On Sunday, four women took to the streets of Kerala's Munnar, lambasting the state Electricity Minister's offensive remarks against their women's collective Pembilai Orumai.
Screaming her lungs out was Gomathi Augustine, who led the agitation of plantation workers in Munnar in 2015, in a battle against Kannan Devan for better wages. Gomathi declared that the collective will continue their protest until minister MM Mani falls on their feet and apologises.
As Gomathi and a few other members of Pembilai Orumai were sitting in protest in the Old Munnar road, the hartal called for by the NDA in the district is near total.
Speaking to The News Minute over phone, Gomathi vows that the collective will not call off their protest until the minister apologises for his remarks and then resigns from his post. Starting Tuesday, the women will launch a hunger strike, she says.
"By saying that during Pembilai Orumai agitation, people were under the influence of alcohol and went off to the forests, he has insulted all the women in this state. There's no going back, we will make him come to Munnar and apologise for his words. He does not deserve to be a minister," an angry Gomathi says.
At least ten women are sitting along with Gomathi at the protest venue. Women politicians including Bindu Krishna of the Congress and Shobha Surendran of the BJP have also extended their support to the protest.
Battle within the collective
As it turns out, fighting an insensitive minister and making him accountable for his words is not the only battle Pembilai Orumai is waging. Two years after they led an agitation against Kannan Devan, the rift within the collective is more visible than ever before.
What began as a strong collective of more than 3000 women plantation workers in 2015, Pembilai Orumai has undergone multiple challenges in the last two years and has now divided into two factions - one led by Gomathi and another led by its President Lissy Sunny.
Lissy Sunny tells TNM that Gomathi is not a member of the collective anymore, and discounted the latter's agitation against MM Mani as "drama for media attention." She said that Gomathi had "betrayed" them when she quit the collective to join CPI(M) in 2016.
Gomathi, who won the block panchayat elections in 2015 under the aegis of Pembilai Orumai, quit the collective to join the CPI(M). However, earlier this month, she resigned from the party, accusing it of favouring the real estate mafia.
"Now, Gomathi is not synonymous with Pembilai Orumai, although that was the case in 2015. She betrayed all the workers who stood by her, and joined CPI(M) for monetary gains. When she did not get enough media attention in CPI(M), she quit and is now claiming that she is back with Pembilai Orumai. Our 13-member executive committee has not accepted her into the collective. Then how can she launch a protest in Pembilai Orumai's name?" Lissy asks.
Lissy accuses Gomathi of "destroying the collective" when the latter shifted allegiance to CPI(M), often attacking Pembilai Orumai.
"We had won the block panchayat election under the name of Pembilai Orumai, and months later, Gomathi left us all on the road and joined CPI(M). The collective failed then. Even though we contested in the Assembly elections last year, our candidate got only 500 votes in a constituency where there are 1.4 lakh voters. Such was our pathetic defeat, all because Gomathi left us, taking away people's trust in us. The voters might think that all the members of Pembilai Orumai would join other parties once they win an election," Lissy says.
Lissy says that not only did the people of Munnar lose their trust in the women's collective reducing them to "nothing," but many of their members also quit to join mainstream political parties.
While Lissy maintains that minister MM Mani needs to resign for his remarks, she says that the "real" Pembilai Orumai would begin protest soon.
According to her, 6 of the 13 executive members of the collective are in favour of her and the rest, including Vice President Kowsalya and General Secretary Rajeshwari have joined Gomathi in her protest.
Where is Pembilai Orumai?
Countering Lissy's claims, Rajeshwari tells TNM that they had long ago ousted Lissy from the collective, and that she no longer holds the post of the President.
"In January, after Lissy failed to turn up for 9 meetings in a row, the executive committee held a meeting and ousted her. She cannot claim that she is still the President. Gomathi met us last month and we inducted her back into the collective and we are all with her," Rajeshwari says.
She says that the executive committee has elevated Kowsalya to the President's post.
Gomathi, however, refused to comment on the rift with Lissy.
"As of now, we want to concentrate on our agitation against Mani and do not want to discuss about Lissy. She is not part of the collective anymore," Gomathi says.