The stress of sleeping on the pavement in the heat and cold of the day is writ large on the face of Mohammed, who is hardly one and a half years old. His sisters, 12-year-old Rizwana and 10-year-old Shifana, recalled their experience the previous night when mosquitoes and insects disrupted their sleep and forced them to remain awake till the morning to keep their little brother out of harm’s way.
“Kochi is horrible compared with Delhi despite the freezing cold in the capital because of the attack by mosquitoes here. Even during the day time, insects and mosquitoes cause extreme discomfort to us. We are concerned about Mohammed, who is too young to withstand such a situation,” said Rizwana, daughter of 31-year-old V. Jazeera of Kannur, who began a sit-in protest in front of the house of industrialist Kochouseph Chittilappilly on Monday afternoon, seeking clarity on a cash award promised to her.
Ms. Jazeera, who drew world-wide attention through her four-month sit-in at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi against illegal sand mining in her native village in Kannur, is on a protest against Mr. Chittilappilly, who promised a cash award of Rs 5 lakh in recognition of her boldness in starting the struggle against quarrying.
Ms Jazeera, wearing soiled clothes and sitting under a tree in front of Mr Chittilappilly’s bungalow, said she had forgotten to bring along even the minimum change of dress for her children as she was not prepared for a long round of agitation. “I came here to seek clarity from Mr Chittilapilly on the promised cash award. My earlier plan was to leave by 11 am on Tuesday after getting an explanation from him. But he has now forced me to go on an indefinite strike,” she said.
A few autorickshaw drivers and local residents offered to provide fresh clothing to the mother and her three children. The locals also offered food and bathing facilities for the family.
Asked why she was putting her children to such suffering on the pavement, Ms Jazeera said she had told her two daughters go back to the native village and live with relatives. “As I am breast-feeding Mohammed, he alone can stay with me. But my daughters are fully convinced of my agitation and they stick with me during these crucial days,” she said. The two girls said they would not abandon their mother on the pavement to go back to their village.
When pointed out that the popular perception was that she was begging in front of the house of a generous man for a cash award he had announced voluntarily, Ms Jazeera said her demand was just clarity, not money. “If Mr Chittilappilly says that he will not give the promised amount, I will soon stop the agitation and return home. In fact, he and his business ventures gained undue publicity by announcing the award. It was not his commitment to my cause but the severe public criticism against giving cash award to a woman who voiced her personal concerns against a popular struggle in the State capital that prompted him to announce it,” she said.
“Sandhya, the housewife in Thiruvananthapuram, voiced her concern against all agitations. I was not ready to receive the cash award by sharing a platform with Sandhya as demanded by Mr. Chittilappilly. If I was crazy about money, I could have taken a flight from Delhi as suggested by Mr. Chittilappilly and stayed at a posh hotel to receive the amount. Mr Chittilappilly used me as a tool to gain publicity,” she said.
She had no answer to a question on the nature of assurance she received from Chief Minister Oommen Chandy on illegal sand mining. “How I can continue the strike indefinitely in New Delhi?,” she asked.
On Tuesday, the premises of Mr. Chittilappilly’s bungalow saw a number of hoardings extending solidarity to Ms. Jazeera. They included one jointly put up by the CPI(M)’s trade union wing CITU and Congress’ INTUC.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chittilappilly convened a press meet where he said the protest staged by Ms Jazeera was politically motivated. “Everybody knows who have organised the protest,” he said in an apparent reference to the CPI(M), which turned against him after he announced a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh to Sandhya. “I stand by my earlier promise. I am ready to deposit the amount in a bank account of her children,” he said.
“Why is Mr Chittilappilly overly worried about my children? I am capable of looking after them. If he is ready to give the amount, it must be directly handed over to me. I am yet to decide how the money will be utilised,” Ms Jazeera said.