Online Harassment of Women Activists : in Conversation with POW Convenor V. Sandhya

  • August 1, 2018

V Sandhya, National Convenor of the Progressive Organisation of Women (POW), has been facing a recent spate of death and rape threats from Hindutva forces. A member of the GroundXero team met her at her apartment in Hyderabad on 16th July.

In conversation with GroundXero V. Sandhya speaks about the controversy surrounding Kathi Mahesh’ comments about the Ramayana, about the recent threats against her for standing with him, what that shows us of the character of the ruling dispensation and its fear of strong women activists, about previous attempts to intimidate her, and what is new this time and what is not. In a city where no political protests, dharnas and demonstrations have been allowed in a couple of years, she speaks of fighting in the face of new threats.

This year POW has been involved in agitating around the ongoing casting couch controversy in the Telugu film industry that was thrown open by the actor Sri Reddy, who spoke of different prominent personalities offering her roles in exchange for sex. In her article in the latest (June 2018) issue of the Telugu POW organ, ‘Matruka’, V Sandhya writes about the recent mass encounter killing of alleged Maoists in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, and broadens the conversation to speak of the social death inflicted on women in different ways, and the need to fight it. A range of organisations – IFTU, PDSU, POW, PYL, AIKMS, Arunodaya – came together and organised a meeting in solidarity with her on 19th July.

Flyer for the 19th July Round Table meeting to protest the threats to V Sandhya

gX: To start with, could you please speak about what the Kathi Mahesh controversy is, what the event was that you participated in, and what are the threats you have been receiving?

Sandhya: Kathi Mahesh commented on a televised discussion on TV9, calling Rama ‘dagulbhaji’ [cheat]. He said Rama is a dagulbhaji, who deserted his wife. That’s it. After that Hindutva forces started trolling and raising voices against him. There were some attacks. Meanwhile Paripoornananda Swami – a self-proclaimed godman, who has ashrams in Vizag and elsewhere, claims to be a protector of Hinduism, and owns a TV channel called Bharat –  entered the story. He mostly has a base in Andhra, and is trying to enter Telangana. And our CM K Chandrasekhar Rao, he bows before every swami, including this one. He has KCR’s support, and also has some political motives, so he wanted to make use of this comment, cash in on it. He gave an open call to Hindus to fight this kind of derogatory comment, with a march from Hyderabad to Yadagirigutta, an approximately 100 km long route. After he called for the march, there were some disturbances. This made things tense, and was a turning point. So police exiled Kathi Mahesh from Hyderabad for 6 months. After that there was a lot of criticism, so on 3rd July, some friends and supporters of Kathi Mahesh, including Sujatha Surepally, Laxmi Narsaiah, U Sambasiva Rao and others, they organised a meeting. Then I also participated – I wanted to support, and also give my voice in this regard.

In that meeting everyone was trying to show different precedents for Kathi Mahesh’s comments: how the famous Telugu writer Ranganayakamma wrote a novel called Ramayana Vishavruksha (Poison Tree of Ramayana) against Ramayana; and there were some social reformers like Tripurnaina Ramchandra Chaudhuri – who was against brahminical value systems and wrote prolifically about it; and Babu Gogineni, famous atheist and rationalist said the same thing [as Kathi Mahesh] two months back. So participants at the meeting were speaking of the different traditions of critiquing the Ramayana, and how no one had been targeted like this, and no one had been exiled. But since Kathi Mahesh is a dalit, he has been targeted – that is the argument that most of them raised.

Now the dalit movement is also advancing. There is a remarkable change in dalit voices. They used to talk about political power, now they are also talking about share in the land. Movements are raising these points, and movements are everywhere. So I said [at the meeting] Dalits want to fight both for respect and against hunger. And also I spoke about how 20-30 years back, in this same Osmania University, when I was 15 years old, now I’m 52 – at that point I attended [co-founder of Dalit Mahasabha] Kathi Padma Rao’s speeches.He used to deliver 2-3 hour long speeches, calling Ramayana all kinds of names, such as Ramayanam Ranku, Bharatam Bonku, [speaking of Ramayana dismissively, with slang words for adultery, cheating] and so on. Everyone knows him, from his work around the Karamchedu, Chundur massacres and otherwise.

gX: So this was after the Dalit Mahasabha had been formed (1985)?

S: No no, even when we were student leaders, in the early 80s, when the three strong organisations were Progressive Democratic Students Union, Revolutionary Students Union, Democratic Students Union, mostly PDSU (which I was with), but also RSU used to invite him to different colleges we had presence in, he was one of the set speakers (along with Kashipathi, Ratnamala, Jwalamukhi, Hargopal and others), and he’d give these long speeches, since 1979. So I said at this meeting, none of them had the guts to raise their voice against those meetings. None of them dared to question Kathi Padma Rao or student organisations like RSU, PDSU. We used to talk like that from the beginning. So in my speech I said they never dared question these, but since BJP came to power, Hindutva forces are very powerful and aggressive, whereas we are very weak, so now they are attacking. This was the first part of my comment.

So Kathi Padma Rao used to be invited by various organisations, and he is Dalit too. He’d talk about everything from the Bhagavata to Venkata Suprabhatam to Ramayana. He is a scholar, so he would quote the shlokas and explain them, and finally conclude that they were nothing but obscenities, butu. That was how we were educated. So now no one is able to talk like this, even revolutionary organisations are falling behind. Even I used to attend all these meetings of Telangana Progressive Teachers’ Federation, Democratic Teachers Federation, … and I used to say: If Rama comes in front of us nowadays, we would send him to jail under Section 498A of IPC [for cruelty towards wife]; if Krishna comes, we will jail him for bigamy. This was the statement given by me in that meeting. Then I said that today the ruling classes are saying ji huzur, jo hokum, to imperialists, kowtowing to whatever they want – they are going all out for globalisation and none of them are bothered about sovereignty – and they are just talking about all this.

gX: So you were saying that earlier at teachers’ federation meetings you’d say all this about the Ramayana, but now you can’t?

S: No no, I’ve spoken like this all along, even on television programmes, but none of them dared to talk against me. Now the situation is different. The very next day after this they started posting – Kill her and Save Hindutva. All the posts are well coordinated, most of those posting have Hindutva as part of their social media profile names – such as say (just to give examples of kind) ‘Madhavi Hindutva’, ‘Ramesh Naidu Hindutva,’ and so on. Most of the posts are on Facebook. We filed an initial police complaint against the first 4 accounts, three have been removed as of now. Now there are 20 to 30 more posts which have directly tagged me, and on each post there are anywhere between 70 to 170 comments. So the central thread of the comments is to say, rape her.

And there are a lot of derogatory references of me. They have portrayed me in a nasty, ugly manner. They have vulgarly abused me, my family, said I can’t have a family since I am such a woman – by parents and husband have apparently left me, I am a prostitute, characterless – all these things they have said about me. They tried to malign me. Most of them find it intolerable that I am against patriarchy, against male chauvinism. Secondly, some people commented to say – she’s a communist, a revolutionary, they [communists] always oppose Hinduism, so kill her. Why only Gauri Lankesh in Karnataka, why not Sandhya in Telangana, they asked. 40 to 50 people said she’s transgender, she looks like them, and abused transgender people in the process. Even if they smell me, they will get AIDS, some said.

gX: Do you think this will potentially make it difficult for you to be invited to panels, or such events?

S: Maybe that, maybe that. The next day one channel cancelled on me, I’d received an invite from mid-level management earlier, then the higher level instructed otherwise. Actually after the Telangana movement television channels are trying to keep me away. Earlier I was very frequent (laughs).

gX: Ya, there is a lot of it on YouTube too! Why did this decrease?

S: During the movement it went down, and after the bifurcation they’ve been calling me, but not like before. Now after this they are trying to avoid me, it seems.

V. Sandhya addressing media-persons at a rally; Source: Facebook

gX: What kind of work is POW doing currently, and what has been your road with it?

S: That is a long subject! In the immediate short term, this weekend we have classes in Khammam district on the following subjects – religion and women, working class women and exploitation, POW’s plans and programme, and I am teaching one on women’s movements. Around 100-120 delegates have been selected from our district executive committees to attend. The purpose is to educate our cadre.

And regarding the threats, the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh state committees and also the national committee of POW have condemned them.

Publicity flyer for a POW conference last year; Source: Facebook

gX: Do you have anything further to say about the specific character of the Hindutva threat, or your more recent work – if that is why you are being targeted?

S: Actually they have a lot of anger it seems. I don’t think it’s about one meeting or one quote. It’s because consistently and continuously I am working based in Hyderabad for the last 35 years, and I am a popular figure from the revolutionary camp. And I attend everybody’s meetings on behalf of the organisation – we are taking part in Telangana Democratic Forum, attending events of some other revolutionary groups, Telangana Vidyarthi Vedika, and also participating in some committees – for example I am the convenor of the Committee for the Release of Saibaba, and one anti Hindutva Fascist committee – in that way we are playing many roles as an organisation. They are feeling she is a strong voice against Hindutva, BJP and all the ruling parties, and she is a strong woman, a strong revolutionary – so that recognition is triggering a response. Another point is, they want some symbol. Let me share some experiences from my life, I think you can relate from that.

Chandrababu Naidu was CM from 1995 onwards. The ’94 elections were contested by NTR for TDP, not Chandrababu, and then NTR was backstabbed. So for the 1994-1999 government the campaign had been led by NTR, not Chandrababu. 1999 was the first and last time he led and won an election in united Andhra Pradesh. Then 2004 he lost, then there was the bifurcation, and now he is Andhra Pradesh CM. In 1999 I was a government employee – I was manager of the printing press in Women and Child Welfare department. In ‘99 April there was the election, in May I was given a warning, and on June 9th he terminated me from the service. The reason given was, firstly, ‘criticising Hon’ble CM Chandrababu Naidu’. Secondly, participating in ‘anti-governmental activities.’ Thirdly, that I was united Andhra President of POW (which I was since 1989). So on political grounds he was terminating me from the services. Of course, I wanted to give up the job anyway, I had already been trying to resign. But the human rights activist K. Balagopal said they want to make an example of you, they want to tell the employees not to profess political ideologies or get involved politically, so he suggested contesting the termination. He said don’t give up the fight, and then he filed in the High Court. Within 50 days I was reinstated, on technical grounds. From the state’s side, the Advocate General contested! Generally the government pleader for the particular department – in this case Women and Child Welfare – should contest, but the state took this as a challenge. Usually Advocate General will not go to each and every department’s matters.

Later I incidentally met one of the Chief Secretaries of the Government, and I asked why did you do this, it was so foolish, I was anyway trying to resign, and you did this without giving me a show cause notice or following procedure? He said, actually Chandrababu had just won the elections, and he was in a mood, and wanted to send a message to the employees – so he selected you as a popular figure.

Then another incident happened in the early 2000s. The World Bank President Wolfensohn visited Hyderabad on Chandrababu Naidu’s invitation. At that point all these 9 left revolutionary parties had an alliance in this state. Earlier, in 1999 there was one alliance. When I was terminated in June 1999 there was a movement going on, against power tariff hike. It was a big movement, number of people were killed at the Basheerbagh chowrasta. I was very active in that. There was a big procession against power tariffs and the role of the World Bank in the public sector, one lakh people participated in that. They attacked it brutally at Basheerbagh. The movement was built over a year or so, and all left revolutionary parties played a good role. On 28th august the rally took place. Three were killed and 12 were injured. They filed 307 and all against all the agitators. After all this the Wolfensohn visit was there, so the alliance of 9 left revolutionary parties gave the call to protest the World Bank and his visit. He was arriving at the airport then in Begumpet, and going to Grand Kakatiya (near Raj Bhavan) – all in the same area, so the parties gave the call to protest on the Begumpet bridge, because that was on the way. We all gathered on the bridge, there was a protest. The police lathi-charged us, used tear gas, framed cases against us. But amongst all the left parties that were leading this, they made ‘V Sandhya State President POW’ as Accused 1. After me they placed CPI, CPIM and all the ML parties. There were 64 accused in total. This case went on for 5 years.

So I have some experiences like this. The reason I become a target every time like this is that all state forces want to figure out some well-known persons like that. Even now I became a target like that only, that’s my feeling. State repression and patriarchy both come together for this. That’s what I wrote about [in the latest Matruka article]: how state violence, state repression and patriarchy works against women activists, particularly revolutionary women activists. So now it is the turn of the Hindutva forces to attack us. They want to terrorise the revolutionaries, communists and rationalists and also dalit activists.

gX: So you were arrested this March for something too?

S: March? I’ve been arrested many times! In these last 4 years [since the bifurcation and the formation of the TRS government] I’ve been arrested probably more than 15 times. I’ve been arrested in March, in April … After Shruti Vidyasagar’s encounter killing there was a big alliance, Shruti Vidyasagar Struggle Committee was formed, for that I was arrested too. Last year in February there was a rally by unemployed youth, we militantly participated in that, we were arrested. Actually for the last two years the Telangana government is not allowing dharnas or demonstrations. We had one month continuous demonstrations in CPI premises. Finally we had a dharna in Delhi last September, to have a place for dharnas in Hyderabad!

gX: This is quite stunning how a city can simply allow no dharnas!

S: No dharnas, no protests! Not even formal protests, not even demonstrations. As far as I know, it’s the first time there have been such restrictions on protest. Even after the Emergency we have not faced this situation. Only religious processions are allowed – Hanuman Jayanti, Ganesh, Kanaka Durga, sometimes Muharram, sometimes Milad-ul-Nabi they will allow.

File photo. V Sandhya protesting with Government nursing school students, demanding an increase in student stipends, and calling for stipends for internships. Source: V. Sandhya

gX: Is there anything else you would like to say?

S: Returning to your basic question: we thought in an objective way let us raise our voices against such personal threats and trolling. That’s why we plan to have a round table on the 19th, to involve intellectuals and representatives of various organisations. Also we have registered one case under 506,509-IPC, 67-ITA, on the 16th, and we will register another case tomorrow for the threats. So we all thought let’s pursue this legally, not do a continuous campaign, just have the roundtable meeting, and that’s it. There are many other things to be done. We just want to register our protest, that’s it.

[As our interview approaches a close, Sandhyagaru gets a call, and she apprises a friend about the latest 20-30 threats received since morning.]

gX: Is there something that you would emphasize for the interview?

S: My emphasis would be on the situation after BJP came to power – the continuous attacks against Dalits, women, all the revolutionary and democratic forces, the 5 who were framed recently, then Saibaba – so state and Hindutva forces are working closely together. They are showing their fanatic face. The democratic process is in a crisis across the country. And the second thing, these people who are trolling me, they want to implement the Gujarat model all over the country. They are hiring IT people and doing all this. That’s what they did in Karnataka. That’s what they tried once again there this year and failed, which is good. In the South only in Karnataka they once formed government, and that too after many communal riots. Later they didn’t manage. In that way they killed Gauri Lankesh and everything. Similarly they want to capture power everywhere.

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