In January 2017, a nine-year-old girl from Attappallam village of Walayar town in Kerala, found the body of her 13-year-old sister hanging from a rafter in their single-room house. Two unidentified men were seen leaving the house, the younger sibling told the investigating police officials.
After a gap of 52 days, the body of the nine-year-old witness too was found hanging from the same rafter. That's when the struggle of V Bhagyavathi, the mother of the two children, began. A Dalit woman, Bhagyavati is now contesting as an independent candidate from Dharmadam in Kannur district against Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
Hardly 40 km away from Dharmadam, another woman has challenged the CM and his Communist Party of India (Marxist) – K K Rema, who is the wife TP Chandrasekharan, a slain CPI(M) rebel leader who had founded the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) in 2009. TP was hacked to death in 2012 as his popularity was considered a challenge to the CPI(M), the parent party from which he broke away due to ideological differences. Rema’s candidature in Vadakara which is being supported by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is also being considered an affront to Pinarayi.
Why are the two women directly opposing Pinarayi Vijayan, whose approval ratings in Kerala are currently on a high?
A Losing Battle in Dharmadam
Bhagyavathi does not hope to dent Pinarayi’s campaign.
"I never travelled anywhere outside Walayar and Palakkad in the last forty-six years of my life. I reached Dharmadam only on the day of filing nominations,” she told The Quint. “My contest here is by and large a protest against the Chief Minister, who backtracked from his earlier promise of ensuring us justice For me, there is no politics other than the politics of getting justice for my two daughters.”
Bhagyavathi, a school dropout, works as a daily-wage labourer for a living even as she campaigns in Chakkarakal Bazar, a small town in Dharmadam. She rues that most of the electorate in the Bazar refused to accept pamphlets from her humble campaign. She is accompanied by her husband Shaji and their 12-year-old son Shibu.
Half a dozen human rights activists from across the state are coordinating her campaign. In the open, Bhagyavathi displays the clothes, slippers, and anklets of her two daughters. Incidentally, Bhagyavathi's election symbol is a small frock.
“We are grateful to the election commission for allocating ‘small frock’ as Bhagyavathi’s symbol. All these years, we have campaigned for justice displaying images of blood-stained frocks,”Augustine Vattoli, a Christian priest and rights activist who is campaigning for Bhagyavathi
Bhagyavathi had also tonsured her head earlier as a symbol of protest. She now vouches that she would let her hair grow only when the culprits behind her daughters’ alleged killings are brought to justice. The mother alleges that her daughters were raped before they were murdered. She had also accused the police of whitewashing over procedural lapses that had destroyed evidence in the case.
Hostile Response All Around
On 25 October 2019, a special POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) court acquitted the accused in the case. The acquittal led to large-scale public outcry and protests in the state, and the chief minister promised Bhagyavathi a reinvestigation.
“The chief minister had promised to initiate action against police officers who made lapses in investigating the case. Now, the case is with the CBI, but the state police are not handing over the case diary, related documents, and evidence. As home minister of the state, Pinarayi Vijayan has a moral obligation to ensure us justice. My candidature here is to expose his double standards.”V Bhagyavathi
She accused the police of misguiding the family into believing that the girls had committed suicide.
Activists accompanying Bhagyavathi said that constituents have been hostile towards her campaign; some even tore up her pamphlets. Others wanted to know the fund source of her campaign. "I have no hidden agenda. I am raising questions to touch the conscience of the people here," said Bhagyavathi.
Rema Remembers Husband’s Murder
Another challenge to the chief minister is from KK Rema, who is contesting in Vadakara.
"They call me the wife of a renegade. If I am elected, it will be a severe jolt to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who has justified violent politics and my husband's murder. He is still protecting my husband’s assassins," Rema alleges.
Rema was once a state-level leader of CPI(M)‘s student wing Students Federation of India. She married Chandrasekharan, who was once a promising CPI(M) leader and the party’s organiser in the north Kerala belt.
“My husband was hacked to death by CPI(M) cadres for challenging the might of Pinarayi Vijayan and there were 51 deep wounds on his body. Now they are attempting to defeat me and Chandrasekharan’s politics by any means, even undemocratically. But the 15th Kerala assembly will hear the voice of Chandrasekharan.’’KK Rema
To “mislead” voters the CPI(M) has fielded three other candidates with similar names in Vadakara constituency, Rema alleges. "Among the nine candidates fighting the election this time in Vadakara, three have their names as Rama. They are my namesakes and are dummy candidates fielded by my former party CPI(M), to ensure my defeat. They hope the votes in my favor would be divided among them,” she said. The three 'namesake' candidates are Rama Cheriyakayyil, Rama Kuniyil, and K T K Rama Padannayil, who had never fought in any other election.
CPI(M) Remains Confident
"Both Vadakara and Dharmadam have a striking similarity. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan seems to have a moral obligation to fulfil in the cases of both, Bhagyavathi and KK Rema. Not only as a mighty CPI(M) leader, but also as Kerala's home minister. These two women are raising serious questions of political morality and the rule of law," left thinker and activist Dr. Azad told The Quint.
However, former state secretary of CPI(M), Kodiyeri Balakrishnan refutes this claim.
“Rema has turned an agent of the Congress and UDF and she is simply repeating the false campaign of the right-wing against Pinarayi Vijayan. She has no right to talk about left politics by aligning with the right. In the Walayar mother’s case, the government is still sympathetic to her grievances and is still addressing them. Unfortunately, she has turned an instrument in the hands of Congress and UDF against Vijayan. But these will not affect our electoral prospects. We will recapture Kerala this time with a massive mandate.”Kodiyeri Balakrishnan
Will the two women score over CPI(M) and Pinarayi? The odds are heavily against them, but by merely standing for election against the CM, and making their voice heard, they may as well feel that they have already scored a moral victory of sorts.