One woman was seeking justice for her two daughters. The other woman was protesting against denial of ticket.


New Delhi: In 2004, the BJP’s best-known woman face then, the late Sushma Swaraj had threatened to shave her head, wear a white saree, sleep on the floor and eat only chickpeas if Congress leader Sonia Gandhi were to be sworn in as the Prime Minister of India. Sushma had said that it would hurt her “sensibilities” if a “foreigner” were to lead the country.

Thanks to Sonia following her “inner voice”, Sushma was spared the ordeal, and the nation an embarrassment. Whether Sushma would have done all that she had threatened to do had Sonia Gandhi decided otherwise is anybody’s guess. But her threat was seen and endorsed as a sign of protest.

In the run-up to the recent elections to the Kerala Assembly, the results of which will be out this Sunday, two women shaved their heads in protest for totally contrasting reasons before deciding to contest the elections in that southern state.

While one woman, an impoverished mother, was seeking justice for her two daughters, aged 13 and nine, who were found hanging inside their makeshift hut mysteriously in a span of 51 days in 2017, the other woman, a seasoned politician, was protesting against denial of a ticket to contest by a “patriarchal” Congress party.

The mother of two had announced earlier that she would have her head shaved off if no action was taken against the investigating officer before the election notification. Nothing of that sort happened and she, along with two activists belonging to the Dalit Human Rights Movement, shaved their head a day after the election notification was issued.

The politician has no plans to tonsure her head in the beginning. Or at least she had not announced it publicly. She had expressed her displeasure to the leadership about denial of ticket to her and was, perhaps, hoping against hope that senior leaders would intervene for her cause. They did try to explain to her and had been offered a seat elsewhere than her hometown, her working sphere from school days.

The Dalit mother of two, better known in the state as Walayar Mother, is unfortunately named Bhagyavathi, the lucky one. But fortune never smiled on her, not even a little, in her struggle, running from pillar to post, demanding action against the police officer who investigated her daughters’ deaths in 2017. Post-mortem examinations had confirmed that the minors were subjected to sexual assault before their deaths.

Still, the police officer allegedly shielded three suspected culprits, all apparently linked to the ruling CPM, eventually leading a POCSO court in Palakkad, under which Walayar falls, to acquit them. That the then district chairman of the Child Welfare Committee, a political appointment, had in the past even appeared as a lawyer for one of the accused did not deter the court from freeing them. The police officer, who was suspended initially, was promptly reinstated at the end of the suspension period with a promotion to boot by the Left Front government, ignoring all protests from the mother and a host of rights activists.

However, her decision to contest the Assembly election against Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan from Dharmadam in Kannur district, hotbed of communism, was more a symbolic act of protest. “I am contesting the election to seek justice for my children…It is his (Pinarayi Vijayan’s) government that made me live on the streets and protest for the last three years…There are many police officers who deny justice for poor people like me. There are many who are suffering like me…I want to bring justice to them,” Bhagyawathi had told newspersons. Her only surviving child, a 12-year-old boy, accompanied her during the election campaign. “I am scared to let him out of sight,” she said. On 1 April, five days before the voting, the state government had handed over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation, a long-standing demand of the mother and the action forum formed by Dalits and human rights activists.

Kerala Mahila Congress president Lathika Subhash resigned her post the moment she was denied a ticket from her hometown, Ettumanoor in central Kerala and in a dramatic move sat on the veranda of Indira Bhavan, state Pradesh Congress Committee office in capital Thiruvananthapuran, and tonsured her head. It is not known whether she did it at the spur of the moment, but the fact remains that a barber was at call the moment she decided to shave her head.

Lathika, 56, maintained that she was shaving half her head in protest against the anti-women politics of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while the other half was to protest denial of ticket to her. She also announced her decision to contest from her home constituency as an independent. It is perhaps for the first time that any leader in any political party in Kerala had taken such a step to register their protest against party leadership for denying a poll ticket. Agencies have reported that a weeping Subhash said she had tonsured her head as a symbol of protest for all the women in the party who have been toiling hard for the success of their male counterparts, but have been sidelined and ignored by the leadership for years.

Her Mahila Congress had sought 20% representation for women in the elections, with a minimum of two candidates from each of the 14 districts of the state. The state Congress leadership was in no mood to listen and simply expelled Lathika from the party. Not many women from the party came in support of Lathika. Patriarchy prevailed.

It is without doubt that both the Walayar mother and Lathika Subhash were fully aware that they stand no chance in the elections. But as far as the hair is concerned it is all theirs, they alone have the right to decide to let it down or to shave it. They dared to register their protest. That is what matters.