Chitralekha, a dalit woman from Payyanur, Kannur, has been in the news since 2005, for her open challenge to the CITU in that left bastion. An autorickshaw driver, she had protested at the CITU’s constant interference at work and the intensely male hostility against her presence in an almost exclusively male line of work. Braving ‘character-assault’ from the CITU which called her a ‘loose woman’, a ‘regular drunk’ and so on, she continued working until,in December 2005, her autorickshaw was burned down. She fought, however, and was supported by various Dalit, Feminists and Citizen’s initiatives. In June 2008, she procured a new autorickshaw with their support. This did not mean that she was now acceptable to the CITU . Now recently, she complained that the CITU had seized a chance encounter to beat her and her husband, and the police, who arrived on the scene, took them to the police station and unleashed even worse violence. Her complaints have been ignored or treated with hostility by the mainstream media in Kerala. Activists and concerned persons in and outside Kerala, however, have rallied to her support.
I have been deeply perturbed not by the media (such pallid response is just what we should expect, perhaps!)but also by the reactions of many activists and ex-activists — whose have had long experience in fighting for democracy — which echo these responses. I was quite shocked when a respected activist from Chitralekha’s town, told me just the other day that she lacked ‘ethics’ . I don’t want to list the complaints he made — but he made her look like a shady character who couldn’t be trusted on financial matters. And therefore we should not ‘waste’ much time on ‘her’.
I do not know whether all this is true, but even if it is true, I think it does not affect our efforts.
My recent research into self-help groups in Kerala does reveal that there are thousands of women in Kerala who do not repay their loans, have to be pressurised into making prompt repayments, and indeed use whatever little influence they have to get away. Now, this often hurts the group which has women poorer than this borrower. However, in a society like Kerala where the mad rush for upward mobility and the hegemony of consumer-citizenship is too evident to be missed, how can a thinking person so readily attribute such behaviour to the individual’s personal ‘character’ failing? True, it is indeed a problem for activists that increasingly people in Kerala are resembling the rational agent of neoclassical economics — but does that justify our silence when an underprivileged person ( who may be behaving so) makes a complaint about harassment?
And I was also rather surprised by the manner in which the campaign was understood as ‘helping Chitralekha’. This smacks of the older style of social reformism in Kerala in which the Reformer-Man built a certain relationship of non-coercive influence with women he intended to reform (as part of the Reformer’s Burden) and therefore would reject those women who disobeyed. I was part of the campaign to raise resources for her rickshaw, but I always thought that this was not so much ‘helping’ her, as making a point to the dominant powers! I don’t think any of us can ‘save’ anyone or that we should try to– and in any case if at any point one feels that the victim is making unreasonable demands or demands that are beyond our strength, one can always state that clearly and take a stand.
But I’m not surprised if the ‘victims’ make such demands either! One of the shifts we have seen in the 90s is towards a kind of activism closely enmeshed with the thrust towards global governmentality.The kind of relationship between activism and the groups she/he tried to reach out to was often close to that of a caregiver — and the very same power relationship that exists between caregivers and receivers is reproduced here too. I often think about why the many new groups that appeared in Kerala’s political fields did not grow into strong and thriving movements — many have fallen back into invisibility. There are many reasons, including shifts in global funding and so on, but the non-sustainability of the above relations looks like a key one to me. If this is the case, we ought to engage in self-reflexive thinking — on why is it that, in these times, when we try to get together a group of women in Kerala for any issue, we are besieged by women asking what aanukoolyam (benefit) is on offer — rather than blame the poor.
Another ex-activist told me, shockingly, that there was nothing anti-Dalit about this! He was citing ‘drunkenness’ as a reason to ignore the incident. Now, I have seen events in which leading Malayalee intellectuals came dead drunk but that did not affect their minds at all — but I have also seen unbelievable nonsense being spewed by such characters and indeed demonstrate utterly abusive behaviour. But in the latter occasions, they were always quietly — almost gracefully — removed from the scene. And this is not just my experience — a friend was recently sharing memories of how, during the 1980s, when public poetry readings were common all over rural Kerala, there used to be requests made over the mic that ‘all the poets sitting in the toddy shop may kindly come over to the stage’! Mind you, it isn’t that such events were always superior cultural events! So how come it looks ok to react violently when an underprivileged woman gets drunk and gets rough? And there being nothing anti-Dalit! I asked this person if a daughter or wife (i.e suitably inserted in a familial role) of a powerful Nambiar feudal family of the area got drunk and created a fuss, will she be treated similarly? She would be removed from the scene and maybe beaten at home, but would she be beaten on the road and dragged into a police station? No, he had to admit.
A particularly interesting reaction was about the people trying to support her: they are ‘outsiders’, apparently, not located within Kerala and therefore suspect. Well, maybe those who voiced this fear haven’t noticed that Kerala, since the 1970s (and actually much earlier) has not been contained between Gokarnam and Kanyakumari, and that we are now a diaspora. It is despicable to argue that Malayalees who live outside the State should not intervene in what goes on here. We aren’t so bothered, it appears, about predatory forays of big-moneyed expats whose ‘interventions’ are radically altering the very geography of Kerala, turning every bit of land into nothing but real estate to be readied for their insatiable consumerist appetites! But it isn’t as though all expats are thus. In fact if there is any way to strengthen the women’s movement in Kerala, which is truly feeble these days, it is by getting rid of the Gokaranam-tol-Kanyakumari image and building networks between anti-patriarchal forces here and people who have fled Kerala’s secularised brahmanical patriarchy and taken refuge in other parts of India and in other countries!
But the worst was the way in which this ex-activist quipped, almost casually, that Chitralekha was ‘out of her mind’. So what should we do, I asked him, shut her up in an asylum? Get her out of your eye-shot? Oh, no, he said, recommending yet another dose of ‘help’ and ‘care’. Maybe he was right. Chitralekha has a lot to gain through being the CITU’s good girl. The Kerala government has approved of fifty percent reservation of seats for women in local governance and soon there is going to be a hunt for candidates, especially Dalit women candidates. Maybe only women out of their mind will tangle with them now! Ah, my friend, if that is the case, there are a few more of us who should be out of your eye-shot, shut up in mental asylums!