A Dalit Woman's Fight Against Bias
By BRP Bhaskar
20 February, 2010
Payyanur in Kannur district boasts of a rich and glorious heritage. The town's website says, "Payyanur is one of the ancient civilised places in Kerala." It has a place of pride in the history of the freedom struggle and the Communist movement. Lately, however, it is making news for the wrong reasons.
Last month, Paul Zacharia, noted writer and social critic, was roughed up by activists of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) affiliated Democratic Youth Federation of India, as he was leaving the town after making a speech which met with their disapproval.
Also last month, Chithralekha, a young Dalit woman making a living as an auto driver, came under renewed attack from a trade union which has been harassing her ever since she ventured into the male-dominated profession.
She was trained as an auto driver under the officially sponsored people's planning programme in 2004. She then obtained a loan under the Prime Minister's Rozgar Yojana (employment scheme) and bought an auto-rickshaw. The pro-CPI-M auto drivers union was not ready to admit her into the fold.
As Chithralekha persevered, the union had to give in. However, male colleagues at the auto stand made things difficult for her. They abused her with caste appellations and cast aspersions on her character. But she refused to be cowed down.
One of her colleagues then broke the windscreen of her auto-rickshaw and tore its hood. When she remonstrated, she was beaten up. Since the union did not act on her complaint against the man who damaged her vehicle she lodged a complaint with the police.
This infuriated the union leaders, who filed a counter complaint accusing her of drinking and using drugs and insinuating that she was a sex worker. The man who had damaged her vehicle later attempted to run over her with his auto-rickshaw. She filed yet another complaint against him, and the police arrested him.
The union then launched a vicious poster campaign against her in the town. A few days later, her auto was set on fire. But the union could not destroy her never-say-die spirit. Forced to leave Payyanur, she and her husband, Shreeshkanth, who is also a trained auto driver, worked as wage labourers.
Carmel Christy and Jenny Rowena, two researchers who studied l'affaire Chithralekha at that stage concluded that it was not merely a case of conflict between a woman and a trade union. The union, they pointed out, was dominated by the backward Thiyya community and its hostility towards Chithralekha was based on untouchability and gender.
They viewed the union's campaign against Chithralekha as part of an attempt to maintain caste hegemony. The union, which did not approve of the marriage between Chithralekha, Dalit, and Shreeshkanth, a Thiyya, had become an instrument for maintaining caste and gender boundaries in the Malabar region, they said.
In June 2008 a Kannur-based action committee presented Chithralekha with a new auto-rickshaw bought with public contributions. Following this, she resumed life as an auto driver in Payyanur and the union resumed harassment.
On January 20, she lodged a complaint with the police alleging she was assaulted at the auto stand. Union activists lodged a counter complaint alleging she was drunk. The police wanted to take her for an alcohol test but she refused. She said later that the police had assaulted her too.
A fact-finding team consisting of Professor Gail Omvedt of the Indira Gandhi National Open University, Professor Nivedita Menon of Delhi University and two local activists, V Geetha and KK Preetha, visited Payyanur and gathered evidence from her, the auto union, the police and some other witnesses. It found inconsistencies in the versions of the union and the police.
The team, in its preliminary report, said, "The January 20 incident is not an isolated one. Other Dalit women auto drivers in this region have faced intense intimidation, sexual harassment, caste-related abuse, accusations of promiscuity and immorality and damage to their autos."
It noted that the union's statement regarding Chithralekha's behaviour used metaphors that insultingly linked her caste status, gender and sexual immorality. It also sought to cast doubts on her marital status.
It observed that the union leaders' unease with Chithralekha and characterisation of her as a woman 'living outside the track' revealed their inability to tolerate this Dalit woman's assertiveness, stubborn courage and confidence despite her caste and gender.