Nearly two years after organising a successful labour strike against tea plantation companies in Munnar in Kerala’s Idukki district, the Dalit women plantation workers collective Pombilai Orumai has launched another agitation for the resignation of Electricity Minister MM Mani.

The trigger was the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader’s sexist remarks against women plantation workers who had participated in the 2015 agitation. “Many dirty activities happened in the forest (during the last Pombilai Orumai agitation),” the minister said in his speech laced with double entendres at a public meeting in Adimali in Idukki on April 23.

Soon, Pombilai Orumai members took to the streets and blocked the Kochi-Dhanushkodi national highway in Munnar, demanding an apology from the minister. On April 25, two women activists, Gomathi Augustine and Kausalya Thankamani, began an indefinite hunger strike, seeking the resignation of Mani and an apology.

The Aam Aadmi Party leader CR Neelakandan too joined the hunger strike.

Pombilai Orumai came into being by organising a march to the headquarters of the Kannan Devan Hill Plantations Limited, a leading tea plantation company in Munnar, on September 5, 2015, demanding an increase in wages and bonus.

The one-and-a-half month agitation ended successfully when the management agreed to raise the daily minimum wages to Rs 301 from Rs 232.

The struggle had also brought to light the harsh living and working conditions on the plantations.

The women had kept political parties and trade unions away from the agitation because they believed that trade union leaders always supported the estate managements against workers for financial gains.

Since September 2016, however, Pombilai Orumai is working in association with the Aam Aadmi Party.

Mani’s tirade

Idukki received plenty of media attention recently after the state’s revenue department launched a drive to reclaim government land encroached upon by private developers.

The recovery process began from Pappathichola hill in Munnar on April 20 with the demolition of a 30-foot tall metal cross, erected by a little known Christian spiritual group called Spirit in Jesus.

The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) criticised the demolition, which was carried out by a team led by Devikulam Sub-Collector Sriram Venkataraman. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the cross was a religious symbol and the manner in which it was pulled down sent out the message that the Left Democratic Front government was against the Christian faith.

Addressing a public meeting on his home turf against this backdrop, Mani railed against all those who had associated with the eviction drive. But he put his foot in his mouth when he made lewd comments against Pombilai Orumai activists. He soon found himself in trouble as top Communist leaders denounced his outrageous remarks.

Vijayan said Pombilai Orumai fought for the plantation workers and it was unacceptable if someone made derogatory comments against them.

In March, MM Mani made a derogatory comment against Mahija, the mother of Jishnu Prannoy who was found dead under mysterious circumstances in his hostel room at an engineering college in Thrissur, for complaining that the chief minister had not visited her after her son’s death.  

Former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan said no communist would speak against labourers and women. “CPI(M) cannot justify such comments,” he said.

The CPI(M) State Committee felt that Mani’s speech was inappropriate for a minister and he should have been careful in choosing his words. Later, the committee handed down a “public censure” to Mani.

A “public censure” is the third-harshest punishment for CPI(M) members who are found guilty of indiscipline, after “warning” and “censure”.

Offensive utterances

Mani is not the first Kerala politician to make misogynistic comments in public. But no one has faced such public wrath for it before.

Veteran politician Cherian Philip had landed in a soup when he commented in October 2015 that many women Congress leaders got tickets to contest elections in return for sexual favours.

Congress leader MM Hassan courted controversy in March when he said menstruation made women impure and they should not enter temples during that period.

In the same month, Mani himself made a derogatory comment against Mahija, the mother of Jishnu Prannoy who was found dead under mysterious circumstances in his hostel room at an engineering college in Thrissur, for complaining that the chief minister had not visited her after her son’s death.

“She complained that chief minister had not visited her,” he said. “But what would happen if Mahija closed the door from inside and alleged that something else had happened to her when the chief minister was inside?”

Gathering support

Although the CPI(M) has reprimanded Mani, it is worried about the growing public support for the women’s agitation.

So much so that the chief minister felt compelled to make a statement in the Assembly on Wednesday that Pombilai Orumai’s agitation did not enjoy popular support.

But Gomathi Augustine, who is on hunger strike, said Pennbilai Orumai’s agitation was going strong despite the government’s attempt to weaken it. “This is our first strike after the historic struggle for wage hike in 2015,” she said in Munnar on Wednesday.

“We still enjoy the support of the people and we will continue our agitation to protect our dignity,” she said.

The issue has given opposition political parties, including the Congress and the BJP, an opportunity to corner the government.

The Aam Aadmi Party, Republican Party of India, All Kerala Bhoo Samrakshana Dalit Sena, Bharath Dharma Jana Sena and Communist Marxist Party have already extended support to the agitation.

Former chief minister Oommen Chandy of the Congress addressed the protesters Wednesday, while the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance had observed a hartal on Monday demanding Mani’s resignation.

Augustine said her organisation was happy to get support from political parties. “We are an independent organisation and we haven’t approached them for support. They are supporting us as they know our fighting prowess,” she said.