Background: Gomathi, founding leader of Pombillai Orumai and ward member of Devikulam Block, speaks at Chalo Thiruvananthapuram inauguration at Chengara Agitation on 29th January 2017. Pombillai Orumai is a Union of Dalit Women laborers of Kannan Devan Hills Plantation formed in the later months of 2015 during the historic agitation for the right to bonuses, fair wages and against exploitative working conditions. This collective marked its uniqueness in the history of labour agitations as it challenged the patriarchy and hegemony of the established trade unions (which they felt were not representing their position at the negotiating table). After a long silence of subjugation (and also internal splits within pombillai orumai collective) Gomathi opens up on how the established Political Parties, their Unions, Media and Government had all worked together in suppressing and dividing the Pombillai Orumai. She asserts that all should stand firm and united for Chalo Thiruvanathapuram struggle expressing her full support and participation for the struggle representing plantation sector workers.
My greetings to all of you and to the leaders on the dias. I thank Dr. Jayaseelan and Santosh for inviting me here. I have never had such an opportunity earlier. The previous speaker mentioned how I was during the Pombillai Orumai struggle, he spoke about how the people have been living like slaves and how my situation is even worse. I am yet to understand the reasons for sidelining me like this. Is it because I am a marginalized woman or is it because I am Tamil? Only those who have experienced it can understand the pain of someone like me who fought for the benefit of the poor. I have opposed the management and the government but no one knows the present condition of me. This Gomathi is the perfect example of what happens to a woman who comes forward for resistance.
No political party has nominated me as an electoral candidate. People chose me as their representative and many joined Pombillai Orumai believing in me. Those who who joined Pombillai Orumai and who elected me, are the tea plantation workers in Munnar who are affected and deprived persons, wage and bonus seekers. Our issues are unresolved and our struggle was forced to end by providing us a salary of 301 rupees. The UDF government which promised us a good package gave nothing. Everyone should know that the reason our struggle ended was because we lacked unity. One group was lured with money, another by position. As we lost strength, everyone decided to break us. After we were dissolved, Pombillai Orumai was restarted without me for which I do not know the reason. Only Gomathi has the strength to oppose the government and company in Munnar – no one else has the courage for that.
In the course of this struggle, my life was destroyed, I left my birthplace and now I am standing alone here. So a woman like me from an oppressed caste undertaking the struggle for demanding the rights and entitlements of deprived workers and poor, lacks support. There were groups who came forward offering money, but I had not taken anything and also not allowed other members in our group to take. I was ostracized as I accepted no money and did not let others too. I am unable to do anything for anyone now. I did not join the struggle to buy myself a house or car or to enrich my children. I am 38 years old, now I will leave this earth only after doing all I can for the deprived people – however, no one supports me. Yes, groups of people came urging to join their Organization and also offered money but not to secure the entitlements of the affected workers under my leadership.
With tears I am saying that I am in deep trouble and also unable to do anything for those who trusted me in Pombillai Orumai because we have no support. If we had support, we would have grown bigger but we were split with money and position and the luring of people to their side – I got the opportunity to discuss these things openly only today. I do not know my strength fully but believe that God has entrusted me with the task of fighting for the marginalized people. The government will accept your demands for land and housing only if you fight jointly. Do not sacrifice your unity before the government or politicians, if the poor are united, we will succeed. An inspector general of police whose name I don’t want to disclose chided me by asking “Why Gomathi you are coming on the road, begging for house and land, aren’t you ashamed? This land is where you are born and it belongs to you.” This is our native land, the land where we are born and where our ancestors have lived – let us struggle to ensure this land stays with us and it grows like a tree and gives us fruits, so come forward.
I lack academic education and hail from an oppressed caste – may be that’s why I was sidelined. I joined CPI(M) with the hope of doing good for the poor through them, but till now nothing happened for me and for them. If I had desire for money, today I would have had a car, bungalow and all the luxuries because money was offered to me. But my present condition is worse than a beggar’s as I refused money. I left my place of birth, I left my home and came to Munnar and started living there alone with my children. My family is gone, my children missed their education, I lost my job, I lost everything and I am here standing alone because I have no support. People are asking what happened, but how can I say to them that I lost everything for undertaking the struggle for them. My problems are not a big concern for me now. I will be in the forefront of any struggles of the dispossessed and the oppressed until not just these few people but everyone in Munnar who do not have land get land.
No one invited me to speak until now – I was waiting for that while I was in CPI(M) but today I spoke what is in my mind, there are still lots to talk but I thank Dr. Jayaseelan, brother Santosh and all of you listening patiently despite not knowing Tamil. Please don’t let your unity break for this struggle and don’t remain a slave to anyone. The government will initiate discussions based on our strength. The media will not report our issues if our number is small. News channels like Asianet, Reporter channel, Mathrubhumi, Media used to trail us everywhere even to the crime branch, vigilance department and what we are doing. They used to follow each of my movements, whether I joined ADMK. Today where have you media persons gone – do you know what situation I am in now? It was the media who backed us and it is the media who betrayed us. Why did the media not report which party I joined? And I also didn’t say. Ask media persons how we supported them during the Munnar struggle. It was the Munnar struggle which said that there is a good heart inside the police uniform. That police also is not supporting us now. They have registered false case of rape against my supportive younger brother and me who came forward for a struggle– no one came to bail us out and we didn’t get bail. When we questioned police personnel about the false cases they said that government authorities strengthened cases against us. So if a woman comes forward for resistance, she will be abused and have to face these consequences and those who support her also will face the same.
With folding hands I am requesting you please ensure your group doesn’t wither away. Please demand your rights collectively to the Government by further enlarging your group. We have survived without electricity, water and no safe spaces for our girls, including bathing facilities as we lack education, we have only the intelligence God has given and with which we speak courageously. I am not the only Gomathi – there will be a thousand Gomathis here. I am speaking so courageously here because of your support. I entered the Munnar struggle not trusting the government or police or the company but by trusting the people. I lack the time to say more – other leaders must speak too. Please retain this group and demand your rights together – do not beg for them as an IGP told me. This is our land and we, our families and descendants must live here – do not let outsiders occupy it. I thank you all sincerely for listening to me.
Videographer: Shan Kollam, Student at MBL Media School, Calicut
Transcriber: Pushpa Achanta, Journalist, writer and trainer on human rights and social justice
Via Nidhin Sowjanya