She Also Made History

Chithralekha, a Dalit woman autorickshaw driver in Kerala, has become an unwitting symbol of resistance against caste hegemony in her state
True Life
(Photo: MOHAN SK)
MAKING ENDS MEET Chithralekha and her grandmother make mats with palm leaves to enhance their income

Eramangalathu Chithralekha, a Dalit woman autorickshaw driver in Kerala, has never been one for conventions. Even two decades ago, as a child growing up in Payyannur in Kannur district, she simply couldn’t understand why she was not allowed to draw water from the public well. Chithralekha and her family had to rely on ‘upper castes’ to give them water. While her mother convinced herself that this was convenient—at least they were saved the headache of pulling up a heavy bucket filled with water—Chithralekha could never get used to it. In school, too, it stung when her classmates made fun of her for the so-called ‘favours’ they got from the government for being Dalits. Chithralekha, now an autorickshaw driver in her late thirties and the mother of two children, has consistently been intolerant of all the caste and moral codes imposed on her. This has, however, meant that life hasn’t been easy on her. She has no dearth of enemies, chief among them the local wing of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the CPM-affiliated trade union to which most autorickshaw drivers in Payyannur belong. She consistently faces harassment, her autorickshaw was burnt once, and she and her husband Shreeshkant have even faced physical violence thrice.

Talk to any local CPM man or make an enquiry at the local police station, they will offer a strange list of observations to rationalise what has happened with her and her husband over the past decade: Chithralekha is reckless, immoral and aggressive; she drinks alcohol and is rough with people; she is a ‘loose woman’, as is her mother; she does not know how to behave; and she is not feminine (because she talks loudly and laughs uproariously). The latest in this list of charges is that she and her husband are thieves. According to Circle Inspector of Police CA Abdul Rahim, Chithralekha is using her caste status as a weapon, threatening people that she would get them booked under the SC/ST Act. As far as this police officer is concerned, caste-based discrimination does not exist in the town.

Chithralekha’s life was quite typical of other families in her community till she got her autorickshaw. Her father abandoned his wife and three children when she was just five. Her mother, Narayani, took up all sorts of menial jobs to bring up her children and to send them to school. Chithralekha studied till Class X and then did a short-term course in nursing and midwifery. She married early, had two children and was abandoned by her husband when she was 22.

After that, she found it tough to continue with her nursing job as it involved a lot of night shifts and she didn’t want to leave her two children alone. So, she left nursing and decided to learn driving. Under the People’s Planning Programme of the then Left government, Chithralekha got trained to drive an autorickshaw and subsequently, in 2004, got her licence. She managed to buy an autorickshaw under the Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana (PMRY) scheme the same year. “I chose to buy an autorickshaw for two reasons. First, I could keep my work hours flexible and as per my convenience. Second, I didn’t have to work under anybody,” she says.

But that’s when the troubles began. At the autorickshaw stand, she was greeted with scornful comments on her caste identity. Chithralekha was not just a Dalit woman who had dared to enter a male domain, she had also broken caste codes by marrying a man from the Thiyya community. Her second husband Shreeshkant’s family were CPM loyalists and he himself was an active worker of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the party’s youth wing. On the first night of the marriage, Shreeshkant was forcefully taken away by his relatives and party workers. They tried to persuade him to separate from Chithralekha and even beat him up for not yielding to their demands. “Since then, we have been ostracised by his relatives. Then, when I entered a profession where there was no woman till that day, this ostracisation was complete,” says Chithralekha.

“Initially, it was very difficult,” she adds. “It took three months to get a permit to drive the auto in Payyannur town. When I parked my auto in the stand, they would make another queue leaving space behind my vehicle to give passengers the impression that my auto did not belong to the queue and they should not board it.” It was not just her caste that created bitterness with CITU autorickshaw drivers. “They also had a problem with me for getting more trips. Being the only woman auto driver, Muslim families in the locality preferred to call me for family trips,” she explains.

The rift took a violent turn on 11 October 2005, the day after Navami puja. Chithralekha found that her autorickshaw’s windscreen had been broken and its hood ripped. “I knew the person who did that. When I questioned him, he turned violent and tried to run me over with his auto.” Chithralekha lodged a complaint with the police and he was arrested.

Infuriated, CITU autorickshaw drivers pasted posters against Chithralekha across town, filed a counter complaint against her that she was a drug addict, and launched a smear campaign that she was a drunkard and a sex worker. It turned worse. A few nights later, her autorickshaw was burnt down. Life almost came to a standstill. Chithralekha was then living in a locality dominated by the CPM. Most people there were of the ‘higher caste’ Maniyani community. The fury of local CITU workers spread across the place and Chithralekha and her family were forced to flee. “We shifted to Badakara [in Kozhikode district]; we rented a house there and attempted other menial jobs.” After some time, human rights activists in Kerala and beyond took up her case, and collected funds to buy her a new autorickshaw. In February 2008, the key of the vehicle was handed over to Chithralekha by CK Janu, a tribal leader and a prominent public figure in Kerala.

After this, Chithralekha and her husband returned to Payyannur, building their lives from scratch. In January 2010, though, they again faced violence while on their way to buy medicine for their son, who had been stung by a bee. “I was driving, Shreeshkant, our son and my brother were in the backseat. We parked the auto next to a chemist’s shop and Shreeshkant went to buy the medicine. A group of auto drivers asked me to remove my vehicle from that place. I tried to explain that I was only waiting for my husband to come back with medicine, but they refused to listen and insisted that I clear out. When I refused, the scene turned violent and I was attacked. Shreeshkant tried to resist, but he too got injured. Someone called the police, but the police were convinced that we were responsible for what had happened. They treated me like a criminal,” says Chithralekha.

The police and CITU insist that Chithralekha and her husband were drunk and tried to park the auto in violation of the queue. They say that they tried to take Chithralekha for a medical examination to check the presence of alcohol in her body, but she refused to cooperate. But Chithralekha counters that there was no attempt to find out whether her son had actually been stung by a bee and if they had gone there to buy medicine.

A fact-finding team of Dalit activists and academicians landed in Kannur over the issue. The report of the four-member team, including activist Gail Omvedt and Professor Nivedita Menon of JNU, which was published in Kafila.org, concluded that the ‘inability to tolerate this Dalit woman’s assertiveness, stubborn courage and confidence despite her caste and gender’ is the sole explanation of recurrent violence against her. This was not the first article written on Chithralekha; even before, there had been a series of articles on the untiring battle of a Dalit woman against caste oppression. I myself have written one such article in Tehelka in 2010. Chithralekha had become a point of discussion among activists, intellectuals and writers.

On 18 May 2013, there was more violence, this time at her home. Chithralekha, her husband and children were inside their house when their window panes were broken, resulting in her sustaining minor injuries. Apparently, this was the culmination of a quarrel between Chithralekha and her neighbours. There was an invitation event held in her neighbourhood, and vehicles were parked on the road leading to her house. Chithralekha asked them to get the cars out of the way as her husband wanted to take the autorickshaw out. This led to the altercation. One might argue that the violence was spontaneous, but it is worth wondering if a Dalit woman who refused to compromise despite facing frequent violence may already have become an object of caste hatred for many around.

When I met Chithralekha last week, I realised that her life continues to be as hard as ever. Her husband Shreeshkant had rat-bite fever and has been seriously ill since last year. He cannot drive his autorickshaw regularly. Chithralekha revealed that she had to sell her mobile phone since there was an acute shortage of money in the house. There is a huge coconut plantation adjacent Chithralekha’s house that belongs to a private company. Chithralekha collects the coconuts that fall in the plantation, and she and her grandmother, who lives with her, make mats with palm leaves. Despite all this, they struggle to make ends meet. Their house with two tiny rooms and a kitchen remains incomplete as they have been denied financial aid from the CPM-governed panchayat. She has also been excluded from local self-help groups. Besides, she cannot hope for employment under the NREGA simply because the CPM dominates Payyannur.

Chithralekha, in the meantime, knows she is something of a symbol of resistance and behaves accordingly. She knows activists and mediapersons are only interested in the story of an educated Dalit woman fighting a stiff battle against caste hegemony. She tells them only about those aspects of her life, never the one of an ordinary woman living on the margins.