HYDERABAD, Telangana — On April 19, Danasari Anasuya, the Congress MLA from Mulug in Telangana, tweeted a photograph of herself with the day’s top trending hashtag, #MeAt20. It stood out among the multitude of photos posted by Twitter users because in her 20s, Anasuya had commanded a militia.
The photograph shows the 49-year-old as her younger self, dressed in fatigues and holding a rifle in her right hand. In the post, which has been retweeted more than 300 times, she writes, “Whether I am with Gun or with Gunmen, it’s for the sake of weaker sections. Food, cloth and shelter is what I always wanted for them.”
The MLA has been active on the social media platform these days because of another trending hashtag, #GoHungerGo—her campaign to get food and other essentials to the poor in Mulug during the nationwide coronavirus lockdown. She tweets that her team has distributed thousands of kilos of rice, vegetables, dal, salt and oil and covered 451 villages.
Meanwhile, the gun she mentions alludes to her history as a Naxal dalam commander, a past she is unapologetically candid about. Her Twitter bio reads “Ex-Maoist 11 years” and she reminisces about her “days of armed struggle” in earlier tweets. On April 14, she tweeted a photograph of herself crossing a rivulet in Mulug with these words:
Six days later, she tweeted:
With her past shaping her present as an elected representative, her constituents and even her party call her Seethakka (elder sister Sita), an alias she assumed when she was underground. Her bold strides to gain public support both online and on the ground have not gone unnoticed in the Congress, which she joined in 2018 after more than a decade with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). “Phenomenon” is what senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh called her in a tweet earlier this month:
Could such words of praise from a party senior mean the Congress is keen on promoting popular leaders like Anasuya who recently joined its ranks, even over those with a long history with the party?
Perhaps, since the state Congress also seems to have a bigger role in mind for her. Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee working president and Malkajgiri MP Anumula Revanth Reddy told HuffPost India, “Seethakka is committed to serving the poorest of the poor. She has integrity and is honest. We want to establish her as a leader of the Congress party. This is the time she should emerge both as a state leader and a national leader.”
Opportunity for Congress
Given its current standing both in national and Telangana politics, the Congress could do with some remodelling that steers it away from its much maligned legacy of nepotism. Promoting mass leaders could be one way to go about it.
The grand old party was decimated twice in Lok Sabha elections, first in 2014 and then in 2019. It currently has 52 members in Parliament’s Lower House compared to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 303 MPs. In the 119-strong state Assembly, the Congress is in third place with six MLAs, trailing the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) with 104 MLAs and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen with seven. Its depleted strength is the result of a lacklustre performance in the 2018 state elections and the additional loss of 12 MLAs, who joined the TRS, in 2019 following its rout in the general elections.
Numerous instances of leaders jumping ship and joining other parties, particularly the BJP, have put the Congress in a precarious position. Its biggest setback was the exit in March of Jyotiraditya Scindia and 22 MLAs loyal to him. That triggered the fall of the Kamal Nath-led government in Madhya Pradesh, paving the way for BJP rule.
In this atmosphere, encouraging a new rung of regional leaders from varied backgrounds might work for the Congress, especially as it strives to rekindle its connection with the people during the current pandemic. In Telangana, it is banking on Anasuya – an Adivasi from the Koya tribe – to win the support of the rural and urban poor as well as socio-economically disadvantaged groups such as Dalits and Adivasis. “I want to see Seethakka emerge as leader of [the] Congress Legislature Party in [the] Telangana Assembly,” said Revanth Reddy. “In the Assembly, Seethakka can take on TRS because she has integrity.”
The Congress has good reason to place its hopes on Anasuya. While politicians across India are publicising their Covid-19 welfare work on social media, Anasuya stands out. It’s the ease with which she carries large bags of rations and covers long distances through rough forests, rivers and streams to reach distant villages where the most vulnerable Adivasi communities live. When the terrain rules out any form of transportation, she walks several kilometres – her familiarity with the surroundings a result of the many years she spent living in forests both as a Koya woman and Naxal leader. What also stands out is her seamless transition from militancy to politics, while standing uncompromisingly firm on her professed commitment to the people.
Insurgent, lawyer, politician
Anasuya was in her teens, a student of Class 10, when she joined Naxal ranks in 1988. The Naxal group she joined would in 1992 merge with five others to form the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Janashakti, which also had a political wing that contested elections. She was motivated to join a “movement that had widespread support in the Telangana region [of undivided Andhra Pradesh]”, thanks to enthusiastic campaigns run by student leaders and balladeers of repute. She was also inspired by Janashakti ideologue Chandra Pulla Reddy.
“I learnt a lot during that time,” she told HuffPost India. “I would spend sleepless nights and walk for days without food to serve the people. I learnt commitment to the people and the importance of shouldering responsibilities when I was in the forest.”
Anasuya left Janashakti in 1997, a year after it split into eight factions, two of which adopted guerrilla warfare. “I was not happy with the split and decided to surrender,” she said. When she gave up arms under a state amnesty programme, she was a mother to a four-year-old son.
Once a free woman, she went back to school, completed her intermediate education and then earned a Bachelor’s degree in law. She started her practice in Warangal to “serve justice for people who were denied their rights” and to provide “legal aid to Naxal leaders” who had surrendered to the government.
In 2004, Anasuya joined the TDP, even though the decision posed an “ideological conflict”. The party’s leader, Nara Chandrababu Naidu, had in 2003 survived an attempt on his life by the People’s War Group. “I differed with him only on one issue – encounter killings,” she said. Between 1995 and 2004, the TDP’s rule in Andhra Pradesh was marked by the encounter killing of several People’s War Group operatives. Anasuya’s brother, also a Naxal, was killed in an encounter with the police in 1998. “But the TDP provided education, primary healthcare and employment to Adivasi people,” she said, justifying her decision to join the party. She explained that the people she had met while practising law had made her realise the importance of state welfare in their lives.
An aide to Naidu, who did not want to be identified, said the TDP leader’s bid to bring women leaders to the fore had led to the discovery of committed leaders like Anasuya. “At the time, several women, including bureaucrats and ground-level political workers, joined the TDP,” he recalled. Speaking of Anasuya’s political rise, he said, “Anasuya contested [Assembly elections] in 2004 on a TDP ticket but lost. The next five years, she worked to strengthen her support base.”
Her efforts bore fruit as she won her second election in 2009 from Mulug, a Scheduled Tribe reserved constituency. She lost the seat in 2014 in the first Assembly elections held after the formation of Telangana, which saw the rise of the TRS. In 2018, she quit the TDP and joined the Congress in a calculated move to regain her support base, which had eroded with the TDP being branded an Andhra party. The move paid off as she won back Mulug in elections held later that year.
TDP’s loss, Congress’s gain?
Anasuya’s arrival was immediately beneficial to the Congress as she bridged the gap between the two rival Scheduled Tribe groups, the Lambadas and Koya Adivasis, at least electorally. In the 2018 elections, she managed to get both sides to vote for her, ensuring her victory in Mulug over incumbent TRS MLA Azmeera Chandulal, a Lambada, whom she had lost to in 2014. It was no small feat, considering the Lambadas and Adivasis have been at loggerheads for a while now. The Lambadas were designated a Scheduled Tribe in 1976 and account for 64% of Telangana’s Scheduled Tribe population of 32 lakh. The Koyas make up 15% of Mulug’s population and number 3.5 lakh, according to the state’s Tribal Welfare Department. Adivasi tribes have long sought the expulsion of Lambadas from the Scheduled Tribe category, alleging they have cornered their share of state benefits, including reservations in education and employment.
Anasuya’s welfare efforts in Mulug have not only benefited her Koya community but another marginalised Adivasi group, the Gutti Koyas, as well. They are originally residents of Chhattisgarh who were driven across the border into the Telangana region in the early 2000s by the now banned anti-Maoist militia movement Salwa Judum. Since the imposition of the lockdown on March 25, the 15,000 Gutti Koyas of Mulug are solely dependent on the MLA’s rations as they are not eligible for state benefits either in Telangana or in Chhattisgarh.
“Everyone knows Seethakka in the tribal areas of Warangal and even across the border in Chhattisgarh,” said Revanth Reddy.
Mulug was part of Warangal district before a re-organisation of districts.
Anasuya’s strong support base among various sections has raised her profile in the Congress, which has appointed her general secretary of the All India Mahila Congress and Chhattisgarh Mahila Congress in-charge. The party perhaps believes someone like her with a strong grassroots connection can evolve into a national leader, much like Jignesh Mevani did. Mevani, a Dalit activist and lawyer from Gujarat, came into national prominence in 2016 when he led thousands of Dalits on a protest march against the flogging of community members in the state’s Una town over cow slaughter rumours. In 2017, when Mevani contested the Gujarat elections from Vadgam as an independent candidate and with the objective of ousting the BJP from power, the Congress supported him in principle by not fielding a candidate in that constituency. Mevani – who is opposed to Hindu nationalism, the BJP’s core ideology – went on to win the election.
Goodwill all around
The Congress’ recognition of Anasuya’s potential may also have something to do with her goodwill with other parties.
Anasuya still refers to TDP chief Naidu as anna (brother) and wished him on his birthday via Twitter on April 20. Naidu responded to her tweet with a message of appreciation of his own:
Meanwhile, the ruling TRS – of which she has been highly critical, including over its Covid-19 strategy – has been making overtures to her to join their ranks, her aides claim.
Anasuya’s efforts have also impressed rights activists. Hariprasad, who heads Human Rights Forum in Mulug, pointed out that while Anasuya fight for the rights of Adivasis “in her capacity as a public representative” and “her philanthropy could be aimed at consolidating her vote base… when compared to other MLAs who do not do even philanthropy in such areas, she is a better public representative”.
‘Congress is the party people need’
Although happy with the adulation across party lines, Anasuya points out that she has worked hard for every bit of goodwill she has earned. “I am being interviewed by you because I went and worked in the forests of Mulug,” she told HuffPost India. “I went there because of my commitment to the people. I learnt this commitment from my Naxal days. How many other MLAs, even tribal MLAs, would have had the commitment to go there and work?”
Anasuya – who juggles her political duties and welfare work with her pursuit of a PhD from Osmania University – says she believes in being true to herself, and also that one’s past strengthens one’s present. “I take my past seriously and will never disown it, be it my role in the TDP or the Naxal movement,” she said. “My ideology and lifestyle have, however, changed with the times.”
She says she is “committed to working hard for the [Congress] party”, adding, “I joined the Congress because I think it is the party people need in current times.”
However, be it her past, her present or even her future as a potential leader of the Congress, Anasuya views it all with a nonchalance typical of her. Even her #MeAt20 tweet, which has created quite a buzz, was spur of the moment, she says. “My son asked me to put up a photograph of myself in my 20s,” she explained. “In my 20s I was always in fatigues and never in civil dress.”