Susan Rice was the first African-American woman to be a US ambassador to the United Nations. An Oxford-graduate, what made it possible for her to travel across the Pond (as the North Atlantic Ocean is irreverently referred to) was a Rhodes Scholarship.
In fact, this scholarship was denied to black people for long until protests emerged in the 1970s. The irony is that Cecil Rhodes, a South African mining magnate who established the scholarship in 1902 was himself a white supremacist. Yet, few will doubt that any student would give an arm and a leg to be awarded such a prestigious scholarship which has outlived the taints of its founder.
Other American recipients include Bill Clinton, a president who enjoyed a great following among the black community and the former Supreme Court Justice David Souter. Neither could be faulted even remotely for condoning racism by accepting the scholarship that opened the doors for Oxford for them.
Magsaysay: A Legacy of Excellence
Closer home, one recalls greats like Jay Prakash Narayan, MS Subbulakshmi, Gandhian Manibhai Desai, Baba Amte, Asma Jahangir, Vinoba Bhave, Dalai Lama, Verghese Kurien, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, MS Swaminathan, Ela Bhatt, Muhammad Yunus, Aruna Roy, Satyajit Ray, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Mother Teresa. Many of them have dedicated a great part of their lives in uplifting their respective communities in the sub-continent and improving its social fabric. Would it not be laughable, thus, to label them as a cabal of anti-communists?
That is, unless, you endorse the latest diktat allegedly emerging out of AKG Bhawan, the CPIM headquarters that injuncts the former health minister of Kerala, K K Shailaja Teacher from accepting the internatioanlly- famed Ramon Magsaysay Award, also dubbed as ‘Asia’s Nobel Prize’ on the ground that the good old Ramon, the former Philippines president persecuted the commies and therefore, accepting an award instituted to honour his memory, no matter how prestigious and coveted, would tantamount to a betrayal of the Left cause.
All those named above are Magsaysay awardees and in honouring them is to recognize the contributions made by hundreds associated with the movements such awardees have inspired.
Take the case of Ela Ben of Ahmedabad who has managed to organize the women from unorganized sectors of Gujarat under the banner of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) or Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, also considered the ‘Father fof Micro-Finance’ who popularized the use of micro credits among the poor and disadvantaged that won him the an the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
I am certain that Shailaja was in the reckoning that her minders in the Party would have dug up some connection between Norway under Vidkun Quisling having collaborated with Germany’s Adolf Hitler in his war against Stalin or if that did not stick, then perhaps that Alfred Nobel invented that wretched dynamite.
K K Shailaja: A Force To Reckon With
Shailaja Teacher captured the national imagination when India was locked indoors as the dreaded Coronavirus rampaged through the country. Her calm demeanor and systematic handling of the the pandemic woes as her state’s health minister, won her international repute. There, indeed, was criticism for the high rates of infection her state reported but in her defence, Kerala, unlike many of her sisters on the other side of the Vindhyas, pushed for a strict and robust testing policy.
When the Left beat the incumbency Jinx in Kerala and returned to power in 2021, none would have assumed that Shailaja would be sacked.Yet her removal was justified under a party policy to give the younger generation a shot at governance.
While this is a laudable thought and cannot be particularly faulted especially when in the neighboring state, the youth leader was in his sixties, still waiting for his shot in office, eyebrows were raised as an exception was made to Pinarayi Vijayan, the elderly chief minister who got to keep his job.
Left’s No Leniency Policy To Party Cadres
Like a true Comrade, Shailaja bore the decision of the party unequivocally in the same manner as Jyoti Basu declined the offer of Prime Ministership of India as the Left wanted to “support” (read control) the Government externally and not take charge of the power it brought along.
In the last eight years, given how the Right Wing had systematically “othered” all who would not surrender meekly to its divisive agenda by mislabeling them as “Left-Liberals” and “Urban Naxals”, an entire generation of people who had to bear the brunt of left stagnation in Bengal and look for solace elsewhere, had actually forgotten how bitterly the arrogance of India’s Left was resented and its dogmatic adherence to archaic beliefs– certified an 'epic failure' the world over.
Women Underrepresented in the Left Bastion
In what would have been the first female winner from Kerala, Shailaja’s stepping back from the spotlight refreshed that memory. While it reinforced the patriarchy that dominates Indian politics in all its spheres, one would have expected the Left to think differently.
Sadly, Shailaja would not have to look too far. In her own state, her senior colleague, late K R Gowri Amma’s story is enough to expose the misogyny in the Left. A tall leader and one of the founders of the Communist movement who rubbed shoulders with EMS Namboodiripad, Amma was the face of the Left’s election campaign in 1987.
While, all banners and posters prominently projected her as the Leader. after the Left won the state, the old boys club ensured that it was EK Nayanar who would call on the Governor to stake his claim to form the next government, bcame the chief minister. Gowri Amma had to be content with the title, “The Best CM Kerela Never Had!”
This gender bias extended to the other part of the country as well where the Left once held a formidable sway. In its Bengal stable too, the Left was blessed with firebrand women leaders such as late Geeta Mukherjee. However, when it came to ministerial appointments, the likes of her met with a similar fate.
Will the Left Redeem Its Women?
While pushing for women’s reservation in one-third of seats in the Parliament, it fielded only two women out of the 42 candidates for the Lok Sabha elections from West Bengal in 2009. This was a steep fall from the five fielded in 2004 which elected a parliament that gave the Left the greatest leverage in governance since independence!
In erstwhile Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s cabinet , there was only one token woman-Rekha Goswami and she too had been given the predictable portfolio of “Self-help Group, Self Employment.”
The Left will undoubtedly, justify the removal of Shailaja and injuncting her from accepting the Magsaysay stating that it leans towards The Cult of Ideology over the personality cult that preferred the ideology over the ideator.
This coming from a camp which has had defied comrades across the world from Lenin to Stalin to Mao to Ho Chi Minh to Fidel to Che to our homegrown EMS and Jyoti Babu is rank hypocrisy and classic doublespeak.
The honour which came Shailaja's way was not just her’s alone. The old boys of the Left must understand that besides being a recognition of the transformative capacity of women in politics, it was also a tribute to the countless covid warriors who tirelessly battled to keep our citizens safe. This ‘dog in the manger’ attitude is, thus, all the more reprehensible.
Having said that, the Left maybe the only force existent in contemporary India that speaks of the “roti, kapda and makaan” issues which is what should matter to the aam admi. There are many admirable young women who have joined and are a part of the New Left and I wish all the power to them. However, to reclaim their once-enviable national relevance, they really have to, not only think out of the box but also walk their talk, introspect and duly course correct.
(The author is a senior advocate practising in the High Court of Delhi and in the Supreme Court of India. He tweets @advsanjoy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)