Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Caught between parties, poverty, Chengara Dalits can't go out to vote

Indian Express

Barely a hundred kilometres from where K R Narayanan began his journey to become the country's first Dalit President, Dalits - even in thousands - can't easily step out and vote on April 16. The exit from their 21-month-long settlement in Harrison Malayalam's plantation is routinely blockaded by the rubber estate's union activists, mainly of CITU. If they have to get out through the adjoining forest land, they will have to brave surprise encounters with patrolling gangs. Their big fear is that if they leave for polling en bloc, their meagre possessions could vanish. Worse, they may be stopped forever from returning to their newfound homeland - over which, to begin with, they have no legal rights.

Nearly 5,000 mobilised Dalit families from all over the state marched into the Chengara estate in August 2007 not to stay put. According to their leader Laha Gopalan, it was primarily to assert Dalit rights over suitable land anywhere in the state. In the first flush of the Achuthanandan-led Left Government, the famously crusading Chief Minister was expected to do a good turn. Instead, he chose to endorse his party that led a trade union assault on the encroachers. With the Congress eventually warming up to the anti-Left plank and the BJP eyeing first-time votes, their unions backed out (at least, officially) leaving the Left to take on the Dalits. There is a court order for eviction but "without bloodshed". So both camps are waiting for a bloodless coup.

All this is common knowledge in the state. The problem starts when you try to actually go in and find out more. Across the estate road five women workers are sitting on plastic chairs to block your way. A man on a bike appears to do the tough talking.

"No way you can go in and do your one-sided sob story!"

"What's your side of the story?"


He is equally tight-lipped about his identity. It is not difficult to identify his bike though. It is registered in the name of the plantation.

Finally, after a half-hour trek through the thin forest when you reach the squatters, you see a touristy Kerala turned upside down. The scenic slopes are dotted with shacks - bare earth for floors, plastic sheets for roofs and shaky rubber wood for support. An uncluttered expanse of slums that has begun to function like countryside homesteads.
Some sneak out to do odd jobs in the neighbourhood; some stay back, grow vegetables, rear livestock, slaughter the near-dead rubber trees and sell the sap to buyers that include more than willing CITU men. The squatters are turning into settlers, a few armed with mobile phones to beat the siege.

Barring the odd drunken outburst, it is a composed lot that makes easy conversation in a variety of Malayalam dialects that reveals the demographic spread. This all-Dalit mini-Kerala clearly prefers an uncertain community slum life to the random distress of low-skill job hunts from their scattered three-cent households, allotted by the Government decades ago. This, says C P John, an early Chengara activist from the Congress-led front and an erstwhile CPI(M) man, is a basic flaw in Kerala's land reforms. Homelessness was addressed, not landlessness. Will Oommen Chandy do what Achuthanandan refuses to? Unlikely, feels B R P Bhaskar, the media veteran who lent his voice to this Dalit cause. He finds Kerala's coalition fronts that mirror each other far too assured of alternating stints at power to think out of the box.

Dalit leader Laha Gopalan, however, is far from resigned. He is out to get the state's 10 per cent Dalits to block-vote against the Left and for the Congress front. His local target is Ananta Gopan, the CPI(M) candidate in Pathanamthitta to which Chengara belongs. But why settle for Congressman Anto Antony when Mayawati has fielded a candidate here? Gopalan dismisses BSP's K K Nair as an upper-caste white elephant incapable of garnering a thousand votes.

Meanwhile, the sole saving grace from the Left Government is an ambulance stationed outside the estate. The colony has lost nine lives and a 10th man is lying seriously ill in a local hospital. However, he won't go unattended unlike in Nandigram. (Source: Yahoo! Finance)

A cartooning professional since 1977, E P Unny has worked with the Hindu, Sunday Mail, the Economic times and is now the chief Political Cartoonist with the Indian Express Group. Between Cartoons, he travels and sketches. He has drawn and writing graphic novels in Malayalam and is now working on one in English.

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