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Volume 25 - Issue 11 :: May. 24-Jun. 06, 2008
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
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COVER STORY

The Pioneers: Ahilya Rangnekar

K. PRAVIN

Ahilya Rangnekar. She is among the country’s first women politicians and a leading light of the women’s movement.

LOOKING at the frail, slight woman seated on the podium at a public meeting, it was hard to imagine that she was once the feisty woman who kept crowds riveted with her tirade against injustice. Until a few years ago, no public meeting, demonstration or sit-in led by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in Mumbai was complete without the presence of Ahilya Rangnekar.

At 86, Ahilya Rangnekar is unable to participate actively in public life but remains deeply committed to and involved with various causes, say AIDWA members. Ahilya tai (elder sister), as she is fondly called, played an active role in the freedom struggle but is known more for her dynamism in laying a firm foundation for the women’s movement. A long-standing member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), she is among the country’s first women politicians.

Ahilya Rangnekar took up the struggles of women when India’s cry for independence was at its loudest. 1n 1942-43 the freedom movement drew large numbers of women, particularly from the working class. Ahilya Rangnekar realised that women needed to participate in the freedom struggle and fight for their own rights within this context. She and her comrades started the Parel Mahila Sangh, comprising mainly wives of workers. It demanded maternity benefits and better wages and eventually became the nucleus of the left and democratic women’s movement in Maharashtra.

During this period, Rangnekar worked with other well-known women activists and freedom fighters such as Vimal Ranadive, Malti Nagarkar, Maniben Patel (Vallabhbhai Patel’s sister), Sofia Khan (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s wife) and Aruna Asaf Ali.

All these women courted arrest, were on the run, were separated from their families and faced violence as part of the freedom struggle and later as members of political parties. The most noteworthy part is that they never lost direction; they kept on with their work.

Ahilya Rangnekar’s journey in politics began soon after she finished college in 1943. She grew up in a house full of reformists and liberals and the family supported her political leanings. She was most influenced by her elder brother B.T. Ranadive, who was a leading communist organiser. In 1961, she contested her first civic election on the Communist Party of India ticket. Re-elected many times, she was a corporator for 19 years in Mumbai. Along with her fellow-corporator and friend Mrinal Gore she fought for the rights of hutment dwellers, contract labourers and women who worked for no wages, and for better water supply and other basic civic amenities.

Rangnekar and Mrinal Gore were many a time targets of vicious comments from male politicians such as Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Such moments only strengthened their resolve to continue on the path they had chosen. In fact, they formed a formidable duo as corporators.

Wherever there was a struggle, Ahilya Rangnekar was sure to be at the head of it. In 1950, she was deeply involved in the Samyukta Maharashtra agitation, which demanded the unification of the Marathi-speaking regions. In 1962, she was among the many Communist Party members to be arrested after the border conflict with China. She was in jail for three and a half years. In 1974, she was arrested for participating in the nationwide railway strike. During the Emergency she was sent to the Yerawada prison in Pune, where she continued to mobilise women and carried on fighting for their rights.

In 1977, Ahilya Rangnekar contested the parliamentary elections on the Communist Party of India (Marxist) ticket and won from Mumbai North Central constituency. In spite of her political commitments, she never lost touch with the functioning of the Parel Mahila Sangh and its agenda. Eventually, the organisation became the Janwadi Mahila Sangh, which is the State unit of AIDWA. As a founding member of AIDWA, Ahilya Rangnekar has been the working president and vice-president of the organisation. In 2001, she became its patron.

Ahilya Rangnekar will always be one of Mumbai’s important and revered public figures. She will be remembered for her selflessness and commitment to help the poor and the oppressed. She is the kind of woman who will continue to inspire and encourage women to carry on their struggle.

Anupama Katakam



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