The gruesome killings of each other’s cadre by Marxist and ultra-Hindu rivals in north Kerala is a fight for political space that has worsened over decades
K A Shaji
Only, these are not gangs; at least not in the sense the term is known. Aneesh was a worker of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) that heads the ruling coalition in Kerala, one of India’s three states where the Communists are a major political force. Babu was a worker of the BJP that, together with its Hindu supremacist ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has tried a lifetime to grow roots around the dense Marxist undergrowth in Kerala, especially in the Kannur district. And yes, both sides have always behaved as gangs in a turf war, one determined to protect its hold and the other as eager to invade. This month’s hostility claimed seven lives in five days, as rampaging gangs spread terror, forcing the police to open fire on occasion to scatter mobs.
“The killings of political workers, whether by X or Y, is not good for our society,” Kannur’s Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, CPM’s AP Abdullakutty, told TEHELKA. “But our people reacted spontaneously to the unprovoked killings of their comrades by the BJP-RSS.” Snapped RSS activist V. Thillankery: “We are only defending ourselves. The Stalinist CPM is trying to annihilate us.”
The self-justification — “they conspired to kill ours but ours killed theirs spontaneously” — is the standard tit-for-tat argument of both sides to start newer rounds of killings. The chain of murders this month began last November when in separate incidents four Marxist workers in the district were murdered by alleged sympathisers of the BJP-RSS. Before the CPM could retaliate though, local authorities forced peace between the warring sides. But that accord wasn’t durable and the spate of killings restarted this month, this time moved first by the CPM. On March 9, as BJP-RSS demonstrators stoned the CPM’s headquarters in New Delhi, the issue attracted national spotlight with the BJP, a political lightweight in Kerala, demanding that Kerala’s Communist rulers be sacked, and the Communists seeking criminal proceedings against the BJP. Sensing political capital, the state’s main opposition, the Congress, slammed both sides and asked for the deployment of Central police forces in the area.
Although a day later local leaders of the two political parties sat down with Kannur district authorities and agreed to sheath their swords — a “temporary ceasefire”, said Abdullakutty — there is no doubt this peace would be as tenuous as any in nearly 30 years of confrontation between the Communists and the Hindu rightwing. As always, the unfortunate victims of the violence came from the lowest rungs of society: those killed on either side were auto and lorry drivers, rickshaw pullers and construction workers. Nearly all belong to the Thiyya community, Kerala’s largest Hindu community classified as an Other Backward Class (OBC), the historical strugglers against the landed upper castes. Tribal warriors by tradition, the Thiyyas have nurtured their generations on a sense of righteousness. Their popular Thira dance form often tells stories of inter-caste fights, such as the landlord killing a peasant’s wife, and then the peasant taking the form of god to kill the cruel landlord.
THE REGION’S first political homicidal violence goes back to the end-1960s, and the first rivals in that battle were the communists and the Congress. The Communist roots in Kannur have been among the strongest of the leftist ideology in the country. Former CPM general secretary, the late EMS Namboodiripad, began shaping Kerala’s Communist movement while lodged in the Kannur jail in the 1930s. Former Chief Minister EK Nayanar represented the region. The current home minister of Kerala represents Thalassery, that nook of Kannur where the current violence has centred.
About 1980, a controversial issue around a Hindu temple in the district triggered Hindu-Muslim violence, allowing the BJP-RSS a toehold as the Communists were seen to be siding with the Muslims. This was the time when the socio-economic imbalance here was turning: the earlier landowner-versus-landless friction was receding while the Gulf money-backed Muslims surged. Swathes of villages in Kannur are said to be CPM “party villages” — a euphemism for the Marxists’ total political domination — where those with another ideology are boycotted and often driven out. The BJPRSS has tried its hardest to get inside such villages to drive a wedge among the Thiyya folks who have traditionally backed the Marxists. It is mostly the renegade Thiyyas, the ex-Marxists now working with the BJP-RSS, who are now at the forefront of the political violence with their new ideological rivals.
Clearly, both sides have stockpiled arms and that makes it difficult to check the violence from recurring. While the BJP-RSS supporters use the S blades, the Marxist workers have shown a preference for steel bombs. “They have no shame in killing their victims in front of aged parents or school-going children,” says nonpartisan social activist TC Viswanath, who works for peace in the region. “Both are armed to the teeth and use the most inhuman ways to kill their opponents.” Disarming would hardly be easy, given that the CPM is the head of the state’s ruling coalition. RSS’ Thillankery alleges that the Marxists manipulate the police and the local administration. CPM leader EP Jayarajan counters: “If the BJP is serious about restoring peace, its workers should lay down arms.”
The ideological battle, of course, is no relief to the victims’ families that continue to relive the shock of the killings and are fearful for their lives. “When will this barbarism end?” asks Edacholi Nani, whose only son Preman, a BJP activist, was cut down before her eyes two years ago. She wails as she sees the dead body of RSS worker Suresh Babu on its way to the last rites. Without any source of income now, Nani lives alone and is starting at starvation.
“I devoted my entire life to raise my son and now he is gone,” says an anguished Nangarath Sathi whose Marxist son KP Rajesh was killed two months ago. “It is about time this meaningless bloody battle was ended.”
If only the hardened politicians were listening.