The questions raised by the political struggles of Chithralekha, the dalit auto rickshaw driver in Payyannur in Kerala, against the Left male violence on her family, gender and dalit identity is a hard punch against caste discrimination and patriarchy. Payyanur is part of the so-called ‘innocent North Malabar’, also known as ‘North Malabar’s progressive society’ with ‘left revolutionary history’ along with many other proclaimed progressive identities. Chithralekha is a symbol of protest against the hypocritical ‘democratic’ spaces of the left/right male politics in Kerala which is clearly underlined by the brahmanical caste patriarchy.
Chithralekha and her family were attacked by CPM goons at her work space, as well as at her home. She is at present on a dharna in front of the Kannur Collectorate office for the last seventy days. Chithralekha’s protest against the CPM goons’ attack on her life is not only a dalit women’s political reaction against the mainstream or the proclaimed secular space, but also against the caste history of Payyannur in Kannur and the whole North Malabar. It is a powerful symbol of democratic protest against caste and patriarchy in India.
In this regard, I interviewed Anandan Paithalen, Dalit activist, academician and editor from Kannur. He reads the protests of Chithralekha from a Ambedkarite perspective and analyzes the caste history of Payyannur/Kannur/North Malabar. Anandan, the son of dalit environmentalist Kallen Pokkudan and the editor of the books “Choottachchi” and “Karupp Pachcha Chuvapp” sees Chithralekha’s strike as an organic reaction against the Indian caste system. He affirms that the documentation of such struggles as Chithralekha’s, and theorization on their experience, is urgently needed to support the protesting individuals to bring about social change.
Rupesh Kumar: Chithralekha’s protests against casteist male violence is often criticized from the main-stream space as ‘she is not a good woman’, ‘she is not morally sound’, ‘ she drinks’, etc. Do you read these allegations as an age old tool to suppress such dalit women’s protests?
Anandan Paithalen: It is an old and derogatory tool of the mainstream male savarna space to question one’s sexuality and morality and to underline that dalit women don’t have the right to political reactions. They say, only those who are ‘morally sound” can have the right to protest. This is an idiotic ideology. The Left and Right spaces of Payyannur/Kannur/Malabar have always been using such psychological tools to alienate political protests by individuals. They tried to quell them with their tools of “sexuality” and social alienation. But Chithralekha has survived such attempts. And in the newly emerging, vibrant and diversified political spaces of Malabar, the thinkers/political activists have understood such old tools and dismiss them. In Chithralekha’s case, such false allegations are typical verbal abuses to enforce caste and patraiarchy. Chithralekha is a family woman. She has great support from her husband and mother, her two children and all other family members for this strike. Women in general and those whose character is questioned by society, in particular, do not get great support from their families in Malabar, Kerala or anywhere in India. But here, her husband Sreeshkant is always present at the strike in front of the Kannur collector’s office. He is participating fully, working on legal points, talking with media etc.
Why Chithralekha is repeatedly attacked is simply because of the following reasons. Chithralekha questions the hypocritical Victorian morality of the left/right/savarna spaces of Malabar. This disturbs caste patriarchy. She is a daring dalit woman. She is not Jhansi Rani, but she is Chithralekha. She is a dalit woman who enters into the male space with her autorikshaw. It can be co-related with Ayyankali’s daring when he undertook his historical “Villuvandiyathra”. She grabs space in the autorikshaw stands and the fanatic male goons can’t stand a dalit woman entering such a ‘male space’.
She is in an inter-caste marriage. The left/DYFI organizations who recently opened secular marriage sites can’t address such inter-caste marriages. What is the reason? She is a dalit woman leading a family life with her husband Sreeshkaanth, who is from the OBC Ezhava caste. And Sreeshkaanth is from a party family. The savarna left/right/hindutva spaces treat the Pulaya community in Malabar as their orderlies in political activities. But Chithralekha broke such ‘obedience’ rules and started becoming vocal about her identity in the mainstream spaces, and this scares not only the mainstream party politics, but also savarna feminists, savarna secular spaces, and other hypocritical ‘progressive spaces’.
Rupesh Kumar: What do you think are the historical reasons for Payyannur/Kannur/Malabar being a casteist space that tortures Chithralekha’s dalit woman’s identity? What are the reason for this geography to be a severe castiest space? How do you analyze this?
Anandan Paithalen: In the history of Payyannur – Nehru came here, Gandhi came here, but they never talked about or addressed the dalits here. They never addressed the Pulayas here who were the backbone of the agricultural society. Even if the Pulayas themselves reciprocated with their organic politics, Payyannur’s mainstream politics could not address or even recoginize it. The nationalist movement and Dandi Yatra by Gandhi were clearly brahmanical movements with underlying caste hierarchy and the dalits seldom benefited from such movements. The nationalist movement led by the upper class savarnas hijacked the alternative pre-independence historical agricultural movements led by the Pulayas.
In the mainstream of Payyannur, history is read and treated and discussed in two phases. One, the savarna nationalist freedom movement led by the Congress which influenced Payyanur, and the other, the left ‘revolutionary movement’ led by the communist party, especially in Kayyoor, Karivellur and other areas. The left still nurses nostalgia for Kayyoor martyrs and they ‘solemnized’ entire Payyannur with this narrative. Thirdly, the most dangerous interventions were made by Swami Ananda Theertha. The pre-independence agricultural dalit struggles and voices were hijacked by the interventions of Swami Ananda Theertha. He worked with the Pulaya community with his Gandian ideology. He worked as a part of Gandhi’s Harijan Seva Sangh which was clearly a political organization meant to block the ideologies of Dr. Ambedkar. Gandhi was always scared of the political unity of dalits under Ambedkar and to break up this politics, he formed the Harijan Seva Sangh. Swami Ananda Theertha had bitten this, and not with a clear dalit political aim, when he worked with the dalits and clearly ruined a generation of this community. And all this killed the rise of a new diversified dalit politics in the region of Payyannur.
Rupesh Kumar: The people who attacked Chithralekha are from CPM. And many activists and thinkers even reacted against their ‘fatherly’ casteist attitudes in Malabar. People like us with our documentary activism tried to criticize/attack such CPM patriarchies. But still Chithralekha is on strike. What do you think?
Anandan Paithalen: It is a great danger to reduce the space of Payyannur to CPM or to communism. The CPM males who attacked Chithralekha: from where did they imbibe such male casteist patriarchy? That is an important question. They imbibed the brahmanic caste ideology of hypocritical secular Kerala. Congress has done more danger here. In 1970s, the Congress ministry under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi changed the ST status of Pulayas to SC to prevent conversion. If ST people convert, they will get the same status, but if they fall in SC and convert, they will lose their SC status and lose their rights. It was a cunning political move to prevent conversion. And when M.T. Ramesh, Surendran, Mukundan and other BJP political leaders exhibit their verbal diarrhea that “Ghar Wapsi” is return to Hinduism, they should look back at history and see the “Chirakkal Pulaya Mission”. In 1930s, when the people in different colony settlements died of Cholera, there was only one man to support them. That was Fr. Peter Caroni who was the leader of the Chirakkal Pulaya Mission. There was no Gandhi, there was no Nehru, there was no Congress, and there were no BJP/Hindu forces. Organically Pulayas converted to Christianity under Fr. Caroni. So we shouldn’t minimize this caste issue as simply against CPM or communism. All the political formations are against dalits. And Chithralekha becomes significant in such a space, for, she breaks such a casteist history. She talks about her caste, she talks about the violence against her as caste violence. All the mainstream political identities tried to hide this ‘caste factor’.
Rupesh Kumar: What is the significance of such a dalit woman’s protest as a different political narrative? How can we locate this within Ambedkar’s politics?
Anandan Paithalen: Chithralekha’s protest is Ambedkarite politics. It is a protest against the caste system. It is a protest for dalit women’s freedom. Now, she can’t even live in her place. The casteist powers and the government are against her. Cases are filed against her. She is being denied her constitutional rights. She is on this strike to protect constitution rights and the constitution itself. So Chithralekha’s protest cannot be ignored as an individualistic reaction. Theories will evolve from such politically diversified strikes. The savarna left/right spaces which blocked the Ambedkarite politics in North Malabar will become an old story. The politics of Ambedkar against caste system will evolve from different sides.
On the other hand, dalit environmentalists like Kallen Pokkudan are working in their political movement with the politics of Ambedkar. The spirituality of Kallen Pokkudan is different from Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer’s spirituality. Kallen Pokkudan’s spirituality is agricultural working class spirituality. It is not a spirituality of sitting under a tree. It is a spirituality of working class who spend their lives in marshy lands under the sun and floods. The environmental politics of Kallen Pokkudan discussed caste in it, the power of caste in environmental politics. It is different from the politics of John C Jacob’s environmental politics. It addressed the discrimination in the caste system, it addressed the importance of Ambedkarism. Today, academicians like me and others are discussing Ambedkarism. We are now debating on caste discrimination in Indian academia. We are here to discuss the revamping of Indian academia and to dismantle its caste structures. We question the education model in India which does not address the lived realities of adivasis/dalits in India. People like you (Rupesh Kumar) from North Malabar in the media are making documentary films addressing caste issues and discussing Ambedkar’s politics. So I am hopeful about the new generation in Malabar and there are a lot of different positive vibrations being generated in this space.
Rupesh Kumar: But when you talk of academia, one of the main colleges in Malabar, Payyannur College, is situated just opposite Chithralekha’s home. But till this date, there was not even a single voice against such violence on Chithralekha. How do you read this?
Anandan Paithalen: Who owns Payyannur College? They are the next generations of feudal lords in Payyannur. The management is from the casteist Poduval or Nambiar or other savarna groups. This college was never able to produce any dalit political discussions against caste discrimination. You, me and many other dalit students who studied in this college had gone through a lot of caste discrimination experiences. I studied in this college in the 80s and 90s. Even in College elections, the students from dalit communities were able to contest in an elections only after the 1990s. This institution is still in the grip of the casteist/left/right/hindutva mindset. Who are the teachers there? What are their identities? I was able to contest in a student election as an SFI worker because they couldn’t find anybody from any upper caste community. The arts, literature, staff room and teaching structure and discussions of this college are highly patriarchal, and they will never be able to address caste issues. If they do address them, the first culprit would be this college itself. So in future, the politically conscious generations may not even be studying in this college. This college could at the most produce some savarna seculars or feminists. But they will never see a Chithralekha, a dalit woman who is a neighbor to this institution.
Rupesh Kumar: Earlier, you talked about the politics of Pulaya spirituality. But nowadays we see a lot of retired dalit officials in Payyannur, Kannur and North Malabar are into building of temples and living in collaboration with hindutva ideology. What’s your point on such a generation?
Anandan Paithalen: They are a group from a generation who failed to address these political issues in their younger days. Sometimes they failed to even address the problems with their brotherhood in a political manner. They couldn’t address Ambedkar, the dalit spirituality, environmental politics or anything. They never tried to update themselves. After their retirement, they became isolated. And they don’t know what to do. They are in search of a social life, but not a political life. Automatically, they ended up in building temples for their family and became hinduised. But the politics of Chithralekha as a dalit woman will overcome all these backlashes and create a new poltical text in North Malabar.
Rupesh Kumar is a member of the faculty of Cinema and Television, SH School of Communication, Sacred Heart College, Thevara, Kochi. He is a documentary film maker, writer and film critic based in Kerala. Please visit his production company’s website Buddha Never Sleeps for more details.