mentioned the CMSS anti-mechanization movement. In that struggle too the role of women workers was just as significant as that of the men. They stood with men to block the movement of machines by contractors and took part in meetings and processions. The same kind of participation by women was also seen in the Bhilai workers’ movement.
All of the above is just about the role of women in the trade union. There was a lot that they achieved through their activities in the MahilaMuktiMorcha. The MahilaMuktiMorcha was most active in the agitation against alcohol. They carried the anti-alcohol message from house to house and formed neighbourhood societies to oppose drinking. They took on the responsibility of punishing any man who broke his pledge to stop drinking. Even wives did not hesitate to punish their husbands when they broke the pledge.
Most of the contract workers of Dalli-Rajhara were adivasis. Women in adivasi families are treated with more respect than women in other parts of Indian society. In families where both husband and wife worked in the mines, both had almost the same status and economic freedom within the family. In families where only the husband was a mine worker, the wife earned money by collecting wood from the forest or by working in building or road construction and therefore enjoyed a lot influence.
Before CMSS was formed in 1977, some officers of the Bhilai Steel Plant, contractors and their goondas subjected women workers to physical exploitation. Although that exploitation stopped after the new union was formed, sometimes there were incidents involving other women. In those cases the MahilaMuktiMorcha would jump into the fray to safeguard the dignity of a woman. In just such an incident in 1980, several CISF jawans tried to rape a young adivasi woman. The women began an agitation demanding punishment for the perpetrators and were supported by working people of all classes in the city. The police fired on the protesting crowd and one person became a martyr. But ultimately the guilty men were punished.
The second largest trade union linked to the Chhattisgarh MuktiMorcha was the RajnandgaonKapdaMazdoorSangh of the BNC Mill. Three thousand of the thirty five hundred workers of the textile mill were members of this union, many of them women. In 1984, the union went on strike against uncomfortable working conditions inside the hot mill. INTUC goondas and the police unleashed extensive repression on the movement and four workers were martyred. Curfew was declared in the worker neighbourhoods and was used as an excuse to beat up people. Some women were subjected to physical torture. The management took punitive action against the leaders of the agitation. Men and women, even those who were not workers, joined the union movement from Rajnandgaon and nearby villages to protest against the punishment of the leaders. Even women who were not workers did not hesitate to breach section 144 and court arrest. Thirty five women, seventeen of them non-workers, were jailed from August to October of 1984. The agitation ended in 1984.
MahilaMuktiMorcha brought an awakening of hope to the oppressed women of Chhattisgarh –
O dekho logon dekho
wo to nayazamanaIayengi”
(Breaking apart all bonds, look the sisters come. They will come and end injustice, they will bring a new world.)
The death of comrade Niyogi weakened the political and trade unions as well as the organization of the MahilaMuktiMorcha. Yet there is much that can be learned from the history of the women’s movement in Chhattisgarh.