When KK Shailaja started out as a science teacher in a small town in Kerala, she never imagined that one day, people would be wearing T-shirts with her face printed on them.
Shailaja, fondly known as Shailaja Teacher, is Kerala’s health and social welfare minister. She has a following like no other politician. Last December, the Financial Times named her as one of the . She was also for her work during the Covid pandemic in Kerala.
Over the last few days, Shailaja Teacher has been attending events and interacting with voters in Mattannur in Kannur district where she’s contesting in the upcoming assembly election.
Mattannur, one of Kerala’s 140 constituencies, is located along the foothills of the Western Ghats. The constituency was formed in 2008, carved out of the constituencies of Peravoor, Koothuparamba and Ikkikur. So far, two assembly elections have been held in Mattannur, in 2011 and 2016. EP Jayarajan from the Communist Party of India Marxist, who is also the state’s industries minister, won both times.
This year, however, is the first time Jayarajan won’t be contesting an election since 1987. He’s of the CPIM, which is perhaps why.
So, in his stead is KK Shailaja, dubbed a “Covid rockstar” and “coronavirus slayer” . She is contesting against Illikkal Augusthy from the Revolutionary Socialist Party, part of the United Democratic Front led by the Congress.
The soft-spoken Shailaja chuckled when asked if she feels like a rockstar.
“No, no,” she said. “I heard somebody called me that, but it’s been such a busy time and this is entirely a team effort.”
A poster of Shailaja in Mattannur.
A supporter wearing a T-shirt with Shailaja's face on it.
Life in politics is not new to Shailaja. Her maternal grandmother, whom she says is her biggest influence, was a staunch communist who during the British Raj. Her uncles had been jailed and tortured for participating in the peasants’ fight against the zamindari system in Kerala.
As a student, Shailaja joined the CPIM’s student wing, the Students Federation of India, and then the youth wing, the Democratic Youth Federation of India. She worked as a teacher in Mattannur for 23 years before taking voluntary retirement in 2004 to join politics full time.
Today, she is one of only two women ministers in Pinarayi Vijayan’s cabinet. She first shot to national fame for her work during the in 2018 – they even about her – and last year, she made a name for her efficient handling of the fight against Covid. The World Health Organisation last July based on the Kerala model that Shailaja and her team built to fight the virus.
‘Whether I cook or not isn’t a matter of concern’
On the afternoon of March 20, Shailaja climbed into her Innova car after attending an event in Mattannur. Draped in a crisp blue and white cotton sari, and wearing a white mask, she and her husband, N Bhaskaran, drove through the narrow lanes to go to a relative’s house for lunch. Bhaskaran, the former chairperson of Mattannur municipality, met Shailaja during their days in the DYFI.
At the relative’s home, Shailaja removed her mask with a sigh and sat down in a plastic chair in front of a fan. Kerala’s humidity reflected from her glistening forehead.
Meanwhile, villagers were streaming into the living room to catch a glimpse of Teacher amma. Some of them wore white T-shirts bearing her face, while children waved red balloons, the CPIM’s colour. Young girls asked her for selfies and she readily obliged, standing up and smiling into their phone cameras.
Close on Shailaja’s heels is Shah Jahan, one of the three armed bodyguards who take turns to stay with her at all times. Dressed in plainclothes, Shah Jahan tracks her schedule, interacts with the media, and acts as liaison between Shailaja and those who arrive to meet her. He also keeps an eye on her needs, such as whether she could use a glass of water.
“I’ve been with her for five years now,” he told Newslaundry. “There are three of us and we take turns. Each of us spends one full week with her. Working for her is like working for my own mother. She’s always treated me like her own son.”
Shailaja currently stays at her family home in Pazhassi, a village in Mattannur. Her workday usually begins at 7.30 am. “People come to see her,” Shah Jahan explained. “They want to wish her luck and sometimes come to her for help. So, she meets them before she leaves for her campaign work."
By 9.30 pm, Shailaja is usually back home. She then settles into team meetings that go on until 12.30 am, juggling between her ministerial duties and her campaign.
As we chatted with Shah Jahan, Shailaja finished her lunch and then walked over to a neighbouring house with her husband in tow. They settled themselves on a sofa on the porch, ready for media interactions.
Shailaja taking selfies with supporters.
Shailaja and her husband N Bhaskaran interacting with the media.
During the interaction, Robin Raju, a journalist with Mathrubhumi, turned to Bhaskaran and asked, “She’s a minister, but does she cook well at home?”
Shailaja was quick to retort: “Whether I cook or not isn’t a matter of concern in this election. Or is it?”
When Raju deflected and tried to move on to his next question, she stopped him: “Don’t change the topic. You all want to ask a woman if she cooks. In our house, everyone cooks. If I had been suppressed in the kitchen, I wouldn’t be here.”
Shailaja told Newslaundry that as a woman, she never felt discriminated against or burdened with housework by her family. However, it was the media that persisted in asking her about being a “woman politician”.
But, she added, the question has some merit. “It is a good question to ask because then I can talk about the hypocrisy of society,” she said. “Even though I never felt suppressed, most women who work have to balance their household chores and their political lives. They are really suffering.”
Bhaskaran said it’s high time that men in Kerala changed their way of thinking, and supported their women in professional fields. In the last assembly election, he pointed out, of the 140 elected MLAs, – just 5.7 percent of the assembly. All eight women were from the Left Democratic Front.
As we walked through Mattannur, it almost seemed as if the constituency had only one election candidate. Posters of Shailaja lined the roads, hung on trees and plastered across billboards.
“There is no competition for Teacher amma here,” said Sreeja Sreejit, who works at a roadside eatery in Mattannur. “Even the people who usually vote for the UDF will be voting for the LDF because it is Shailaja Teacher who is contesting.” This was echoed by K Govindan, 65, who has assured his friends that though he usually votes for the Congress, it’s Shailaja Teacher who will get his vote.
Political murders in Kannur
Yet not everyone in Mattannur is as excited about Shailaja. Seven kilometres away from where Shailaja had lunch, we met CP Muhammad, who took a vow in 2018 that he would “never ever vote” for the CPIM.
Late at night on February 12, 2018, Muhammad said, he was woken up with the news that his son, SP Shuhaib, had met with an accident. Shuhaib, a Youth Congress worker who lives in the Gulf, had just returned home for the first time in three years for a vacation. He was due to return to the Gulf in four days.
It was only the following morning that Muhammad learned that Shuhaib was dead. He had been by a group of men with a bomb and then hacked to death with a sword. “His body had been stabbed and slashed multiple times,” his father said, adding that he had refused to see his son’s hacked body. He had only seen it after it was stitched up following the postmortem.
According to news reports, Shuhaib had been killed by a group of CPIM workers. Such violence is not uncommon. Between 2000 and 2016, at least in Kannur in a purported turf war between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the CPIM. Shuhaib’s death is, according to the News Minute, the 21st political death in Kerala since Pinarayi Vijayan became chief minister in 2016.
Sreeja Sreejit, who works at a roadside eatery in Mattannur.
CP Muhammad, whose son was reportedly killed by CPIM workers in 2018.
S Sreedharan (extreme left) who runs a teashop in Mattannur.
In Shuhaib’s case, the LDF government initially denied the involvement of its party workers. However, the CPIM eventually accused in the murder. There are currently 17 accused in the case, all of whom are CPIM workers. The Congress, which has been helping Shuhaib’s family, into the case. The request was rejected by the Kerala High Court in 2019.
As a result, Muhammad said, he will never vote for the CPIM.
“Not a single person from the party ever visited us,” he said. “By suspending their men, it shows that they do realise that their party was involved in my son’s death. Still, they never came.”
When Newslaundry asked Shailaja if she would visit Shuhaib’s family, she evaded the question. “We’re not against the family,” she said. “Any killing is a sad thing. At that time, the situation was like that.” She added that Shuhaib’s death was not the only case in Kannur and that the CPIM condemns “all political killings”.
“The CPIM cannot stand any criticism,” said Muhammad. “If you speak openly against them, they will either kill you or hack your limbs and leave you to rot. They will do whatever it takes to get you out of the way. KK Shailaja might be the best woman. She may have done great work during Covid. But I lost my son and her party workers killed him. That’s where it stops for me.”
Muhammad now runs a clothing shop named after his son, which he set up four months ago. “I now have to pick up my life,” he said. “Or else I too will get lost in this political gamble.”
But Shuhaib’s case hasn’t pushed voters of Mattannur to rethink their political loyalties. A few stores away from CP Muhammad’s shop, four men at a local teashop said as much to Newslaundry. Three of them were CPIM loyalists; the fourth votes for the Congress.
“Shailaja Teacher is ours,” said Moosekutty, 62. “Mattannur is a CPIM constituency. That will never change.”
The owner of the teashop, S Sreedharan, 65, said that when Shuhaib was murdered, there were a few protests but it was all quickly forgotten. “Go to that bridge down the road where all the political posters and flags are,” he said. “You will not see a single RSP flag. The CPIM has already won here.”
Photographs by Aditya Varier.
With inputs from Dhyanesh Vaishnav.
This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.
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