Kerala government orders Dalit woman, fighting to earn livelihood as auto-rickshaw driver, to vacate land

A 40-year-old Dalit woman from Kannur district in Kerala was recently sent a government notice to vacate five cents of land that was allocated to her by the previous government. She had been given the land and a sum of Rs 5 lakh to relocate at a place 40 km away from her native, Edatt, allegedly after Communist Party of India (Marxist) goons forced her to leave the area.

“I will not leave the land. I will live here and continue my fight,” said Chithralekha, who has been fighting to earn her livelihood as an auto-rickshaw driver in the region for over 13 years now.

Since Chithralekha bought an autorickshaw with a bank loan in 2004, she has had eight cases slapped against herself and her husband, been assaulted by trade union workers and has spent 20 days in jail.

To work at the Edatt auto-rickshaw stand, Chithralekha said she had to first get herself registered with the CPM-backed Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

Kerala government orders Dalit woman, fighting to earn livelihood as auto-rickshaw driver, to vacate land

Chithralekha with her husband (right) and British scriptwriter Fraser Scott. Image courtesy: D Jose

But despite having her registration accepted three months after applying, Chithralekha became a target for the CITU workers as women, particularly Muslim women, favoured travelling in her autorickshaw. Her fellow auto drivers considered this as a threat to their earnings and allegedly tried to dissuade Chithralekha’s passengers in various ways.

Chithralekha, who belongs to the ‘untouchable’ Pulaya community, was allotted five cents of land in 2015 after CITU workers succeeded in forcing her to leave Edatt by flexing their muscles. The United Democratic Front (UDF) government also sanctioned a sum of Rs 5 lakh for her to construct a house at Kattampilly.

But the financial grant that came after a long struggle, including a 122-day dharna outside the Kannur collectorate in 2014 and a 47-day sit-in protest in front of the state secretariat at Thiruvananthapuram in 2015, was cancelled by the CPM-led government. Citing an inquiry that revealed Chithralekha had six cents of land in Edatt, the government argued that she is not eligible for the grant as the scheme allows allotment of land only to landless people.

“I would be happy to go back to Edatt if the party workers were ready to allow me to live in peace there. But I don’t find any change in their attitude towards me or my family. They will kill me if I go back,” said Chithralekha, recalling how CITU works used muscle power to chase her away.

Burnt, beaten and chased

The windscreen of her auto was smashed and its hood ripped off in 2005; as the woman fought back, her auto was burnt. The harassment continued after she returned to the Edatt stand in 2008 with an autorickshaw bought with help from human rights activists.

Chithralekha alleged that she, her husband and her 10-year-old daughter were beaten up by CITU-backed goons. CITU workers vandalised her house on several occasions and eight “false cases” were slapped against her and her husband, she said. Chithralekha and her husband were also remanded in jail for 20 days in 2014 in connection with an attempt-to-murder case.

Chithralekha was heard after shifting her agitation to Thiruvananthapuram. The Ommen Chandy-government decided to rehabilitate her by allotting her five cents of land at the Dalit-dominated Kattampilly.

But to her misfortune, after the UDF’s loss of power in the 2016 Assembly election, the Pinarayi government has asked her to vacate the land.

Chithralekha is not ready for another round of agitation.

“If I start a fasting agitation, the CPM government will not do anything till I breathe my last. If Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan won't let me live in peace, the comrades can feed on mine and my family's corpses," Chithralekha wrote in a Facebook post.

Opposition parties extend support

But the 40-year-old Dalit woman has been promised full support by Opposition Congress leaders.

Chithralekha at a sit-in protest in front of the Kerala secretariat. Image courtesy: D Jose

Chithralekha at a sit-in protest in front of the Kerala secretariat. Image courtesy: D Jose

Senior Congress leader from Kannur, K Sudhakaran, said the government’s claim that she owns six cents of land at Edatt was not technically correct as it (the land) is still under the possession of her grandmother.

“Chithralekha will get possession of the land only after the death of her grandmother. Till then, she is landless. If the government tries to take back her land on this ground, we will take over the fight and protect the Dalit woman,” he added.

State Congress chief MM Hassan, who is presently leading a Janamochana Yatra through north Kerala, said their party will launch a second land struggle if the government goes ahead with its plan to take back the land allotted to Chithralekha.

The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second-largest constituent of the UDF, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also voiced support for Chithralekha.

IUML MLA KM Shaji has launched a fund mobilisation campaign to help Chithralekha complete the construction of her house at Kattampilly.

Movie offer and fresh troubles

Chithralekha, however, remains sceptical about being able to live in peace. She said that the party’s workers at Kattampally have unleashed a fresh round of campaigning against her, after British scriptwriter Fraser Scott offered to shoot a film based on her struggles.

She believes that the government may have initiated measures to take back the land only after news about the film spread. She said she would cooperate in making the movie because it is a platform for her to let the world know about “the atrocities that a powerful party like the CPM committed on a hapless woman.”

Several human rights activists feel that the bold stance that Chithralekha has taken is the reason for her troubles.

“The CPM does not like anybody to question their diktat, especially in Kannur district, which is the cradle of the communist movement in Kerala,” says Usha Nambeesan, a member of the Feminist Kerala Network.

She added that a solidarity mission commissioned by the NGO to probe the persecution of Chithralekha, had found that the travails of Chithralekha were the result of a fascist atmosphere created by the CPM.

“In Kannur, there are entire villages that are controlled by various political parties, of which the CPM is the most dominant one. Once a party takes over a village, it enforces an extra judicial power over all the people who live in that village,” the commission’s probe report said.

Chithralekha’s case is not an isolated one. Other female Dalit auto drivers in north Malabar, consisting of Kannur and Kasargod districts, have faced similar intimidation, caste-related abuses, accusations of promiscuity and immorality.

Chithralekha says she continues to be hounded as she is not willing to submit to CPM’s authority.

The author is a member of The NewsCart, a Bengaluru-based media startup.

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Updated Date: Apr 13, 2018 15:53:37 IST

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