By Mrudula Bhavani and Haroon Kavanur
Being a Dalit auto driver in Kannur’s Edat, Chitra Lekha had faced caste atrocities in the form of violent attacks since 2004, inflicted by CPI(M) affiliated individuals. In an interview given to Keyboard Journal, Chitra Lekha speaks of her thoughts on converting to Islam, how ingrained is caste system and Islamophobia.
Chitra Lekha’s fight that is on for almost twenty years is a fight against the caste system and the institutions that sustain caste hierarchy. But, that fight has been interpreted in many ways as a fight against CPI(M), fighting because of Congress lenience, etc. by followers and members of CPI(M). Recently, you said you are thinking about converting to Islam and a furor is on after your statement. What do you have to say at this point?
My condition is almost similar to that of a Muslim by now, only after hearing that I am thinking of conversion. For a Muslim, to be branded a terrorist, a Muslim name is enough. When in northern states it’s the RSS that victimize Dalits and Muslims, in Kerala it is the CPI(M) doing it. In Kerala, the RSS and CPI(M) are together in victimizing Muslims and Dalits, by charging UAP(A). I associate myself with the politics of Dalit- Muslim unity because of this fact. I used to talk about this. I think not much people had foreseen it. A lot of people propagate this politics. This is a factor. A section of people are frenzied that I’m thinking about embracing Islam. The news goes like they do not know the difference between Islam and Islamic organizations. They have a problem with SDPI. SDPI isn’t a banned organization. SDPI, Welfare party or Popular Front aren’t banned organizations. But why there is such a frenzy when they hear about conversion to ‘Islam’? I have to meet my basic needs, I will accept it from SDPI, Popular Front, or Congress, because my condition demands it. I need a space to live in.
You were forced to quit your home in Edat and shift to Puthiyatheru. The previous government allotted you land and money to build a house, construction of which is still unfinished. How did you survive in all these years?
When they burnt my auto in 2004, I had to run behind the case and courts for long years. I went on with protests. If the Dalit communities joined hands in this fight, I wouldn’t be in this situation. For us, it is only the courts we could trust to get justice. Even from the court, I didn’t feel like I availed justice. I was trialed in a way I had to tell them who are my parents. I was asked how many husbands my mother had and how many wives my father had, how many fathers I have. I fought these questions. The prosecution was silent, when the counsel of the accused asked these questions. The court asked me to ignore it but I finally got fed up and told that I had to come to the court with a case about how my auto is destroyed, not to find out about my parents. I’ve had to go through such situations. Attempts are on to criminalize me as a terrorist. If Dalits who support me now had come before, justice would’ve been a reality for me. My entire protest is about they destroyed my auto. I didn’t get justice from district administration or the court, I had to forcefully move out from my homeland. We demanded the Oommen Chandy government five cents of land and a house for rehabilitation. The demand was a means to continue working freely. We can’t work when we are continuously being attacked.
We still have police protection, but the police aren’t protecting us. When I was in Payyanur, when I returned home after protesting for a week there was a police station march by CPI(M) demanding to drive me out from my homeland. When I finally reached Kattampally, the local CPI(M) activists wanted to drive me out from here as well, they held a march to the collectorate from Puthiyatheru with the same demand. In 2016, we got land entitlement and the construction of our house began. We had taken loan for that. By the time LDF government came into power they cancelled the amount the state government allowed for house. Following that, Azhikode MLA KM Shaji and Green voice Abu Dhabi together helped us with concreting the house. By then the government cancelled our ownership over the allotted land. We bought stay order on that from the High Court. Everything is in standstill now, in the pandemic, if we protest we will have no place to sleep. I had thought about suicide many times. I had written about it on facebook. Nobody enquired about such situations I had gone through. When I say I have a plan on embracing Islam they all enquire and give advice. What dress should I wear, which religion I should choose, which politics I must have, these all are my rights. whether I should join Congress, SDPI or Welfare party, all these are up to me.
The intelligence officials asked me, “why you want to be a Muslim, not a Christian”. It sounds funny. I replied them when I was protesting in Kannur, Arch Bishop Father Alex Vadakkunnel offered me one acre land if I convert to Christianity. When I made that news then, these officials didn’t come. These are the same people who come to enquire about my conversion. They asked me where did I get the ‘seed’ of Islam. They wanted to know who gave it. I asked them do I not have the right to choose it independently. They say yes, you have. When I ask why you ask such questions then, they say Islam is the problem. I don’t understand why they find Islam a problem.
A Muslim gets tagged as terrorist, we know what happened to Allen and Thaha. They were charged with UAPA and jailed by their own party. If I embrace Islam, they would brand me a terrorist, they may jail me with a charge that have no reason, for years, like Maudani. I expect nothing else. What all Hadiya had faced! I foresee all these. I am thinking of all sides. I will decide only then. This government is the one that destroyed my life and means for life. Police under the same government questions me now. No party enquired about my needs. There was no police, no court on my side. I am still on the streets.
Is your decision a protest against casteist oppression? Is this decision a result of indifference from people towards your struggle?
Lots of people have come in support and response. Once they get to know the core of our problem, they retrieve. Because, my fight is against a political party that holds all power and influence. Now they are the one who rules. I am not safe. I can’t work. At any time, anything can happen to me. Those who come to help me certainly will be afraid. I don’t think a person alone can fight a political party like this. The reason I’m alive today is may be because people get to know things.
Our basic demand is a house. By what we experienced till date we know that they will attack only in the darkness. In the day light they won’t come. They either murder you when you are asleep or bomb your house, only in darkness. All the murders they did happened in darkness. Look at TP Chandrasekharan. In a house without doors we can’t sleep in peace. Our basic need is a house.
In Islam I see unity. Islam provides fearlessness and safety.
How did the Dalit organizations respond to your thought?
If there were interventions from their side all through in our problems, if they had tried to end it, I wouldn’t be here with this thought now. If Dalits are going in ‘one organization one leader’ way, there won’t be any unity among Dalits. If my ‘change of mind’ can form a sense of unity among them, let it be. I hope Dalit- Muslim unity as a political movement could protect our rights.
So this move is for a new existence?
I will continue asking questions until I am alive. I will ask my questions if I embrace Islam, how long I can ask, I will ask them. I started my fight, I can try finishing it. I see how protective people have become! CPIM is a labor class party. They say there is no religion, no caste, no god. It is from the same party I faced all the attacks. But see, the Kerala CM’s daughter has married a Muslim, at the same time I can’t understand a CPIM affiliate’s fear when Chithra Lekha plans to embrace Islam.
CPI(M) claims that they are with the oppressed classes. Along with EMS’s land reforms, he theorized the provision of Economically Weaker Sections’ reservation. In all means, the party considers caste as primary. What do you think about the way in which the civil society has ignored addressing this fact? In your struggle, how do you look at this connection between caste and CPI(M)?
For CPIM, Dalits are just for pasting posters and lengthening their rallies. They say they enacted land reforms. But the reality is Dalits are pushed in to three cents colonies. Now, houses in these colonies would be as old as land reforms history. SC/ST funds that could’ve helped the Dalits are going lapse. If they are pro-Dalit, these funds would reach their hands. It is the labor class party that pushed me into this condition. Our society does not understand this. I wish our society to reach the point where it can understand it as such. They might be pretending as if they do not understand. They still consider us as lowly. While talking about reservation, in the panchayat election there are Dalit candidates. But who reaches the parliament? Can we even dream having a Dalit chief minister?
The LIFE mission flats are being discussed following the scams which got exposed recently. Various studies and reports cite that LIFE mission is just replacing the colonies to flats. Recently, you protested the building of such flats in your locality. Can you tell us what you think of Life mission flats?
I held a single day fasting. They have settled the plot right back to where our house is on. They shift Dalit families from colonies to flats, there is no point. A room in it won’t be spacious. Dalits do not own land. Vertical rehabilitation is useless. If they want to uplift the Dalits, they must provide all which are rightfully theirs. Where will the body of the dead be buried? If there is three cents land, the body can be buried at least in the kitchen. I even doubt the flat mission is a pre planned move to implement EWS for savarnas. That is very doubtful. When I am provided with land and money to build house and I experience the worst, then what will be the condition of Dalits who are being shifted from colonies to flats? The scam involved by the likes of Swapna Suresh has taken away crores allotted for Life mission. The government themselves handles the funds, takes amounts as commission. Corruption is called commission. They won’t use terms like corruption. Swapna Suresh got crores as commission. A very small amount from that would do for renovating a colony.
For the government, the LIFE mission is only a means to steal from SC/ST fund. The central government’s funds aren’t reaching any of our younger generation. There are lots of houses in these colonies, almost dilapidated. In 2016, when I went to Trivandrum to contest in election from Aruvikkara constituency, the colonies were in worst condition, even asbestos sheets broken and leaking. We are living in a rented house. There are lots of people who are in worst conditions. How many Dalits you can find in a government office? one to least four. In a village office, there won’t be any Dalits. They accuse Dalits of taking up seats through reservation. But Dalits are excluded. The so called ‘Rich Dalits’ would be the ones who waited for long to studies and job, saving up all the salaries! That’s how it is.