Chithralekha has been on strike for the last 100 days seeking justice for the attacks on her by CPM goons. The government and district authorities remain silent on Chithralekha's vociferous questioning and demand for justice. From October 25th, 2014, Chithralekha and her husband Sreeshkant are sitting in protest in front of the Kannur Collectorate. In between, a rumour was spread that Chithralekha is going to stop this protest. But she denied this and re-affirmed that she will be continuing her protest against such caste attacks. She feels that there should be a social audit of social movements and 'progressive developments' in North Malabar, the political leadership and the region's caste structure should be questioned and deeply analyzed. The Dandi yatra by Gandhi in Payyannur, Communist movements, Ananda Theertha, Payyannur College, literature, cultural figures and discourses have not emancipated the dalit communities and it is a shame and pity on such a society that Chithralekha, a dalit woman, has to fight against caste system for the last ten years.
In this interview, Chithralekha speaks of her politics, life and struggle in an empirical style:
Q. You have been on strike against the male goon culture and attacks on you by CPM in Payyannur. It is read internationally as a dalit woman's political fight against the caste system. What is the history of your political strike in Payyannur?
Chithralekha: In 2004 we bought an auto for our livelihood and approached CITU (CPM affiliated) for permission to ply the auto. They asked us to wait and after four months we got our membership. They gave us parking permission under my husband Sreeshkanth's name. For the first two months Sreeshkanth was running the auto. But since he is new to the place, Payyannur, and was not acquainted with the local routes, he asked me to go with the auto.
When I went to park my auto in the auto stand, the first response was the name calling "Oh..polachi (caste name), came with the auto?". I was the only dalit (female) at that auto rickshaw stand. The parking area was ruled by the auto drivers from 'Maniyani' caste. The Maniyanis were the feudal lords or acted as feudal lords in the history of Payyannur. They tried to show their supremacy of caste against me, their 'ruling' character, when I entered into their space. They couldn't afford to have me in their 'space' as I am a dalit female. There started the history of caste oppression and untouchability against me.
They treated me in a very derogatory manner. But I questioned them. That was a whack on the face of their caste ego. They got shocked. My response, my questioning, my reactions, my boldness hurt the ego of the male chauvinistic caste characters of Maniyani auto drivers in Edat in Payyannur. First they attacked my auto rickshaw. They tore the wooden parts of my vehicle. These violent attacks against me were carried out under the leadership of a CPM goon named Ajithkumar. He was an auto rickshaw driver there. I complained to the Union Secretary and the Panchayat member. Their response was strange and they said they can't do anything. I understood that there is a dangerous link between the party and the caste pride and I am not going to get any justice. There I understood that the 'revolutionary fires' lit by CPM in Malabar were clearly underlined by the caste system. It was a clear conspiracy between the party and the upper caste auto drivers. Then I approached the police. The police issued a warning against Ajithkumar and filed a petty case.
The next day after my police complaint, they didn't allow me to park my auto in the queue. They blocked my auto. They ordered that I cannot drive my auto here. This was under the leadership of Ajithkumar, Rameshan, Naveen and Pavithran. I said, mine is a vehicle bought under loan, and for my livelihood, I have to run it. Then one of them rode an auto on my body. I was injured and hospitalized for five days. Police arrested one Ramesh. After this incident, when I approached the Mahila association leader (women's association leader) associated with the CPM, the response was so absurd: "how can you ride your auto without an end to this problem?"
But, even after that, we got some phone trips. Ladies and family were ready to get into our auto for their commute. I bought a mobile phone. We just tried to survive. But this made them more furious. The threats continued. After two months, on Dec 30th, 2005, they burnt down my auto at my home. Ajithkumar and Naveen were the main culprits. After two months, they were arrested and remanded. But after remand, Ajith came to my house and attacked my sister's husband with a machete. They were aiming at me and my husband, but were mistaken and my sister's husband got seriously injured. After this incident Ajith fled to the Gulf and came back after five years. Then they threatened all the witnesses of this incident in which they set the auto on fire.
The most atrocious part was, after all this violence and attacks on us, the police filed cases against my husband Sreeshkant. He was arrested under the 'Goonda Act' and put in jail for 32 days. He was arrested under the sections 308 and 195A. The background: we had applied for an allowance in the block development office for building a toilet. We were allotted the first installment. But when we requested the second installment, the then block development officer M.V. Muralidharan, who was a CPM supporter, refused to release the amount. Then we asked for the refusal to be given in writing. He refused and instead filed a petition that we tried to block the functioning of his government duties. And a case was filed under 195 A. Similarly, they filed a false case on my husband under section 308 after they attacked and damaged my house and vehicle.
On August 18, 2014, they attacked my house again under the leadership of CPM branch secretary, Jyothish Kumar. The district administration and government promised me security and assured that they will take up the case. But they cheated us. And then by October 25th 2014, I started this strike and for the last 93 days, one family in progressive North Malabar is fighting against caste atrocities/discrimination/violence by a left party.
Q. Yours is a fight against caste patriarchy, violence and untouchability. And you are breaking the image of North Malabar as a secular, progressive land. But your strike is a big blow to the history of Payyanur. How do you analyze your strike in the historic perspective?
Chithralekha: My mother used to tell me the stories of caste discrimination in this land. Earlier the Pulaya community worked in the paddy fields. The feudal and caste lords never permitted the Pulaya women to cover their breasts. But later, the so-called working class revolution under the Left which was just a 'caste revolution', the powers of working class organizations were held by the upper castes. The patriarchal power structure of caste was never challenged. The real shock for the CPM was that in such a state, a dalit woman named Chithralekha questions this power structure. A dalit woman becomes a threat to their caste system. A dalit woman entered and started working in their mainstream space. The CPM always kept the dalits and dalit women as their orderlies.. They can't tolerate brotherhood with dalits and co-existence in the mainstream. And so, this violence against me, as I count, is not an instant reaction, but a calculated, psychological and social movement of caste against dalits in North Malabar. It is simply an organic reaction of the casteist social structure. Their hypocrisy would always preach 'dalit uplift', but the dalits in this area have clearly understood that those are simply their tricks and vote bank politics.
These leftists and the casteists successfully created an image in North Malabar that there is no caste system at all. And the problem with our media and society is that they are still living in a 'wonder world' which is a 'no caste society' or where 'caste is a memory'. After the violence against me, when some TV channels came to shoot the problems here, they couldn't believe that caste system still exists in North Malabar. They didn't believe us. So we decided to 'demonstrate' the upper castes' casteist behavior. We drew some water from a well in an upper caste home. The TV channels 'experienced' how they treated us in a casteist manner while we carried the water. Even now we have to wash our plates if we eat something at any upper caste home in Payyannur.
So in such a scenario, I look at myself or my struggle as exposing the caste system prevailing in the work culture of North Malabar. And mine is one among the thousand discriminations against dalits. And I am not going to stop this fight. Because I am fighting for my constitutional rights and my strike is against those who should uphold these constitutional rights for dalits in this country.
Q. Once again, in your case, they deployed the usual political tools against your strikes by attacking your behavior. Their allegations are: you are a drunkard, and your moral background is not good. Then they say that there are no problems, that the only problem is with your family. How do you read this?
Chithralekha: When you take the history of drinking, who made us drink? It is the casteist feudal powers who made dalits drink to ensure their smooth work in the upper castes' fields. It was they who supplied liquor to dalits. And it is funny that they themselves are attacking the 'drinking habit'. Who doesn't drink here? Doctors don't drink? Film actors don't drink? Political leaders don't drink? Women don't drink? And they don't work after that? And they don't go on strike after that? And they don't live after that? Why is only Chithralekha attacked on the ground of this 'drinking morality'? And Chithralekha doesn't have a right to live, to go on strike and react even if I drink? It is vulgar double standards, and it is their technique to chain a rising dalit woman with such morality tools. And if drinking is a morally bad habit, majority of the Kerala population is not good on this ground. And it is the controlling psyche of Kerala males: if women drink, it's the end of the world.
Their next tool is sexuality. I don't know whether these people are living in 21st century or not. Sex workers started talking about their rights, they started creating unions. And progressive societies have started to address the issues of sex workers. But for the CPM in Kannur or society at large in Kerala, sex is still a moral taboo. And these two tools (drinking/sexuality) are the usual weak tools to attack rising politically conscious individuals and to eliminate them. This party has been using these techniques for years. But I don't care. They have so many other allegations against me which are more absurd, that I am a rogue, I am not behaving 'like a woman', I am violent, my character is not good etc., etc., I think the CPM and the casteists have to research for some other better tools to face such dalit political emancipation. What is in their hands is not enough now!
Q. Why are you against CPM? Are the others free from caste? Are other political organizations like Congress, BJP devoid of caste system? What are your views on this?
Chithralekha: In my case, CPM is the main culprit. That doesn't mean others can wash their hands of any responsibility. Even the government machinery is ruled by caste patriarchs. CPM used the caste power of Maniyani's against me and the Maniyani's used the party's. That is a simple formula. In Kannur, mine is not the only example of caste violence. In one incident in Kannur, the CPM asked an Adivasi headmistress to resign her job by assuring her that after contesting election she would be made the Panchayat President. But after resigning her job, she was cheated and became mentally ill. In one other instance, in Peralasseri, a family was ostracized on the allegation of not giving way, by the side of their house. They even tried to block a marriage in that family. All these happened after the attacks on me. Recently, the Communist party had a protest with Adivasis calling it as "Thudikotti samaram". It was after the victory of "Nilpu Samaram" in the secretariat. And the CPM created an image in Kannur, that they were the people who stood for the Adivasi rights.
Congress, BJP and Muslim League and other organizations supported us. But they were looking for their own political mileage. I met and talked with Chief Minister Oommen Chandy five times. He assured me that he would take care of my case. Later the case was handed over to the UDF Minister K.C. Joseph, but there was no progress. K.C. Joseph, even if he is a congress minister, is an inside ardent supporter of CPM in Kannur. They are all friends in the legislative assembly. So it is not the case only with the political parties, the government machinery and the police force too are all ruled by anti-dalit forces. So I don't think I am going to get justice in such a situation unless there is a strong intervention from the people around along with international support.
Q. In an earlier interview, Mr. Anandan Paithalen, academician and social activist from Kannur, analyzed that yours is a struggle underlined by Ambedkarite politics against Indian caste system. And for the violence and discrimination you have faced, the feudal and caste history of Payyannur/Kannur/North Malabar is responsible. How do you react?
Chithralekha: Yes, mine is the politics of Ambedkar against the caste system. I got to know how deep are the root of the caste system in progressive Kerala during the course of facing these problems. Caste is the main issue here. I strongly feel that, Dalits should understand, analyze and organize and that would help evolve a different politics here. Dalits have their rights in this country. Ambedkar has written it in the Indian constitution. But the ruling upper caste powers in India play a game to block the rights of dalits.
In Kannur district about 1633 cases of atrocities on dalits have been registered. And in this 1633, only in four cases the culprits got punished. There is no protection from the police or the government. And even after this, the police accuse the dalits of misusing and misbehaving using the SC/ST protection rights. My husband is from Thiyya caste (OBC), and he was being asked by the casteists: "Why did you marry a polachi?". And they are afraid of such inter-caste marriages and they know that it is a weapon against the caste system in India. I feel that we should have daring and proud leaders like Ambedkar and Ayyankali and the dalits should organize on a clear political ground against the caste system. Otherwise, dalits in their individual or social level are going to face a lot of other problems in the new era.
Appeal for Support
"Nilupu Samaram is a society's fight, mine is a family's fight". This is Chithralekha's comment on the comparison of "Nilpu Samaram", the Adivasi strike, and her 100 day strike in front of the Kannur Collectorate. Chithralekha's fight is not simply a single dalit woman's fight against the feudal goon culture of the CPM but it also exposes the hypocrisy of the 'secular progressive history' and other such narratives of North Malabar. It is not only the communist party which is responsible for the casteist political environment in North Malabar, but the Congress government, its administrative machinery, the police and other political parties are also equally responsible.
So all progressive people should come together to make her struggle the cause of society at large.
Now, Chithralekha and her family is planning to shift their home from Payyannur to some other place. Chithralekha says "we can live in Payyannur, but they will never permit us to make our livelihood there". So they have decided to buy some land in some other place. A "Chithralekha Action Committee" was formed to raise money and support the building of a new home. Chithralekha requests the whole society to understand the cause and help them in this action. So in the history of Payyannur, it can be written in their golden letters that a dalit woman and her family have been socially alienated for reacting against the caste discrimination of a political party named CPM. And in the history of CPM and their political documentation, it can be recorded thus: "we the CPM have socially ostracized a dalit woman for the last ten years for protesting against caste discrimination. Lal Salam!".
Those who wish to extend monetary support to Chithralekha can credit the money in the following account:
The Federal Bank LTD, Civil Station Road, Kannur
AC No: 14610100086255
IFSC : FDRL0001461.
Chithralekha Rehabilitation Committee
Fr. Dr. Sakkaria Kaloor
Mob : 9446914114
Rupesh Kumar is a member of the faculty of Cinema and Television, SH School of Communication, Sacred Heart College, Thevara, Kochi. He is a documentary film maker, writer and film critic based in Kerala. Please visit his production company's website Buddha Never Sleeps for more details.
Please read Chithralekha's translated articles and articles by others on her struggles and protests here.