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GEETA MUKHERJEE (1924-2000)


Geeta Mukherjee was a politician, an activist and also a children’s writer. She was born Geeta Roy Choudhury to an upper middle class Bengali family. Her father was given the title of Rai Bahadur. She went to school in Jessore, now in Bangladesh. As a student, she joined the Bengal Provincial Students’ Federation (BPSF) in 1939 and was active in the campaign to get freedom fighters released from the Andaman Cellular Jail. She went to Ashutosh College in Kolkata and graduated in Bengali literature. In 1942, she joined the CPI and married Biswanath Mukherjee, a communist leader. In 1945 she addressed a rally supporting the postal workers’ strike; she was the only woman student speaker.

The Communist Party was banned in 1948, and she and Biswanath Mukherjee were imprisoned without trial for six months in the Presidency Jail in Kolkata. They were eventually released, and Geeta continued to serve as the secretary of the Students’ Federation till 1951, and remained active in student politics for some years. When the Communist Party split in 1964, she stayed with the CPI and did not join the Marxists. She was elected to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly twice, in 1967 and 1972, from Tamluk in Midnapore. In 1978, she was elected MP for Panskura and represented that constituency till her death. She was elected to the National Council of the CPI in 1978 and to its National Executive in 1981, and was made one of the national secretaries at the Seventeenth Congress of the party held in Chennai in 1998. She was thus the first woman secretariat member of any Indian communist party. She was a member of the Executive Council of the National Federation of Indian Women from 1965, a member of the National Commission for Women in 1988 and of the National Commission on Rural Labour in 1986. She was also a member of the Press Council.

Geeta Mukherjee was particularly known for taking up women’s issues. She campaigned on behalf of women beedi workers, and against the practice of dowry. She insisted that the CPI cadres should refrain from taking dowry in private while condemning it in public. In 1998 she made headlines when, along with Brinda Karat, she alleged that the Communist parties were reluctant to take in women or to let them rise in the party hierarchy. She crossed swords on the issue with veteran CPM leader Harkishen Singh Surjeet, and this provided further impetus to the campaign for the Women’s Reservation Bill which she had taken up as a project in 1996. It is even reported that she turned down a ministerial post in I.K. Gujral’s cabinet so that she could devote all her energies to the Bill. She was tireless in raising questions on women’s issues in Parliament and always did her homework when she asked them. Under her chairmanship the report of the Joint Select Committee on the Women’s Reservation Bill was published in quick time.

She was also a writer, and wrote several books in Bengali for children including Bharater Upakatha (Folktales of India) and Chotoder Rabindranath (Tagore for Children). She translated Bruno Apitz’s Naked Among Wolves into Bengali. She loved poetry and used to read and recite Kazi Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore. She had undergone heart surgery in 1990 but it did not fully cure her and she died in Calcutta on 6 March, of a massive heart attack, two days short of International Women’s Day.
 
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