Gomathi Augustine was one of the leaders of the Pembilai Orumai movement who led the agitation by women plantation workers in Idukki in 2015. Now, she is contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Idukki as an independent – but her candidature is facing a minor hurdle from other members of Pembilai Orumai.
Lissy Sunny, Pembilai Orumai’s president, has submitted a complaint to the Idukki District Collector, pointing out that Gomathi has been using the name and flag of the Pembilai Orumai movement for her election campaign. She says that Gomathi has nothing to do with the Pembilai Orumai movement anymore. “We will not allow Gomathi to use banners with any visible signs of Pembilai Orumai for her campaign,” Lissy tells TNM, “Gomathi is currently not a primary member of the movement.”
Gomathi, however, disagrees. But this issue is only the latest in the infighting in Pembilai Orumai that has severely affected the bargaining power of the women’s collective, who’s credibility has been chipping away in the last few years.
Troubles in paradise
The Pembilai Orumai collective started in September 2015 with plantation workers demanding an increase in wages and bonus payments for its 4,000-odd women employees. The protest was led by Lissy, Gomathi, and others, and emerged as one of the most powerful organisations in the district.
Eventually, however, internal rifts emerged. Gomathi left Pembilai Orumai and joined the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), which is politically affiliated to the CPI(M). The rest of Pembilai Orumai meanwhile aligned with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
In 2017, Gomathi left the CITU and rejoined Pembilai Orumai. In May that year, she was once again at the forefront of a protest, when Kerala Electricity Minister MM Mani remarked that the women in Pembilai Orumai were involved in anti-social activities along with local bureaucrats. Several Pembilai Orumai members took to the streets in protest, shouting slogans against the minister and lying on the road, refusing to move, unless he issued a public apology. However, they had to abandon their protest 20 days later when the minister failed to respond to their demand.
But the internal rift continued and the workers who had participated in the protests joined various other organisations.
Being targeted by CPI(M): Gomathi
Gomathi, who is contesting as an independent, says she is very much part of the organisation and there is nothing wrong with her using the movement’s name in her campaign.
She also says she’s being targeted by BJP, Congress and the CPI(M) – “especially the CPI(M),” she adds.
Incidentally, in November 2015, when Gomathi won from the Devikulam ward in Devikulam block panchayat in Idukki and was thanking her voters, a woman named Indrani, who was initially with Pembilai Orumai but later joined the CPI(M), started hitting Gomathi. Later, Devikulam CPI(M) MLA S Rajendran, who admitted that the attackers were Left trade unionists, said that the attack was a “retaliation” for the “provocative celebrations” by Pembilai Orumai.
“If a woman raises her voice, these political parties will jointly suppress her,” says Gomathi, “Despite the agitation, the needs of the plantation workers were not fulfilled and most of them are still living in dilapidated houses. My main poll campaign is to provide land, title deeds, and better homes to these workers and Adivasis in the district.”
As marginalised people from Idukki, the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha and other tribal communities have extended their support to her, Gomathi says, “I hope more communities and prominent personalities will support my candidature. I believe the tribal and estate workers will vote for me.”