Rakesh Ram S
26th December 2014.
Today Chithralekha, the Dalit woman autodriver, entered the 64th day of her night and day dharna (to death) in front of the Kannur collectorate. She has been fighting the CPI(M)/DYFI/CITU in Kannur since 2005.
Despite numerous protests and resultant promises from the government attacks continue to happen on Chithralekha, the Dalit auto driver who has been fighting atrocities and social boycott by CPI(M)/DYFI/CITU(Auto Drivers Union) in Payyanur, Kerala. Six months back she and her family did an indefinite dharna in front of Kannur collectorate to get the false cases charged on her dropped and for proper investigation of cases against the DYFI workers who attacked her family on 31st January 2014. This dharna was called off after the district administration promised to take the following actions.
• All cases in which Chithralekha and her husband were falsely implicated will be re-investigated under the Kannur SP, Unni Raja
• The SP will ensure that Chithralekha is given full protection to drive her auto-rickshaw and earn her livelihood in Payannur, without being attacked constantly by the CITU/DYF
• Chithralekha will be compensated for the losses incurred and the collector will immediately allocate money from any specific SC/ST fund for the same
• Chithralekha's grandmother's Agricultural Workers Pension will be reinstated.
But the district administration did not keep its promises even after many months and another attack happened on Chithralekha and family on 18th August 2014. Again as in previous such attacks the police filed a case against Chithralekha's family and refused to file case against the people who attacked her house. The case filed by Chithralekha was accepted only after two days and that too was dropped later with police stating that further investigation is not required. The case against Chithralekha's family is still active and is in court now.
The continued apathy of the state and its inability to protect Chithralekha from the violence perpetrated by casteist and patriarchal CPI(M)/DYFI/CITU syndicate has forced Chithralekha to start a day and night dharna in front of Kannur collectorate from October 25 demanding resettlement in another place where she and her family can live in peace and earn a livelihood, and also steps to drop false cases filed against her and her husband. On the 12th day of the strike, Chithralekha met the Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, while he was visiting the town. The CM instructed the Collector and the SP to discuss the issue and asked them to provide a solution within a week.
The SP did not join the proposed discussion and the strike committee talked to the Collector. The Collector expressed his inability to decide on resettlement away from Payyanur and so the strike continued. Despite direct instructions from the CM the bureaucracy, due to political control from Left unions as well as entrenched caste prejudices, continues to slow pedal actions required to provide justice to Chithralekha. Chithralekha met the CM once more after this and he entrusted the matter to Minister K C Joseph. The Collector held one more meeting with Chithralekha and the strike committee and he has sent a report to the minister. Till now no directions have come from the minister's side.
Chithralekha's heroic fight for a life with dignity and against caste hegemony has been going on for 9 years now. The list of atrocities committed against Chithralekha and her family in this period and the lack of action taken against the perpetrators will shame any conscientious human being.
• On October 11th 2005, Chithralekha's auto was damaged by another auto driver in the same auto stand in Edat (Payyanur).
• On October 14th 2005, they tried to kill Chithralekha by hitting her with an auto. She suffered leg injury. Case was filed against the attackers (FIR No 367/05).
• On December 31st 2005, they burned Chithralekha's autorickshaw (KL-13L-8257) which was bought on a loan (PMRY Scheme). Case was filed in Payyanur Police station ( FIR No 474/05). After this incident, Chithralekha got support from many sections of society. Initially a committee was formed in Payyanur (with M Sulfath, Mr Subrahmanian, K M Venugopalan, Ayyappan Master, Dr Surendranath, Mr Gopinath etc.) to help Chithralekha and they rented an auto for her to drive. This did not work out well. Later a committee was formed in Kannur (Dr Surendranath, P K Ayyappan, K M Venugopalan etc.,) which collected money from concerned citizens all over India to buy a new autorikhsaw for Chithralekha (June 2008).
• In December 2006, an armed mob attacked Chithralekha and family. Chithralekha's sister's husband was grievously injured. After this Chithralekha and family moved out of Edat village for more than 2 years.
• On 30th January 2010, after coming back to Edat, Chithralekha and her husband Sreeshkanth were cruelly beaten up when they were buying medicine for her son at a drug store in Perumba. In that incident Police filed a case against Chithralekha accusing her of drinking and creating commotion. They took Chithralekha and Sreeshkanth to the station and Chithralekha was beaten up by a policewoman. A Fact Finding committee  formed by Feminist Kerala Network which had Gail Omvedt as a member investigated this incident and corroborated Chithralekha's version on what happened.
• On December 31st 2010, Chithralekha, Sreeshkanth and Chithralekha's daughter Megha were attacked by CITU auto drivers while they were in Payyanur Central Bazar.
• On December 23rd 2012, a mob of CPI(M) members attacked Chithralekha, Sreeshkanth, Megha and Chithralekha's sister's husband Saju.
• On 18th May 2013, a mob of around 30 CPI(M) members attacked Chithralekha's house and threatened Chithralekha and her family and created an atmosphere of terror. Police refused to help and came to the scene only hours later after pressure from many people who called the station after hearing about the attack.
• A Jila Panchayat officer (M B Muralidharan, member of CPI(M) affiliated NGO Union) withheld the second installment of toilet construction fund to Chithralekha. When Chithralekha questioned this he verbally abused Chithralekha (January 2013). Chithralekha complained about this to the SC/ST commission but instead of booking him police arrested Chithralekha (June 2013) on a foisted case of obstructing a public official.
• On 21st October 2013, Sreeshkanth was beaten up at the auto stand by CITU auto drivers. He was hospitalized and a complaint was filed against the attackers. A false case was filed against Sreeshkanth about beating up a 65 year old auto driver.
• Around this time the Payannur SI Shaji Patery and CI Abdul Rahman, under the influence of CPI(M), intensified the campaign of harassing Chithralekha and her family by hoisting false cases. They started targeting Sreeshkanth more. On 31st January 2014, a mob of DYFI members attacked Chithralekha's house accusing them of attacking a Ramesh, a Gurkha boy in the neighbourhood. Earlier Chithralekha had had an argument with Ramesh for letting his goat graze on the plants in her house. Police arrested Sreeshkanth under many sections (308, 323 – 343, 354, 353) including attempt to murder.
• On 18th August 2014, DYFI members attacked Chithralekha's house. The mob physically and verbally abused Sreeshkanth and damaged the autorickshaws parked at home.
CPI(M) as a party which wields strong political power in North Kerala is known for its use of social boycott and violence to suppress opposing voices. Many of these methods are not different from those used by caste Hindus till few decades ago to maintain caste hierarchy. Chithralekha's trouble with the party started after she married Sreeshkanth who is a Thiyya (OBC) man and whose family are CPI(M) members. This happened despite objections from Sreeshkanth's family.
When Chithralekha tried to enter the Edat auto stand with her auto there was opposition to that and it took her three months to get membership in the CITU union there. And the first day she took her auto to the stand she was greeted by casteist and sexist slurs making fun of her improved status as an auto driver. This is no different from the numerous cases of caste violence that happen in different part of India where Dalits are punished for transgressing limits prescribed by caste system.
Documentary film maker Rupesh Kumar has talked about the patronizing attitude of communist party towards Dalits in his ancestral village Peringeel (not far from Chithralekha's place) in his documentary 'Don't be our fathers'. Also levels of patriarchy observed in North Kerala expect women to be very subdued in the way they talk and behave in public. In such a society the simple act of Chithralekha, an independent minded Dalit Woman, to marry a man of her choice and pursue a career to earn a livelihood was seen as a challenge that had to be thwarted at any political cost by the party structure in the area.
They used weapons familiar to Dalit women in different parts of this country, physical violence, character assassination (poster campaigns to portray Chithralekha and her mother as women of loose morals) and counter cases filed by a Dalit man who is a CPI(M) member. They also used their stronghold in bureaucracy to thwart the constitutional provisions made specifically to protect people like Chithralekha.
That these acts of caste violence were not just the work of some local party workers is clear from the fact that the party newspaper aided the perpetrators of violence by publishing their version of stories while the other papers published articles in support of Chithralekha's struggle. Two hartals were also conducted by the party in its campaign against her. Even though CPI(M) has betrayed Dalit trust throughout the history of Kerala state through their policy decisions where they denied land ownership to Dalit agricultural workers during the Land Reforms movement and ghettoized large number of Dalits by resettling them in colonies across Kerala (lot of them in inhospitable and cutoff areas) they do enjoy the support of a section of Dalits in their cadre .
In recent times more and more dalit writers are bringing out their experiences of caste in Left parties and organizations in Kerala (eg. Caste In SFI). If CPI(M) continues to ignore the caste questions that trouble Kerala and if it continues to support casteism in its organization, it will soon have to part with its Dalit cadre support.
A few weeks back Sulfath Teacher (who headed a committee to help Chithralekha when her auto was burned) had to face the wrath of CPI(M) affiliated unions when she helped a student file a sexual abuse case against a teacher who happened to be a union leader. This happened in Cheruthazham which is a village just 4 km away from Chithralekha's place. A campaign was mounted by the localites and teachers who were CPI(M) supporters and the teacher was not allowed to teach in the school.
After this issue was raised in print and social media, negotiations were carried out and the party made a compromise with the teacher and reined in its comrades. Such negotiations do not happen without support from party leadership. Taking similar steps to resolve Chithralekha's issue will be the best way to go for the party instead of hanging on to their 9 year old violent casteist campaign against a lone female fighter.
1. Indefinite Dharna in front of Kannur Collectorate from 2014 Aprl 19th onwards(http://www.dalitweb.org/?p=2507)
2. Chithralekha Attacked Again by CPM Goons (http://www.dalitweb.org/?p=2448)
3. Caste atrocities against Chithralekha: A report (http://www.dalitweb.org/?p=2456)
4. "Living outside the track": A woman worker's struggle against caste and patriarchy in Kerala ( http://kafila.org/2010/02/25/%E2%80%9Cliving-outside-the-track%E2%80%9D-a-woman-worker%E2%80%99s-struggle-against-caste-and-patriarchy-in-kerala/)
5. What I have to say: Chithralekha (http://www.dalitweb.org/?p=1796)
6. Chithralekha arrested for filing complaint under SC/ST (PoA) Act against abusive block panchayat official (http://www.dalitweb.org/?p=2024)
7. Chithralekha's family attacked again (http://www.dalitweb.org/?p=2309)
8. "I just want to blow the lid off this patronage": Rupesh Kumar (http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6739:i-just-want-to-blow-the-lid-off-this-patronage-rupesh-kumar&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132)
9. Land struggles in contemporary Kerala (http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/land-struggles-in-contemporary-kerala/article2729300.ece)
10. Caste In SFI (http://utharakalam.com/?p=9074)
Rakesh Ram S is a software engineer based in Bangalore. His politics is influenced by the present day Ambedkarites and the caste experiences of his grandparents and parents in Kannur.