“Why are you so scared of this protest by us three women?“
The unpleasant incidents of yesterday (Thursday), that happened around midnight in the temporary protest tent of Pomplai Orumai near the Gandhi square in the Munnar market road, reveal certain things. It includes the plan of certain political parties to completely destroy Pomplai Orumai and hijack their movement. Pomplai Orumai was not a movement that died out or became inactive after their protest in 2015. Even though it was subjected to several kinds of hijacking attempts, the existence of the worker’s issues compel it to persist actively. The protest was born out of a need to increase their wages and bonus, and bring about a change in their living conditions.
But, Pomplai Orumai has once again become the topic of discussion in Kerala since last Sunday. The incidents of yesterday night are what that followed afterwards. What is happening in Munnar? This is what Gomathi, Kousalya and Rajeshwari have said:
The CPIM Who Wants to Kill the Movement
CPIM is the one who mocks us by saying -what sort of a protest is this, with only three women in it. The same CPIM is the one who fears us the most. That was what we saw yesterday night.
Things happened after 8.00 in the night yesterday. Kairali was shooting the Aam Aadmi party leader C.R. Neelakandan’s debate. That was when we tried to shift the banner that was placed at the back of the tent, to its left, in order to block the cool wind coming in. But they shot it and immediately created the news like we changed the motto of our protest, that the protest has been failed and all.
These are things we did not even imagine. We lie in the cold. We hoped to get some respite from it by tying the banner to the side. Perhaps, that was our mistake. We are ordinary working women. We do not know what kind of people surround us or what they are looking for.
The news of the banner untying and that of us asking the Aam Aadmi people to stop their fasting might have made CPIM happy. They were waiting for the right moment. Suddenly, many people came into the tent. They were neither the local people nor the owners of the tent, as some media have claimed. They are CPIM leaders. Sojan, Balachandran, Abbas, and Mariyappan are those who we know. They say things like- the people of Munnar know how to take care of the problems in Munnar, even if we have ideological differences we can have discuss and finish off the problems of plantation workers. They say all this to Aam Aadmi. What connection does this Sojan and the others have with the plantation workers? They are resort owners and CPIM leaders. They tried to remove the tent and break the chairs to kill the protest. We can understand that.
They challenged us saying that they will teach a lesson to those who are protesting against M M Mani. We are not afraid of their threats. We won’t leave here even if it means to die, until Mani apologizes. They know that, and that is why they want to destroy us. Haven’t they mocked us calling it just a three-woman protest? Then why are they afraid of us now? A resistance is a resistance even if it is put forward by a woman. Wasn’t Irom Sharmila alone in her protest that went on for years? We will protest here even if we are just three. We are Pomplai Orumai. No one need even try to destroy us.
We Haven’t Rejected Anyone’s support, But This Protest is only Pomplai Orumai’s
Many organisations came to us in solidarity after we started our protest. We didn’t say NO to anyone who came in to support. Mani’s words were an insult to all women. That means anybody can come in to support this protest. But along with that, we have made our positions clear. This is Pomplai Orumai’s protest. Even when there were allegations saying that this is not the real Pomplai Orumai, we have answered them well.
Allegations always have a higher reach and our version does not often come out. So, we will say two things. Firstly, most of the work in the plantations is done during the months of April-May. We get our bonus depending on the work we do on these days. You should understand how important that bonus is for us. We have to take loans with interest for everything, from the education of children, the ceremonies celebrating the beginning of our girls’ period, to even buy a cot. Bonus is our only option to pay back this debt and to cover other needs. So, it is difficult for the workers to leave work and protest during these months. Moreover, Tata and all the trade unions have threatened the workers to not go for protest. The threat is to dismiss them from work if they protest or if they take leave. They had dismissed many after the 2015 protest also. We got only suspension just because we are union leaders.
The second thing is, we are the real Pomplai Orumai. Rajeshwari, who is here in the protest, has been the general secretary of organisation since its inception. Our Vice president Kousalya is also in this protest. Stella Mary and Lisy Sunny, who accuse this of not being the real Pomplai Orumai, have not been cooperating with the organisation for months. They are also facing some financial allegations. What one or two of them say is not the truth. Many women workers visit us in the protest tent. They just do not sit with us out of fear. If this protest was happening after two or three months, this wouldn’t have been the case.
This is the context of our struggle. So, we did not send back anyone who came in support. We did not even stop BJP from sitting with us. Why should we hesitate to talk or to sit with the supporters? But they cannot sit here and have their own protest. If they are protesting in support, they can build their own tent and protest. There are protests going on in other districts in support of Pomplai Orumai. We declined the suggestion of the BJP leader Shobha Surendran to move our protest to Trivandrum because this is Pomplai Orumai’s protest and this has to happen here. Nobody has hijacked this movement yet. If somebody has come to appropriate the movement, we have stopped them lovingly.
Aam Aadmi has been supporting us since the first protest. They have helped us in many ways. But that does not mean that Pomplai Orumai is Aam Aadmi. We were happy when they came in support and support is all we expect from them. We gave space for them in the tent only as supporters. But, some misunderstandings began to circulate and they did not try to stop it too. At some point, this protest was projected as an Aam Aadmi protest. We cannot ask anyone to get out of the tent. But it is only good manners to understand the situation and behave accordingly.
We had told them not to protest by fasting. If they felt it necessary, they could build another tent and have it there. But they used our tent despite of our disagreements. That was why we had to demand them to stop fasting. We had only demanded them to stop fasting, not to walk out from the protest. We don’t really need to say no to our supporters. C R Neelakandan had ended his fast yesterday conceding to our demands, but they informed us later that another person will start fasting. We would like to remind them that such moves can weaken our protest.
The Beginning of Pomplai Orumai Struggle
There are mistakes in several news that one gets, including in the media. What is the need for such a protest, that too at this time, is what everyone is asking. They ask whether it is the land issue or Mani’s apology that is the demand of this protest. The real reason for this protest is to make the Electricity Board Minister M M Mani publicly apologise for insulting us. it is also important to discuss the context in which Mani has made obscene remarks against Pomplai Orumai. Mani’s statement was not a coincidence; he has levelled several other accusations and insults against Pomplai Orumai. However, the reason behind his tirade against us on Saturday has a lot to do with the evictions and land acquisitions.
We had put forth the demand to distribute one acre cultivable land to each plantation worker family, which can be done only if the government takes over the land illegally encroached by Tata and other land mafias through proper land legislation. Pomplai Orumai had decided to protest through agitations, demanding a minimum wage of Rs 600, a 20% bonus, reforming Plantation rules, providing better education to the children of plantation workers, providing better health facilities to workers and their families and so on. As a part of this, a meeting was also called for at the Munnar market road. We were not granted permission to use the space or the mike even in spite of approaching the CI’s office several times with our requests. Instead, we were on the receiving end of many insults like ‘Paandi women, just get lost from my sight’ from the Munnar CI Sam Joseph.
Following this denigrating experience, on Saturday, we called for an executive meeting to discuss about our future plans. That was when we heard the minister’s speech in the channel. Mani had insulted not only us, but all women. We set out on the road in protest with the firm decision that such a minister should not escape without apologising. The police assaulted us. They twisted the arm of Rajeshwari, the general secretary of our organisation. Come what may, we decided that we will not back out without making Mani apologise and began our fast on Sunday.
People ask us in different ways regarding the intention of this protest, about whether it is for land or for getting Mani’s apology. Let me clarify some things first. Language has always been a problem between you and us. Although we know a bit of Malayalam, we find it difficult to understand things in the same way as you ask and reply clearly in Malayalam. Language has been the very cause of confusion in some cases. Language has also played a role in misunderstanding and misinterpreting what we say.
The protest that is happening now in Munnar town is to make M M Mani apologise. The struggle for land that we put forth is the reason that Mani insulted us. The board in the tent clearly states that both in Tamil and Malayalam. The cause for this protest is clear if you read that board.
Pomplai Orumai declared their protest on April 22 demanding an acre cultivable land for each plantation worker family. The next day, on April 23, the minister M M Mani tried to malign Pomplai Orumai, to protect the illegal encroachment of over 80,000 acre of land occupied by Tata and other land mafias. We will definitely fight for our demands of land, proper housing, Rs 600 minimum wage and 20 % bonus howsoever you may try to destroy us. M M Mani, who tried to attack Pomplai Orumai with his anti-women, anti-worker and anti-Dalit statements, must resign.
This is what is written in the board in our tent. We believe things are quite clear in this. We say that this protest is for Mani’s apology or resignation that Mani’s statement comes from the land issue that we raised and that it needs to discussed furthermore.
Gomathi’s interview was published in the Malayalam portal Azhimukham and translated here by Amrita and Shahal B, students of University of Hyderabad.
Photo courtesy: Santosh Kumar’s Facebook Photo album.