The CPI (M) in Kerala has been rocked by a sexual harassment allegation involving one of its prominent legislators. A district secretariat member of Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the youth wing of the Marxist party, has accused the party’s Shornur MLA, PK Sasi, of sexual harassment at the Mannarkad party office and over the phone (multiple instances).
Despite forwarding the complaint to the party’s state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and shooting off an e-mail to the party’s politburo member Brinda Karat in August, the party seemed to have dragged its feet on the issue, prompting the complainant to e-mail CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury.
While Yechury confirmed the receipt of the complaint and directed the state unit to proceed with the matter, the Politburo (representing the Karat faction) issued a terse statement, on the same day, claiming there was no intervention from the party centre. Meanwhile, the Kerala unit feigned ignorance of the case.
A statement issued by the party’s state secretary on Friday has seemingly made things worse for the beleaguered party.
Who’s being disingenuous?
After virtually playing hide-and-seek with the media on the matter for the better part of the week, the party state secretary released a communiqué on Friday, stating that he received the complaint on August 14 and took cognizance of the same. It goes on to say that Kodiyeri Balakrishnan heard the complainant out and summoned PK Sasi to Trivandrum for a hearing.
According to the communiqué, the party met on August 31 and unanimously adopted a resolution to institute a panel led by its members PK Sreemathi and AK Balan, to conduct an internal inquiry.
Incidentally, AK Balan had claimed that he had no knowledge of the case when the question was put forward to him by the media on Tuesday. It would seem that either Law Minister AK Balan or the party is being disingenuous, to put it mildly.
In fact, it would seem that the communiqué released on Friday is part of a damage control exercise.
Even if this two-member committee had indeed been instituted by the party a week ago, they haven’t proceeded on the issue, including reaching out to the victim, as PK Sreemathi confirmed to the media on Friday.
Brinda Karat, who had refused to comment on the matter earlier, finally broke her silence, on Friday, and said that the matter is being investigated by the internal panel.
Still, none of the generally combative Marxist spokespersons was available to defend the party on any debates in television channels. In fact, when Kodiyeri Balakrishnan summoned DYFI President PM Mohammed Riyaz, (DYFI) state president AN Shamseer MLA and (DYFI) state secretary M Swaraj MLA to the party headquarters on Tuesday, the trio was seen exiting through the backdoor to give a slip to the media.
Are Marxists above the law?
A petition has been filed by the youth wings of Congress and BJP on the matter, while State Police Chief Loknath Behera has sought legal opinion on the matter before proceeding ahead with it.
The National Commission for Women (NCW), too, has taken cognizance of the matter and has asked the State Police Chief to apprise them of the matter within 15 days.
But, incidentally, the Kerala Women’s commission, headed by CPI (M) Central Committee member MC Josephine, has refused to interfere in the matter despite legal experts pointing out their mandate to do so.
Lawyer Sivan Madhathil opines, “The women’s commission is a statutory body formed by an act of the Kerala legislative assembly and has the power vested in them to summon a copy of the complaint from the CPI (M)’s state secretary and proceed with it. It looks like the Commission is being guided by political concerns.”
Other legal experts too have weighed in on the issue and questioned the decision of the party leaders, over not handing over the case to the police. The CPM, on their part, insisted that it was up to the victim to approach the police.
A case of double standards
When Congress MLA M Vincent was arrested on charges of stalking and raping a 51-year-old woman in 2017, the CPI (M) acted with great alacrity in reaching out to the victim in the hospital following her attempt kill herself, and ensured her swift justice. Congress leaders and commentators have pointed out the obvious double standards on display here.
What’s more distressing are the reports of CPI (M) and DYFI leaders trying to influence and coerce the victim to withdraw her complaint before it began doing the rounds in the media.
According to a report by Malayala Manorama, a former CPI (M) woman legislator and a couple of DYFI members had been trying to pressure the victim and even offered her money and a leadership position in the DYFI in exchange for the withdrawal of the complaint. One wonders why the women in CPI (M) and DYFI aren’t outraged by this.
Moreover, does it affect the morale of the next generation of young women influenced by Marxist ideals? One can only conclude that despite tall claims on gender equality and sensitivity professed by the CPI (M), the party structure is deeply patriarchal.
Will the complainant get justice?
PK Sasi is a powerful leader in Palakkad and has stood rock solid with Pinarayi Vijayan when factionalism was at its peak during VS Achuthanandan's term as the Kerala Chief Minister. When flex boards of Sasi, hailing him as “Thampuran” (lord), were erected in Mannarkad, ahead of the district conference of CPI (M), it had snowballed into a controversy. There was also an instance of high-handedness involving Sasi when he was captured berating police officers for “partisanship”, soon after Pinarayi Vijayan assumed office.
Following the complaint by the woman, Sasi has been brazen in his statements to the press and has dubbed it a “political conspiracy”. It appears that the complainant forwarded the complaint to the central leadership fearing attempts of coercion.
When EP Jayarajan, the officiating minister in the absence of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, was asked about the complaint, he sought to distance the government and insisted that the question be posed to the party state secretary. But, with the appointment of Law Minister AK Balan to inquire the matter, it appears these roles have been conflated. Besides, some commentators have pointed out that PK Sasi is known to be close to AK Balan, as both represent the same district Palakkad.
It would appear that the safest way for the complainant to get justice would be to approach the law directly. In a similar case involving another girl associated with DYFI, the complainant got swift justice after she filed a complaint with the police on Monday. The Marxist party, too, acted swiftly to suspend the accused DYFI block secretary Jeevan Lal of all positions, that too, sans constituting any inquiry.
Speaking to Mathrubhumi daily, the girl reasoned why she complained to the police, “Wouldn’t I be branded as a liar if a party enquiry commission exonerated Jeevan Lal?”
The complainant in PK Sasi’s case might also have to take this route if the CPI (M) doesn’t walk the talk on gender issues.
Views expressed are the author's own.