One of the first Dalits to fight for women’s rights and a former Congress MLA, 82-year-old Krishnaveni worked as a coolie, lived in a cowshed in Tamil Nadu. Now relief comes her way

FEW outside Ammachipuram hamlet in the southern Theni district of Tamil Nadu even know of her existence. Former Congress legislator A Krishnaveni, a Dalit, who represented the Andipatti (reserved) constituency in 1962, earned the respect of the late Kamaraj for her conviction in fighting for women’s rights four decades ago.

Today, the 82-year-old weather-beaten woman, suffering from many ailments, lives in a cowshed with only memories of her past and her four orphaned grandchildren for company.

On January 25, Krishnaveni’s buried glory was dusted of years of cobwebs by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who announced a ‘rescue package’ for her: Rs 5 lakh from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund (to be deposited in the Tamil Nadu Power Finance and Infrastructure Development Corporation in the name of the Theni Collector) and a rent-free apartment in the government staff quarters of the Tamil Nadu Housing Board at Aranmanaipudur village in Theni taluk. The monthly interest of Rs 2,917, accruing from the fixed deposit, will be given to Krishnaveni as a lifelong benefit.

On January 29, Krishnaveni will leave her village for the first time in decades to board a train and reach Fort St George the next day to receive Amma’s largesse.

Jayalalithaa’s gesture might have seemed spontaneous but it is significant that Andipatti is an AIADMK pocket borough and also Jayalalithaa’s favourite constituency since it sent her to the Assembly in the last poll.

Since her husband I Ayyanar’s death in 1975, Krishnaveni has been working as a coolie in local paddy fields and vegetable patches to feed herself, her children and now her grandchildren.

The last three decades have been hard for the former legislator, who fought for rights for women and Dalits coming out of the shadows of her more popular husband, known for his committed work in the Theni region.

Krishnaveni’s tragic story was brought to public notice by a Tamil magazine. Later, Congress MLA C Gnansekaran made a plea for help in the Assembly. Sanctioning the benefits for Krishnaveni, Jayalalithaa saluted her resilience, pointing out that if women in public life had to undergo travails even today, it must have been very tough for a Dalit woman to become a legislator four decades ago.

Refusing to allow senility to nudge her, Krishnaveni clearly recalls her days of fame. Born in Ammachipuram to Palaniammal and her farmer husband Mayazhagan, Krishnaveni studied up to Class VIII in the village school. She married a more affluent Ayyanar, from the same village, who proved to be a major inspiration. The couple ran three institutions, including schools and hostels for Dalits, with Krishnaveni serving as manager for the Mahatmaji Girls’ Home at Theni. She also led the Women’s Welfare Association at Periakulam in Theni and was a member of the Panchayat in Andipatti. After she became a MLA in 1962, Krishnaveni raised issues 40 times in the Assembly.

While she ensured that nearby Kaanvilakku got a cotton mill, providing jobs for many in the village, she fought for uniforms for male students who came in othakomanam (loin cloth) to schools.

Her eldest son and his wife passed away in the 1980s, leaving their four children in her care. Nearly Rs 5,000 of her Rs 6,000 pension went towards settling debts, which she accrued taking care of her other two sons — one an alcoholic and the other a diabetic with kidney problems.

With succour finally coming her way, Krishnaveni hopes her last days will allow her to look back on her remarkable past without the burden of bitterness.