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'I don't want any other woman to suffer like me'

By Krishnakumar in Dharmapuri
Last updated on: April 22, 2006 19:33 IST
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The tone is almost conspiratorial.

"Please vote for me. I have entered the fray as an independent candidate banking only on the support of people like you," V Muthulakshmi, slain forest brigand Veerappan's wife says. Muthulakshmi is contesting the Pennagaram Assembly constituency in Tamil Nadu's Dharmapuri district.

Complete Coverage: Assembly Polls 2006

As she goes door-to-door most people nod indifferently, some very enthusiastically promise her their vote while a few back off, signaling they do not want anything to do with her. At one house, three women, watching Muthulakshmi from the terrace, actually run and duck when she sees them.

Yet, Muthulakshmi, clad in a sari sans the sindoor, wearing no ornaments apart from a pair of simple earrings and rubber slippers, walks on.

If she sees people, regardless of the place or situation -- she even entered the local post office and sought the support of the staff there -- she will go up to them, introduce herself and seek their vote.

'Noone will kill each other during polls'

The scene is the same in each house: A supporter introduces Muthulakshmi, 'Veerappan's wife has come to ask for your vote,' and backs off. Muthulakshmi then steps up and holds the hands of the voter and almost pleads, "Please vote for me. I have entered the fray as an independent candidate banking only on the support of people like you."

Is this all she can say? Does she have anything concrete to tell the voters at all?

Many people do not mind, though. In some houses, the women take out an arti and welcome her in. After she leaves, they tell each other, 'we must vote for her. After all she is also a woman like us and we must give her a chance.'

Jayalalithaa: Still riding the MGR wave

If such instances jack up Muthulakshmi's hope, another fact that needs to be taken into account in these villages in the southern part of her constituency is that most people are seeing her for the first time. Only when she tells them do they know that she is contesting the elections.

Also, being an independent candidate, she won't have an election symbol till April 24.

Having finished one locality she gets into a jeep and starts for the next village. Once inside the jeep, there is a complete change in her body language and you see an assertive woman marshalling her motley group of supporters with élan.

Trying to catch Jayalalithaa

"Too many things have gone wrong in my life. The main reason why I entered the fray is to do whatever I can to ensure that no other woman suffers as much as I did," she begins.

"I will fight for the rights of the Tamil people, like my husband did. But, whatever I will do, will be through democratic means and within the law," she asserts.

She is articulate. The subdued tone employed with the voters has vanished. There is determination in the voice now. She says one of the first things she wants to do if voted in is to ensure that the people who were wronged by the Special Task Forces of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka get justice.

"The Sadasivam Commission had said that the Karnataka and the Tamil Nadu governments set aside Rs 5 crore and Rs 10 crore respectively for the rehabilitation of these affected tribal people. Both the governments have not done anything yet," she says.

Karunanidhi disappoints rural voters

But these people do not make her entire constituency. What will she do for the constituency as a whole? One major problem in these parts is the lack of drinking water. What will she do about it?

Villages around Dharmapuri rely solely on groundwater, which has extraordinarily high fluoride content, leading to brittle bones, dental decay and loss of skin pigmentation – in some extreme cases leads to albinism.

Former chief minister Kamaraj, in the late 1960s, planned the Hogenekal Kootu Kudineer Thittam. Since then, implementation of this plan, which will ensure water supply to about 200 villages and benefit around 2 lakh people, has been the main election plank in the region.

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"The main reason the plan has not taken off is because water from Hogenekal has to be routed through the forest. There is an alternative route, which is along the villages and it will cost much less than the original plan. If that is implemented, the water crisis in the region can be easily solved," she says.

By now, her 'convoy' of four cars has reached the next village. As Muthulakshmi goes from door-to-door, a television reporter wants a sound byte. The question is again on why she has entered politics. As she repeats the same answer as above, only this time, in front of the camera, tears well up and her voice breaks.

Back in the jeep, Muthulakshmi recalls how she wanted to contest the elections in 2001, but Veerappan stopped her. "I wrote to him saying I will win the elections and manage to find a honourable way in which he could surrender. But he shot down the idea," she says.

Rediff Assembly Poll Blog

She says the forest officials continue to harass the poor tribal people. "If earlier the tribal people were harassed in the name of my husband, now their plight is even worse. They, who depend solely in the forests, are not allowed into the forests. They cannot take their goats in for grazing; nor can they collect firewood. But all the while, timber smuggling is on the rise and officials have not done anything about it," she says.

As the cars head to the last village for the day, Muthulakshmi calls her sister in Pennagram and speaks to her children, where they stay. "Be nice, do not do any mischief and trouble your aunt. I will be back by around 7 pm, ask your aunt to prepare kali (gruel usually made of ragi) for dinner. Be good till I come," she tells her children.

The last village for the day is a Pattali Makkal Katchi stronghold. Senior PMK leader G K Mani, who has won from the constituency twice, is contesting from neighbouring Mettur district. The members of the group with Muthulakshmi are hardcore PMK supporters. Dissatisfied with G K Mani, they are now backing Muthulakshmi and are campaigning against the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam alliance of which the PMK is a member.

TN voters don't see the need for change

"We toiled for Mani just like we are doing for Muthulakshmi now. He never did a thing for the constituency in return. That is why we have neglected our own party and are helping her," says a party person, not wanting to be identified.

As she comes out of the village, a bus is passing by. She stops it, gets in and stops by each passenger, seeking their support. One passenger, apparently a rival supporter, sneers after she leaves. He then sees the PMK men along with her and is jolted. "My goodness! These guys have rallied behind her. Now her chances of winning are much stronger than we thought!"

Having covered at least a thousand houses, Muthulakshmi decides to finish campaigning for the day. "Tomorrow, I will start earlier so that I can cover more villages."

Also See:
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Krishnakumar in Dharmapuri