Carmel Christy K J
The road gets narrower as you go to Chithralekha’s grandmother’s house where she used to live at the rear end of the village in Edat, Kannur in Kerala. The road ends at her house and there is no way to go further. Dalit houses at the end of the village is not an exception in India.1 Villages are designed in such a way that the upper-castes do not need to cross Dalit houses as they pass. It was not just about the possibility of them seeing or touching Dalits. It was also about a well-designed ecological and geographical exclusion. Houses are arranged in such a manner that wind blows from where upper-caste houses are situated to the Dalit houses. The idea was that upper-castes should not get polluted by the wind that has breezed over lower castes. The caste order decided not just access to the material and cultural resources, but also to the flows of nature.
It is in such a place where caste decides even the nature you can access that Chithralekha, a Dalit woman, decides to drive her autorickshaw on public roads in 2004. Her entry to the public roads which is in principle shared by all invites the wrath of the people from castes above hers and other guardians of the caste order. Ayyankali’s fight against the casteist order more than a century ago did result in accessing public roads for Dalits in Kerala.2 If the public roads have become accessible to all and the right to work is ensured, how will one explain attacks against Chithralekha?
Chithralekha’s attempt to drive her autorickshaw was thwarted by her male colleagues who were the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU, affiliated to Communist Party of India, Marxist) members. They unleashed violence and campaigns against her alleging that Chithralekha did not obey their directions. These members also belonged to a caste group which is numerically stronger in her village and also, they are considered as above Dalits in the casteist structure. Chithralekha’s independent spirit to do her work was not welcomed, instead it was considered as a Dalit woman’s defiance in not toeing the casteist and patriarchal order. And she needed to be tamed and shown her place.
The Left Politics and Casteist Patriarchy
The Communist Party flourished in Kerala since the mid-20th century especially among the working class for its promise of equality for the downtrodden. However, the electoral Left became successful by appeasing to the numerically dominant caste groups in specific regions and also by giving these groups the power to maintain traditional hierarchies based on caste and gender. Violence against Chithralekha was another incident where the Left in Kerala acted as guardians of casteist patriarchy. The Leftist union members not just attacked her physically and burnt down her autorickshaw on December 31, 2005, but also spread rumours about her ‘character’ using casteist expletives. Her second marriage to Shreeshkanth who is a Thiyya, a caste grouped as Other Backward Classes, irked the casteist moral police which is the the Left trade union members in this case. Harassment after she driving an autorickshaw was an extension of the punitive measures they meted out to her for transgressing caste boundaries by choosing a partner from the caste above hers. Moral policing sustains endogamous marriages which perpetuate caste system as Ambedkar, the most important Dalit thinker of the 20th century,pointed out. In Chithralekha’s case, the Left party acted as the cultural sanctioning authority despite constitutional provisions to choose your partner freely.
Chithralekha’s free will beyond the casteist order was seen as a threat and union members used everything in their capacity to repress her and her family. Not just Chithralekha and her husband Shreeshkant, but her daughter was also beaten up on December 23, 2012. Attacks were pointed at destroying her existence physically and rumour mills were used to discredit her morality. A Dalit woman accused of being a ‘prostitute’ is rooted in the historical devaluation of Dalit womanhood in which they were sexually colonised by the upper-caste landlords. The question of choice did not exist, but coercion persisted. And it has been used to devalue Dalit women which is promptly evoked in Chithralekha’s case as well. The Left in its electoral algorithms, liaised with dominant caste groups in each region and these groups had unbridled authority to regulate other powerless groups in the region.
The intolerance of casteist patriarchy is evident in the manner in which the CITU colleagues, who belong to the numerically dominant caste in the village, unleashed violence and continued harassment against her. There are some characteristics of a mob these leftist trade unionists exhibited in Chithralekha’s case. She was accused of breaking the queue to ride women passengers who would call her on to her phone for a ride. Her being the lone woman autorickshaw driver in the stand made her popular among women passengers. Her excellence at work was another threat for her male fellow autorickshaw drivers. Competition for work coupled with their unmet casteist expectations of Chithralekha intensified the violence against her. The current CPI(M) government in the state continued its persecution of Chithralekha by cancelling a plot of land allotted to her by the previous government. In these spaces, CPI(M) has let casteist popular practices to prevail at the cost of repression of Dalits and women. It is revealed time and again in several cases including in the recent shouting down of the Jamia student protest icon Ayesha Renna in Calicut in December 2019. In this political moment where the Hindu nationalists are attacking the minorities and Dalitbahujans with full force, it is not surprising to see that the electoral Left also does not have anything to offer when one looks at Chithralekha and many similar cases!
Dyad of Casteist Practices and the Discourse of Generosity
Despite the general talk of generosity of the people of Northern Kerala, everyday life in a village like Edat is governed by several normalised practices around caste. Chithralekha recounts several experiences since her childhood. These mutated forms of untouchability range from demoralising to denial of water from the well. Chithralekha’s family used to face difficulty in taking water from the neighbour’s well. One of the neighbouring families, who also belong to the same caste as that of the male autorickshaw drivers, mentioned that we ourselves fetch water and give it to them. Another progressive family in the area said the same thing about not letting Dalit families take water from their well directly. I was reminded of how many Indian urban families keep separate utensils for domestic workers who are mostly Dalitbahujans and reason it as an act of generosity that they are given their own utensils and their own place in the house! Behind the veil of this generosity is the desperate attempt to not get their water ‘polluted’ by the touch of the former ‘untouchables’!
This veiling of casteist practices under the garb of generosity makes it even more difficult to articulate in North Malabar. It also refutes the casteist experience of Dalits in the region as the larger society does not let them articulate how they experience caste in everyday transactions. This region being a CPI(M) stronghold adds to this muting of casteist practices. The Left approach of collapsing caste with class and the rhetoric of equality without actually addressing what is happening, aids crippling the development of a language to discuss caste. Kallen Pokkudan was one of the most prominent Dalit activists to point out the repression of caste question within the CPI(M) in Kannur. He had to face wrath of the party for his articulation of casteism within the Left party. He was concerned about attacks against Chithralekha as he knew how difficult it was to resist the cadre force of the Left in Kannur.
An icon of resistance
It was only way forward, never a step back for Chithralekha. It was never about shying away and succumbing to any injustice because of her gender and caste. Her innate sense of justice and political rights gave her the strength to fight for her dignity at any cost. In these last two decades of struggle, she also raised her two children to a young man and a woman. She worked whenever she can. She loved as much as she can. And she resisted all attempts to subject her to casteist patriarchy with all her strength!
Chithralekha stood up for herself when people targeted her because of her caste and gender. It did not deter her that the casteism she experiences is from one of the most organised Left cadre groups in Kerala. She wanted to stay in her place and fight it out. Unfortunately, repression of Dalitbahujan women at work and targeting them for choosing a partner from another caste is a common occurrence across the country. Many fight back, like Bhanwari Devi who was gang-raped in 1992 by upper-caste men for her work fought the court case for decades. Her fight paved way for the formulation of Vishaka guidelines against sexual harassment at work for women. Many Dalitbahujan women fight silently for years. Chithralekha fought for many years before the world got to know about her resistance. Growing up in Edat where casteism prevails like anywhere else in the country, she must have gathered her thoughts and actions that defined her life of resistance later. She is a powerful symbol of a Dalit woman’s resistance and protest against a casteist and patriarchal society. Her life is the story of her resistance against an outdated system of castes which still regulates life in India. Her story needs to be repeatedly told to mark her life as a Dalit woman fighter against casteist patriarchy and as a tireless crusader for human dignity.
Kallen Pokkudan created a new ecological language of resistance by growing mangroves in the wetland which was mostly earmarked for Dalits and most backward classes. Not far from his house, Chithralekha keeps her resistance alive for a day when she can peacefully enjoy a ‘touchable’ breeze after her day’s work!
P.S.: This was originally written as a foreword to the soon to be released biography of Chithralekha ‘KL13L 8527’ published by Gooseberry Studios.
1. Dalit is used as an umbrella term to denote former untouchable castes. The term ‘Dalit’ has evolved as a socio-political category under which former untouchable castes organised themselves against the ensuing discrimination prevalent in the Indian society. Experience of untouchability and related oppression has been a significant rallying point for former untouchable castes to mobilise themselves.
2. Ayyankali was a social reformer who relentlessly worked for access to public roads and education for Dalits in Kerala in the early 20th century.
Carmel Christy is an assistant professor of Journalism at Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi.