KOCHI: Faced with criticism from dalit leaders over its confrontational approach to the hartal (shutdown strike) they called to protest the “dilution” of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the police action against protestors during the bharath bandh in north India, Kerala’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) organized a Raj Bhavan march for the same cause on April 10.
Hundreds of party workers from various parts of Thiruvananthapuram district converged at the Palayam Martyrs’ Column in the state capital and joined the march led by party state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. Party workers in other districts joined the protest by taking out marches to the Central government offices.
The protest is seen as a penance for not supporting the hartal called by the Kerala Dalit Action Council, comprising about 30 organisations on April 9. Council leaders were concerned not about the lack of the CPM support but the attempt made by the party-led government to defeat the hartal using the police.
Normally, the police used to be inactive during hartals and the government indirectly support such protests by declaring holiday for educational institutions, cancelling examinations and job interviews and suspending operation of buses by the state-owned corporation despite repeated directions from the court to take action against forced enforcement of hartal.
But in the case of the dalit hartal, the police went over board and took more than 100 dalit activists, including several top leaders of the action council, into preventive custody and detained them in police stations until the hartal was over. The dalit leaders believe that this could not have been possible without the blessings of the political bosses.
“The police chief was given clear direction from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who holds the home portfolio, to take stern action against hartal supporters. This was evident from the arrests and the direction given to the police to provide security to the buses operated by the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC),” says M Geethanandan, convenor of the Dalit Action Council, who was among the leaders detained by the police.
Another prominent dalit activist Dhanya Raman said the untouchability that the upper castes in the party maintains towards dalits could be reason for the CPM to turn their back on the hartal. She said it was evident from the silence the party leadership maintains over atrocities against the dalits by the party cadres in different parts of the state.
“There was no reason for the government to defeat the hartal as it was against the anti-dalit stand of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre. While CPM may have its own political limitations considering it has its own dalit outfits like Pattikajathi Kshema Samithi (PKS) and Adivasi Kshema Sabha (AKS), we never expected the government to use police and other administrative measures to crush the hartal," said Dhanya.
Senior CPM leader Anavoor Nagappan said there was no deliberate attempt from the LDF to defeat the agitation. "I don't claim that all arrests were justified. But police may have to act in certain circumstances. KSRTC may have tried to operate services on its own. There was no direction from the government," he added.
The CPM leader said the dalit organisations had called for hartal unilaterally. The organizers had not approached the party seeking support to the protest, he said that that the party had taken a firm stand against dilution of the atrocities act and it had wholeheartedly supported the Bharath bandh.
Nagappan pointed out that the state assembly had on April 4 unanimously passed a resolution urging the Centre to seek all legal means available to fight the verdict and also to initiate legislation to overcome its negative impact caused by the Supreme Court verdict.
Dalit action council leader Purushan Eloor said that the hartal had become a big success even without the support of the leading parties and mainstream organisations. He claimed that all sections of the people had supported the hartal as the realized that the issue raised by them was genuine.
“The biggest take away of the hartal is the debate it has triggered on dalit issues in the social media and television channels. We will keep up the momentum by organizing the second leg of protest on Ambedkar day on April 14,” he added.
A major boost to the agitators came from an unexpected quarter. It came from Geevarghese Mar Coorilos, a bishop of Jacobite Church, who not only supported the hartal but also flayed the upper caste mentality of Christians. The bishop said he had supported the hartal as it was against the atrocities perpetrated on the dalits under the fascist and feudal system.
The bishop, known for his radical views, lambasted the Christians for maintaining the myth that they had their origin from upper caste Brahmins and announced his decision to no more grace the family conclaves aimed at creating family history tracing their upper caste origins.
The family conclaves called 'Kudumbayoga Varshikam' in Malayalam are mostly held during the summer holidays in May and June. “The exercise is nothing but an attempt to reinforce the upper caste identity and tradition constructed artificially. They claim that their forefathers, supposed to be Namboodiri Brahmins, were converted to Christianity by St. Thomas. The family history is written based on such blunders,” he said.
Several human rights activists also supported the issue raised by the dalit organisations. Well-known writer and social critic Prof. M N Karaserry said he was against hartal in principle but he supported the dalit hartal as the dalits are the most discriminated lot in the country.
“The dalits in Kerala are suffering discrimination despite several social movements as they are divided. There are more than 30 organisations in various dalit communities. The political parties have been ignoring them as the dalits do not have a consolidated vote bank like the forward communities,” he added.
Dalits will not get justice unless they come under one platform. Karaserry is doubtful about this unity as the dalits are divided into different castes and sub-castes.