“Everyday you have to fight so that love for humanity can be transformed into concrete deeds, into acts that set an example, that mobilize.” – Che Guevara
As a social activist, a member of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and a human being who loved and cared as hard as she worked for the interest of the working class, Ranjana Nirula truly embodied the noble fight that Che Guevara conceptualised. At the age of 75, Nirula passed on May 11 after contracting COVID-19, leaving behind a lifetime of compassionate service and relentless fight for the rights and employment of workers and women.
An activist from the beginning
Her empathetic disposition and drive to be a part of the change she desired to see in society can be traced back to her youth when her ideological foundations were being laid and strengthened. Her aspiration to contribute to effective social action was evident right from her early days when she was an active part of the left movement against the Vietnam War during her studies in the US. Upon coming back, she joined the left movement here and from the ’70s until now, she has been working for several social causes since her initial involvement with the CITU.
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This vision and ideological footing were not blurred despite her comfortable beginnings in an elite Punjabi household and prestigious foreign education. She tirelessly operated for the working class and addressed their issues, while also staying in their colonies and working alongside factory workers in South Delhi and Faridabad.
A Leader with a Vision
She has taken up positions as the first woman Treasurer of Delhi State CITU and as one of the founders and Central Executive members of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). In these capacities, she has been dedicated to involving rural and marginalised women in the task of bridging the gap between the grassroots and the larger sectors of public health, social work and women employment. The manifestation of this leadership being her title of Convenor for the All India ASHA Workers’ Union.
Ensuring that Empowerment reaches the Margins
Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) are “the government’s recognised health workers who are usually the first point of contact in rural India, where there is often limited or no direct access to healthcare facilities” according to Roli Srivastava’s article for Reuters. It further acknowledges the indispensable role they played in battling COVID-19 by helping to trace patients, travel histories, ensure effective quarantine and being on call around the clock in rural areas. Thereby they contributed to curb the spread and update medical accounts and statistics.
When these workers demanded a hike in their pay owing to the increasing hours and efforts they have been putting in, Nirula spoke up against the delay in addressing their rightful demand. She called out the wrongful treatment of their work as “part of the unpaid labour of women and as an extension of the work women do at home.” As the Convener of this Union, she functioned wholeheartedly to ensure the due recognition that ASHA workers deserved for coordinating the ground-level primary healthcare in rural areas with limited reach from the mainstream.
Nirula has played a pivotal role in upholding the dual purpose of the organisation which aims at social work along with the goal of providing employment opportunities and protecting the rights of married, divorced, and widowed women with basic education. This is a section of society that is easily and often overlooked. As ASHA workers, they help in spreading awareness about nutrition, hygiene, labour and reproductive health in rural areas. They are also tasked with responsibilities of sanitation and Anganwadi education under the purview of Government healthcare, making them earning members which would empower them financially and socially.
An Editor who Walked the Talk
Brought out by the Coordination Committee of Working Women, a subcategory of CITU, the journal The Voice of the Working Women was headed by Nirula as the Chief Editor. This publication’s membership largely consists of working-class women and the content is also aligned with bringing their issues and relevant concerns to light. It functions as a platform for consolidating the fellowship of the community of people who make up the working class along with those who support their cause.
The subjects range from establishing an affiliation with the Socialist ideology, critiquing imperialism and identifying the ulterior motives of industrial policies brought in by the ruling party which leaves farmers and workers at a disadvantage. The journal foregrounds the voices of the workforce and becomes a platform to challenge the injustice they face at the ground level to the larger administrative level where national policies and their impact on the workforce is analysed.
Farewells and a Legacy which Remains
Led by the strength of her inimitable contributions that now serve as guidelines, her co-activists, workers and colleagues remember her and expressed their condolences on various platforms. One among those was the Facebook post by Kalpana Karunakaran whose mother, Mythily Shivaraman was a former CITU activist and also the author of the collection ‘Haunted by Fire‘ of which Kalapana was co-editor. Karunakaran remembers her fondly as ‘Ranajana akka’ and salutes her zest for life, her respect and regard for her mother as a fellow activist and the way she loved so generously.
All this adds up to the admirable person behind her persona as a chartismatic leader, social worker and activist who touched the lives of many. This is where she becomes a true proponent of the dictates of socialism and communism in its most practical manifestations by ensuring the welfare of the working class, coupled with the systematic and intellectual struggle for rights and confrontation of injustice.
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Going back to Che Guevara’s quote, it can be said with complete conviction that her love for humanity, especially the more marginalised sections of it, translated into solid actions that improved their lives. This sets a lofty example in terms of initiating effective social action and pragmatic application of ideals and ideology. She dedicated herself to work for the interests of the working class and social justice of women while mobilising support and acknowledgement for their work. Nirula has thus, left behind a bold legacy which will live on through the memories and work of a comrade who strived towards the cause she believed in with a heart full of love and a strong resolve to create change.