No end to the travails of Kerala dalit woman auto driver as CPM continues atrocities

South India

Dalit woman autorickshaw driver Chithralekha, who was hounded by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) workers, was preparing for a new life by constructing a house at five cents of land allotted to her by the previous Congress-led United Democratic Front government 40 kms away from her native place in Kannur district in Kerala.

Her plan has gone awry with the CPM-led government deciding to take back the land on the ground that she owns another piece of land at Edatt, which she was forced to leave following frequent attacks by the workers of the CPM and its trade union wing, Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

The decision came after the construction of the house reached mid-way. Chithralekha had to avail a bank loan for the construction as the current government headed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had withdrawn the previous government’s order sanctioning her Rs.5 lakhs to build the house.

Chithralekha, who got the land allotted to her following persistent struggle, including a 122-day dharna in front of Kannur collectorate in 2014 and a 47-day sit-in protest in front of the state secretariat at Thiruvananthapuram in 2015, is not ready to launch a similar protest once again.

“If I start a fasting agitation, the government will not do anything till I breathe my last. Let the government do whatever it wants. I will not leave the land allotted to me. I will continue my fight by living and working here,” Chithralekha said.

Human rights activists feel that this bold and assertive stand she took in her life might have spelt trouble for the 40-year-old dalit woman. She became an eye sour to the CPM after she dared to question their fascist approach. Her trouble started when she came to Payyannur with an autorickshaw in 2004.

The CITU workers, who controlled the auto stand, considered her as a threat as she weaned away their women passengers, especially Muslim women. They first tried to chase her away by shouting casteist slurs and running a smear campaign against her and her mother.

When that did not deter Chithralekha, the male auto drivers affiliated to the CITU burnt her autorickshaw and unleashed a poster campaign describing her and her mother as prostitutes. 

The harassment continued after she returned to the Edatt stand in 2008 with an auto bought with the help of human rights activists.

For years, on many occasions, she and her husband were beaten up, and in 2010 their 10-year-old daughter was attacked. The CITU workers vandalised her house many times, and eight “false cases” were slapped against her and her husband. The two even spent 20 days in jail in 2014 in connection with an attempt to murder case.

Chithralekha was not ready to give up and fought back with all strength. She continued her protests with the help of human right activists, feminists and the media forcing the previous Ommen Chandy government to announce a rehabilitation package.

But to her misfortune, the UDF lost power in the Assembly election in 2016. The LDF that came to power in place of UDF first cancelled the financial grant and initiated the move to take back the land. A notice has been served on Chithralekha to vacate the land saying she has six cents of land in her name at Edatt.

Kannur-based senior Congress leader, K Sudhakaran has termed the move vengeful. He said that the LDF government had no right to cancel the allotment as it was done under the special powers vested with the government. Moreover, the land which is claimed to be in the name of Chithralekha, is still under the possession of her grandmother.

“It was registered in her name for the purpose of availing a loan for buying the autorickshaw. Chithralekha will get the land in her possession only after the death of her grandmother. The Congress will help her to counter the move legally,” he added.

The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest constituent of the UDF, and the BJP have also offered support to her. However, Chithralekha is doubtful whether CPM will allow her to live in peace.

She told the South Indian Post that the party men at Kattampally had started unleashing fresh atrocities against her after British scriptwriter Fraser Scott, who visited her recently, to shoot a film based on her life and struggles. She said she would cooperate with the film because that is a platform for her to let the world know her fight.

“My fight is for my right to live. The Pinarayi Vijayan government is trying to deny this right by cancelling the land allotted to me. If you won't let me live in peace even now, Pinarayi can feed on mine and my family's corpses," Chitralekha said in a post in Facebook.

A solidarity mission commissioned by Feminists Kerala, a loose network of feminists, dalit activists, queer activists and other individuals involved with new social movements in Kerala, to probe an attack on Chithralekha and her husband in January 2010 said the persecution of the family was the result of a fascist atmosphere created by the CPM.

“Chithralekha is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to various issues that are haunting Kannur, the cradle of communist movement in Kerala. 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 probe report said.

The report said that the CPM has been thriving in Kannur through the use of such power over entire villages. Anyone who questions the party or goes against its interests are alienated, harassed, ostracized and sometimes even killed. In the workplace, trade unions, such as the CITU wields the same power and uses it over the village and people, to control and dictate terms to its members.

“Chithralekha is a woman who has struggled against this huge and oppressive edifice of the party. She was a smart, assertive and independent Dalit woman, who challenged the CPM in its bastion. The CITU apparently could not tolerate her stubborn courage and confidence and hence targeted her,” the report added.

The attack on Chithralekha is not an isolated one. Other Dalit women auto drivers in North Malabar, consisting of Kannur and Kasargod districts, had faced similar intimidation, sexual harassment, caste-related abuses, accusations of promiscuity and immorality. Several of the them left the trade following harassment by the CPM men.

Chithralekha is still being hounded as she is not willing to be cowed down.

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