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Carmel Christy and Jenny Rowena, Living Outside the Track--A Woman Worker’s Struggle against Caste and Patriarchy in Kerala, India

Carmel Christy and Jenny Rowena, Living Outside the Track--A Woman Worker’s Struggle against Caste and Patriarchy in Kerala, India

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Chithralekha, a Dalit woman, from Payyanur in Kannur, Kerala, was one of the first woman auto drivers to enter a workplace dominated by men from higher castes.
Chithralekha is a symbol and sign of the marginalization that Dalits face in modern Kerala. Her small, 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, Chithralekha and her family function as the
Dalit "other" of this region. This is clear from the fact that Chithralekha's grandmother is
branded mad, her mother called a local "prostitute" and Chithra is also looked down upon
for her non-womanly, aggressive character and “loose morals.” Most importantly, (as
Chithralekha has revealed to the world in her interviews and interactions) even today
there are rituals based on untouchability which is practiced in this panchayat (and in the
entire Malabar region) which claims for itself a modern, secular and progressive identity.
In addition, the fact that she is married to a man from an OBC community has led to
continuous victimization of both by the local Thiya-CPI(M) nexus.
Chithralekha, a Dalit woman, from Payyanur in Kannur, Kerala, was one of the first woman auto drivers to enter a workplace dominated by men from higher castes.
Chithralekha is a symbol and sign of the marginalization that Dalits face in modern Kerala. Her small, 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, Chithralekha and her family function as the
Dalit "other" of this region. This is clear from the fact that Chithralekha's grandmother is
branded mad, her mother called a local "prostitute" and Chithra is also looked down upon
for her non-womanly, aggressive character and “loose morals.” Most importantly, (as
Chithralekha has revealed to the world in her interviews and interactions) even today
there are rituals based on untouchability which is practiced in this panchayat (and in the
entire Malabar region) which claims for itself a modern, secular and progressive identity.
In addition, the fact that she is married to a man from an OBC community has led to
continuous victimization of both by the local Thiya-CPI(M) nexus.

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Published by: Waliullah Ahmed Laskar on Feb 27, 2010
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05/11/2014

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FINAL REPORT“LIVING OUTSIDE THE TRACK”A WOMAN WORKER’S STRUGGLE AGAINST CASTE AND PATRIARCHY INKERALABackground on the History of Violence against Chithralekha and on the Decision toset up a Fact-finding Team
Carmel Christy and Jenny Rowena, Feminists Kerala Network Chithralekha, a Dalit woman, from Payyanur in Kannur, Kerala, was one of the firstwoman auto drivers to enter a workplace dominated by men from higher castes.Chithralekha is a symbol and sign of the marginalization that Dalits face in modernKerala. Her small, unfinished house stands at the very end of a kilometer long road whichis filled with huge houses belonging to people from Hindu Backward caste communitieswho are sustained by Gulf money. Here, Chithralekha and her family function as theDalit "other" of this region. This is clear from the fact that Chithralekha's grandmother is branded mad, her mother called a local "prostitute" and Chithra is also looked down uponfor her non-womanly, aggressive character and “loose morals.” Most importantly, (asChithralekha has revealed to the world in her interviews and interactions) even todaythere are rituals based on untouchability which is practiced in this panchayat (and in theentire Malabar region) which claims for itself a modern, secular and progressive identity.In addition, the fact that she is married to a man from an OBC community has led tocontinuous victimization of both by the local Thiya-CPI(M) nexus.So, right from the beginning there was a strong resistance to her and there was a threemonth delay in giving her a membership of the auto drivers’ union. Later, when she wenton to become an efficient and extremely popular auto rickshaw driver, the resistanceagainst her took a violent turn. Soon she was subject to many acts of workplace1
 
harassments by her fellow auto drivers. She was routinely called derogatory caste names,on one occasion, the hood of her auto was ripped, and a fellow driver even tried to runher over with his vehicle. Chithra, a fiercely independent woman, protested against all of this, lodging complaints with the police and even managing to get one of the workersarrested and taken to the police station with the help of a local Dalit activist. In the courseof her protest, she also brought to light the fact that her district and locality still practiceduntouchability, albeit in modern forms.Once the issue went outside the purview of the local auto stand, the auto drivers unionand the local CPI (M) goons adopted a new tactic and started tarnishing her image withwide spread poster campaigns. Through these posters Chithralekha was branded as asexually loose woman, a woman who drinks, whose mother was a sex worker, who talkslike a man, who does not listen and who does not know how to behave. The caste issueraised by her, the CITU, CPI (M) propaganda claimed, was only Chithralekha’s ploy tohide her own loose morality. With such a campaign, Chithra lost all support in thelocality with even woman auto drivers in distant stands convinced of her “bad” character.What is important here is the fact that most people responsible for victimizingChithralekha are official members of a trade union affiliated to the Marxist party and theydeny any kind of caste/gender angle to the whole debate. However, the Left is leading acriminalized social network, with Backward Caste communities as its leaders and footsoldiers, in a highly casteist and masculine manner. In the Chithralekha case, the Leftcame forward with all its power to play an active role in suppressing Chithralekha'saspirations, which in many ways challenged given ideological codes.However, Chithra continued to fight back this kind of a representation and by aligningwith Dalit and feminist activists, she managed to organize a huge protest and bring forth ahuge media coverage about her issue. They convened a Dalit woman convention in her home town in which it was decided that there would be a local initiative to rehabilitateher with a new auto. However, the committee could only arrange a rented auto andChithralekha could not ply the same, due to various reasons. So she surrendered the autoto the committee in ten days. After this she lost touch with the members of the Citizen’s2
 
Initiative and the feminists and became more prone to attacks from the local CPI (M) andCITU. In a few days her relative who was mistaken for her husband was attacked andsoon Chithra had to flee her hometown and live in a far away town, in a rented house,almost in hiding.It was at this time that yet another Citizen’s Initiative with strong support from local andother Dalit activists were launched to talk about her present situation and to rehabilitateher. This was also based in Kannur but this time things were different. There was widecirculation of the issue through the internet and she found the support from people allover India. As part of this, a Chithralekha Rehabilitation committee was formed and agroup of people collected enough money to help her procure a new auto rickshaw, whichwas handed over to her by the prominent Adivasi activist, C K Janu, in a public functionin Kannur. After this there were some negotiations with the local CPI (M) leaders too andsoon Chithra started running her auto from the Payyanur stand itself.In the meantime she lost her case against the CITU and was also engaged in further struggles with the local CPI(M) about the bureaucratic obstacles that they were placing inrebuilding her house. Small arguments were continuously happening between the localCITU and Chithralekha. This is mainly because the local CITU had never accepted her, asmart, assertive and independent Dalit woman, as part of their male, Caste Hindu fold.They always saw Chithralekha who does not fit into the typical Malayalee imagination of the “good woman” as an immoral and worthless woman.It is at this point that the current incident happened on January 20
th
.
The Need for a Fact Finding Team
The Feminists Kerala Network is a loose network based in Kerala and outside, of feminists, Dalit activists, queer activists and other individuals involved with new socialmovements in Kerala. The FKN decided to take up this case as they felt thatChithralekha’s was not an individual case. As some other studies by Feminists Kerala Network members have shown, another Dalit woman’s auto rickshaw was burned a fewyears back in Kannur. Yet another Dalit woman was branded a sex worker and was3

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