Meet Chitralekha, the Dalit auto-rickshaw driver battling CPM-led caste oppression in Kerala
Chitralekha, born into a Dalit family, raised eyebrows when she married Srishkant, a higher caste Thiyya man, and decided to earn her living by driving an auto-rickshaw in Payyannur town of Kannur district
The CPM-led Left government in Kerala, which came into power in 2016, will particularly be noted for two things: First is the constant criticism over political violence between the CPM and RSS, and the subsequent political deliberation by the BJP's central leadership. And secondly, repeated instances of caste-based discrimination in the state.
Instances of the caste-based violence and discrimination have surfaced from many different parts of the state. An inter-caste marriage, the subsequent unrest in Palakkad district's Ambedkar Colony, and the custodial torture of a Dalit teen leading to his suicide in Thrissur district are some of the recent examples.
These stories hit the news media consumed by the middle class before suffering a slow death and leaving the caste reality behind. Meanwhile, government and political parties move ahead with their development agendas.
There, however, is one woman, Chitralekha, who has dared the CPM and fought relentlessly for 14 years to assert her dignity and seek justice. Chitralekha's story bares the casteist and sexist face of the so-called progressive party and state. She has made headlines in the national media for her indomitable struggle against the CPM. Even when the media and authorities turned her down after the initial curiosity fizzled, she continued her struggle unrelentingly. When she staged a 47-day sit-in protest in front of the secretariat in the state capital, the banner read 'Against the casteist attacks of CPM'.
Chitralekha, born into a Dalit family, raised eyebrows when she married Srishkant, a higher caste Thiyya man. In 2004, she decided to earn her living by driving an auto-rickshaw in Payyannur town of Kannur district. Her decision aggravated the intolerance among the male auto drivers, many of whom hail from the upper castes. Chitralekha and her family suffered multiple physical attacks by the male auto-drivers in the region who are part of the CITU, the trade union outfit belonging to the CPM.
She survived a murder attack, her auto was set on fire, and her brother-in-law was slashed while trying to save her husband from an attack. The CPM continued to dismiss her story as a local issue and never condemned the violence against her, and never even moved to keep its local cadre under control.
After these attacks against her continued for over a decade, Chitralekha went on a 122-day protest in 2014 in front of the district collectorate seeking protection. The Congress government of Oommen Chandy had assured her of support and rehabilitation in another town within the district. The Chandy government also promised her land and financial assistance to build a house on it.
But after the CPM regained power in 2016, the party took out a rally against her, and even denied the financial assistance promised to her by the previous government and was put on hold by bureaucrats. The CPM formed a 'Landless Homeless Action Committee' against Chitralekha, claiming the Congress government sanctioned land illegally. They wanted the land allocated to her to be redistributed among other landless Dalits.
According to the Rajamanikyam Report, about 5 lakh acres of land is held illegally by corporates in Kerala's Munnar hills. But the CPM has never taken out a rally like this against them, never demanded this land be confiscated and be redistributed among the state's plantation workers, landless Dalits and tribals.
"They couldn't afford to have me in their space, since I am a Dalit woman," says Chitralekha.
But while the party's failure to address this issue is of concern, it's not surprising. It should be noted that the party doesn't consider it as a petty fight between auto drivers. In 2010, a fact-finding team of academicians and lawyers met Chitralekha to release a report, but the party "unofficially" denied them permission. The team later presented the report in the neighbouring district of Kozhikode.
Though the CPM has projected itself as a champion of the anti-caste struggle in the state and in different university campuses across India, it has ignored narratives of caste discrimination where party members or leaders are involved.
Several Left governments in the state have made repeated attempts to cover their inability to tackle the caste reality. They even launched a state-wide celebration of the centenary anniversary of the 'nammuku jathiyilla' (I have no caste) proclamation made by Sree Narayana Guru. But given the record of being perpetrators in many caste-based violence cases, these futile efforts only protrude the party's double standards.
For many from the party intelligentsia, Chitralekha's issue is a local one, which can be settled if party leaders give a strict warning to their cadre in Kannur. But Chitralekha thinks otherwise. "They might be able to stop the attacks. If the party leaders tell the cadre to put an end to this, it may end. But caste is a different condition altogether. They cannot end the condition which is created due to caste," she rued.
The CPM has denied Chitralekha's allegations and the party isn't involved in the case at all. TV Rajesh, the MLA from Kalyassery, said, "I understand that she had some issues with her neighbours and a few others in the region, but the CPM is not involved in the case. I think there are people conspiring against the party and trying to tarnish its name. But CPM is a party which stands for the rights of all humans, and we stand with everyone including Chitralekha."
Rajesh also said he is unaware of the party withdrawing any financial assistance made to Chitralekha by the previous government.
The CPM and its allies are spearheading the fight against BJP's fascist politics in the country, and the Pinarayi Vijayan government makes national headlines for its daring moves against the BJP. But for Chitralekha, the CPM is fascist in its own right. "Without understanding that caste violence is the highest form of fascism in the Indian context, what anti-fascist unity are they going to build?" she asked.
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