Kerala poll special | How a group of Sri Lankan refugees transformed into a solid CPI vote bank

An estate cottage plastered with CPI candidate P S Supal's posters.
An estate cottage plastered with CPI candidate P S Supal's posters. Photos: Ayyappan R

We met a bunch of plantation workers, including local ward member Chandrakumar, at the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) office near the main entrance to the over 3000-acre Kulathupuzha Estate of Rehabilitation Plantations Limited (RPL), where hundreds of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka were rehabilitated in the early 70s. The AITUC, the CPI's trade union wing, is the most dominant union in the RPL.

In front of the bare concrete-floored AITUC office was erected a rectangular arch using giant-sized flex boards of Punalur's CPI candidate P S Supal. The RPL Estate, near the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, falls within the Punalur constituency in Kollam district.

Inside, the workers were enthusiastically listing the things Pinarayi Vijayan government had done for RPL estate workers, especially during the 'COVID-19'-induced lockdown: free ration, provision kits, wages for 'no work' months. “The government even announced a Rs-5-crore package for RPL alone,” said Chandrakumar, the ward member and also an estate worker.

Voice of dissent

Paramasivam, another estate worker, walked in as his co-workers were elaborating on the LDF government's pro-worker deeds, and sat silently. With a devout sandal paste on his forehead, Paramasivam seemed out of place in a Communist office.

Just when there was a moment of silence, Paramasivam broke into the conversation. “There are issues,” he said, in the earnest tone of a man who is sure of himself. He listed three. One, the younger generation of the refugee families are not given permanent jobs. “They are now taken only as casual labourers with no additional benefits enjoyed by permanent workers like earned leave surrender or pension,” Paramasivam said.

Paramasivam with his 90-year-old mother Valliamma in front of their cottage inside the estate. Valliamma is one of the first women to arrive from Sri Lanka.

Two, worker families have grown bigger in the last five decades but not their houses. “Two to three generations live cramped in the old single-room colony houses. The government made an attempt to construct new houses for the retired but it was too inadequate and we forcibly stopped the work.”

Even the second generation of workers who had come from Sri Lanka had retired. Paramasivam, who had come to Kulathupuzha with his parents when he was 10, will retire next year; he works as an attendant in the estate's primary health centre.

Three, low gratuity for workers. “Now, it is calculated for just 20 days a month. When workers retire, it would add up to just two to two-and-a-half lakh rupees. It is a pittance.”

Workers colony inside the Kulathupuzha estate
Workers colony inside the Kulathupuzha estate of Rehabilitation Plantation Limited.

When others tried to interrupt, Paramasivam talked over them, shutting them up. “The government could have solved at least one of these issues. It didn't. We went to meet the labour minister (T P Ramakrishnan) thrice but not once were we called for a discussion,” Paramasivam said.

Umbilical ties

Don't be deceived by Paramasivam's forthrightness and the sandal smear on his forehead. Though not an AITUC member, he has complete faith in the union and its parent party, the CPI.

When he spoke against the government what came across was disbelief than anger. He was not saying that he would teach the Pinarayi government a lesson for not providing relief. Instead, he was conveying a sense of helplessness. “If a Left government could not do these things, who else can,” he asked.

Chandrakumar, CPI ward member and estate worker.
Chandrakumar, CPI ward member and estate worker.

Others, too, concede. “There are problems,” the CPI ward member said. The CPI local committee secretary Madhusoodanan nodded his head in agreement. But all of them, including Paramasivam, agree that only the CPI, and the LDF government it is part of, could solve their problems.

Not just Paramasivam and the AITUC members, even ordinary estate workers seem to have what looks like a blood relationship with the CPI. The party would have failed to do certain things but it is still family. They are willing to give the CPI any number of chances.

Sway of the sickle

Onmanorama went deep inside the estate and talked to young and retired workers. Almost all knew Supal, the CPI candidate. He is the son of P K Sreenivasan, former Punalur MLA who, along with another CPI leader K Krishna Pillai, first organised estate workers under the AITUC. “These leaders, by constantly fighting for us, gave us a sense of belonging,” said Govindaswamy, who was among the first batch of refugees.

An estate cottage plastered with CPI candidate P S Supal's posters.
An estate cottage plastered with CPI candidate P S Supal's posters.

The party's influence over estate workers seems so total that it doesn't even matter who the CPI candidate is. We asked Sivaperumal, a retired worker who reached the estate as a 33-year-old and a huge MGR fan, who he would vote for. He said: “Arival.” ('Sickle and paddy stalks' is the CPI symbol).

Supal's posters were stuck outside the neatly painted wall of his house. So we asked him the name of the CPI candidate. Sivaperumal looked at us blankly, then turned to look at the poster on the wall. After a while he turned to us, smiling. He has not been able to figure out the name. “Sickle is what I care for,” he said, as if saying the party is bigger than individuals.

A puzzle called Randathani

But not a single worker we talked to knew the name of the UDF candidate. The ignorance went deeper. When asked who the UDF candidate was, all of them replied “the Congress”. Forget the fact they didn't know the name of the candidate, they were not even aware that the CPI's opponent in Punalur is not the Congress but the Muslim League.

Children in one of the worker colonies inside the Kulathupuzha estate of Rehabilitation Plantation Limited.
Children in one of the worker colonies inside the Kulathupuzha estate of Rehabilitation Plantation Limited.

Many estate workers have no idea of the League, leave alone its candidate with quite an exotic name: Abdurahman Randathani. No Muslim League candidate had contested in any of the 20 wards - including the Cherucara and Estate wards under which falls the RPL estate and its worker colonies, of the Kulathupuzha panchayat during the 2020 local body polls. In both Cherucara and Estate wards, the CPI candidates defeated their Congress rivals by resounding margins.

Since they generally speak Tamil, these workers don't read Malayalam newspapers. This must have further kept them in the dark about the League.

Rise of the proletariat

The RPL estate is a huge vote bank. Though the rehabilitation began in the early seventies with 750 families, the individual numbers of worker families have now swelled to nearly 6,000. In 2006, when M V Raghavan tried his luck from Punalur against CPI's K Raju, it was inside the sprawling RPL estate that he spent most of his campaign days.

Siva Perumal and his wife Anna Lakshmy at their estate house.
Siva Perumal and his wife Anna Lakshmy at their estate house.

Raghavan lost but the importance he gave the estate workers reflected their power as a sizeable vote bank.

It is this recognition that had won the RPL estate one of the five Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) that the LDF government had sanctioned in the last five years. The RPL workers were the only plantation workers in Kerala to receive a daily wage hike of Rs 80; others were given Rs 52.

“We are not refugees any more. It is our right, and that of our children, to live and die here in the estate,” said Govindaswamy, who began as a peon and retired as supervisor.

Return from Lanka and an unknown war

Govindaswamy was among the first batch of Tamils who were repatriated back to the country from Sri Lanka as part of an agreement between Sri Lankan Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike and her Indian counterpart Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1964. He was 24 then.

In the late 19th century, during the British rule, Tamils were shipped to Ceylon to work in its coffee and tea plantations. But their number swelled, worrying the Sinhalese. The Srimavo-Shastri Pact of 1964 was an attempt to defuse a growing ethnic tension. The repatriation began in 1972.

It is not just the Muslim League these former refugees are unaware of. Since they were largely cut off from the rest of the world, they also did not know that a bloody war had broken out in Sri Lanka in 1983.

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