Congress leader K Sudhakaran’s reference to CM Pinarayi’s toddy tapper family while criticising him has created a controversy.

Sudhakaran speaks holding a microphone, he is wearing white and has glasses and there are others in the background
news Opinion Friday, February 05, 2021 - 17:15

At least three times, K Sudhakaran said ‘chethukarude kudumbam’ – toddy tappers’ family – when he spoke against Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan during a rally by the state’s Congress party.

Kumbakudi Sudhakaran, now 72, is a Congress Member of Parliament (MP) from Kannur and more noticeably, member of Parliamentary Standing Committees on Rural Development and Welfare of Other Backward Class (OBC). Pinarayi Vijayan belongs to the Thiyya or Ezhava community, classified as an OBC by the Government of India. Traditionally, members of the community used to work as toddy tappers, denied equal opportunities by the dominant castes for years.

“What is Pinarayi's family? Chethukarude kudumbam. Pinarayi Vijayan, who held the revolutionary flame of the working class from a family of toddy-tappers and led you from the front holding the red flag, where is he now? A CM who rose from the toddy tappers' family needs a helicopter to travel. He will be the first CM in Kerala to do so,” K Sudhakaran said at the Aishwarya Yathra statewide rally led by Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) leader Ramesh Chennithala, when it reached Thalassery.

When justifications came a day later, many in the Congress including Sudhakaran himself stuck to the argument – that it is not Pinarayi’s caste he criticised, only his extravagant lifestyle. No one asked what was the need to keep harping on Pinarayi Vijayan’s toddy-tapping background to crticise his present lifestyle.

Sudhakaran’s words said – a man who rose from the toddy tappers’ family now needs a helicopter to travel. Does that mean it would be ok for Chief Ministers to splurge if they had come from richer, more affluent families? Or that if Pinarayi had been in the habit of moving around in helicopters earlier, it would be okay to do so now?

If Sudhakaran’s intention was to criticise Pinarayi Vijayan’s use of a helicopter as a Chief Minister, he could have done so without insinuating that a man whose father was a toddy tapper was now behaving luxuriously.

It was in December 2017 that the helicopter ride happened when Pinarayi Vijayan used it to attend a CPI(M) meeting in Thrissur. Controversy broke out when the government passed an order to pay the money for the chopper from the funds for victims of Cyclone Ockhi that happened a few months earlier. Facing immense flak, the Chief Minister's office later announced cancellation of the order and Pinarayi Vijayan said that he made arrangements for the public administration account to make the payment.

Last year, Pinarayi Vijayan government's decision to get a helicopter was crticised by the Opposition, saying that it was an unnecessary expense for the state. CM Pinarayi responded that helicopters are necessary for disaster management. The government chopper was later used for transporting heart of brain dead patients for transplant surgeries.

The rally led by Chennithala, aims at highlighting the faults of the LDF government, and the helicopter controversy would naturally be brought up. However, Sudhakaran’s insistence on bringing up the ‘humble background’ of the CM appears to point out that that’s what made it all the more wrong.

Ramesh Chennithala, on asked about this remark by a mediaperson on Thursday, had said that personal insults should be avoided. The same day, another Congress leader, Shanimol Usman, who is a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Alappuzha, had said that Sudhakaran should apologise for the casteist remark.

Sudhakaran lashed out at both of them on Thursday evening and by Friday morning, both Chennithala and Shanimol have gone back on their statements. Chennithala said that he would never reject Sudhakaran while Shanimol apologised to the MP on Facebook. Interestingly, Kerala’s BJP president K Surendran came in support of Sudhakaran. Without understanding the argument against Sudhakaran, Surendran countered saying people from dominant caste Nairs also did toddy tapping. Surendran also belongs to the Ezhava community.

Pinarayi Vijayan has been at the receiving end for his caste more than once in recent years. In 2019, BJP state vice president Sivarajan said it would have been better if Pinarayi  had gone to do toddy-tapping instead of becoming a CM. Before that, at the time of the Sabarimala protests - when the state tried to implement the Supreme Court order allowing women of all ages to enter the temple -- a woman in her 50s used a derogatory term to denote CM Pinarayi's caste. 

Also read: Opposition in Kerala targets Pinarayi with his caste: Will they ever learn?

Even Chennithala’s explanation is problematic, when he says Sudhakaran only meant that someone from a humble background was now choosing a luxurious lifestyle. While trying to negate the casteist remark, both the leaders fail to understand the issues behind comparing the previous and present lifestyles of a person. Using the former to find fault with the latter only gives a picture that they are too privileged to even recognise the issue in their statements. If instead they simply criticised the choices of the Chief Minister, without bothering to dig up his personal background, their voices would be more seriously heard. 

Watch: Sudhakaran's jibe at Pinarayi Vijayan

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