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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 21, New Delhi, May 8, 2021

The Tale of Three Women Candidates in Kerala: What It Means for Gender and Politics in the State | Jos Chathukulam and Manasi Joseph

Saturday 8 May 2021


The much-awaited results of Kerala Assembly Elections 2021 was announced on May 2. The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by incumbent Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan emerged victorious in the recently concluded assembly polls by increasing its tally of seats from 91 to 99. The LDF with its thumping victory has created a history of sorts by breaking the 40-year-old political trend of alternating between LDF and United Democratic Front (UDF). While poor representation of women was a much-discussed issue in the run up to the elections, the 15th Kerala Legislative Assembly will have a double digit women representation with 11 women MLAs — 10 from ruling LDF and one from UDF backed Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP). It was in 1996, for the first time Kerala Assembly had 13 women MLAs. A total of 103 women candidates contested in the recently concluded election and out of it 11 of them got elected. This article offers an ethnographic profile of Lathika Subhash, K. K. Rema and Bhagyavathi, the three women candidates who contested in the 2021 assembly elections. Rema, the leader of Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) won the seat from Vadakara constituency in Kozhikode, Kerala with a margin of 7,491 votes. [1] However, Lathika Subhash and V Bhagyavathi, who contested as independent candidates failed to make it to the assembly. Lathika who contested from Ettumanoor constituency in Kottayam, Kerala got 7624 votes (6.04 per cent votes) while her rival candidate in LDF got 58,289 votes (46. 2 per cent). V Bhagyavathi, who contested as an independent candidate in Dharmadom, Kannur also trailed in the polls. Bhagyavathi got just 1,783 votes while her rival candidate CM Pinarayi Vijayan secured a margin 50,123 votes.

Meanwhile, irrespective of their electoral performance, their candidacy sparked debate and discussions among the electorate as these women candidates were able to draw the attention to the political and social issues including under-representation of women in patriarchy rooted politics, male chauvinism, misogyny, political violence, and injustice meted out to women and children from marginalized sections of the society.

Lathika Subhash: Against the Patriarchal Mindset in Ticketing

The skewed representation of women in politics was a matter of concern in the run up to the 2021 Kerala assembly elections. Never before has Kerala witnessed such dramatic scenes and protests where a woman politician had to tonsure her head over denial of a seat to contest in the elections. The incident took place on March 14, 2021, when the then State Mahila Congress President Lathika Subhash tonsured her head in the front yard of Indira Bhavan, state headquarters of the Congress party (Babu, 2021). For the 56-year-old Lathika, who has spent nearly 32 years in politics and for the Congress party, her demand to allot a seat for her in home constituency Ettumanoor in Kottayam is a just one. But the party failed to look into this and denied seat not only to her but also to other women candidates she had suggested. Lathika had provided the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) with a list of deserving women candidates who have worked tirelessly for the party to be considered for candidature in the assembly elections. She even proposed for 20 per cent of seats to be allotted for women but it was blatantly dismissed by the state leadership. The Congress — led United Democratic Front (UDF) candidate list which was distinct as it had many young and fresh faces failed miserably to accommodate enough women candidates. The fact that many young male candidates without even sufficient experience in mainstream politics could easily bag tickets to contest in elections while women like Lathika with decades of political experience were ignored itself is demeaning and insulting. A day after the tonsuring protest, Lathika resigned from Congress, her parent party and announced her decision to contest as an independent candidate from Ettumanoor.

Lathika, began her tryst with politics as the Kerala Students Union (KSU) [2] Counsellor at Kuriakose Elias College, Mannanam, in Kottayam, Kerala. She had twice been elected as a member of the Kottayam District Panchayat and also served as the District Panchayat President for a term in Kottayam in the year 2000. In the 2011 assembly polls, Lathika even contested on a Congress ticket against the former Kerala Chief Minister (CM) and Communist Party of India (Marxist) - CPI (M) veteran V S Achuthanandan in Malampuzha constituency, a CPI (M) bastion in Palakkad district Kerala, but she failed. There were accusations at that time that Lathika was allotted a seat in a stronghold of CPI (M) where she had little or no chance to win. During that time senior leader Achuthanandan even made defamatory remarks against Lathika, a move which Lathika and many women in the state viewed as an attempt to assassinate her character using ‘innuendos’ (Babu, 2011). This time, by tonsuring her head, Lathika has given a befitting reply to the male-chauvinists and society as a whole. She made it clear that one side of her head was tonsured against CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s anti-women policies and the insensitivity of the Central government towards atrocities against women in North India, while the other half is in protest against the suppression of women by her own party. Thus she has made it clear that it was a protest against the misogynistic attitude of political parties. The protest and the resignation once again highlighted the patriarchal and male chauvinistic approach in ticketing [3] even in a state like Kerala that boasts for its female literacy and other such human development indexes. Though Lathika failed in the recently concluded assembly polls, her candidature itself has sent a strong message regarding the unfair treatment meted out to women in politics and society as a whole.

Amidst these high-voltage dramas, the emergence of two women candidates, K K Rema, leader of Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) and widow of slain RMP leader T P Chandrashekaran and Bhagyavathi, popularly known as ‘Walayar Amma’, whose children were raped and killed in 2017 has drawn attention for political and apolitical reasons. All three women, Lathika [4], Rema and Bhagyavathy have certain things in common — they are living survivors posing a challenge to a male-dominated society that tried to supress their fight for the causes they believe in. They have been hounded, threatened, and even subjected to character assassination for raising their voice against the injustice meted out to them by the patriarchal political society with vested interests. Lathika is protesting against the skewed representation and misogyny of political parties, Rema [5] is fighting against violence and political fascism and for Bhagyavathi, who also tonsured her head, to secure justice for her two young girls, who were allegedly raped and later died under dubious circumstances in 2017. Bhagyavathy has made it clear that she is contesting against CM Vijayan not to win elections but to ensure speedy justice to her daughters. [6]

Unlike Lathika’s, the election campaign by Rema and Bhagyavathi , who are victims of the vicious politics is giving a big headache to the ruling Left front. Their candidacy have sparked debates among the electorate, particularly the poignant causes raised by these two women. It is clear that the causes they fight for resulted from the failure of rule of law and democratic deficit in the governance and political systems [7].

K K Rema: A Strong Voice Against Political Violence 

Rema’s candidacy brought back the memories of the cold-blooded murder of her husband T P Chandrashekaran and a series of brutal murders carried out in the name of politics, especially the alleged murderous politics of the ruling CPI (M). Rema through her candidature has kept alive her fight against the violence and political fascism. In the 2021 assembly elections, Rema is taking on Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD) leader and Left Democratic Front (LDF) candidate Manayath Chandran. Rema’s candidature in Vadakara in Kozhikode district which is being supported by the UDF is considered an affront to CM Pinarayi Vijayan. Rema’s candidacy in Vadakara has hogged the limelight throughout the election season as she herself is a victim of the murderous politics of the ruling CPI (M). In the midst of LDFs electoral triumph, the astounding electoral victory of K K Rema, has turned out to be a revenge of sorts as it comes just two days ahead of the ninth death anniversary of her husband TP Chandrasekharan, who was hacked to death on May 4, 2012, in one of the most cold-blooded political murders in Kerala wherein several leaders of Communist Party of India (Marxist), the biggest ally in LDF, were convicted.

On May 4, 2012, Rema’s husband TP Chandrashekaran was hacked to death by his political rivals (Babu, 2012). The reason - Chandrashekaran a firebrand local leader and former area committee member of CPI (M) in Onchiyam [8] broke away from his parent party and formed a splinter party called Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) [9] in 2009. Chandrasekharan, a former district secretary of Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) [10], Kozhikode had been among the crop of young CPI(M) leaders who had been openly posing their own convictions about the party and its ideals as it felt the dominant party faction of CPI (M) led by the then state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan was deviating from the traditional policies and programmes of the party. Though at first dissenters including Chandrashekaran found support in the Achuthanandan camp, once the central leadership tightened its grip on the party, they had no other way but to leave their parent party. So Chandrasekharan, formed the RMP in 2009 following differences of opinion with the state leadership over sharing of the president’s post at Eramala Gram Panchayat, Kozhikode with the Janata Dal(S), then a constituent of the Left Democratic Front (LDF). The RMP also became part of an anti-CPI (M) umbrella platform, Edathupaksha Ekopana Samiti (Left Coordination Council), which was a thorn in the flesh for the CPI (M) in several constituencies, mainly in north Kerala. Soon after forming RMP, Chandrashekaran contested in the 2009 Lok Sabha election but lost. Though he lost the elections, his candidacy played a significant role in the victory of the Congress candidate Mullapally Ramachandran and in the defeat of CPI (M) candidate P Sathidevi. This irked the CPI (M).

Meanwhile, in the local government elections in 2010, the RMP emerged victorious at Onchiyam Gram Panchayat near Vadakara. RMP won eight seats in 2010. With that symbolically significant victory, its architect, RMP’s Chandrasekharan, found his popularity. But it irked the CPI (M). Though RMP remained largely a pocket-borough phenomenon since its victory at Onchiyam Gram Panchayat, was a shocker to the CPI (M). There were several occasions when RMP leaders who organised large party programmes were threatened and physically attacked by CPI(M) activists. For the CPI(M), Chandrashekaran and RMP were posing potential local threats which could harm the party’s interests in the region in the long term and perhaps be a permanent source of strength to the forces opposing the official leadership within the State CPI(M). Chandrasekharan had become a renegade of sort for the party and he was hacked to death on May 4, 2012 and it was clear that it was a purely politically motivated killing from the very beginning itself. As per the post-mortem report, Chandrasekharan, had received 51 hack injuries on his body, which makes the murder known as one of the most brutal political murders in the history of Kerala.

After the murder, it was revealed that there had been about half a dozen attempts on Chandrasekharan’s life earlier, and his wife Rema described to the media how he had been living under the constant fear of death. Though the official leadership of the CPI(M) went into aggressive denial mode, refuting allegations that the party had any role in the killing, the investigation into the murder proved otherwise. A special investigation team was formed to investigate the case. There were many attempts to scuttle the case and the investigating officers were under tremendous pressure. Following a state-wide investigation, 36 people including many CPI(M) leaders were charge sheeted by the Kerala Police. However, the special additional sessions court at Eranhipalam, Kozhikode, convicted 12 accused, including three leaders of the CPI (M) in connection with the murder of RMP leader Chandrasekharan at Onchiyam on May 4, 2012 (Govind, 2014). The three CPI(M) leaders found guilty were P.K. Kunjanandan, member of Panoor area committee; K.C. Ramachandran, member of Kunnummakkara local committee; and Trouser Manoj, branch secretary of Kadanganpoyil. CPI (M) leader P Mohanan, a member of the Kozhikode District Secretariat was the 14th accused in the case but was acquitted by the Court. The prosecution case was that a section of CPI(M) leaders in Kozhikode and Kannur districts allegedly hatched a conspiracy and hired a seven-member gang to kill Chandrasekharan, who had walked out of the party and floated a dissident outfit at Onchiyam. The judgment indicated that it was a politically motivated murder.

Rema, RMP party workers, her fellow supporters and activists were not satisfied with the verdict as she and many others felt that those in the top leadership who have a hand in the murder of her husband were left out. Through out the investigation there were many attempts to even silence her including when she protested and demanded for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe. In 2014, Rema conducted an indefinite hunger strike demanding CBI probe to look into the larger conspiracy leading to the murder. State government issued a notification in 2014 to entrust the investigation with the CBI but the Centre had informed the state government they were unable to take up the investigation as the CBI felt the state police can investigate any conspiracy in the forms of further investigation of the main case. Rema has alleged that her husband was murdered with the knowledge of top CPI-M leaders and to unravel this more investigation was needed.

North Kerala is not new to political murders, and there have been numerous incidents in the past in which all major political parties including the CPI(M), the BJP, the Congress and the IUML and other religious fundamentalist organisations resorted to the murder of opponents or retaliatory serial killings (Chaturvedi, 2012). According to figures available with the police, 173 political murders have happened in Kerala since 2000. Of these, CPI(M) has lost 86 workers, BJP has lost 65, and Congress and IUML together have lost 11 activists (Paul, 2020). But the sheer brutality of the attack on Chandrasekharan had very few parallels in recent years in the state. Rema as a woman, as a wife above all as a citizen had to endure the repercussions resulting from this political violence and gruesome murder. When Rema took over the reins of RMP, CPI (M) unleashed cyber attacks and abuse against her. The houses of RMP workers, especially those houses where the photographs of Chandrashekaran are kept were frequently attacked by CPI (M). In 2016 Kerala Assembly Elections, Rema stood as an independent candidate from Vadakara and she was attacked by CPI (M) workers while she was campaigning in an area considered to be the stronghold of CPI (M) they twisted her right hand, uttered obscene words, and intimidated her. When Rema sought water from the house of a relative of RMPI workers relative, some neighbours objected to it as the owner of the house was a CPI (M) worker (The Hindu, May 15, 2016 and Deccan Chronicle, May 15, 2016).

In 2018, Rema staged a dharna before AKG Bhavan in Delhi demanding the CPI(M) central leadership to put an end to the political violence orchestrated by the party workers in Kerala. Rema even approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and in her complaint she stated that RMP workers in Vadakara, Onchiyam and Orkkatteri are frequently attacked by CPI (M) workers and even false cases are being registered against RMP workers. In her complaint, Rema also alleged that education of children are affected and woman live in constant fear due to the attacks unleashed by CPI (M) (Manoj, 2018).

Rema is no stranger to politics. She hails from a communist family, her father KK Madhavan, former secretary of the Balussery area committee of the CPI (M) and elder sister were dedicated party workers. During her college days, Rema was an active worker of Student Federation of India (SFI) [11]. After her marriage to Chandrashekaran, Rema was not so keen on continuing full-time party activities. Following her husband’s gruesome murder , she took up the reins of RMP, a party , her husband, a CPI (M) rebel created in 2009 as parallel outfit in his home turf Onchiyam in North Kerala. Once a strong follower of CPI (M), Rema is now an ardent critic of the party and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. In assembly elections in 2016, in her maiden fight, though Rema lost the election, she shocked the CPI (M) by garnering over 20,000 votes. Vadakara constituency in Kozhikode has been a fortress of socialist parties with a strong communist base with the spectacular electoral victory in the 2021 assembly polls Rema has scripted a history of sorts by emerging victorious in Vadakara constituency, a Left stronghold.

The candidacy of Rema once raked up the political killings of not only of Chandrashekaran but also of the 2019 double murder case in in which 22-year old Kripesh and 24-year-old Sharath Lal, two Youth Congress workers in Kasargod in Kerala were allegedly killed by CPI (M) activists. The killing of a 30-year-old Youth Congress leader S P Suhaib in Kannur by two pro CPI (M) activists in 2018 was also brought to the forefront in the election season. Media reports suggest that Kerala witnessed 20 political murders since the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front came to power in the state in 2016 (Ilakanth, 2019 and Ullas 2018). On February 20, 2012, Abdul Shukoor, a 22 -year-old was killed near Thaliparamba in Kannur district — a fortress of the CPI (M). According to police charge sheet, Shukoor was murdered as part of political vendetta because he was involved in the blocking and attacking a vehicle in which CPI (M) Kannur district secretary P Jayarajan and CPI (M) MLA T V Rajesh had travelled. The murder happened within hours after the vehicle was attacked (Kumar, 2019). These political murders and Rema’s stand against such violent killings can eventually isolate CPI (M) from a large section of the society and her electoral victory proves she has succeeded in her mission.

Bhagyavathi: A Mother’s Fight for Justice 

Bhagyavathy, a dalit, a school dropout and a daily wage labourer contested as an independent candidate against incumbent CM in his home turf Dharmadom in Kannur district. Bhagyavathi’s candidacy once again brought back the public consciousness the injustice meted out to her two hapless children. Her running from pillar to post for securing justice for her children is a grim reminder of all those victims, survivors and their families who have been denied justice in similar cases. The mother of the Walayar girls want justice for her daughters, who were found hanging from a wooden plank of their thatched hut in Palakkad district under suspicious circumstances in 2017. The elder daughter aged 13 died on January 30, 2017. The younger daughter, aged 9, died 52 days later. Autopsy reports revealed that the sisters had been sexually assaulted (Times of India, October 29, 2019). It was after the death of the second child on March 4, 2017 that the police launched a detailed probe into the death of the first child which occurred on January 13, 2017. Owing to political pressure, police carried a shoddy investigation. A special court acquitted all the accused in the case citing lack of evidence on October 25, 2019 (, October 28, 2019). This led to widespread protests in Kerala and after five days of outrage across the state, CM Pinarayi Vijayan met Bhagyavathi in Thiruvananthapuram. The mother has been vocal against the ruling party and has accused the CPI(M) of shielding the accused as well. In the 30-minute meeting the parents of the deceased girls reportedly told the CM that they have lost confidence in the state police. They also expressed that they worry that if the state police continue handling the case truth will never come out and pressed for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe.

Bhagyavathi after meeting told the media and well wishers that CM has promised to do the needful to secure justice. But the promise was never kept and the government tried to protect the police officers who subverted the investigation into the alleged rape and murder of two young girls in Walayar. Deputy Superintendent of Police M J Sojan, who carried out the initial probe into the controversial case was given promotion as the Superintendent of Police (SP), Crime Branch. With this move, Bhagyavathi realised she has been cheated and deceived by the government. From then on, her struggle to secure justice for two children intensified. Meanwhile, a division bench of the Kerala high court, on January 6, 2021, set aside the verdict of a Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) court acquitting all the accused and ordered a re-trial in the case (Ramdas, 2021). Bhagyavathy along with the support of an action forum formed by dalit and human rights activists in the state approached the government seeking a reinvestigation and demanded a CBI inquiry. On February 27, 2021, tonsured her head and campaigned across the state against the LDF government as it did not take action on the police personnel for the alleged lapse. Bhagyavathi’s repeated requests to take action against police personnel, who had allegedly botched up the investigation, and the lackadaisical attitude of the state government in this matter, had prompted her to contest elections. Her decision to take on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in Dharmadam constituency has once again brought back to the public consciousness the cruelty meted out to the two little girls.

At first the state government issued a notification recommending CBI investigation only in the case involving the death of elder sister. Bhagyavathy filed a petition in the high court asking that the state government to correct its notification recommending CBI investigation only in the case involving the elder sister. On March 19, 2021. High Court asked the CBI to take over the case. The government informed the court that it had issued a new notification for a CBI inquiry in both the cases. At present a CBI investigation is underway. For Bhagyavathy, the candidacy was an opportunity to secure speedy justice for her daughters, which has been inordinately delayed by the police and the ruling Left front. For Bhagyavathy, winning elections is not her priority and all she want is justice for her daughters [12]. She said her candidature against the CM was also a protest against the alleged denial of justice by the LDF regime. Though Bhagyavathy failed in the 2021 assembly polls she is of the opinion that “standing as a candidate against Vijayan itself was a victory” for her. Bhagyavathi’s election symbol is a small frock, a stark reminder of the cruel fate her girls had to endure. A number of human rights activists from across the state had coordinated her election campaign and this has empowered her as a woman with citizenhood to a great extent.


At a time when there seems to beno respite for the political violence allegedly sponsored by the CPI (M) in the North Kerala, Rema’s candidature and victory in the assembly polls sends out a strong message to those spewing hate and violence in the name of ideology and politics.. Rema has emerged as an ambassador and warrior of peace in the politically volatile state of Kerala. Though Lathika and Bhagyavathi lost the polls, the causes, and the issues they have raised will not fade away from the public memory not so easily. In the court of public opinion, it is this very challenge these three women candidates have put across the major political fronts and the society at large. This may have the potential to redraw the landscape of the gender and politics in the state of Kerala.


  • Jos Chathukulam, Former Professor, Sri.Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralization & Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bengaluru and currently is the Director of Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala, e-mail- chathukulam[at];
  • Manasi Joseph, Research Associate, Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala, e-mail- manasijoseph[at] )


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[1Rema was able to secure 47.6% votes while her rival candidate could get only 42.1% of the 1,36,673 votes polled.

[2KSU is a students organization in Kerala, India. Founded in 1957, KSU functions as the student wing of the Indian National Congress in Kerala.

[3See Chathukulam et al

[4One of the authors of this paper interviewed Lathika on March 20,2021. Following seat denial she decided to contest elections as an independent candidate from Ettumanoor and she opined that she feels more independent as she is free from the clutches or constraints as a member of a particular party. Amartya Sen’s concept of Development as Freedom can be applied to the case of Lathika. With her decision to contest as an independent candidate Lathika has crossed the boundaries and shackles of unfreedom and has secured more freedom. It has also been alleged that the Catholic Church was upset with Lathika for extending her solidarity to the nuns protesting against Bishop Franco Mulackal, former head of the Latin Catholic Diocese of Jalandhar, who has been accused of allegedly raping a nun.

[5On April 7, 2021, one of the authors of this paper interviewed to Rema. Rema said that she is fighting against the violence and political fascism. She also condemned the killing of 22-year-old Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) worker Paral Manzoor at Pullukkara in Koothuparamba, Kannur district. According to the police, on April 7, 2021, Mansoor was hacked to death by a gang, who allegedly belonged to the CPI (M). The attack was followed by an argument between the IUML and CPI (M ) workers in the area in connection with the polling which took place on April 6, 2021.

[6On April 8, 2021, one of the authors of this paper interviewed V Bhagyavathi. She said that her motive is not to win the elections but to make society aware of the injustice done to her daughters by those in power and to ensure punishment to the culprits and to secure justice. She also said that she is fighting so that no other mother had to undergo such trials and tribulations that she is enduring today.

[7One of the authors of this paper interviewed Prof. M A Oommen, the most influential public intellectual in Kerala and is also an Honorary Professor, Centre for Development Studies, (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala on April 8, 2021. Oommen said that a partisan state and failure of rule of law and democratic deficit are to be blamed for the violent political killings and atrocities against women and children.

[8Onchiyam is a traditional communist stronghold known for the martyrdom of eight members of the banned undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) during British rule in 1948.

[9RMP claims to uphold real communist ideologies and strives to maintain internal democracy. In 2019, RMP became Revolutionary Marxist Party of India (RMPI) by merging with ten minor leftist parties like CPM Punjab, CPM Haryana, Chandigarh Marxist Party, Himachal Marxist Party, Chhattisgarh Marxist Party, Tamil Nadu Marxist Party, Andhra Marxist Party, West Bengal Marxist Party, and Delhi Marxist Party.

[10DYFI is the youth wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). However as per the constitution of DYFI, it is an independent entity.

[11SFI is a left wing student organization politically aligned to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). However, as per the constitution of SFI, it is an independent organization.

[12On April 7 and 8, the authors of this paper interviewed C R Neelakandan, an environmental activist and one of the prominent leaders of the Justice for Walayar Kids Forum. Neelakandan said that all Bhagyavathy want is justice for her children. He also added that the struggles she had to endure to secure justice for her children had made Bhagyavathi stronger and more empowered.

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