In Hate Country
In communist-ruled Kerala, a district continues to pay in blood for decades of communal strain
ON APRIL 14 this year, Kasargod, like the rest of Kerala, was given over to a day of festivities for Vishu, the Malayalam New Year. At sundown, however, began a nightmare that this region, which borders Karnataka’s communally volatile Dakshina Kannada district, is yet to fully recover from. A car full of festival revellers was passing through Kasargod town when one of them chose to get down near the main bus stand to urinate. The bus stand is not far from a mosque; all those in the car were BJP supporters. When a passerby objected to the man’s urinating so near a place of worship, an altercation resulted. A crowd gathered and after the BJP men left, five people followed them and stabbed one. Sandeep Kumar, the 24-year-old victim, died on the way to hospital.
Though the police arrested three of the five attackers within the hour and promised to nab the remaining two by the next evening, the BJP called a district-wide strike the following day. The hartal saw organised violence against Muslim households and establishments and brutal attacks on Muslim youths in Karanthakad on the outskirts of Kasargod town. The reprisal followed soon enough: two BJP workers were severely stabbed in Mogral some distance away.
The violence continued on the third day as well — a high school student named Mohammed Sinan was stabbed to death in Anebagilu village, apparently in retaliation for the death of B. Suhas, the district vice-president of the BJP-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh. The killing spree culminated with the brutal murder of 53-year-old Mohammed Haji, president of a local masjid committee.
Although the initial strike had only been called for a day, it took over 72 hours for normalcy to even begin to return. Prohibitory orders and a total ban on two-wheelers continued for over a fortnight. Though nearly two months have passed, Kasargod is still under tight police watch.
In a district where a strong RSS-BJP presence is bent on pitting itself against a sizable Muslim population, every local skirmish is now steeped in communal colours. The Vishu clashes came just as the town and sensitive outskirts such as Uppala, Mancheswaram, Badhiadukka and Mogral Puthur were beginning to recover from bloody exchanges between CPM and Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) activists. Beginning with trivial local spats, the CPM-IUML standoff escalated into a trail of communally provocative actions.
That the CPM-IUML conflict does not go too deep, however, is indicated by Yuva Morcha state president K. Surendran, who scoffs at talk of secularism and democracy. “Look at Manjeshwaram Assembly constituency, where the BJP has the largest vote share,” he says. “The CPM is very weak there but it is adamant on not allowing a BJP candidate to enter the Kerala Assembly. So the CPM is transferring its votes to the communal IUML to defeat us.” The CPM district leadership readily confirms the allegation. They consider the BJP more dangerous than the IUML. So their votes go to the lesser evil each time.
Political equations in Kasargod are, in fact, practically unique in Kerala. The IUML is the ruling party in the municipality with the Congress as junior partner and the BJP as Opposition — the mighty CPM was able to win only a single seat. With Kasargod’s near-complete communal polarisation, secular politics is at best weak here, even outside the municipality.
The origins of Kasargod’s sharp communal divisions lie in the period just before Independence. There was a strong movement here for a merger with Pakistan, and during the time of the formation of states, the communal divide became clearer still. Hindu groups wanted a merger with Karnataka, as most of their members were Kannada speakers; Muslims wanted to be part of Kerala. Even now, Hindutva groups are eager to merge Kasargod with Karnataka.
The RSS and other ultra-Hindutva groups started gaining ground in the region during the 1950s and 60s with financial support from beedi companies located in the Mangalore region. Known for their low wages and anti-employee stands, the beedi manufacturers were wary of the growth of the Communist movement in Kasargod and adjoining Kannur districts. Communalism, they found, was the best remedy against Communism infecting their workforce.
According to police records, the annihilation of rivals for even the most minor of reasons was a trend that set in here in the 90s. Further, since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the district has continued to witness sporadic incidents of communal violence.
Police sources additionally confirm that communal flames are now actively stoked by mafias involved in the circulation of fake currencies, sandalwood smuggling, hawala transactions, the illegal gold trade and the production and retailing of country arrack, which is banned in Kerala. “Cracking down on these mafias is a must if you are serious about warding off a massive outbreak of communal riots in Kasargod,” says scholar MA Rahman
But despite all evidence of Kasargod’s fast becoming a communal time bomb, the situation is still salvageable, as Rahman points out. A salient feature of violence in the district has been the fact that there has never been a single seizure of bombs and swords in any of the raids conducted here, he says. “Contrary to similar outbreaks of communal hatred elsewhere, normal domestic weapons have been used in most of the murders, which means that the police and the political leadership can permanently stop the violence if they will.”