People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 49

December 08, 2013




In Memory of Comrade Shyamali Gupta


Brinda Karat


COMRADE Shyamali Gupta died as she had lived, ever thoughtful about her organisation. At the time of her death, she was a member of the Central Committee of the CPI(M), a secretariat member of the Party in West Bengal, the first woman to have held this responsibility. She was president of AIDWA and editor of Ek Sathe, the monthly Bengali magazine brought out by the West Bengal committee of AIDWA.


Even her last few days were in the service of the AIDWA that she had helped to build and strengthen for so many decades. She was travelling to attend the tenth national conference from Kolkata to Bodhgaya when she suffered a fall. As always with Shyamali di she made light of her injuries even though there was a marked bump and swelling on her forehead.  She cheerfully went through her duties as president of the organisation, hoisted the flag and made the introductory remarks opening the conference.


However in spite of her protests that she was fine, it was obvious that she required rest and a more thorough medical check up than what was available. She had been ailing for some time and had been under treatment, cutting down on her work, so we thought it would be best if she returned to Kolkata.


We requested her to once again address the conference before she left. She made an excellent, impassioned, politically sharp speech.


She got a standing ovation. Never fond of a public display of emotion, she raised her hand in a half salute, a sweet smile acknowledging the love and respect of the delegates. She left without any fuss not wanting to disturb the conference, reaching Kolkata safely where she underwent a series of tests. It was on the last day of the conference, after the election of the new central executive committee and just as the new team of office bearers was being announced, that I got the call from Shyamali’s utterly distraught daughter-in-law, “Ma has left us.”


Her last moments were peaceful. She was watching television, resting in her room at her home, waiting to be picked up for another test, when she suffered a cardiac arrest that took her life. It was almost as though she had waited for the conference to be over, for the work to be done, before she left us, thoughtful to the end. She was 68 years old.


Shyamali di was a bright student graduating from Jadvapur with a degree in International relations and getting her M.A. in Political Science from Kolkata university. She was a militant activist in the Bengal Provincial Students Federation participating in many of the mass movements in the fifties and sixties as a teenager. She joined the undivided communist party in 1963 when she was just 18, and then later the CPI(M) when it was formed a year later. 2013 marked the fiftieth year of her Party membership. She married Comrade Shankar Gupta in 1966. He was teaching at that time in North Bengal and they lived there for a few years. They had a son, Somshubhra and Shyamali di spent time looking after the baby while doing voluntary teaching work in a nearby primary school. In 1973 she got a teaching job and moved to Bankura while Comrade Shankar became a wholetimer working at the Party headquarters in Kolkata and also in People’s Democracy. He, a brilliant intellectual, giving up his job at a time when the Party was under severe attack, she, battling it out in Bankura where because of her politics, she was under constant watch, heckled and harassed by anti-communists in the administration and in positions of power. It was a difficult time for this communist couple. She remained there with her child coming back to Kolkata only in 1980. Recalling those days, Shyamali di would often say it was at that time when she received the support of the extended family of comrades that she learned to appreciate the importance of solidarity.


All through her life, in the positions of leadership that she attained, whether because of her own experience in those Bankura days or because of her very generous nature, she showed tremendous personal care for cadre, their needs, their problems, always intent on finding a solution. In her busy workday, she never ever turned down a request from an activist who needed her advice. It was this quality of sensitivity and understanding that made Shyamali di a figure to turn to for a solution for hundreds of women activists and leaders not just in Bengal, but in different states of India.


She faced the grief of the loss of her husband in early 1983. By then she had been working with the Ganatantrik Mahila Samity. It was Comrade Promode Dasgupta, then secretary of the West Bengal committee of the CPI(M), who had perceptively identified the tremendous organisational capacities of Shyamali Gupta and drafted her to take more responsibilities for the work among women.  After the death of Pankaj Acharya, the renowned and popular women's leader in 1982, Shyamali di took on the responsibility of the acting secretary of the West Bengal state committee of AIDWA. A few months later, in January 1983 Comrade Shankar Gupta passed away. It is a reflection of her personal strength that a day after his death, she along with her 17 year old equally brave son, travelled to where the state conference of the Ganatantrik Mahila Samity was being held. The women delegates at that conference were astounded at her commitment, dealing with the burden of such deep personal grief while continuing her work.


AIDWA was formed in 1981 and as the state secretary of its strongest unit, Shyamali di within a few years had taken on many national responsibilities. She started travelling to other states, and took specific charge of Orissa, Bihar, Assam building up the organisation there. Her knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of cadre, her attention to organisational detail, combined with a strong political understanding and a sharp class approach made her a great asset to the all India movement. She was able to take a position on several of the issues that came up at the time. For example, it was a period when Left wing women's organisations like AIDWA were being criticised by the newly emerging autonomous feminist movement, for what they saw as the subordination of gender issues to class issues. On the other hand, within some Left minded activists there was a trend which failed to recognise the existence of violence within the family.  AIDWA’s understanding of the three aspects of women’s secondary status, her oppression as a woman, as a citizen and for women of the working classes, as a member of an exploited class, was taken forward in Shyamali Gupta's work and in her writing. It was at her initiative that the first legal aid cell run by AIDWA to help women in distress was set up in Kolkata which dealt with cases of domestic violence. She herself sometimes involved herself in the work of the cell. There are hundreds of women who were directly helped by Shyamali when they were in distress.


She saw very early on, the importance of training women to take on responsibilities at the panchayat level. West Bengal under the Left Front government was one of the first states to ensure 33 per cent reservation for women. She was extremely concerned that we address two aspects. Firstly to provide women training to deal with issues independently as opposed to proxy politics. She would joke about the " Dada syndrome", when male comrades acting as caring elder brothers often wanted to perform the tasks set out for women panchayat members. She stressed on the importance of independent functioning. The second aspect was to build strong links between the panchayat members and our organisation. She would stress that even the most capable woman member of a panchayat would be unable to take forward her responsibilities without the backing of an organisation and the mobilisations of women at the grassroots level.


Her work in states like Bihar and Orissa gave her a new perspective in understanding how women from different social sections were impacted by capitalist policies, for instance the specific oppression faced by dalit and adivasi women. She lent a strength of conviction to help overcome a hesitation among some about the efforts of AIDWA to start sectoral work among dalit, adivasi, Muslim women in a conscious and planned way. The work advanced and marked a significant intervention to build a unity among women against the violence and injustice of caste discrimination and class exploitation.


In all the leading posts she held, Comrade Shyamali Gupta had this great capacity to listen and discuss differing opinions, with an intrinsic democratic sense. But at the same time, once a decision was taken she was a stickler for discipline and expected others to be as serious as she always was in implementation. She was an anchor, a most reliable guide in taking steps which were right for the organisation.


As a communist, she dedicated her life to work for the Party in all the responsibilities she shouldered. She was deeply concerned about the terror unleashed against the Left movement which did not spare women cadre. As president, she took the critical issues facing the movement in West Bengal to other states actively organising solidarity conventions and meetings across India. She often expressed her deep admiration and pride in the tremendous courage shown by women activists in this turbulent period in Bengal.


She concerned herself in organising study circles and classes especially for women cadre. She worked hard to draw more and more women into the Party, always trying to ensure that they got the recognition and responsibility they deserved. She read widely and was a prolific writer. She had many publications to her credit on a wide range of subjects from a study of women in panchayats to editing a volume of early women writers of Bengal. Her public speeches combined agitation with knowledge of the subject she was speaking on. She learnt to speak Hindi and spoke with confidence in public meetings in the Hindi speaking states, always getting an appreciative applause from the audience.


She and I had worked together for many decades. At one time we were joint secretaries together, along with Mythily Sivaraman. The three of us worked closely together on many policy issues, helping to fashion AIDWA's position on various aspects, under the leadership of our founding stalwarts like Suseela Gopalan, Ahilya Rangnekar, Kanak Mukherjee, Vimal Ranadive, Papa Umanath. We argued, disagreed, wrote notes to each other, but almost always worked out a common understanding. Even though she continued to stay and work from Bengal, her three terms as AIDWA Working President and then as President meant that we maintained a close interaction with each other through all these years.


In the last year or so, Shyamali di started suffering from the loss of her memory. She was unable to work as she used to and this bothered her. She was a strong independent woman and she fretted at her forced increasing dependence because of her deteriorating health. I sat at the back of the stage listening to what was her last speech at the tenth conference of AIDWA. It was deeply moving, her will power, her strength, her commitment, her love for the organisation she had helped to build which was reflected in her every word. I assisted her into the car for her journey home, she leaned through the window, a hug and a farewell kiss. She passed away two days later.


She will be greatly missed by thousands of women activists and comrades across India. She leaves behind her family, her son Somshubhra, her daughter-in-law Nivedita who provided such care and love for her and her most beloved grandchild Souvik.


We offer them our deepest condolences. They should know that their mother, our comrade Shyamali Gupta will live on in the struggles of women for justice.