Munnar in Kerala brings to my mind not the recent success of the women led tea plantation laborers’ strike but its twin word ‘Thekkadi’. It is the fixation of a mind that has been attuned to the slogans of tourism advertisements. You cannot say Ooty in isolation; you have to complete it with the word, Kodaikkanal. You cannot say inquilab in isolation, you have to say, Zindabad. That’s the way we are. Munnar stands with Thekkadi however they are apart from each other geographically. Those who travel to Kerala from other parts of India, often tell others how interesting it is to be there at Munnar and Thekkadi. Kochi has taken over by its organized sense of tourism. In the run, Munnar has fallen behind but not its tourist industry. Munnar caught the imagination of the people in the last decade for the aggressive stance taken by the then Chief Minister of Kerala, V.S.Achuthanandan in demolishing the unlawful structures that have come up by the activities of the land grabbing mafia that included potential political leaders. V.S, as he is fondly called by his friends and enemies as well, had received a lot of flak and appreciation for his demolition man act.
Today Munnar once again is in focus. Women workers, who have their origins in Tamil Nadu but now are natural citizens of Kerala, went on strike against the subhuman conditions in the tea plantations, asking for bonus and hike in salary, and in general all kinds of exploitation. Interestingly, this strike was led by the women laborers themselves. They did not allow anybody to take the credit of this uprising. They chased the MLAs of both the ruling and the opposition parties. They said they would accept only V.S as their leader though the strike was not initiated by the CPM to which Achuthanandan is a die hard member and nonchalant critic. This strike which has been called off within ten days of its commencement thanks to the government’s decision to agree with most of the demands of the plantation workers, is one of the success stories of people’s uprising against the oppressive governments in the recent history of India. It is also a unique for its staunch refusal to come under any party or flag. Those who went to declare their solidarity with the strike went on their own and earned enough of contempt or partial attention.
(Women plantation workers on strike at Munnar)
The myth is already on; this is a women’s led protest which has found success in ten days. When people wake up and take up arms even if it is the arms of non-violent satyagraha, the mightiest of the governments would relent. Is it so easy? Then why, Narmada people did not get their due? Why the Adivasis in Wyanad get their demands fulfilled? Why the people in Orissa and Chattisgarh did not get their due even if they are up in arms of various kinds for more than two decades? Why this Jasmine Revolution in Munnar found a quick success? Was the moral force so powerful that even the mountains had to move? Why was it become so pertinent for one and all to accept that the women’s strike in Munnar was so important? Why did the Chief Minister of Kerala, Mr.Oommen Chandy, ironically say that the demands of the striking laborers are justified and the government stands morally responsible to solve it? Why all the opposition leaders had to rush to the spot and say that they too were with the strikers, and pathetically spurned and ridiculed by the laborers? Why Aam Aadmi Party had to rush there and say that the women were Aam Aadmis or Aurats?
The plot thickens. Yes, the strike is historical and the demands are justifiable. Women in Munnar showed a way. But it is fallacious to think that there was no leadership. Any strike of such massive scale needs some kind of an ideological orientation amongst the strikers. Though there are leaders who have come up from amongst the women who were striking, we should say that they became leaders by default. It is not an effort to discount the abilities of women to lead a strike into success nor do I want to suggest that there were some invisible men who were back seat driving the protest far away from the media glare. The case is different; though the forces behind this strike need not necessarily be male by category, one should understand that there is an ideological orientation behind this strike. Somebody had prepared these women to rise up in confrontation with the management and the government. In a male chauvinist society, women cannot have such an independent voice as we have seen in Munnar. The men folk of these striking women were conspicuously absent from the scene of strike. Where they have gone? Who have prepared them to keep off and be patient with the strike of their women? Who did take up the home front responsibilities when the women were striking? If it was so, it should be their men? If the men had done that, who had prepared them to do so? It is not that easy to prepare men who are prone to liquor abuse and are subservient to the company’s persuasive tactics.
(Rajendran MLA, spurned and ridiculed by the women strikers)
This time men had stood by their women. It is a great ideological feat as far as the Kerala society is concerned. Men accepting their women to take the lead of a public protest are something new in Kerala society. One may cite the examples of the two women led strikes in a couple of textile outlets majors. There too we had seen women striking. But those strikes did not go up in a big way though we could say that these strikes have inspired the Munnar women. Chengara Resistance also had seen women coming to the forefront but men were always there as fellow fighters. Munnar is different. There is a large scale ideological preparation behind it and whatever be that it should be lauded. There is something absolutely silent here. The extreme leftist activists or the people who have been supporting morally and culturally such moves remain silent on this. They do appreciate the women there in Munnar who have led a historical protest but their restraint of voice seems to be a bit deceptive. Mine would sound like a childish conspiracy theory saying that there should be Maoists behind this.
My argument is not childish for the following reasons. First of all, as I said before, a massive protest like this cannot go without a theoretical adhesive. Pragmatic struggles needs concrete planning and well founded theory that goes beyond mere demands for salary hike and bonus. Secondly, the strike is not allowed to be taken over by any political parties. The vehemence with which the leaders amongst these women protested against the political parties shows that they are aware of the vileness of the politicians. They did not align with any of the intellectuals or feminists in this case. (the only one report that shows the trouble of these women laborers during their periods is filed by a male reporter). Even if Sarah Joseph, the state convener of the Aam Aadmi Party went to declare solidarity with the workers, her presence seemed to have created no impact despite the media attention that teacher had received for her presence. If the strikers have disparaged political parties then there is no point in believing that the women in Munnar were too fond of the AAP. The ruling party and opposition party went into action quickly not because they have grown angelic overnight but because both the parties are about to face two elections; local body elections and the impending assembly election. Both the fronts, UDF and LDF need the support and goodwill of the people in general and Munnar strike is one way to deliver it in neat packets. Neither the claim of the Chief Minister nor that of the opposition leader seems to be sincere and committed. Forget the other parties, including the Aam Aadmi Party, to which I am a member.
(Opposition leader V.S.Achutanandan among the women strikers in Munnar)
Then what was that adhesive that kept these women together? Was it the universal womanhood? Was it the subhuman condition of their lives? Was it something beyond all these? I would say, they are primarily led by the difficulties of their lives. But beyond that there is something more. They are prepared and have been prepared very well by some groups that just do not want to claim the credit of this uprising. Even they do not want to take political or electoral advantage of it. This campaigning is not done by any NGO nor is it done by any underground parties. Feminists in Kerala seem to have played no role in it. Yet, the women in Munnar woke up to fight against their oppressors. This is the silent revolution taking place all over the country. When time and surroundings permit, those who make people dream a better life would sound very convincing. They need not necessarily be coming from political outfits. Even if they are coming from political outfits they may not be wanting to convert their influence into electoral advantage. They may not want to take up arms and fight against the mighty weapons of the state. They may not want their names to be published. They can make use of the energy of the people for a better future. Who are they? In my view, those people will never come out because they are very much there amongst us, helping such ideas to percolate through hundred and one different modes. They will never be identified. They are like the hero in Wednseday, the movie of a common man’s revenge.
I dare not say the name of that outfit has something to do with the Maoists. Even if they do, they do not make it a political statement. May be you and I are there, yet not there. In our shame, we may be living the legacy of this struggle only to forget the lessons of it along the way as the middle class comforts are more soothing than the plights of a struggle that demands various kinds of sacrifice. The women in Munnar were naïve enough to praise the political leaders. They were happy that they could get their demands met though still some are pending. But there is something that is still not bent in the crowd. There are women who have assumed the role of leadership in this struggle. They will be bargained to become leaders. They will be Selinas and Janus. Will they relegate their roles as political leaders and become renegades in their own class? Will the invisible one’s in the crowd help them to remain innocent for long; innocent till they are provoked. Anyway, the political discourse in Kerala has considerably changed with this Munnar strike. Political parties including the AAP are rendered useless. But my doubt still remains, who could be behind it? And shouldn’t I be with them? And shouldn’t the AAP with them?