The arrest of two Dalit women and the use of non-bailable charges against them for their alleged scrap with some CPM workers in Kannur district of northern Kerala has caused a major image-challenge for the month-old Pinarayi Vijayan government even as a defiant CPM is trying to brush it aside as a non-event and political conspiracy.
The development became a convenient anti-CPM rallying point for the Congress, the BJP, and Dalit activists when one of the women attempted suicide on Sunday, reportedly at the insults of a DYFI (youth wing of the CPM) leader on TV and abusive party-trolls on the social media.
There are four critical keywords in this case that spell trouble for the CPM: Dalit, women, social exclusion, and misuse of authority. Both the opposition and activists are targeting the government on these grounds and they are justified to a considerable extent. The recent Jisha murder case, in which these elements were at play, makes the context strikingly topical.
Trying to defend the party through highhanded and condescending ways, CPM leaders and their surrogates are dragging themselves into more trouble because their position and language on the issue are patently intolerant and inflammatory. Most bizarre, or rather foolish, was the response of the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who told the media to ask the police when they sought his opinion. Ironically, one of the first promises he made at the time of swearing in was safety for women and children, and equal justice to all. In this case, both the promises were at risk.
The incident that has snowballed into the present controversy, on which even the national leaders of the Congress and the BJP have responded, happened on 11 June. Two Dalit women in a village in Thalassery (in Kannur) allegedly barged into a CPM branch committee office when they were fed up of the anti-caste taunts by a few party cadres. The women say that they had been targets of incessant caste-abuse and even obscene language by CPM workers for years that they couldn't take any more, and hence went to their office to confront the abusive men.
The CPM alleges that the women were politically motivated, and attacked the men with a piece of wood without provocation.
However, the CPM alleges that the women were politically motivated, and attacked the men with a piece of wood without provocation. They charge that it was the enactment of a conspiracy to besmirch the party because the women belong to the family of a Congressman, who has an axe to grind. The women filed a case under the SC&ST (Prevention of) Atrocities Act for which the local police arrested three CPM men. The party filed a counter-case of trespassing and causing hurt by dangerous weapons, certainly an overkill meant to intimidate them.
'STALIN ERA GULAGS'
The case against the party-men and their arrest were relatively unnoticed, but the action against the women, particularly their arrest and stay in jail for a day, attracted considerable media attention because the charges were excessive (including a non-bailable offence) and because one of the women had her young daughter with her when she was sent to jail. The optics was very bad for the CPM because they had always been notorious for their extra-constitutional control of certain pockets in the district, which are otherwise called "party-villages".
The incident exposes two perpetual allegations against the CPM: that in their "party-villages" in Kannur normal life is impossible for people who don't toe their political line, and two, they don't know how to deal with Dalit-issues. In this case, the women's father is an active Congress worker and hence their family has been allegedly under constant attack from the CPM. Since majority of the families in the village are CPM-supporters, thanks to the unassailable writ of compulsory compliance, the women and their family have been ostracised.
Well known Malayalam writer Paul Zachariah compares these party pockets with Stalin era Gulags. "The left rules this area like the Gulag [cruel labour camps in 1930-1950 run by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin]," he recently told the BBC.
'STAND-ALONE DALIT RESISTANCE'
Although the CPM can refute the charges by the women as baseless and politically motivated, responses by two of their spokespersons - AN Shamseer, a party MLA from the district and PV Divya, a DYFI leader - on TV willy nilly pointed to the existence of the social conditions that the women alleged. In fact Divya was shockingly discriminatory when she said the women were a "social nuisance" and behaved like "quotation" gangs (the term for contract criminals in Kerala). She also said that there were cases against them and that their neighbours didn't like them. Everything that Divya said added up to organised social boycott. Shamseer too portrayed the women and her family as trouble makers that the locality didn't like.
In fact, in Kerala, Dalit activists accuse the CPM of false-claims of whatever socio-political gains they had achieved, and even for being anti-Dalit.
The prejudicial and judgmental views on the women by Shamseer and DIvya pointed to exactly the same situation that Jisha's family encountered: shaming, hostility and exclusion by local residents.
(An activist of All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) speaks during a protest against the rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Indian state of Kerala, in New Delhi, India, May 4, 2016. AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Both Shamseer and Divya, as well as Vijayan who chose to ignore questions from the media, also exemplified the CPM's duplicity on Dalit issues, which came under attack following the Rohith Vemula tragedy as well. Ideologically, the party doesn't believe in stand-alone Dalit resistance because it thinks its universal idea of class struggle will take care of it.
More over, despite its claims, it doesn't have much to show in terms of Dalit politics. In fact, in Kerala, Dalit activists accuse the CPM of false-claims of whatever socio-political gains they had achieved, and even for being anti-Dalit. In one of the TV discussions, Mridula Devi, a Dalit activist, told Shamseer that his party had no right to claim any of the victories of Dalits in the state. Recently, the most prominent icon of Adivasi politics in the state, CK Janu, hit out against the CPM and joined the BJP.
Mridula Devi was right because most of their gains had been achieved even before even the CPM (then the undivided CPI) was born. In fact, what the CPM allegedly practised in the case of the Dalit women was the pre-1940s style social exclusion and discrimination. The allegations of social outcasting of non-CPM families in their "party villages" do not reflect civilised politics of a modern democracy, but archaic feudal values and clannishness backed by ideological bigotry.
In this incident, the CPM is hopelessly exposed not only for their intimidating ways, but also for their condescending, flawed and patronising position on Dalits. It's time they learned the meaning of agency and human rights.