Updated: March 17, 2021 8:52:44 am
“The Kerala Students Union President and Youth Congress president also got a seat. Then why did the Mahila Congress President not get a seat? I am not fighting for me, I am fighting as a representative of more women.”
Seeing Lathika Subhash — a Congress leader from Kerala with over four decades of experience — complain publicly about the denial of a ticket for the upcoming state elections, for me, marked the end of a promise revived in the 1990s. In the heady days of the post-socialist “third-wave” democracy of that decade, reservation of seats for women in local bodies seemed to hold up a torch that illuminated roads to greater opportunities for perseverant women workers in political parties. Local self-government was deemed attractive, not just as an arena in which women would learn the ropes of governance and leadership; it would also enable them to build stable constituencies and democratic foundations to rise to the upper echelons of parties and governments. That promise seems dead.
Lathika’s act of tonsuring her head is particularly poignant, associated as it is with widowhood, grieving, social banishment and exclusion. But more because it grieves the death of a social, political promise made to all women by the political mainstream. Yet, it is comforting to know that unlike traditional social exclusionary rituals after which the woman is cast out, Lathika refuses to be cowed down. It is said that she plans to contest as an independent.
This is not a bolt from the blue but a story that has unfolded since the 1940s. The image of Lathika’s face marred with pain and humiliation and at the same time lit with determination and rage made me recall another Congresswoman, from the 1950s — a towering figure, easily the most revered and recognised Congress activist of her generation — Accamma Cheriyan. Though a leader of the Congress who returned unopposed to the legislature in Travancore’s first adult-franchise elections of 1948, she was denied a ticket for the Lok Sabha elections in independent India. In response to Jawaharlal Nehru’s call to include more women in the Congress candidate lists, Kumbalathu Sanku Pillai (who definitely could not match up to Accamma’s moral stature but compensated for it by his adroitness in manipulating male-dominated community politics) declared that women in Travancore were already “empresses of the home” and no loss was forthcoming for Kerala because of women’s absence in legislative assemblies.
It was not as if the first-generation feminists in Kerala did not anticipate the likes of Pillai. It was an important reason why some of them seemed to trust the regressive Travancore princely state more than anti-colonial, progressive political parties. Writing in 1944, T N Kalyanikutty Amma anticipated precisely this: “No matter how unquestionable the personal greatness of women candidates for general seats maybe,” she wrote, “the support they receive is questionable.” She also noted that women voters may be more in numbers but they have “neither the information nor the encouragement to vote exclusively for women candidates”. Hence, she appealed to the Travancore government to retain and expand the special constituencies representing “Women”. A Bhageerathy Amma, a first-class Magistrate in Thiruvananthapuram, saw a clear connection between “smashing patriarchy” and women’s entry into legislatures. In 1944, she exhorted: “Women must get into the legislatures and Municipal Councils in large numbers to fight for their rights… Let us organise a women’s movement and chalk out our programme for progress in all directions. It is man, not God, that tells you that you are intended for the kitchen.” Maybe this is what set the patriarchs’ tails on fire, the terror of which was manifest in Pillai’s convoluted defence of the exclusion of women. Nor were Congresswomen in any mood to give up. As Mary Thomas Alakappilli declared at the inauguration of the women’s wing of the Congress in Muvattupuzha in 1954: “Those of us who ventured into organisational work were greeted with many bitter experiences. But we are still moving forward. We know well that political work is no bed of roses here.”
They reacted sharply to Pillai’s comments — even conservative women. In 1951, Mariyakutty John, delivering the presidential address at the All-Kerala Catholic Conference’s Annual Meeting at Aluva, endorsed conservative Catholic positions on family roles and contraception — and then protested vociferously against the exclusion of women from government, against the denial of a ministerial berth for another prominent Congress politician from Travancore, Annie Mascrene. These were the reasons for the “sorry state” in which the Congress government of Travancore-Cochin found itself, she declared.
And for all of Pillai’s hopes, the “Homestead Empresses” marched the streets during the so-called “Liberation Struggle” through which allied right-wing forces brought down the first elected communist government in Kerala. The success of the struggle was attributed in large measure to these protests — around 40,000 women participated, thousands were jailed. Indira Gandhi promised to reward women with more opportunities in the candidates list. Women prominent in the protests, like O K Madhavi Amma, formed the Akhila Kerala Vanitaasangham at Kochi, which was focussed on the forthcoming elections. Even as these efforts were on, Nazrani Deepika wrote an editorial congratulating women, but also gently shooed them into safely apolitical “social work”. In 1960, the Congress fielded six women out of a total of 80 candidates.
And so the story goes on. Women’s reservations in local bodies in the 1990s kindled a chance, which seems distant now. But I like to think of Lathika’s act as one of hope as well. As children, our heads were tonsured anticipating the double benefit of beating the summer heat and a more luxuriant, new head of hair. May it be so for her; may it be an escape from patriarchal baggage and a necessary act of renouncement, for a new, healthy, fruitful public life.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 17, 2021 under the title ‘A betrayal in Kerala’. The writer is a historian and professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram
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