Mythily Sivaraman was a Marxist leader, trade unionist, feminist activist, scholar and unwavering writer on issues of social justice. She worked on ground to secure justice in multiple cases and her cutting commentary on various contemporary and historical issues is relevant to this day. On May 30, she passed away, leaving behind a legacy of unflinchingly fighting the demons of patriarchy, caste, capitalism, imperialism and State violence.
Mythily Sivaraman finished her higher education from Syracuse University in New York before going on to work as a research assistant in the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations. She had a propitious career lying ahead of her. But after visiting Cuba and being active in the anti-imperialist fight against the Vietnam war, she gave up a cushy job offer in the United States to move to Chennai and work on-ground against the various issues plaguing her home country.
Marxist and trade unionist
Upon returning to Chennai, Mythily Sivaraman started to actively work with the Indian Left. She became affiliated with the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) at a time (the Emergency period of 1975-77) when communists were being hunted down. She was a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and was also part of the Tamil Nadu State Committee of the same. Mythily Sivaraman led several protests and agitations for labourers, farmers, tribal people, Dalits, informal sector workers and peasants.
Not only did the veteran AIDWA leader write explosive articles about the insidious workings of large capitalist companies such as Simpsons, Ashok Leyland, Metal Box, Tablets India, MRF and TI Cycles, she was also involved on the ground in agitations, long negotiations, demonstrations and organising strikes against these companies. Interestingly, when Mythily Sivaraman was agitating to protect the workers at TI Cycles, her husband Karunakaran who was also working at TI cycles was contacted by the management and asked to make his wife back down. He chose to resign instead.
Mythily Sivaraman will always be remembered for her invaluable investigation and writings about the Keezhvenmani Massacre of 1968. She was one of the first people to visit the site of the brutality and investigate what really happened. 44 Dalit labourers were heinously murdered for demanding better wages from their landlords. The details of how they were murdered shock the conscience. Mythily Sivaraman’s writings helped bring international attention to the issue, followed by legal recourse. Her collection of essays about the Keezhvenmani Massacre has been published as a book by the name of Haunted by Fire: Essays on Caste, Class, Exploitation and Emancipation.
Similarly, in 1985, when five fishermen were shot to death by policemen for protesting their forceful eviction, Mythily Sivaraman’s investigative journalism and activism helped stop the violent displacement of fisherfolk that was about to take place. This eviction was part of a beautification move at Marina Beach led by former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. G. Ramachandran. Mythily Sivaraman organised a fact-finding mission to look into the atrocity. The report that was consequently released led to the beautification move being scrapped. An article regarding the issue written by Mythily Sivaraman was published in Radical Review and helped bring necessary attention.
In 1992, when the Tamil Nadu forest officials and policemen raided the village of Vachathi in Dharmapuri in the name of trying to catch the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, they physically assaulted over a hundred villagers and raped several women. Mythily Sivaraman intervened in the massacre with the Tribal Association and helped materialise a report on the same. This was greatly vital to the inquiry by the Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes into the incident, which led to the Madras High Court ordering immediate provision of food, drinking water and shelter for the villagers.
Later, over 250 police and other officials were found guilty of crimes under the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and 17 were found guilty of rape. This was perhaps one of the few events in history where such a large number of officials were justly held accountable.
Mythily Sivaraman was the founding member of the Democratic Women’s Association in Tamil Nadu. The organisation later became the now well-known All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and she became the first vice-president of the group. In fact, the first state conference of the Democratic Women’s Association was held in Keezhvenmani six years after the brutality, to emphasise on the gravity of the massacre.
Mythily Sivaraman had also worked to assist and bring justice to a victim of a dowry death by intervening in a bail application filed by the accused, in 1986. She succeeded in getting the bail application rejected, despite the fact that at that point of time courts had not recognised the right of a victim of domestic violence to be heard, recounts Senior Advocate R. Vaigai in her tribute to Mythily Sivaraman.
Feminism was central to all the work that Mythily Srinivasan engaged in. Her understanding of the intersection of caste, class and patriarchy can be seen throughout her career and activities. In all her writings, she gave marginalised identities their rightful place.
Throughout her life, even while she was engaged in on-ground organising and activism, Mythily Sivaraman always wrote. Her writings were regularly featured in publications such as the Economic and Political Weekly, Mainstream, and the Radical Review. She, in fact, co-founded the socialist periodical Radical Review in 1969 along with lawyer turned politician P. Chidambaram and journalist N. Ram. Some of her books include Pengalum Madhasaarbinmaiyum, Pennurimai: Sila Parvaigal, Oru Maru Paarvai, Aan Kuzhandai Than Venduma, Venmani, Oru Kaalathin Pathivu and Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive.
The last of the aforementioned books, Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive, is particularly interesting because it was the product of Mythily Sivaraman sorting through her grandmother’s diaries in order to piece together a memoir. This book too is staunchly feminist and even shines light on women’s history in India.
Tributes poured in on social media after news of Mythily Sivaraman’s death. From Kavita Krishnan to Meena Kandasamy to M. K. Stalin, several people mourned the loss of and celebrated the life of the revolutionary that Mythily Sivaraman was.