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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Chithra Lekha’s burning Auto: Caste and Gender in the Urban Space of Keralam

Reasearch paper published by Jenny Roweena and Carmel Christy in SARAI ,CSDS

In small towns and urban spaces in India we can often find cinema theatres, old book shops, night-skies, dirt, varieties of sounds, sights, visions and what not!!! But we cannot forget that these spaces are also inhabited by a large number of human beings who create and consume all of these urban and semi-urban phenomena. As researchers coming from the discipline of humanities, such human interactions that structure the culture of the urban space is what interests us most. This helps us get in touch with our own troubled lives in various semi-urban situations, both as children and as adults, which has pushed us like this, to think about the way this world is arranged. Thus we decided to study one of the most important patterns in the urban design, the way in which identities such as caste, gender and religion make and unmake human lives. It was easy for us to choose the Chithralekha case for this, as it is often called, which in 2006, was on the lips of every Malayalee intellectual who wanted to talk about the issue of caste in the contemporary space of Kerala.


We begin this report by giving a detailed account of this case:


Chithra Lekha was born into a Pulaya family, which is an ex-untouchable caste in Keralam. Chithra Lekha’s husband Shreeshanth is a Thiyya (an OBC caste). Both his family and the dominant left party (CPI (M)) structure were against Shreeshanth marrying Chithra Lekha as she is a Dalit. Yet the couple went ahead and got legally married. In their attempt to make a better living, they resorted to what many Dalitbahujans of moffusil towns easily choose: an autorickshaw. The autorickshaw KL 13L 8527 was bought in Chitra Lekha’s name under the PMRY loan scheme.


The Edaatu auto rickshaw stand in which Chithra Lekha wanted to drive her auto was under CITU, the trade union that belongs to the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPI (M)). To start functioning from this stand Chithra Lekha had to obtain a membership card from the CITU. However, this card was delayed for more than 2 months as the party was already angry with Chithra Lekha having married above her caste. Chithra also told us that they adopted such delaying techniques with many new comers from “other” communities.

When at last she was given membership she started driving her auto rickshaw from March 2005. According to Chithra Lekha, they welcomed her with these words:


O! The subalterns have progressed. A Pulaya woman has come with an auto.”


In spite of such harassment Chithra Lekha turned out to be a competent driver and became very popular with her customers, especially women. When she started her career there had been a coin operated phone at the auto stand where the customers would call for drivers. Soon, Chithra Lekha started getting the most number of calls from this phone. This she feels disturbed her fellow male drivers. After a few months she bought a mobile phone and now people started calling for her even more than before. This made the drivers feel even more threatened.

All these problems took a violent turn during the Navami or Saraswathy Pooja days when Chithra Lekha placed her auto in the common Pandal for pooja. When she came to take back the auto on the next day, that is on October 11, 2005, she found that the hood of her auto was torn. Ajith, one of the CITU members who had threatened her earlier was standing there and she asked him why did he tore the hood. He retaliated saying that if you don’t keep your limits you will also be torn like this. She complained about the incident to Rameshan, fellow auto driver and the Secretary of the local branch of CITU, but to no avail. Since there was no response from Rameshan or CITU, she lodged a complaint with the police after two days. When she came back to the stand on October 14th Rameshan gave her a two hour punishment of abstention, for having taken the case out of the stand to the police station. Chithra Lekha declined to obey it, at which point an angry Rameshan tried to run over Chithra Lekha with his auto. She moved to the other side of the road and escaped the attack. However she sustained minor injuries and had to be hospitalized. Yet another compliant was lodged against Rameshan and he was arrested. Immediately CITU members unleashed a poster campaign in support of Rameshan. They stuck posters and wrote on the walls of the panchayath that Chithra Lekha and her mother were loose women who were bringing up the issue of caste only to hide their immoral natures.

Soon, violence took its worst form when her auto was burned to ashes on the small hours of December 30th 2005. With the help of Ayyappan Master, a Dalit activist and member of the police committee to prevent atrocities against SC/STs, Chithra Lekha lodged a complaint against six CITU members including Ajith and Rameshan. The case was registered under IPC 143, 147, 148, 341, 352, 324, 294 (B), 506 (1), SC/ST S3 (1) XI R/W and 149. Two of the accused were arrested later and soon came out on bail. All the others have either gone abroad or are in hiding. The case is still going on and a final verdict has not been given.

One month after the burning of the auto rickshaw, a local action committee was formed to rehabilitate Chithra Lekha. Zulfath, a woman activist of the feminist organization, Sthree Vedhi was the convenor of the committee. Other important members of the committee included Mr Subrahmanian, K M Venugopal, Ayyappan Master, Dr Surendranath, Mr Gopinath, etc. The committee was divided on its opinion on how to rehabilitate Chithra Lekha. While one section was for buying an auto rickshaw for her, the other group wanted to limit things to arranging an auto on rent for her. However, at last, the committee presented her with a rented auto at a public meeting under the condition that she should pay Rs.100/ daily to the owner. But she could not pay the committee the rent and she also developed problems with Zulfath who was supervising the whole process and within 10 days she returned the auto back to the committee, which by then had been dissolved. She also lost all connection with the members and was soon out of public eye. A few months later when some party members attacked her brother thinking it was Sreeshanth her husband, the news was not reported in any paper. Moreover, now there was no citizen’s initiative which could support her. When we went to meet Zulfath and Subramanian, they were clueless about Chitralekha’s real whereabouts and they told us that they did not have any contact with her after the auto was returned.


Initial objectives


When we gave the proposal for studying this incidence of violence, we wanted to do two things. One, we wanted to document the entire incident through interviews, photographs, paper cuttings and audio-visual material and if possible video recordings. We also wanted to analyse the whole incident from a theoretical perspective and see how caste operates in the contemporary space of Kerala. Along with passing on our documentation to SARAI, we also wanted to widely circulate our theoretical analysis in the mainstream press in Keralam. Here is a detail account of how we envisaged our project in the beginning before the field work was conducted.


Documentation


We started with the notion that any ethnographic documentation of an event is not value free and is marked by the initial questions and urges that frame the project. We did not want to claim to put forward the "true" story or the "real" incident as it happened. Instead our documentation would be influenced and structured by the following questions and interests:

First of all we wanted to capture the differences in the way the same incident is put forward by all those narrating it– the police, the involved parties, the NGOs involved, the mainstream press, the mainstream intellectuals and the various Dalit and feminist intellectuals who have involved in the issue.

Here we knew that we were starting off with the notion that most people involved in this issue such as the police, the auto rickshaw drivers involved and the people of the town would see this as just a case of law and order, caused by the aberrant ways of a rebellious woman.

We hoped to find critical and political analysis of the events only from Dalitbahujan intellectuals and given our experience of Kerala culture, we were highly sceptical about mainstream intellectuals. We were also quite prejudiced against the mainstream press and media in Keralam. In spite of/or because of this knowledge we hoped that we would be able to capture moments that are totally unexpected and unprepared for.

Our second major concern in the documentation of the event was about what would be our relationship to the central person in the story, Chithra Lekha, and her family members. We knew that what has happened must have been highly traumatic for Chithra Lekha, and we already had heard stories about certain individuals and institutions making away with funds meant to help her. We wanted to bring out these aspects in our documentation.

However, we did not want to comment on anything more at that point and we wanted to allow Chithra Lekha to decide the terms of her relationship with us as researchers - whether she would want to talk to us or not and in what terms and under what condition. If it becomes possible for us to share with her our research concerns and listen to her perspective, we hoped to be as non-interfering as possible in our listening. We also wanted to do our part in maintaining or reviving the projects already at place that seeks to address her past and present situation.

We were also aware of the differences that existed between us and Chithra Lekha and we hoped to sharply foreground this in all our documentation.

Most importantly, in our documentation of her voice we wanted to bring out Chithra Lekha, not only as a victim but also as someone who politically resisted the hegemonic structures around her.


Theorization

This is what we hoped to in theorizing the whole situation:

Critically analyzing our documentation, we would try to think about how discourses of gender, sexuality and community are being formulated in contemporary Keralam. We will then look at how these discourses work towards coding the progressive urban space of Keralam as upper caste and/or male. We will try to show how a Dalit woman like Chithra Lekha have to encounter another kind of day-to-day reality vis-à-vis middle-class, upper-caste women, as she negotiates both her community and gender identity in the modern space. We will use this understanding to re-examine the issues of gender as articulated by mainstream feminists both in Keralam and outside.

In this context, it must be mentioned that, using already available Dalit feminist works (such as, J. Indira, "Study of Sexual Violence: A Case of Rape against Dalit Women." M.Phil. dissertation, University of Hyderabad, 1997) and supplanting it with our own findings, we want to re-think the current feminist conceptualization of sexual harassment and the working place. Usually, as J Indira points out in her work, women's workplace is imagined around a middle class, comfortable office space. But when we think of lakhs of "other" women who are doing "other" and not so "feminine" jobs as in the case of Chithra Lekha, there is a need to rethink the women's workplace and the problems they encounter there. We start with the already available theorization that such women, who are thrust into the public sphere for work, are considered as 'bad, deviant' women in the dominant imagination. We would also look at how the coding of the work place as middle class in feminist theorization helps to further de-legitimize the problems of most Dalitbahujan and minority working women in Keralam.

The next important question would be to look at the dominant Marxist party as an important institution in maintaining the hegemonic structure of caste, class, community and gender in Keralam. We would begin by searching for the roots of such a process in the history of modern Keralam, the rise and spread of the Left movement and the imagination and production of the Kerala model of development. We would then move on to map this on to the case in question.

Here the attempt would not stop with showing the Marxist party in Kerala as male (as in J Devika, and Praveena Kodoth ("Sexual Violence and Predicament of Feminist Politics in Kerala", Economic and Political Weekly Vol.36, No.33, 2001). We would also want to think about the caste and religion of the Male Marxist party in Kerala. Does it have one particular caste all over Keralam or does it take on the religious and caste colors of local dominant groups to sustain itself? We would try to see how such a process is carried out locally.

We will surely examine the self-presentation of the Left as progressive, modern and caste and gender neutral and show how this contradicts with the situation at hand. Here the question would be to see how the dominant Marxist institution engages with these contradictions. This engagement or negotiation, we will argue, is constantly reworking and re-articulating (not excluding or ignoring as suggested in many studies) cultural categories such as that of caste and gender, with immense consequences for Keralam.

Another major area of interest would be the intricacies of the OBC-Dalit relationship which is crucial in this whole incident and which often goes unnoticed in any discussion on caste in Kerala. All over India, caste/gender violence is increasing between OBCs and Dalits. Being a progressive enlightened state, Keralam claims to be outside this with less number of atrocities. The Chithra Lekha case proves this wrong. From the outside this only looks like a case where there is a struggle between a woman and a trade union. However, we would try to show how the trade union is peopled by a distinct OBC community and how their objections to Chithra Lekha is based on notions of untouchability and gender made in the name of maintaining caste hegemony.

Lastly we would look at the role of subaltern masculinities (as many OBC men are involved in this incident) and the pressures that trigger violence in them, which then spills on to the city space. Here we would not want to pin point to the subaltern male – in this case, the OBC male - as the only violent creature existing in Keralam. Instead we would try to read his maleness with regard to the institution of Marxism and also in contrast to the invisible violence of men of hegemonic communities. Doing this, we will try to look at the historical caste/gender pressures that work both from within the community and the outside towards throwing the OBC man into the ambit of violence and caste and gender oppression.

Along with passing on our documentation to SARAI, we would also like to widely circulate this material in the mainstream press in Keralam. In doing this, we want to reformulate the way in which Chithra Lekha's case has received attention. So far it has only captured attention as a human interest story, with vague and unfocused reflections on the problem of caste. Gender is not even talked about in most narratives about Chithra Lekha, the whole issue being presented as a case of blatant caste violence. Therefore we would like to imbibe this story with our own peculiar theorization of it which we hope will re-start the debate all over again, inviting Keralam to engage with this crucial issue in a much more complex, nuanced and political manner.


Preparation for field work


In preparation for the project detailed above we spent the first month going through contemporary magazines and reading up all we could on caste and gender issues in Kerala.


In preparation for our field trip, we spent one month trying to read up on the most important issues that frame our study, such as the various debates on gender, caste, left politics, the urban space and culture in Keralam. We now had a clearer idea about the directions that we would want to explore in our field work.

In our reading of contemporary magazines and studies, we saw that there is a strong and emergent discourse on caste and gender in Keralam. The gender discourse owes itself to the women's movements and we feel that it has gained much more acceptance than the caste discourse. (It would be interesting to think why this is so) However, with the revival of Dalit politics in the 90s, there is a vigorous discourse on caste slowly building up. We saw most contemporary magazines, (which had once revelled in literary material along side international and Kerala politics) dedicating at least one story to the question of caste. Chithra Lekha herself was interviewed by Geeta, a well known feminist scholar, in Maadhyamam a highly respected mainstream magazine in February 2006).

We also noticed that the caste and gender questions were being taken up mainly by dedicated Dalit and feminist scholars. The mainstream intellectual discourse continued to ignore these issues in most of their analysis. More over, we also saw that there was a sustained way in which mainstream voices were attacking the rise of these voices.

More importantly, both in Dalit and women's politics, women from subordinate communities, like Chithra Lekha herself, bearing the mark of community and gender, were seldom studied and addressed.

We wanted to think about one important issue that keeps coming up in any debate or discussion on Keralam. This is the notion of Keralam and its culture as always/already progressive in comparison to other states of India. Such a notion is often used both to undercut and initiate most discussions on caste, gender and the urban space in Keralam.

Some hold that Keralam is highly urban and progressive and therefore caste and gender oppression is either being fabricated, misinterpreted or just the perversion of a few misguided people. In contrast to this, Dalit and feminist scholars pitch their argument against the so called progressiveness of Keralam, trying to point to the ways in which Keralam has always overlooked or ignored the important issues of caste and gender.

.

Actually Chithra Lekha's case lends very easily to this kind of a frame of analysis.

Most people responsible for victimizing Chithra Lekha are official members of a trade union affiliated to the Marxist party and they deny any kind of caste/gender angle to the whole debate. For instance, in the interview that Chithra Lekha gave to a mainstream magazine (mentioned above), she speaks out against the untouchability practiced against Dalit families. For this she points to the way in which the four Dalit families in her locality are not allowed to drink water from the common well. However, autorickshaw drivers of the area belonging to the Marxist party, denies this. They claim that it is only because the water is polluted that water was refused. We find it interesting that even the perpetuators of caste/gender crime in Keralam have to assert the non-existence of caste and thereby their own progressiveness (Chithra Lekha, Interview, Geeta, "Maadhyamam", February 2006). We wanted to look closely at such postures in the course of our field work, trying to probe into the ways in which they frame the structures of caste and gender in the contemporary urban spaces of Keralam.

Another important point is that we realized that most caste and gender debates are caught up in having to justify themselves against the edifice of progressive Keralam. So often the new and innovative forms through which caste and gender operates in the urban space of Keralam is not studied. Thinking alongside and beyond the contemporary debates on caste/gender, we wanted to approach the people we would be talking to, (especially intellectuals and organizations that have stood in support of Chithra Lekha) towards generating some answers to the new shapes and forms that caste and gender has taken in progressive urban spaces of Keralam. During our field work, we also wanted to look for material from Keralam itself towards inquiring into the historical roots of such contemporary phenomenon.

The field trip: Notes on the documentation undertook


When we started our field trip we were under the impression that we would be going to Kerala to see Chithra Lekha driving an auto under the protection of the citizens’ initiative which we by now came to know had been formed to protect her. However, we were absolutely unprepared for what we came to know on the field, when we visited Kerala. We first met a member of the Chithra Lekha rehabilitation committee (popularly known as Action Committee), K M Venugopal, who was also keen on meeting us after hearing about us through the Sarai reader list. We were shocked to listen to all the things he had to tell us.


Given below are the facts we came to know from this former member of the action committee.


  • He had been deeply dissatisfied with the way the action committee went about things in many issues

  • He and some others in the committee were against dissolving the committee

  • They had wanted to use the huge public interest evoked by the case to buy Chithra an auto of her own. However, the action committee winded up after renting out an auto rickshaw for her.

  • After the dissolution of the action committee, he being placed in a far away place, had lost all touch with Chithra Lekha

  • He had no idea how she was living or what she was doing. He had heard rumours that she had converted to Christianity. He was sure that she was no more driving an auto at that point.

  • He feels that the caste/gender angle was not adequately addressed by the prominent members of the action committee. This he felt kept them from really understanding the case and finding an apt resolution.


Later, we went to meet some of the most prominent members of the Action Committee, Subramanian and Zulfat. Zulfat had been the Chairperson of the fact finding committee and the rehabilitation committee. She was also involved with Sthree Vedhi, a woman’s organization in North Kerala. In our conversation with them, we came to know more about what happened in the Action Committee. First of all they told us that they had no contact with Chithra Lekha now. These are the words of Subramanian regarding this matter:


“The action committee was formed with the aim of rehabilitating Chithra Lekha. According to that we arranged an autorickshaw for her. However she lost interest in that soon. She gave back the auto rickshaw after 10 days. Now she has moved away from that place. We heard that she got a letter regarding converting to Christianity from America and that she had converted after that. She must be getting money from America. We have no connection with her now.”


However, they did not see any problem on the side of the Action Committee and put all the blame on Chithra Lekha for the break down of their mutual relationship. They accused her of being a “trouble maker” and said that she behaved very irresponsibly after she was given the auto. They said she never obeyed them and took her own decisions without consulting them. We could clearly see that they were– reproducing the caste/gender ideology – seeing her as an innocent victim, who had now to come under their complete protection. In this design, only they could make any decisions and she would have to stand below showing the utmost gratitude – ingratitude was another thing they accused her of –listening to each and everything that they said. No wonder then that this relationship did not last long. Since, Chithra Lekha, though she appears shy and diffident, took her own decisions without giving much importance to the strict boundaries that her caste and gender demanded from her.


Later we went to meet Ayyapan Master (mentioned in summary of case, above) who talked to us for almost 3 hours, telling us all about his own caste experiences and telling us how badly many members of the Action Committee had behaved to Chithra Lekha. We then came to know that there was one K Devi in the action committee, again a member of Sthree Vedhi, who even contested the elections using the Chithra Lekha case as her trump card against the Left. Yet K Devi according to Ayyappan Master and later Chithra Lekha had done very little to help Chithra and was only using her for her own ends. After the conversation with Ayyapan, he took us to Chithra Lekha, whom we met two more times, without him being present.


We had long conversations with her, for which she had to take leave from her present job as a construction labourer. She told us all the details about the case and shared with us all the paper clippings regarding her case. Her husband Shreeshanth was also present on all occasions and he showed the same enthusiasm as her in narrating. Chithra Lekha, we also noticed were making deliberate attempts to include him in the conversation, readily sharing with him the attention she was getting from us.


She told us many new things. How she was used and exploited by each and every one of those who came to help her. Let us put down the details here.

  1. One member from the Action Committee she told us, went on to fight the panchayath elections using the Chithra Lekha case as their trump card.

  2. She was taken to Delhi by an NGO (NCDHR) to present her case before a gathering. She and her husband went to Delhi and some members from the Action Committee worked vigorously to prevent Ayyappan Master from accompanying them. Once in Delhi, Chithra Lekha and husband saw the organizers handing over a cheque of 2 lakhs to the representative from Kerala, Prakash Raghavan. However, they did not get any share of it.

  3. In yet another incident, one Sathyasheelan from Thaliparambu, Kannur, received lakhs of money from an NRI for the purpose of converting Chithra Lekha and in return handing them a flour mill. He brought them to Thalliparambu, where she was when we met her, with this promise. However after they came here he gave them a paltry sum and soon cut all ties with them.

  4. At the time when Sathyasheelan was trying to make contacts with Chithra, her brother-in-law was stabbed on the neck by members belonging to the party while he was entering Chithra’s home one night. They had mistaken him for Shreeshanth. Chithra had no resources available to make this incident public and there was not even a newspaper report of the same. This made her feel very insecure about continuing to live in her home town. It was due to this that she and her husband took up the offer given by Sathyasheelan, deciding to leave their home town for a new place, where they knew that they would have to do a new job and live in a rented house. However, after coming to this new place, they were cruelly abandoned by Sathyasheelan, who behaved very well to them for a short time and suddenly turned angry and hostile. This we feel must have been because he had received the amount promised by the NRI and did not want to share it with Chithra Lekha. When we went to meet him, he struck us as someone struggling to make big money in a highly dubious manner.

  5. Abandoned by Sathyasheelan, Chithra Lekha and husband were forced to take up construction and other such work.


At the time we met her Chithra was living like this, with no access to any of the numerous

intellectuals and activists who had met her, interviewed her and spoken on behalf of her. The

only person she was still connected to was Ayyappan Master, who was, at the point we met her,

engaged in mediating towards a compromise between Chithra Lekha and her harassers. In fact, it

is interesting to note here that though Chithra Lekha had not spoken to the members of the

Action Committee for months, only the day before she had sat down with one of her

Harassers, Rameshan, to see if they could arrive at some compromise in the case. When we met

him Rameshan also told us that Chithra had been exploited by the members of the Actions

Committee!


Seeing all this, the entire scope of our research stood changed. We had planned to dig deep into the archives in Kozhikode, looking for material on land reforms, caste struggles and trying to sketch out the connections between the historical structure of Kannur and the present situation. Now instead we found ourselves asking about 1. The political failure of the Action committee in finding a resolution to the Chithra Lekha case 2. The question of reopening the issue of rehabilitation. We started asking questions connected to these issues whenever we met and talked to people.


To go on with the report, we also talked to one of the main accused Rameshan. The interview was conducted while he was in the auto rickshaw stand. All the other drivers stood around watching. We noticed that except for Rameshan, all of them sat talking with expressions of sarcasm and disdain playing on their faces. Rameshan, however, looked tensed, angry and extremely worried. Rameshan, however, admitted to having had small problems with Chithra Lekha, who he accused of deliberately making the issue into a Dalit problem, instead of trying to solve it within the limits of the union. He kept denying everything else that happened. Chithra Lekha, he told us was the “Dalit sister,” whom all the drivers in the auto stand had wanted to support. After meeting Rameshan and seeing the men in the auto stand, we wanted to go deep into the issue of backward caste masculinity, which we knew was very much at work in this whole case. However, as we visited the auto stand in Edaatu, we realized that such an enquiry would demand all our time and energy and would pull us out of engaging with Chithra Lekha. So we decided to abandon that line of enquiry for a later point.


After talking to Chithra Lekha we also talked to two people from her neighbour hood in Edaatu. We visited the home she had to abandon and talked to her mother and grandmother. The two women in the neighbouring panchayath told us that Chithra had been an efficient worker. However, they also told us that she was a little “over smart.” We asked them what they meant by over smart, and as an example they told us that she was the kind of woman who would “stand on one side of the road and call to people on the other side.” In other words, she did not follow the usual patterns of femininity. As women coming from such spaces, we know how women are trained and controlled to hold their body, face and expressions in the most subdued and non-assertive manner.

They also told us that though they had heard bad things about her character, they did not want to talk about it. They disagreed that any caste hierarchies were present in the panchayath. However, they said that they would only marry within their own castes. These women belonged to the Thiyya and Maniyani community and were Ayyaas in the government established day-care centres for children, which we came to know were a common feature in North Kerala.


We met a young Thiyya auto rickshaw driver from the same locality. Knowing that we were researchers, he diplomatically refused to comment on the involvement of the party in the whole incident. However, he told us that he was absolutely sure that Chithra Lekha’s mother was a “bad woman” and that Chithra herself was of ill repute, though he was not sure of this.


Later we met and talked to many women auto rickshaw drivers, so as to understand their experience of being female workers in a male dominated area. We have written about this in detail a later section.

We also met with some Dalit scholars, interviews with whom we could not record as the meetings happened in a most sudden manner and could not be repeated, given their tight schedules.


We have much to say about the different view points put forward to us by these intellectuals that we interviewed and spoke to, namely K K Kochu, Sunny Kappikaad, K K Baburaj, Rekha Raj, Arun A, Kallen Pokkudan and Sreejith Paithal. Again and again we heard from them about the ways in which the Left had squashed caste movements in Malabar and had totally monopolized the region with its ideology. This, most of these scholars maintain, has led to the present situation, where they argue, the Left is leading a criminalized social network, with backward caste communities as its leaders and foot soldiers in a highly casteist and masculine manner.

We also realize that there is an immense amount of theorization of the history of caste movements in Malabar and the Left movement from the Dalit perspective which has not yet gained currency in the mainstream. We feel that we need to rethink the contemporary of Malabar from this perspective all over again to better understand what happened in this particular case.


REKHA RAJ


According to this Dalit feminist, Chithra Lekha broke given caste/gender norms in two important ways. First of all, she aspired to a job which was much above her caste occupation of weaving mats. Secondly, she tried to enter a field dominated by men. This double subversion made her a target of violence. In many other cases such as this, she told us that there would be a lot of public debate and media attention and yet the women involved in such cases would often be pushed to a worse situation.


K K KOCHU


This pioneering Dalit activist and writer talked about how there was more awareness about Dalit issues these days. He said that it was always best to appeal to the State to provide rehabilitation to such victims of caste oppression. He opined that if there were prominent NGOs to take up the Dalit issue of Chithra Lekha, things would have had a better result.

SUNNY KAPPIKAAD


According to this Dalit activist and writer, the Left aligns with the dominant community in any given area, be it OBCs or Dalits. It is this strategy that the Left uses all over Kerala to maintain hegemony. There have been many historical anti-caste struggles in the Malabar region which the Left has successfully erased from history and it is important to look into them.


K K BABURAJ


A Dalit activist and prominent intellectual, talked about how the Left had quelled the numerous caste uprising in Kerala, channelling everything into a class discourse. We found it very striking when he said that “Kerala becomes modern only when people are taught to forget their castes.” This is in great contrast to the common notions about the progressiveness of Kerala. He felt that Chithra Lekha could be rehabilitated only with the local people coming together.

After meeting with the Dalit intellectuals, we went to Chithra Lekha’s panchayath, where she had lived since her childhood, with her grandmother and mother. We talked to the mother and the grandmother, who told us about the `different problems that the family had encountered in that region. They told us about caste practices and about how they had struggled to educate Chithra and her siblings, so that at least they would have a better life.


However, the mother felt that Chithra let them all down by choosing to follow her own path and not adjusting to the world around. The grandmother was more understanding and seemed to see why Chithra could not adjust to the world outside.



Change in the direction of research


During and after the field trip, we found ourselves thinking more and more about how to rehabilitate Chithra. In our interactions with Chithra Lekha, instead of trying to look into the various ideological issues around her case, we found ourselves sitting and discussing the ways in which she could be rehabilitated. This took us through trips we had not planned or anticipated. For instance, we must mention our trips to the Social Welfare Department in Kannur. Here we went from file to file and officer to officer to realize that nothing much could be done. She had already been paid the paltry compensation that was due to her that now everything depended on the outcome of the case.

We also realized that as outsiders who had no contacts with local people there was very little that we could do to organize anything for her. However, we continued to ask each and every activist and intellectual that we met about her rehabilitation. One of them, Cherai Ramdass, suggested that we write about the issue in a magazine so that there is a revival of public interest. At the same time we were able to meet and talk to K M Venugopal again, who was one of those (see above) members of the action committee who had been highly dissatisfied with its ways. He was very keen on any kind of action that would rehabilitate her and we had discussions with him about the same. His idea was to support her in buying a new auto and let her drive it in a place which was not under the CPI(M).


By this time we returned to Hyderabad. To be honest, we were totally disturbed at this point. So many questions kept coming to our minds about research, academics and the usefulness of the written word in dealing with issues of social injustice.


By this time, Sreejith an intellectual and writer journalist, who was also a Dalit, and who had accompanied us on our visits to Chithra Lekha, published an article on the present condition of Chithra Lekha and all the ways in which civil rights activists and others had let her down. He directly quoted from the interview we had had with Subramanian from the Action Committee, where in he had accused Chithra of irresponsibility and lack of integrity. At the same time we were also able to contact a Dalit organization in Delhi (INSIGHT Foundation) who decided to take up Chithra Lekha’s issue and fight it to the end and not to stop without achieving rehabilitation. By now K M Venugopal, came to Hyderabad and we told him about the Dalit organization and their offer of support. He told us that such a Dalit initiative outside Kerala could be further supported by a similar initiative from inside Kerala. He went back to Kerala met with local intellectuals in Kannur and together they decided to call for a meeting to discuss the rehabilitation of Chithra Lekha. This is the report he send us and others after this meeting:



Sub: Meeting on Chithralekha's Rehabilitation:


By a new initiative (based at Kannur) with a view to procuring an auto rickshaw for her was concluded successfully, with over a dozen prominent citizens having directly attended, and several others from different parts of Kerala having promised to extend help in raising the necessary funds. Though the suggestion of possibility of availing of a repayable advance from a Delhi based dalit youth organization was reported by me to the others, a better idea transpired which would involve getting an appeal by a group of recognized individuals printed out and published in the media with a view to generating the necessary fund (estimated as about rupees1.5 lakhs). Three persons were elected to be responsible for operating a bank Account for this purpose;(Dr.D.Surendranath- Chairman, PK.Ayyappan-Vice Chairman, K.M.Venugopalan- Convenor) The decision is expected to be carried out within a short span of time, and the Chithralekha Punaradhivasa Committee will again sit on saturday, 8th next month.


K M Venugopal


This committee went ahead with the appeal and it came out in all magazines and dailies. We have attached a copy of this appeal along with material for the archives. At present they have collected some amount and is looking forward to buying her an auto soon, and handing it over in a public ceremony. In the mean time, some of the hearings of the police case have taken place. However, the final verdict is yet to be given. Meanwhile Chithra Lekha we came to know has been approached many times for a compromise by the accused. She has been standing her ground, refusing to accept any such offers.


Today we also we feel that this case is today getting a lot of attention than before. An e-group called ‘Green Youth’ put up our third posting to which a young scholar responded with bitterness, complaining about the apathy of Malayalee intellectuals. Though our posting had not elicited any response, this provocative response triggered off a heated debate that went on for days. As it often happens in the debate-obsessed space of Kerala, this too was a complete male war of words, with a feeble female voice. However, this debate, brought up some interesting points about ex-patriate Malayalees like us, studying issues in Kerala; the need/problems of local Action Committees in dealing with such issues; and the whole issue about alliance politics, which helps to resist such caste/gender oppression at the local level. More importantly, the debate became so serious that it soon went out of the forum with even media people becoming interested in it. This we feel did much to bring more attention to the Chithra Lekha case, which had been lying dormant for some time.


A magazine in Kerala has asked us for a translation of the final report. A magazine from Delhi, focusing on Dalit issues, Insight, will be carrying an article from us on Chithra Lekha in their coming issue.


Change in research questions


Before going on our field trip, we were hoping that Chithra Lekha would have been rehabilitated at least partially and that the public outcry about the whole incident would have left her with some support from various organizations. However, we met a Chithra Lekha who was driven out of her village, living precariously in a small rented house far away from her home town. She had no connection with any one from the Action Committee that was formed to support her. Only a retired school teacher and Dalit activist in the group was in touch with her and it was he who took us to her. When we met her, Chithra Lekha did not own an auto rickshaw and was not even remotely hopeful that she would drive one again. She and her husband, both of them trained and licensed auto rickshaw drivers, were now doing hard manual labour and leading a very difficult life, in their own words.


Here it is important that we contrast this with the tremendous uproar that this issue had created in Keralam. Even in far off villages, other auto rickshaw drivers knew about the case and had their opinions about it. Chithra Lekha appeared on three different cable channels, Asianet, Amrita TV and Network. We also learned that during the last elections, there was even a party which had used Chithra Lekha's issue as its trump card, against the Left coalition. Many press conferences were held about the case and almost all magazines had published at least one article about her. Chithra Lekha, we were told, was even sent to New Delhi, as part of a Human Rights Campaign by an NGO group and had addressed a gathering there. The interesting and thought provoking fact is that, in spite of all this noise, Chithra Lekha could not gain entry into the mainstream as she had bravely wanted to.


In great contrast, two of the people who had harassed her (one of them has a police case against him) are now living in the Gulf countries. Another man who is the main accused in the burning of her auto rickshaw is out on bail and is still driving his auto rickshaw in the same place in which Chithra Lekha cannot even live now, let alone drive an auto rickshaw.

The present situation of Chithra Lekha, who seems to lie outside the scope of all progressive and resistant voices in Kerala today, has put many new questions into our research work.

We realized that we cannot go forward without thinking about why even after such a prolonged agitation in her support, she is in a far worse condition than she had ever been. We put this question to all the people that we met and interviewed, including the Dalit activists who were involved in the issue. We have written a part on this below, where we have looked at:

>>the media representations of Chithra Lekha.

>>the action committee which was formulated to fight her case

>>the few feminist voices that were part of the agitation.


Negotiating Difference: OBC researchers, Dalit Subject


We also would like to say here for the record that we have had numerous problems trying to negotiate between our own status as ex-patriate research scholars, receiving a fund for studying the life of a woman who had shown great strength in resisting hierarchies and yet is today living in the most abject situation.


After meeting and talking to Chithra Lekha, we cannot come to terms with the fact that we are involved with a case where our study might not be of immediate help to the central person we are studying. Though the academic world around us seems to have resolved such questions, we feel the need to revisit these resolutions and re-think this question very seriously all over again.


One way in which we have tried to resolve this is by being active participants in the initiatives that are now trying to rekindle the whole issue. We want to say here that in this process we are not acting or trying to be benefactors. Each of us involved in the issue has been deeply touched by Chithra’s own resolve to keep away from small and easy compromises and to aim to regain what she had aspired to do in the first place, i.e., run an auto rickshaw. So we are only trying to be facilitators here, not because Chithra needs to be saved or rescued but because we know that the ideological structure that she is fighting is so large, that she can hardly succeed, if she is alone. Moreover, we ourselves have our own rage and anger against this structure and we find this to be a good opportunity to exercise our will against it.


However, we still feel that in spite of our trying to engage with Chithra, the issue of inequality between us – two OBC research scholars – and the lower class Dalit woman still continues. We always felt this immense and un-surmountable gap between us as researchers and Chithra Lekha as Subject. We know that we do not have much access to what is going on in her mind/life. She, we know, will not trust us with any kind of information which she does not want the public to know. Surely we might appear to be a set of privileged. settled and powerful women in front of her. We went to meet her without our partners accompanying us, as free, professional women. She on the other hand, always talked to us, in the company of her husband, whom she struggled to include in the conversation. Many times, we helplessly watched the conversation go on and on about the details of the case, which Chithra provided with professional efficiency.

In fact, as we sat interviewing her, we could sense her own agenda at work: she wanted us to take notice of the struggle she had gone through, and she surely wanted the public to know what has been going on and what her situation was at the same time. Her husband Shreeshanth was also equally involved in this process. Every time we went back, they would ask us if we met the people they had told us about and what they said. It is from their words, actions, gestures and spirit, that slowly we realized that Chithra and her husband was seeing us a way out of their present situation. By taking part in the new initiative to rehabilitate her we were only being open to this need from their side, which we knew we could not ignore or forget.


At the same time, we also knew that at another level, having done many interviewers and seen the fading public concern over her, Chithra Lekha was also prepared to see us disappearing from her life after we have got want we wanted. We really did not want ourselves to do this to her. Yet, our own middle class positioning also kept making us want to put boundaries before us, so that we do not raise any false hopes or make any false promises. Even as we did this, we knew that our lives had come together irrevocably; our lives could never be the same after having done this study and meeting Chithra Lekha. Personally and politically, Chithra Lekha’s situation had and will continue to have a great impact on us. In fact, in many ways, we felt ourselves breakdown as research scholars at some points, thoroughly shaken up about our notions of the academic life. We felt that we had to think freshly about a whole new set of questions, which this study had evoked in us.


Can one do a factual, logical and analytic work from a distance which does not make us want to intervene in the life of the Subject that we are studying? In other words, can we be at peace, if we knew that our work was incapable of producing change for the Subject? Are we in academics for the sheer pleasure of social analysis? If so, how do we own up to this? Is the analysis that we do worthy? If one wants to be political, is academics the place to be? Or should we rename our situation and call ourselves people who are deeply interested in analysis which is in many ways cut away from the real world? If this is so what is its implications? Why is it that when there is a contemporary consensus on the deep separation between academics and action, we (and many Dalit Bahujan scholars like us) are still deeply troubled with this separation? How long will it take for us to be more comfortable with the political/personal power that we feel in conducting such work and producing knowledge? Is this a sign of good sense or are we just incapable of handling this sudden position of power that we feel ourselves holding?

One of the most important contributions this research has given us are these questions, which totally unsettles us, but we are sure, would also help us think in a much more fresh and useful manner, later.




Part 2: Theorizing the contemporary


When Resistance Fails: Chithra Lekha Rehabilitation Committee (2006)


We begin this theoretical section by looking at the new questions that the field trip and meeting Chithra Lekha brought to us.


One of the important question that this research threw at us was why in spite the immense media uproar, Chithra Lekha still could not find her way back into society. In trying to answer this question we look closely at three of the agencies that were involved in working towards rehabilitation. Without in any way reducing their importance we want to still think about what might have made them fail in rehabilitating Chithra Lekha.


Here first of all it should be mentioned that attempts to bring into public view such incidents of caste violence are very new in Kerala, and only a few of them have had successful outcomes. We have to agree that entire generations are living through an Indian situation where in spite of immense brutality and strong resistance to it, a huge number of people have to go through life without being able to see their oppressors punished. Long years pass before any thing substantial is achieved and it often depends on extra-ordinary acts of commitment on the part of individuals and organizations to do so. This is mainly because of the huge edifice of caste and gender which has is deeply embedded in every sphere of Indian cultural life. In spite of this, it would be useful to look at where things went wrong in the public resistance to the violence against Chithra Lekha by looking at three institutions involved in this.


Media Representations


Kerala is one of the most media saturated places in India, where anything and everything gains instant coverage. Nevertheless, often the concern stops with this and as in the case of many other such atrocities, even after capturing an all-Kerala interest, `the media moves on to new issues, forgetting old ones.


More over, if one where to study the media representations that has come out in support of the Chithra Lekha case, we realize that they are all working towards a very sensational picture of violence. We see the same pattern in all the material we have collected in terms of reports and interviews that represented this case.


In fact one of the journalists (name withheld) who had done a story of Chithra Lekha told us that he had written things in a little exaggerated manner in order to meet the demands of the newspaper. We see the same trend in the case of reputed magazines like Maadhyamam. See the title of an article which presents Chithra Lekha’s case:


Pulachi thottaal stand ashudhamaakumoo? (Will the [auto] stand get polluted if the Pulachi touches it?)


Pulachi is a derogatory word with which women from Chithra Lekha’ caste is called. However, when she is addressed like this in the headline of an article which interviews her, it works to get instant attention and create sensation. However, as many people pointed out to us, it still functions to perpetuate the usage of such terms and in the long run does not have much use, except for the magazine concerned.


Action Committee


The action committee was formed by members who all are from a leftist background. Dalit members were pulled in deliberately to be included and were placed outside the Payanur citizens group that was at the centre of this group. So the core group consisted of non-dalit men and women who were placed within the progressive culture of Payannur. These were the cultural leaders of that place, who would (and still does in many ways) promote high literature and world cinema, and would subscribe to EPW and similar Malayalam magazines and journals. In Kerala, such an intellectual group, with its strong ties to the way in which they have been formulated through the modernizing project in Kerala, is highly leftist in nature and is also steeped in patriarchal and casteist values. We saw a clear manifestation of this when one of the former members of the Action Committee spoke about Chithra Lekha like this:


These are his words about why she was not able to carry on with the auto rickshaw they had rented out to her as part of the rehabilitation struggle:


“Chithra Lekha was irresponsible and unsystematic in the way she conducted herself. Most problems that happened later were created due to her inefficiency. I would say that she is what we call a nuisance party. She is always quarrelling with her relatives and friends. She is that type of a woman...”


In fact, we were quite surprised to see that this was the tone used by the auto rickshaw drivers who had harassed her initially. In many ways, this member of the action committee could not yet step beyond notions about people from Dalit communities as irresponsible, inefficient and as nuisance parties.


We are sure that there must have been many other members in the action committee, who surely held on to such notions, thereby failing to recognize and support Chithra’s valiant struggle.


Feminist Movement


It is interesting note that it was Zulfath and K Devi, women belonging to a feminist group, Sthree Vedhi who took up Chithra Lekha’s case when approached by Ayyappan Master. They went on to become leaders of the Action Committee.


This is the way in which they represent the case in the Fact Finding Committee that they conducted. We quote from the report given by the action committee, headed by Zulfat and K Devi, who are both members of the Sthree Vedhi.


“This committee found that there were two reasons for her problems entering a field monopolized by men, creates tension in the workplace and the local Union leadership encouraged this directly or indirectly. Chithra lekha as a member of the Dalit community was subjected to even more discrimination.”


Here the caste and gender identities of Chithra Lekha are seen as two different entities, both working separately to create discrimination. However, we feel that Chithra Lekha’s caste/gender status itself gives her a particular identity which is responsible for much that happened to her.”

There is no theory or practice available to Kerala feminism which can begin to look at the situation of the subaltern women. Without this it is no wonder that soon both Chithra and Zulfat and K Devi drifted apart without being able to communicate with each other. As we shall show in the section on sexual harassment in the non-middle class working place, there is an entirely new way in which one need to look at the whole issue of sexual harassment as it happens away from middle class spaces.


In conclusion we can say that the new centres and discourses of power that emerged from the media, the activists and feminists, often reproduced the very same structures of caste and gender that Chithra Lekha was trying to fight. None of these progressive voices were ready to give leadership to Chithra Lekha and as she herself argues, many of her concerns and needs were not taken into account when decisions were made. She was portrayed again and again as the classic victim whom the media, the activists and the feminists had now to save. No one saw the way in which she had stood up to live against the entire historical edifice of her region, caste and gender. Media representations and progressive activism could not function in such a way as to support the active agency she had shown in resisting the backward caste community in her village and workplace. Instead, her cause was taken up and fought out by "others" who had their own particular agendas to look after. More importantly, the "progressive" postures adopted by these voices made it unnecessary that they be self-reflexive about their own endeavours and statements. Therefore, they ended up blindly using available "progressive" discourses, which, at least in Kerala, is often structured in terms of caste/gender violence.


Dangerous Careers: Sexual Harassment in the Non-middle class workplace


We begin this section by taking from our initial proposal:


Critically analyzing our documentation, we would try to think about how discourses of gender, sexuality and community are being formulated in contemporary Keralam. We will then look at how these discourses work towards coding the progressive urban space of Keralam as upper caste and/or male. We will try to show how a Dalit woman like Chithra Lekha have to encounter another kind of day-to-day reality vis-à-vis middle-class, upper-caste women, as she negotiates both her community and gender identity in the modern space. We will use this understanding to re-examine the issues of gender as articulated by mainstream feminists both in Keralam and outside.

In this context, it must be mentioned that, using already available Dalit feminist works (such as, J. Indira, "Study of Sexual Violence: A Case of Rape against Dalit Women ." M.Phil. dissertation, University of Hyderabad, 1997) and supplanting it with our own findings, we want to re-think the current feminist conceptualization of sexual harassment and the working place. Usually, as J Indira points out in her work, women's workplace is imagined around a middle class, comfortable office space. But when we think of lakhs of "other" women who are doing "other" and not so "feminine" jobs as in the case of Chithra Lekha, there is a need to rethink the women's workplace and the problems they encounter there. We start with the already available theorization that such women, who are thrust into the public sphere for work, are considered as 'bad, deviant' women in the dominant imagination. We would also look at how the coding of the work place as middle class in feminist theorization helps to further de-legitimize the problems of most Dalitbahujan and minority working women in Keralam.


During our field trip, we came across many other cases that were very similar to that of Chithra
Lekha's. Below we give some of the details.

1. Whenever we mentioned Chithra Lekha's case to anyone, they always told us about another Dalit Christian woman, Elizabeth, living in a nearby town called Pazhayangadi. She was also harassed by her fellow auto rickshaw drivers (again from backward caste communities and belonging to the trade unions of the Left) branded as a loose woman and was forced to leave the field. We could not talk to her as we were told that the situation was still tense and it would be best to keep away at that point.

2. Chithra Lekha told us about a Dalit woman, Shyamala who was at present driving an auto rickshaw in another small-town in Kannur. Her auto rickshaw was burned 8 years ago and though people had inquired about this when Chithra Lekha's problems had become an issue, the
woman had refused to speak out. We also came to know that at present she had close familial connections with people who were office bearers of the Marxist party.

3.We met a Muslim woman, Jazeera, again in a small town in Kannur, who was fighting against her fellow drivers from the Left trade union and belonging to the Muslim community. She was also being accused of being a "loose woman" and was beaten up by her fellow drivers. She had
registered a police complaint but as a result her employer had refused to let rent out his auto rickshaw. He was afraid that it would be burned like Chithra Lekha's and he would suffer loss. At the time when we met her, she was planning to meet the Chief Minister to register a
complaint against the harassment she was facing.

4. In another town (close to Jazeera's place) we heard that a Thiyya woman had committed suicide following some allegations made about her involvement with a fellow driver from the same community.

In all the four cases above, the reaction of other auto drivers and people of the region were the same. They all blamed the women for being loose, for exceeding their limits, etc. These women were always spoken about without any respect or consideration.

Initially we had wanted to "re-think the current feminist conceptualization of sexual harassment and the working place" with this project. After the field trip we have gained more insight into this aspect of our work. Though she does not use the mainstream vocabulary pertaining to such issues, from our conversations with her, we feel that Chithra Lekha clearly sees herself as a victim of workplace harassment. She continuously talks about how she was harassed due to her superior capabilities in handling the job. We heard similar stories from other harassed women also. However, at present there is very little theorization that has happened with regard to the workplace sexual harassment of working-class Dalit Bahujan and Minority woman.

One position put forward by Dalit feminists, talk about such working places as being constituted through the sexual exploitation of women. And as seen in the case of Chithra Lekha (and all the other women), most often inability or refusal to comply with the highly sexist/casteist exploitative context is what causes the harassment, pushing her out of the work sphere. We feel the Savarna, middle-class position provides an entirely different working place identity to women. Based on what we have documented here we would like to write a paper which gives a comparative study of Chithra Lekha's case (as perceived by us) and other issues of sexual harassment (namely the P E Usha and Nalini Netto debate) that has come up from middle class working places.

Here is a rough sketch of what we would want to elaborate in such an article:


We want to show how the Dalitbahujan woman entering the workplace is already culturally marked out as the “other” not only of men, but also of women. So whereas the office-going savarna woman – unless proven otherwise – can lay claim to some kind of legitimacy, the Dalit bahujan minority women in working class spaces are marked differently. This is especially so in the case of Dalit women whose so called deviance and sexual immorality works to imagine the purity, virginity and chastity of the Savarna woman.


Therefore we feel that she finds very little support for herself and can be very easily delegitimized as we saw in the case of Chithra Lekha and the other women who were harassed. In the case of the subaltern woman, this delegitimization is marked by a kind of violence that the Savarana woman might be better protected from. All this makes her situation much more dangerous and the women’s movement needs to be a construct a strong theoretical and activist position in order to understand and support such women.


However, this is our own formulation from outside a space we do not inhabit; therefore we would are ready to be corrected on any of these by women living and experiencing these fields. .



Further differences between women


It should also be mentioned here that in our field trip, we also met women who expressed satisfaction with the leftist trade unions. It is interesting to note that fellow auto drivers, spoke without much regard for these women too. When we went looking for them, we were old that they hardly come for work and could be found at home. However, we found at least two of
the women with their autos. These women also belittled their trade and talked about doing other "side-business", like selling nightgowns, for making ends meet. On the other hand, Elizabeth, Chithralekha and Jazeera were all efficient workers, who were able to earn more than their fellow, male, auto drivers
.


We were also stuck by this kind of a difference between women. At this point we feel that the harassed women were not only harassed as they belonged to a particular community or gender, but also because they were exhibiting skills and capabilities that allowed them to question and resist the limitations of these identities. We feel that it is by refusing to “live within" and "exceed" given boundaries (which we see clearly in all the harassed women) that Chithra Lekha and the other women, put forward their resistance. This resistance though it begins in a very personal and local manner, had wide ranging effect. Chithra’s “excess” not only led to her auto being burned. It also led to an entire movement against the leftist trade union at least in Payyannur. We feel that, years later Chithra will be remembered as one of those pioneering figures who raised her voice against the very violent and oppressive structure of the Left in Kerala.



Workers of the world Unite: The failure of the Leftist Dream


We come now to the second question that we wanted to tackle in this project. This is what we wrote in the initial proposal.


The next important question would be to look at the dominant Marxist party as an important institution in maintaining the hegemonic structure of caste, class, community and gender in Keralam. We would begin by searching for the roots of such a process in the history of modern Keralam, the rise and spread of the Left movement and the imagination and production of the Kerala model of development. We would then move on to map this on to the case in question.

Here the attempt would not stop with showing the Marxist party in Kerala as male (as in J Devika, and Praveena Kodoth ("Sexual Violence and Predicament of Feminist Politics in Kerala", Economic and Political Weekly Vol.36, No.33, 2001). We would also want to think about the caste and religion of the Male Marxist party in Kerala. Does it have one particular caste all over Keralam or does it take on the religious and caste colors of local dominant groups to sustain itself? We would try to see how such a process is carried out locally.

We will surely examine the self-presentation of the Left as progressive, modern and caste and gender neutral and show how this contradicts with the situation at hand. Here the question would be to see how the dominant Marxist institution engages with these contradictions. This engagement or negotiation, we will argue, is constantly reworking and re-articulating (not excluding or ignoring as suggested in many studies) cultural categories such as that of caste and gender, with immense consequences for Keralam.



After going through with this research project we feel that the living spaces in Kerala should be studied further to bring out its peculiarities which plays a significant role in the functioning of the Left in the contemporary. We will talk about it briefly here.


Eramangalam Panchayath in Payyanur town which is in the Kannur district is a very small undeveloped region. However, we cannot call this place a village. In fact, from the outside, like Eramangalam most panchayaths in North Kerala, even the most interior places, appear to be looks urbanized or at least like small towns. Here all modern facilities such as water, electricity, health care centres, private doctors, library, and even day care centres for children are in place. Nearby is the famous Paynanur college and the newly established branch of the Sanskrit University. Most panchayaths are also marked with small bazaars and busy bus routes that lead to the main town. The Eramangalam panchayath area is also similar. It is marked by numerous junctions or one bazaar areas, where there is a bus stop alongside the auto stand. The Edaatu auto stand where Chithra tried to run her auto has a small bakery, a tea shop, a Photostat cum STD booth, a vegetable shop and a small garage.


Yet if you are from such an area, you would surely know that this modern development combines itself with a very conventional and conservative mind-set severely marked by strict codes concerning caste, gender, religion and sexuality. The minute you get down from the bus, like we did in the Edaatu stand, you know that you are being watched, scrutinized and discussed mainly because you happen to be women. Anyone who has lived in such areas
can immediately recognize the very rustic, prying, gossiping nature of such panchayaths.


In large cities, one is not aware of even what is happening in the next street let alone the next municipal area. However, in such small towns in Kerala, the situation is different. For instance, we saw again and again how the marital relationships, personality traits and problems of people living in distant places were constantly being discussed. Moreover, as opposed to the city, where people come and go, in such spaces, we can see generations continuing and establishing deep rooted relationships based on caste, community, religion, etc.


In other words, in such regions urban facilities exists side by side with very rural mind sets and life styles. This might explain why a website, called Maps of India, describes Kerala like this:


Kerala is a highly urbanized state. The state is unique in the sense it has retained its traditional and cultural background at the face of such urbanization


We feel that such a balance is achieved in Kerala by a strict policing of all kinds of social mobility and difference which depends on constantly reiterating given codes of ideological conduct. As a part of this, modernized villages in Kerala, keeps track of, discusses and deals with anyone subverting ideological codes or exceeding given limits. This in turn gives Kerala its traditional, hard-to-change nature, which makes victims of all those who try to move out of this system.
We feel that this is what really happened in the case of Chithra Lekha.

She was one of those woman, a subaltern, who aspired to move out of the caste/gender identity within which the region had placed her. Thus the whole harassment was not only against a woman entering a male dominated field, but also against a dalit woman trying to subvert the very structure in which caste/gender boundaries determine a region. What is interesting here is the fact the same Left institution which is in many ways responsible for the rapid modernization of Kerala, is also the ones that play a huge role in maintaining this changed space well within the hegemonies of caste, gender, community and religion.


In the Chithra Lekha case, the Left came forward with all its power to play an active role in suppressing Chithra Lekha's aspirations, which in many ways challenged given ideological codes. We feel that is very important to understand the very local nature of this intervention by the Left. We could feel it everywhere during our field trip. We came to know that when Chithra Lekha complained against her harassers, the Leftist auto rickshaw drivers union, unleashed a huge public campaign against her. Huge boards were written and notices were distributed where in Chithra Lekha was accused of loose sexual morals. Her mother was called a whore and the activists of the action committee were termed pimps.


With this kind of a campaign, Chithra Lekha, who had once been a very popular driver – with many preferring her to the men in the auto stand –­­ suddenly fell from grace. All the local men we met told us about her loose morals. Women talked about her arrogant and unwomanly nature.
We saw a similar pattern in all the other cases of sexual harassment among women auto rickshaw drivers. Most of them were from developing panchayats like that of Chithra Lekha and were harassed by men with the support of Leftist trade unions.


However, we would not call this desire for cultural policing as belonging to the party alone. Instead we would say that this is the cultural desire of the region also, which the party strategically uses. In other words, it is not the Left that decides that the Malabar region remains in that manner. In stead the left institution becomes one of those primary means through which the region is maintained within the confines of caste/gender boundaries. whole villages can be taken over by the party. Once the party takes over a village, then local culture is performed under their supervision. The party interferes in the running of local culture, in traffic, in labor organization, marriages, deaths, conflicts and what not.. This is achieved through young men, mostly from OBC communities, who are trained to work for party. In return, as in the case of Chithra Lekha, the party provides them with a male space to belong and promises support in times of trouble. We feel that this structure of the party needs to be seriously studied.


Here are some details we gathered that would help such a study:

Kannur is an area dominated by CPI(M) and here whole villages can be taken over by the party. Once the party takes over a village, then local culture is performed under their supervision. The party interferes in the running of local culture, in traffic, in labor organization, marriages, deaths, conflicts and what not.. This is achieved through young men, mostly from OBC communities, who are trained to work for party. In return, as in the case of Chithra Lekha, the party provides them with a space to belong and promises support in times of trouble. We feel that this structure of the party needs to be seriously studied. This organization is mainly a male arena, with women rarely coming forward in substantial numbers to be part of this. This whole phenomenon is carried out OBC men and yet even in Kannur, many of the top most positions are held by Nairs and other upper caste. This structure often makes the party act in favour of Hindu savarna values and against Dalits and women. We would like to highlight two interesting details from Kannur at this point.


Kannur is going through an intense Hindu revivalist trend. Gulf money coming in from OBCs are being made use to re-establish – as it is called – old shrines and make them into temples. Recently in Kannur, some prominent Left leaders allowed their names to printed in a write-up, circulated for collecting fund for such an endeavour. Some prominent citizens of Kannur protested and had their names removed.

We were also told that the Left is strongly opposing the establishment of SNDP (the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana organization catering to the Ezhava community) in the North. We heard instances of people being beaten up, etc.


Another important fact that we noticed is the way in which violence has been made of part of the functioning of the party in Kannur. This has a long history in Kannur district, with relentless revenge killings of party workers and hindu-muslim conflicts, with the involvement of the party, being a usual story. It is this kind of a violence that was used against Chithra Lekha also.


We feel that there is a need for more ethnographic studies, which would document the backward caste men who are part of this whole process. This alone would give insights into how they get moulded into the hegemonic scheme of the party. What are their stakes in it and how much control, leadership do they gain? These can become interesting questions for a more elaborate study.

Along with his we feel there is a need to look more into the history of caste movements and how it was suppressed by the rising force of the Left in the early twentieth century. What happened in the process? What happened to the caste discourse once the class and ideology thinking got prominence? Who worked to bring about this? What were its impact on Kerala? Though these were questions we wanted to tackle in this project itself, we could not go far with this investigation. We intend to do this later as part of our continuing research work.



Living in conflict: The OBC-Dalit relationship


In our extended research proposal we wrote:


Another major area of interest would be the intricacies of the OBC-Dalit relationship which is crucial in this whole incident and which often goes unnoticed in any discussion on caste in Kerala. All over India, caste/gender violence is increasing between OBCs and Dalits. Being a progressive enlightened state, Keralam claims to be outside this with less number of atrocities. The Chithra Lekha case proves this wrong. From the outside this only looks like a case where there is a struggle between a woman and a trade union. However, we would try to show how the trade union is peopled by a distinct OBC community and how their objections to Chithra Lekha is based on notions of untouchability and gender made in the name of maintaining caste hegemony.

Lastly we would look at the role of subaltern masculinities (as many OBC men are involved in this incident) and the pressures that trigger violence in them, which then spills on to the city space. Here we would not want to pin point to the subaltern male – in this case, the OBC male - as the only violent creature existing in Keralam. Instead we would try to read his maleness with regard to the institution of Marxism and also in contrast to the invisible violence of men of hegemonic communities. Doing this, we will try to look at the historical caste/gender pressures that work both from within the community and the outside towards throwing the OBC man into the ambit of violence and caste and gender oppression.


We visited Chithra Lekha's hometown and her house where she does not live anymore. Most media representations talk about her as coming from a very poor background, and they also speak about her house which has no electricity and no municipal pipe connection. However on our visit we noticed something entirely different. We realized that no one mentions the fact that Chithra Lekha's little unfinished house stands at the very end of a kilometer long road which is filled with huge houses belonging to people from Hindu Backward caste communities who are sustained by Gulf money.

Here, Chithra Lekha's grandmother is called "mad woman", her mother is said to be a "prostitute" and Chithra Lekha herself is said to be "over smart and loose". More importantly, they are also socially ostracized from the mainstream constituted by the backward caste community through practices of untouchability.

It was clear to us that Chithra Lekha and family were functioning as the Dalit "other" of this region, dominated by socially mobile backward caste communities. Therefore, when Chithra Lekha chose to marry a Backward caste man and drive an auto rickshaw in an auto-stand dominated by such men, she was actually resisting the very structures that kept her underneath and was attempting to move into the mainstream of the contemporary.

To understand this region, we feel that we need to go back to the Dalit theorization about how the Kerala regional space has been structured in modernity in the way Dalits occupy space vis-à-vis OBCs in Kerala. In our further work we want to probe more into this difference starting with the Dalit theorization about such issues and looking for more clues to understanding the position of Backward caste communities in this dyad and the way Left organizations sustain and use them.


Such things do not happen here”: The contemporary of Kerala


We quote from our extended research proposal:


Our project stems from a deep dissatisfaction with the ways in which the politics of gender, caste and community has been articulated in the present academic situation. Usually conclusions are arrived at based on the un-problematized subjectivities (often upper caste and/or male) of the researchers. Always the question of gender leaves out the question of caste or community and vice versa. This research is an attempt to look at ways in which we can talk about the contemporary in terms of complex "overlapping cultural contexts" such as caste, class, gender, religion and sexual orientation. (Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990.)


This project has helped us engage with our restlessness regarding the whole project of progressive politics in Keralam today, which is focused only on the deconstruction of the secular, modern and often leftist notion of a progressive and enlightened Keralam. Agreeing fully with the need for this political project we still feel that it is not enough to talk about gender, caste and community as categories that were excluded by the modern imagination and its by product, the Kerala model of development. (T T Sreekumar and S Sanjeev, Katha Ithuvare: Kerala Vikasana Samvadangal (The story thus far: Debates on Kerala's Development) Kottayam, DC books, 2003.) We feel that we need to move forward theoretically so as to think about how the modern cultural forces and Left politics in Keralam have not only excluded certain categories, but has also worked to formulate the way they are experienced, recognized and lived out in the contemporary situation.

In this section we will write about those insights we have gained about the contemporary in Kerala through our research project. Howe does caste/gender function today? How is it experienced? Our main argument against the usual way of deconstructing Kerala progressiveness was because we knew that Kerala’s progressiveness was a reality for Malayalees. This was not only a myth constructed to sustain a culture of savarna patriarchal hegemony. This myth had a currency among people, was used by and against them and was very much alive in their midst. Through this study, one of our main attempts was to show how this was made possible in the contemporary of Kerala.


First of all we feel that the caste/gender structure in Kerala is kept alive not in spite or against but by the myth of progressiveness. Often issues of caste, gender and community uses the progressive mantle to circulate and gain currency. For instance, when questioned about the existence of untouchability in Chithra Lekha’s panchayath, we were again and again told the following: such things do not happen now, they did happen a long time ago, then untouchable castes could not even use the public roads, but now they go to school, gain education and can aspire for any career.” Laborers, autodrivers, teachers, lecturers and even some intellectuals reiterated this view to us. In fact even in the media reports about the Chithra Lekha case, we saw this attitude prevailing. Most of the reports talked about this case as an aberration that happened in the liberated space of Kerala. Many of them mentioned the valiant struggles that had been conducted against caste in the region when speaking about current caste practices.


Here it would be relevant to mention some interesting information about the caste practices in Chithra Lekha’s village. We were told by people belonging to all castes and communities that untouchability was not practiced in Kannur. However, Chithra Lekha, we came to know, had publicly spoken out about practices of untouchability. Her main contention was that they were not allowed to draw water from the common well in her panchayath. When we investigated further we came to know that women from OBC castes would draw water for Dalit families so as to prevent them from touching the well. Even Chithra Lekha’s mother contended that this was not a major offence and that she even tried to take it thinking that it would save her from drawing water from the well. However, Chithra, she said, was not ready to put up with all that. We heard the same story from men and women belonging to the OBC group in the village who were treated in a similar manner by savarna communities. Here is what an OBC man told us: “no one would think that this was a caste offence because they were drawing water for us from the well”


We must understand that in many other regions in India the issue is entirely different. There Dalits are violently prevented from accessing water from public wells. However, in Kerala, caste movements and the many cultural transformations that came with modernity has achieved a kind of resolution, which is different from that of any other region. According to this resolution there is one way in which a progressive picture is presented – water is allowed to be taken from the well, or in other words, they are not prevented from taking the water – and yet at the same time caste hierarchies are allowed to remain by reinstating another ritual in its place.


Here it is clear how acts of exclusion and discrimination are often conducted well within the range of the progressive discourse. Therefore it is not only important to reject and resist this progressive discourse to show the prevalence of caste/gender, etc in Kerala. We also have to keenly observe how the progressive discourse in Kerala (born out of the negotiations that happened in the beginning of the modern era) structures the present in a particular manner. This peculiarity has to be studied to gain insight into how culture functions in the highly urbanized context of the contemporary in Keralam.



Conclusion: Finishing thoughts


As we mentioned in the beginning of this report, both of us are researchers from the humanities field. As our sample work would have shown, we have been trained in working with texts, to produce new texts. However, our caste/gender locations always placed us outside and beyond the scope of most given academic texts. Therefore the need to create new tools, new questions and new theory has been very much part of our research lives. We knew that going to the field and gathering data about facts and facets that does not enter the university discourse would prove important for us. This project has helped us a great deal in moving in this direction. We had started with three important theoretical questions. One about sexual harassment, one the Left organization in North Kerala and about the OBC Dalit relationship, This project has helped us gain enough data, insight and material for working further on all these levels. Most probably in our coming works we would be building on the knowledge we have gained from this and move on to newer areas.


Before we conclude we want to thank Sreejith Paithale, who stood with us in solidarity and support through out our field work trip. And always we would remember with deep respect the strength and courage of Chithra Lekha that made her raise her voice against oppressive local practices. It is this which gives voice to this study and to our own concerns about the way all our lives are structured and arranged.




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always want to defend peace, justice, peoples' right to love each other and live with dignity,struggles against parochial visions and hatred;instinctively a defender of socialist and democratic values  

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