In September 2015, the Pomplai Orumai Collective led a remarkable worker’s struggle in the tea plantations of Munnar, breaking the prevalent male centric image of labour agitations in Kerala’s history. The Dalit women worker’s collective challenged both Kannan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) Company and also the existing male dominated trade unions of the region. Gomathi G, one of the leaders of the Pomplai Orumai struggle and elected block panchayath member of Devikulam block (who contested in the banner Pomplai Orumai), had joined CPI(M) after she won the elections. One year into joining CPI(M), Gomathi is leaving the party due to a number of reasons. She is planning to reunite with the Pomplai Orumai where her heart always belonged. Gomathi talks about the situations under which she decided to join CPI(M), her reasons for leaving CPI(M) after almost a year’s stint with the party, her reunion with the Pomplai Orumai, and other issues. For the last one and a half years that followed the Pomplai Orumai led labour movement, Gomathi was not very visible in the political scene of Kerala. With Gomathi’s return to Pomplai Orumai, the collective is all geared up with elaborate plans to revamp the vigour with which they gave newer meanings to Kerala’s labour struggles.
On the title Pomplai Orumai leader, remembering the 2015 protest, Gomathi says that it was the media that created the leaders:
“Every woman has an equal role in making the struggle historical. With no means of organization and mobilization, tired of the trade union’s false promises and hypocritical negotiations with the KDHP management, and seeing the local news channel report on the sudden labour agitation that started at Munnar town by a few women of one or two estates, almost 12,000 women flowed into Munnar town. The women from far away estates walked the hilly roads to reach the town of Munnar as the transportation was completely blocked during the agitation. It was a new hope for a possibility to articulate our basic needs and demands and negotiate with the management- and everyone came together because all the other trade unions were totally unreliable, At the very first possibility of some hope, all the bottled up frustration poured out . It was unbelievable for the mainstream public and media. But that was because they had no clue about how helpless we were. The helplessness was not just about the lack of basic amenities, but also a lack of hope for this life to get any better. There was no one to trust. Neither the government nor the Trade unions. The struggle was inevitable, and hence Pomplai Orumai.”
“The fellow workers loved when I sloganeered and talked. They said that they felt confident and buoyant when I talked or sloganeered. The media chose those women who were articulate, to speak about the struggle. The movement got immense media attention and coverage. The leaders were created by the media. But once you become the leader and the face of a movement, there’s a certain responsibility that comes with it.”
Gomathi remembers that it was through the movement that she met some of the very political women workers from the other divisions of the plantation. Then she had not known anyone personally except the women from her own estate division- not even the ones who had spoken to the media during the initial days of the protest. After the success of the first struggle- which demanded a 20 percent increase in the annual bonus- a series of dramatic events took place as they announced the second protest demanding an increase in their daily wages from Rs. 232 to Rs. 500. The already desperate trade unions did everything they could to break the unity of Pomplai Orumai. A serious effort was made to get everyone to leave Pomplai Orumai and to join the parallelly organised joint trade union protest of all the other three trade unions of Munnar- INTUC, AITUC and CITU, hoping to distract public and media attention from Pomplai Orumai. With their coordinated effort, the male dominated Trade Unions managed to pull a significant number of women to their token protest, as a result of which the strength of Pomplai Orumai decreased considerably in the second protest.
It was during the second protest that the collective decided to contest for the Panchayat elections. Gomathi was elected as the block panchayath member from the Devikulam block. In the victory rally of Pomplai orumai that followed the elections, Gomathi and other Pomplai Orumai candidates were attacked and false cases were filed against them.
“I contested the elections because the fellow women workers of the collective decided that i should contest. After the elections, everyone was celebrating- and Pomplai Orumai also decided to celebrate. We were celebrating on the road. then AITUC and CITU members attacked us accusing us of entering their house compounds. We lodged a police complaint against the attackers, but the next day morning we came to know that they have filed criminal cases against us - rape abetment case against me, and rape case against Manoj (Pomplai Orumai’s candidate who contested for the district panchayath member’s post.)”
“They attacked us and then they filed criminal cases against us. The police were present during the victory rally and they know who attacked whom. But they will not speak for us. They have clear instructions from the Trade Union leaders of AITUC and CITU to remain silent regarding this matter. These cases have not been withdrawn till date. I seriously don’t know what will happen to the case when I leave CPI(M). The fact that they have not used it against me while I was in CPIM, and at the same time they didn’t take any initiative to withdraw the case – means that they are just keeping it as a potential weapon in store – to be used against me whenever necessary.”
After the elections and Gomathi’s victory, the media celebrated a series of news regarding Pomplai Orumai, which included the split of Pomplai Orumai, pomplai orumai leader Lissy Sunny’s accusations against Gomathi, rumors about Gomathi joining AIADMK and finally Gomathi’s joining of CPI(M). After the silence and invisibility of more than a year, Gomathi shares a much less heard version of all these events, different from the versions that hit headlines in late 2015. Gomathi accuses that the Malayalam mainstream media was immensely biased in the incidents that followed Pomplai Orumai’s election victory and the interviews and bytes that she gave against the rumors that were spread against her, were never telecasted.
“When the CITU- AITUC trade unions filed criminal case against us many of our well-wishers including our advocate and Lissy Sunny asked us to go into hiding until we get a bail. Since none of us owned any land or house, we did not have the tax receipts required to apply for the bail. Since Lissy chechi had her own house, she said that she would vouch for us and try to get the bail in the meantime. While staying at Udumalapettai on the advised hide-out, we saw Lissy chechi on television giving statements against us.”
“She raised a lot of unacceptable rumors against me in the media, and the most serious accusation was that I took money from AIADMK and joined the party. This accusation has the potential to spark a Tamil – Malayali rift in Munnar. It is true that AIADMK approached us to form a trade union, but we refused. Everyone knows about this. It was not another established political party that Pomplai Orumai was seeking for. If that was the case, we wouldn’t have rejected the existing established male dominated trade unions.”
“It is painful to talk about the internal issues of one’s collective and movement, in a public platform. But it is my helplessness that I have to talk about it someday as I lost the trust of those people who had stood with me, who had elected me. I’m responsible to explain to them what happened. I am also responsible to explain it to the mainstream public, the politicians who had laughed at us and who were relieved that Pomplai Orumai was just a short lived movement. I don’t know why Lissy chechy raised those accusations against me, someone else must have given the wrong information to her, I prefer to give the benefit of doubt to her, as I owe more to my fellow comrade of the struggles than to anyone else. Our struggle continues, regardless of all these. I had denied all the accusations and gave explanations on what actually happened at that point of time, why we had to go into hiding in Tamil Nadu and all that – but none of the channels telecaste the bytes which I gave. I don’t know whose interests were these, but clearly there were conspiracies to destroy Pomplai Orumai.”
Lissy Sunny, one of the prominent leaders who represented the Pomplai Orumai collective -a Malayali Syrian Christian - served as the president of Pomplai Orumai’s registered Trade Union for the past one year, after the split.
“Already as migrant labourers in Kerala, the Tamilians, face a lot of discrimination here. The case of Munnar is not different either. Most of our kids are employed in tourism related jobs. And even if they are educated, they get appointed in the lower positions such as room boys or sweepers.”
The category of the migrant worker becomes a synonym of ‘cheap labour’, for Malayalis. It was this Malayali savarna cultural hegemonic attitude which tempted at least a section of academics and political activists to view Pomplai Orumai with a somewhat lesser conviction, a doubt about its effectivity and applicability in the political arena of labour negotiations. Interestingly, the media had called it the “Mullappoo Samaram”, or the “Jasmine Protest. Although the coinage invokes the context of tunisian revolution, the use of it here as “Mullappoo Samaram” or “Mallippoo Samaram” also has an interesting reference to Jasmine flowers worn by the Tamil women as part of their custom -as an adjective to describe the agitation1. Neither their strength nor the unity they displayed in their articulation became an adjective for their struggle. Jasmine portrayed their two identities at once - the women and the Tamil migrant - both together constituting the identity of the ‘other’, translating ‘pomplai orumai’ as the ‘Feminine Other’s Protest’. The other- the Migrant Tamil Dalit Woman Labourer – was an inconceivable category for the so far known ways of masculine Trade Union negotiations and articulations of labour resistance, in the history of labour agitations of Kerala. 2
“Pomplai Orumai can be called as a Tamil women’s strike. 99 percent of the plantation workers are Tamilians belonging to dalit community, brought here for estate work, four generations back. Lissy chechy came to the forefront of the struggle because the Malayalam media wanted someone who spoke Malayalam. During the event of direct negotiations with Oommen Chandy government, it became difficult to articulate as none of the government representatives knew Tamil. So Lissy chechy represented us most of the times to talk to the media and government . But later, during the split and internal issues, the media were unbelievably biased as they preferred to telecast only Lissy chechy’s versions. It was convenient for them to telecast the leader who spoke Malayalam and to forget the one who spoke Tamil. The media had its own interests. ”
On the decision to join CPI(M), Gomathi remembers,
“The situation became worse once we returned from Tamil Nadu. The collective lost trust in me and it was like losing the earth under my feet. The trade union members were already hostile and there were serious threats against me. There were incidents where a group of men in motorbikes, ready to attack, followed me and a car attempted to run over me. People who cared for me began to worry about my safety. They wanted me to join one of the three trade unions. I wished to continue the struggle alone. But the rumors of me joining AIADMK were so strong that people started doubting my intentions; accusations reached the level that they thought I was part of a separatist conspiracy to split Munnar from Kerala to unite the region with Tamil Nadu. You will not believe if I tell you that Idukki DGP reported to the DSP that Gomathi attended a meeting with the then Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalitha, to discuss about the separation of Peerumedu, Udumbanchola and Devikulam areas. (Laughs) These rumors were extremely serious and disturbing as it had potentially severe consequences. I also had no platforms to explain myself. The media was not airing my bytes anyway. More important than safety concerns, I had to prove that I had not joined any Tamil party. Safety was also a concern, but a much lesser one than me getting portrayed as a separatist. That’s how I decided to join some party. Congress was not an option for me anyway as they were the ruling party and I knew how they treated our demands during the struggle. My father is a member of CPI(M). I had discussions with them and they promised that they will consider my demands- Pomplai Orumai’s demands- with utmost priority. I decided to join CPI(M).”
“The incidents that occurred after the election victory affected my relationship with my husband too. The relationship between us had been bad for while- he already had trust issues and disliked the public attention which I had received during the first protest. The rumors against me and the incidents after election made it even worse. When things became too unmanageable, we separated.”
Most often it is the woman who stands to lose everything for standing up for something or raising her voice against the authorities. Gomathi discloses that her journey with CPI(M) was also not a smooth one.
“When I joined the party, they promised that they will correct their mistakes and prioritize those demands which are in the interest of plantation labourers. They kept none of their promises. Every time I raise an issue in party meetings, they either ignore it or give false promises saying they’ll look into it. They were only interested in the initial publicity and image achieved through the “Pomplai Orumai leader Gomathi joining CPI(M)”. They kept giving me false promises to keep me from raising my voice elsewhere. I asked them to withdraw the false case of abetment of sexual harassment they had filed against me and other Pomplai Orumai supporters. They have not done it till date. It is unacceptable for me to continue as merely a token member. It is impossible to do anything in the interest of plantation workers from CPI-M’s platform. The prominent leaders of the party and their trade union own acres of land acquired illegally. They own bungalows and quarters in Munnar, received as gifts from the company management, in return for the favors they have done for the company. They no longer function as a workers’ party. That’s why I have taken the much thought out decision of leaving CPI(M).”
On joining back with the Pomplai Orumai, she says:
“The present committee members of Pomplai Orumai are happy to welcome me back. We had several meetings, and I think a lot can be done if I return to the collective without the baggages of any political party. After all those media reports last year, they had their apprehensions about me. Things are getting sorted out. Discussions are still going on about how to go forward. The collective also has the support of the Aam Admi Party, though they have no intentions to join the party. Since I decided to leave CPI-M and started to register my dissent in smaller platforms, I’m getting support and solidarity from movements such as Chalo Thiruvananthapuram and various women’s organisations such as Penkoottu. These solidarities give me confidence as they raise issues which I think are similar to the issues which we raise from the context of Munnar plantations. Some of the central issues raised by Chalo Thiruvananthapuram are the questions of land ownership, housing and power to Dalits and Adivasis - are questions pertinent to the plantation labourers of Munnar as well. As I mentioned earlier, the plantation workers own no land. If they resign from their job, they would have to leave the house provided by the company. None of the trade unions here, including CITU has ever taken a serious interest in raising the question of land ownership for the labourers. They consider that to be too much to ask from the company. How can it be too much considering the huge acres of land that the company owns? Beyond the questions of salary hike, I think these are the issues to be raised on a larger level in the years ahead. The ownership of land has been denied to the plantation labourers all these decades. This is one of the many ways through which the company has tied us to its low paying job. If we leave the job, we will be left with nothing. This has to change. Pomplai Orumai will raise these issues beyond the questions that can be raised from the platform of a conventional trade union. I think the liberation of Munnar’s plantation labourers can only be achieved through Pomplai Orumai. Moreover it is the unity of hard working women. I believe in their truthfulness.”
Pomplai Orumai is clearly not a short lived movement. With Gomathi’s return, Pomplai Orumai collective is looking forward to frame their questions and articulate their demands with newer enthusiasm. The Pomplai Orumai collective, has raised many demands last year which are yet to be fulfilled. These include the availability of ambulances in each estate, release of the pending salary arrears, specialist doctors and improved facilities in the estate hospitals, affordable schools and colleges for their kids in Munnar, and hygienic toilet facility for women in the workplace. The Pomplai Orumai Trade Union has a functioning office in Munnar Town, rented with the support of Aam Aadmi Party.
The conventional trade unions of Munnar has framed their negotiations from a male centric perspective even in the case of policies regarding the particular health issues related to women, (for instance the gynaecological issues such as the removal of uterus at an early age - which is a common problem found among the women plantation laborers) in a sector which has more than 70% of women laborers. Pomplai orumai should be understood as a movement that can pose radical questions - from the perspective of Dalit and adivasi women laborers belonging Tamil linguistic minority, living in the ghettoised layangal of the plantations - which can challenge the colonial power relations of the plantation sector. It can be understood as a collective that can raise questions that are not raised by conventional trade unions.
With Gomathi’s convictions to raise the questions of land ownership and housing as central concerns of the collective, the Pomplai Orumai becomes a movement which can guide Dalit and Adivasi women’s labour struggles in other contexts as well.
(These aspects are elaborated in detail in the paper titled “Male Spaces within a Women Movement - Women Tea Plantation labourer’s Agitation in Kerala”, co- authored by Anna M and Anu K Antony and presented at the XV National Conference on Women’s Studies, IAWS, Chennai.)