Comrade Raja’s onward march

Making of a leader: The party sent D Raja to Moscow for a year to study political economy and philosophy. The stint opened a new world to him, and that included the one offered by Moscow’s famed Lenin Library   -  BusinessLine

Education helped me break caste barriers, says D Raja, the CPI’s new general secretary and the first Dalit to hold the post

For an entity that is nearly a century old, the Communist Party of India (CPI) got its first Dalit general secretary only a few days ago. Seventy-year-old Doraisamy Raja’s ascent to the top post has not been easy. Many within and outside Left circles believe that Raja, national secretary of the CPI since 1993, should have got the top post at least a decade ago.

Raja was born in Chithathoor village, Vellore, in Tamil Nadu, the second of seven children of Dalit landless agriculture workers. The parents, however, desired a life unlike theirs for the children and insisted on education. “My father was a coconut peeler with strong, black hands. His palms had no lines. He could read a little, like the headlines of newspapers,” Raja tells BLink. The CPI leader was the first graduate in his village. “There is no illiteracy in my family now. Instead, we have postgraduates, PhDs, and engineering degree holders. My parents’ struggles and suffering laid the foundation for this change.”

Unlike other political leaders, Raja has rarely undertaken hunger strikes. Instead, he often jokes that he has already starved for a lifetime. As a child growing up in Chithathoor, his afternoon meals were taken care of in the primary school, a half-hour walk from his village. He attended the Harijan Welfare Elementary School, where mid-day meals were served as part of an initiative by the K Kamaraj government in the early Sixties. In fact, his mother pitched in at the school kitchen after finishing her work in the fields.

But the government high school at Pallikonda, across the River Palar, where Raja was later enrolled, did not offer meals. So he would set off after a bowl of kanji (rice gruel) in the morning and skip lunch. “I never participated in any sports activities in my school. My PT teacher, who knew I was often on an empty stomach, would let me sit in the reading room even as my classmates played. That is how I developed my reading habit,” says Raja. The evening meal at home was equally frugal with rice and curry. Indulgences on occasion would be fish caught from the village pond. Life in the village resembled that in a commune. “Villagers often pooled in money to buy a bull, and shared the meat equally on special occasions,” he remembers.

The high school headmaster, a Brahmin, taught English and was fond of him. The young student once missed a test conducted by the headmaster, who roundly punished the absentees, including Raja. He later gave the class an assignment, and Raja recalls that he seemed unimpressed as he went through all the answer sheets. “Then he read my answer sheet and looked stunned. He summoned me to his room, gave me a paper and asked me to draw up a list of the things I needed. My list included textbooks, notebooks and uniforms,” Raja says. The next day, much to the young student’s surprise, all his needs were provided for. The headmaster had asked the class to construct a sentence with the word ‘decide’ in it. Raja had written: “I decided to be absent for the test as I do not have notebooks.”

At Chithathoor, he had often heard stories of caste discrimination but had never personally faced any. He points to the strong presence of Ambedkarite, Congress, Dravidian and Left movements in the village. Education and learning broke barriers for Raja. When he gained admission to a college, it became a widely discussed subject in the village. “Even the upper caste women started speaking to me. I could go to their house and spend time there. The women often told my mother that her sons should have been born in their families; this made my mother proud. Education broke the caste barrier for me,” says Raja.

The CPI leader, however, is quick to point out that his daughter Aparajita, a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, shares with him stories of discrimination prevalent in institutions of higher learning. “I did not face any discrimination, but it is rampant even now.”

Chithathoor boasted a strong Ambedkerite tradition and celebrated the leader’s birthday on April 14 every year. People from as far away as Maharashtra visited their village for the celebrations. “Ambedkar’s degrees attracted me. I wondered how a man could have so many degrees,” he says. The village and the neighbouring regions were politically vibrant; Kamaraj represented the constituency as chief minister. The CPI and trade unions had a strong presence there and so did the Dravidian movement. “My brothers’ names were inspired by the leaders of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) movement. My younger brother, for instance, is called Karunanidhi.”

Raja grew up imbibing varied ideological and political thoughts. Yet, the struggles of his parents and others like them haunted him. “The circumstances of my life forced me to address the questions my mind raised,” he says, recalling how he slowly gravitated towards Marxism. At GTM College, Gudiyattam, he came in contact with the All India Students’ Federation (AISF), the student wing of the Left. The college library also stocked many books on Marxism. He pursued a degree in mathematics and often studied under a street lamp, even as his mother kept him company through those nights.

Raja got a government job before he graduated, but he chose to study further. Having completed the teacher’s training course, he took up a job in a government school. “By that time I had become active in AISF and, later, the CPI. The party decided to send me to Moscow for a year to study political economy and philosophy.” The stint opened a new world to Raja, and that included the one offered by Moscow’s famed Lenin Library. “I found the answers I was searching for in Marxism. When I came back, I was given charge of the All India Youth Federation, the party’s youth cadre, in Tamil Nadu. I soon became a full-time party worker by choice,” he says.

After serving in the national council and as the state secretary of agriculture workers in Tamil Nadu, Raja was asked by the party to move to Delhi in 1992.

Role call: Many believe that Raja, CPI national secretary since 1993, should have got the top post earlier   -  The Hindu

 

The Capital has been his home since then. He served in the coordination committees of the governments of HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral, and of the first UPA regime. He has served two terms in the Rajya Sabha since 2007. His wife, Annie Raja, who is a member of the party’s national executive, sums up the future. “These are challenging times for the party. Expectations are high from him, not just from within the party, but from those outside as well.”

Published on August 02, 2019

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