July 8, 2022 marked the birth centenary day of Comrade Ahilya Rangnekar, one of the intrepid women revolutionaries of Maharashtra, and of the country. Ahilya Rangnekar was born on July 8, 1922 at Pune. Her father Trimbak Ranadive was a progressive who supported the social reform movement led by Mahatma Jotirao Phule and other stalwarts. He actively opposed discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, or gender. In Ahilya’s youth, she was influenced by her elder brother B T Ranadive, who was a front ranking leader of the Communist movement. After her schooling at Pune and Thane, she joined the B.Sc. course at the Fergusson College at Pune at the age of 20 in 1942.
Ahilya’s plunge into the freedom struggle
On August 8, 1942, the Quit India movement began, and the next day the entire Congress leadership was put behind bars. Ahilya, along with several other girl students, led a protest rally at Pune. They were all arrested and thrown into jail. In jail, these girls made a makeshift national flag after cutting and stitching up white, orange and green sarees, and drawing the Ashok Chakra by charcoal. The girls formed a pyramid inside the jail wall, and Ahilya hoisted the national flag within the jail. For this ‘crime’, her jail term was extended. She was also rusticated from the Fergusson College for this act, and came back to Mumbai to the Ruia College, where she completed her graduation. Along with being an accomplished student, she was also a great sportsperson, actress, and singer, and won several medals and awards.
She joined the Communist Party in 1943 and plunged into the freedom movement and the struggle of working class women. The same year she formed the Parel Mahila Sangh, which led several successful struggles of women textile workers. This organisation later became the Shramik Mahila Sangh, and still later, it merged into the Akhil Bharatiya Janwadi Mahila Samiti (AIDWA).
In 1945, Ahilya married Pandurang Bhaskar Rangnekar, who was a prominent student leader in Mumbai and was one of the national joint secretaries of the All India Students’ Federation (AISF) in pre-independence years. PBR was later for many years a Maharashtra state secretariat member of the CPI (M), its state office secretary, and a very able guide to the student and youth fronts in Maharashtra. He was undoubtedly my guide and mentor in the party, just as Godavari Parulekar was my guide and mentor in the Kisan Sabha. I had the honour to pen a birth centenary tribute to PBR in these columns (People’s Democracy and Jeewanmarg) in December 2012.
One of the most chilling incidents in Ahilya’s life came during the historic Royal Indian Navy (RIN) revolt in Mumbai in February 1946. The Congress and the Muslim League both refused to support the RIN revolt, and in fact, their leaders told the naval ratings to surrender to the British. It was only the Communist Party that came out in full and active support of the RIN revolt. Under the leadership of the undivided CPI and the AITUC, the workers of Mumbai went on strike and came on to the streets in thousands in solidarity with the RIN heroes.
During the revolt, Ahilya played an important role in supplying food to the naval ratings on behalf of the women’s organisation. When the British ordered a brutal crackdown on the workers on February 22, 1946, Ahilya faced British bullets. Along with her was another brave woman comrade, Kamal Donde, who was martyred in the police firing. Kusum Ranadive, Ahilya’s sister, who was also there at the time, received a bullet injury in her leg. Ahilya escaped miraculously, but she stood by the protesters facing British bullets.
Leader of the people
After independence, the biggest mass struggle that Ahilya was associated with was the iconic Samyukta Maharashtra Movement in the 1950s. The Communist Party, the Praja Samajwadi Party, the Peasants and Workers Party and the Republican Party came together to form the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, which led an intense mass democratic struggle for the formation of the linguistic state of Maharashtra with Mumbai as its capital. 106 workers and peasants were martyred by bullets of the then Congress state government. Ahilya mobilised large number of women in the struggle for Samyukta Maharashtra and faced jail and lathis. Prahlad Keshav (Acharya) Atre, a renowned Marathi journalist, writer, and a leader of the struggle, wrote a poem in a daily describing Ahilya as ‘Rana Ragini’ (Queen of the Battlefield).
Ahilya then devoted herself to organise and help the poor in slum areas and was elected as a Municipal Corporator of Mumbai in 1961. She was constantly re-elected as Corporator till 1977, when she was elected to Parliament. In the Corporation, she raised problems and issues faced by the slum population and became extremely popular among them. She led several demonstrations and agitations of slum dwellers and addressed their rallies. She was also constantly active in the trade union struggles in Mumbai city.
Ahilya was arrested during the India-China conflict in 1962 and she had to undergo imprisonment for advocating a solution to the border dispute through negotiation. Along with many other Communist leaders, she remained in jail for three and a half years from 1962 to 1966. After the bitter struggle against right revisionism, the CPI (M) was formed at the 7th Congress at Kolkata in October-November 1964. When left sectarian trends emerged in the CPI (M) in 1967, Ahilya rallied behind the Party and fought against the left sectarian trend too.
When CITU was founded in 1970 at Kolkata, Ahilya took keen interest in building the CITU in Maharashtra and was soon elected one of the state vice presidents of Maharashtra CITU. CITU All India Conferences were held in Mumbai in 1975, and again in 1987, and Ahilya along with others played an important role in the preparations on behalf of the reception committee. In 1975 she was elected to the general council of the CITU.
In the early 1970s, large joint women’s struggles against the price rise of essential commodities took place in Mumbai and Maharashtra. They took the form of huge ‘rolling pin rallies’ of thousands of women which were led by Ahilya Rangnekar, Mrinal Gore, Tara Reddy, and other women leaders. These created a big political impact.
In 1975, the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi proclaimed Emergency and suppressed democratic rights in the country. Ahilya opposed the Emergency and was detained for 19 months from 1975-77. A countrywide struggle developed against the Emergency to oppose the dictatorial policies pursued by the Indira Gandhi government.
In recognition of the prominent role played by Ahilya in every popular struggle in Maharashtra, during the 1977 parliamentary elections she was nominated by the CPI (M) to contest from the Mumbai North Central Lok Sabha constituency. She was elected with a big majority, routing the Congress candidate. In the same election, Lahanu Kom and Gangadhar Appa Burande of the CPI (M) were also elected to the Lok Sabha from Maharashtra. As a member of the Lok Sabha, Ahilya raised several issues of the people in Maharashtra and other states.
In 1978, at the 10th Jalandhar Congress of the CPI(M), Ahilya was elected to the Central Committee of the Party. Maharashtra thus had the distinction of having two women Central Committee members for several years – the legendary peasant leader Godavari Parulekar (who was elected to the Central Committee in 1967), and Ahilya Rangnekar. Ahilya ably carried out that responsibility for 27 years till 2005, when she stepped down for reasons of age and health.
From 1983 to 1986, Ahilya was elected state secretary of the CPI(M) in Maharashtra. She is probably the only woman state secretary of the Party in the country so far. She relinquished the post because her eye ailment became serious. For many years before and after that, she continued in the Party’s state secretariat.
Ahilya was elected one of the national vice-presidents of CITU in 1979. She, along with Vimal Ranadive and Susheela Gopalan, played a crucial role in organising the first all India convention of working women at Chennai in 1979, which resulted in the formation of the All India Co-ordination Committee of Working Women. This Co-ordination Committee has played a significant role in strengthening the activities of working women and increasing the leading role of working women at all levels in the organisation.
In 1981, Ahilya was one of the founders of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) at the Chennai national conference. She was elected as vice-president of the organization, a post she held for several years. She was then the national working president. Later, she was honoured as a patron of AIDWA. She was the Maharashtra state president of AIDWA for several years. She continued to work actively both in AIDWA and CITU and participated in every struggle conducted by these two organisations.
When the LPG policies dictated by the World Bank and the IMF were imposed on India, Ahilya joined all the campaigns and struggles launched by the Party, the united trade union movement, and the women’s movement of India. She was also a staunch opponent of communalism, casteism and gender oppression in all its forms. Despite weakening of her eyesight, her enthusiasm in participating in activities even after crossing the age of the eighties was an inspiring example for the younger generation.
The passing away of her husband P B Rangnekar on February 8, 2008, at the age of 95, was a shock to her in her declining years. A 63-year old partnership came to an end. Both of them were completely devoted to the party and the mass movement. A year later, on April 19, 2009, at the age of 87, Ahilya breathed her last, 67 of those years were selflessly devoted to the Communist Party. Thousands of people, both from the Party, and from outside, came and wept at her funeral. They are survived by their two sons Ajit and Abhay, and their families.
A remarkable human being
Ahilya Rangnekar was a remarkable human being. One of her characteristics was her going out of her way to help people get their work done. For this she used to visit Mantralaya (Secretariat) in Mumbai often. Chief Ministers and Ministers, of whichever party, used to invariably stand up in respect when she entered their cabin. She never took any appointment. She only approached them for a problem of the people, so they could never refuse. Such was her incredible moral stature. I have myself been witness of this several times.
More than four decades ago, when we were in the Students Federation of India (SFI), there were numerous occasions when we launched struggles on various issues, held militant demonstrations, conducted road blockades, and also gheraoed Ministers in Mantralaya. We faced lathi charges and arrests. The first person from the Party who used to invariably come to the police lock-up when we were arrested and encourage us was our Ahilyatai, as all of us used to fondly call her.
Every morning at her home in Mumbai for decades, there used to be a virtual people’s durbar, although she was never in power. People from all walks of life used to crowd her house and apprise her of their problems. And she used to help them to the maximum extent possible. It was from these wide interactions that Ahilya developed an uncanny grasp of the pulse of the people. I remember that this quality of hers used to help us a lot in the Party’s state secretariat when taking decisions about future movements.
Ahilya’s simple style of living endeared her to all comrades. She always maintained austerity and modesty. People of all political parties had great respect for her despite ideological and political differences. All hailed her tremendous sacrifice and her unblemished integrity during her political life of six decades. She was a model example of a Communist leader.
Ahilya’s conviction about Marxism-Leninism was unquestionable. Her concern and love for the country, the people and our Party knew no bounds. I experienced this often from the talks that we had when both of us used to travel together to Delhi for Central Committee meetings of the Party. Since she was an ex-MP, I used to travel free with her as her companion.
My last memories of Ahilyatai were her regular phone calls to me in her last year. I was then state secretary of the Party in Maharashtra and used to remain in our state office, ‘Janashakti’ until late hours. She used to ask me what new is happening in the Party and the mass fronts, with the remark, “Ashok, I cannot go out anywhere, I cannot read our Party papers due to my failing eyes, PBR is also now no more, that is why I am troubling you.” I used to tell her in detail all that was happening, often with tears in my eyes at her tremendous dedication.
Long Live Comrade Ahilya Rangnekar!
Red Salute to Comrade Ahilya Rangnekar on her Birth Centenary!
(The author is National President All India Kisan Sabha)