The senior police officer, who sought anonymity, was bang on target.
“This place doesn’t believe in odd numbers. If one CPM guy is murdered, revenge killing of an RSS worker is not far away. It is the same the other way, as well. Peace prevails here only when the death toll is even.”
Newslaundry was in Kerala’s Kannur district, probably the only one in the country where the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPM), has prevented the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-backed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut from rolling in.
As the CPM holds on to its fort and the BJP desperately tries to fight its way in, blood spills on the street. Party offices are attacked, workers are killed; even their houses are not spared.
Family, friends or profession -- nothing is more important than politics. One’s social success is measured more by one’s political stature than professional achievements. “Every individual has a political identity,” Superintendent of Police (SP), Kannur, P Shiva Vikram said.
Martyrdom is business as usual and many wouldn’t mind it. Fifty two-year-old CPM worker Mohan and 29-year-old BJP supporter Remith were all beads in this political abacus. The beads only keep increasing and getting bloodier with every addition.
Bombs are common. Swords, knives, and axes are the other weapons of choice as both parties try to build and protect their organisation.
“Many workers of both parties know how to make crude bombs. They make and store them in individual capacities. In Kerala, people don’t have access to illegal guns. Hence, you will rarely find cases where people have been shot dead,” Vikram said.
As per an internal Kannur police report, between May and November 2016, 655 raids were conducted in Kannur and led to the seizure of:
75 bombs (Steel bombs, Country-made and ice-cream bombs), 3.5 kg gunpowder, 24 swords, 15 knifes, 2 guns, 2 axes and one chopper.
Over the last 10 years in Kerala, 107 lives have been lost. In 2017 alone, five people have been killed.
The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, came to power in May 2016.An internal police department highlighted a spurt in violence between May 1 and November 18. But many of these cases were interlinked. “A series of incidents took place immediately after CPM worker Raveendran was killed in Koothuparambu by BJP-RSS supporters on counting day, May 19. Peace was restored after police intervention,” the report said.
The incidents hit national headlines.
In July, Democratic Youth Federation of India (CPM’s youth wing) leader CV Dhanaraj was hacked to death in the courtyard of his house in Kunnaravu. Revenge was swift. Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (workers union of the BJP) leader CK Ramachandran was killed by CPM workers that very night.
In October, the CPM branch secretary, 52-year-old K Mohanan, was brutally murdered in a toddy shop near Koothuparambu. In retaliation, Remith K (29), a BJP supporter, was killed by CPM workers. Remith is survived by his mother in front of whom he was hacked dead in cold blood.
The killing fields
It is not the first time the ‘killing fields’ of Kannur are making the news. But, of late, they have started hogging national headlines like never before. In July, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley rushed to Kerala after RSS worker Rajesh was stabbed and chopped to death in capital Thiruvananthapuram.
The family of slain RSS worker Rajesh (pictured in the frame)
His brutal murder was widely covered by the national media. RSS leaders like Rakesh Sinha demanded Central government intervention. In TV debates, the murder was projected as an example of the ‘reign of terror’ unleashed by the Marxists. At a press conference in New Delhi, senior RSS leader Dattatreya Hosabale alleged that the number of killings had spiked under the Pinarayi government.
On Ground Zero
As I entered Kannur on August 25, I saw publicity material of RSS-BJP outnumbering those of the Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), led by the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML).
If one were to go by the hoardings and festoons, it would seem that the BJP is the second-largest political force in the state, or at least in the district. For starters, the BJP has just one seat in the 140-member Kerala Assembly. The lone seat is a first for the party in the state legislature. It won the seat, not from Kannur but from one of the constituencies in Thiruvananthapuram. The BJP is yet to open its account in the Lok Sabha from Kerala.
The RSS and the BJP are aware that their cadre base is very thin compared to that of the CPM’s. “It would be 80:20 in CPM’s favour,” Kerala RSS sah-sanchalak KK Balaram admitted. According to O Rajagopal, the first BJP MLA in the state, it could be 3:1 in favour of the CPM.
In the State Assembly, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) has 91 seats. The BJP polled 14.6 per cent votes and the LDF 44 per cent. Kannur has 11 constituencies, and both Chief Minister Vijayan and CPM State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan hail from the district.
With a narrow cadre base, how do the BJP and RSS get ‘even’?
According to the District Crime Record Bureau (DCRB) figures, in August 1987 and August 2017 both parties suffered almost the equal number of casualties.
The latest National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data, Crime in India 2015, shows Kerala in the 17th position as far as murders are concerned.
“When compared to states with a similar population, Kerala has the least murders. The state has around three per cent of the country’s total population, and it saw fewer killings compared to the national average,” former Kerala DGP Alexander Jacob told Newslaundry. Even when it comes to political killings, Kerala is behind Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.
When it rains in Russia…
Kannur is the litmus test for any party trying to dethrone the CPM in Kerala. The area holds historical significance for the Communists. Time was when there was a saying, “When it rains in Russia, Keralites would open their umbrellas”. That was during the old Soviet era. Kannur would still swear by that old saying.
Its link to Communism is deep-rooted and dates back to pre-Independence days. The CPI (the CPM came into being later) was formed in the state in 1939 after a secret meeting at Kannur’s Parapram village.Violence came a-calling almost three decades later. Before the CPM-RSS fight, the fight used to be between the Congress and the CPM and the CPM and the IUML. As the RSS grew determined to make an imprint in Kannur, the colour, tone and tenor of politics changed.
The first victim in the RSS-CPM fight was Vadikkal Ramakrishnan -- in 1969. It was a result of the Ganesh Beedi Cooperative Society controversy. Beedi workers, led by CPM, had called for a strike.
“Dinesh Beedi Cooperative Society came into existence after Ganesh Beedi was shut down. The Ganesh Beedi owner was the treasurer of the Jan Sangh. They closed the factories following some demands by trade unions. The RSS worked out some alternative system (Dinesh Beedi),” CPM’s Kannur District Secretary P Jayarajan told Newslaundry.
This, he believes, is the trigger. RSS workers, he claimed, provided beedi leaves to the unemployed and handed over the rolled beedis to the Ganesh Beedi factory. For the CPM, this was nothing but betrayal, he said.
Sah-sanchalak Balaram refutes this. “These are speculations. There is no proof to establish any link between the RSS and the Ganesh Beedi Cooperative Society. Still, it led to clashes.”
The Leftists also believe that RSS shakhas were funded by the Ganesh Beedi owner. On April 28, 1969, Ramakrishnan was killed by CPM workers. The CPM’s first martyr was U K Kunhiraman -- murdered during the Thalassery riots on January 4, 1972. The riot was triggered after rumours were spread by Hindu communal groups. In its report, the Justice Joseph Vithayathil Inquiry Commission, formed to investigate the riots, said that the “first phase of the disturbance was pre-planned by Hindu communalists, the second phase was of the nature of retaliation by Muslims and the third was retaliation by the Hindus.” The CPM workers went to protect the mosques and Kunhiraman was killed in the clashes.
Ever since, the number of martyrs on both sides has only been climbing.
We won't cry; instead we will avenge with guts -We, the comrades (CPM poster in the wake of DYFI leader Dhanaraj’s killing)
The caste factor
Both – the CPM and the RSS – do not identify the caste of their martyrs. However, members of the Thiyya community are the flag-bearers of both the organisations. Advocate R Jayaprakash, prachar pramukh of RSS in Kannur, said: “About 60-65 per cent of those killed would be Thiyyas. They are the major community in Kannur and in the Malabar region.”
Some police officials said the Thiyyas are loyal to political ideology. “They are brave, and are ready to fight till the finish.”
One can identify the political leanings of an area by the colours on the electricity poles. In CPM-dominated areas, they are red, and, at in some places, they have posters of Che Guevara on the walls. Similarly, in RSS-dominated areas, the poles are all saffron. This becomes all the more evident in “party villages” --areas completely dominated by a particular party.
Flags, busts of leaders and banners are the easy way to capture the minds of the masses.
Give a missed call, become a member
It is easier to become a member of the RSS-BJP; it is tougher in the CPM. One can become an RSS member by joining a shakha. To join BJP, all it takes is a missed call. This membership culture is mocked by CPM leaders like Jayarajan.
In Dharmadam, 31-year-old CPM sympathiser Shijin said:
“Unlike in the BJP, in the CPM, you can’t become a member by giving a missed call. Sabki madad karni padti hai, 1.5 saal tak local area mein apni mehnat se logon ko jodna hota hai- tab party ye monitor kar ke membership deti hai (You have to work hard in the local area, help and support the people. The party monitors these activities for at least a year-and-a-half before giving membership).”
Shijin, a construction professional in Bengaluru, has been trying to become a CPM member for three years, but has not met with luck. “After becoming a member, I might get married. My wife will work and I will look for a part-time job. I plan to devote the rest of my time for party work.”
Shijin’s is the typical mindset of the Kannur CPM worker.
Despite the bloodshed, mayhem and murders, how are the parties getting new members? Both the CPM and the RSS have their own ‘welfare policies’.
When a supporter is killed or caught in some legal cases, the parties step in to rescue. Parties also build memorials in the name of the martyrs.
Sreejan Babu (42), a CPM worker, was brutally attacked in Thalassery in July. Babu, still recovering from 22 major injuries in the Thalassery Cooperative Hospital in end August, told this correspondent that his entire medical expenses were borne by the party. Nijil, 28, a cooperative hospital employee and a CPM worker, said: “Around Rs 30 lakh were spent for his medication. This was borne by the party. We need to stand with them in moments of crisis.”
If caught in legal cases, party provides legal aid. Biju, an RSS worker and an accused in the Dhanaraj murder case, was hacked to death on May 12. His father, Purushothaman, a resident of Kakkampara village in Payyanur area, said that his son was out on bail. Like other victim-families, Purushothaman didn’t have a copy of the charge sheet.
In the ‘CPM village’ of Aroli, Sujith PV, an RSS worker, was the first victim of political killings in 2016. The RSS provided monetary compensation, said his mother.
Both the RSS and the CPM leaders justify the monetary and legal assistance. They say they cannot abandon the families of their martyrs.
A Bus stop in Pinarayi, the village from where the Chief Minister hails from, turned into a memorial after the killing of CPM workers
The smarakams (memorials) help parties in getting fresh recruits. They remind other party workers about the sacrifice of fellow comrades or shakha members. It has a stronger emotive appeal. Strong enough that at times lower-level party workers decide to avenge these killings – without even keeping the leadership in the loop -- as in the Dhanaraj-Ramchandran murder case, said a local party worker.
Expansion of the RSS
Initially, political fights used to take place between the Congress and the Communists. In the 1960s, the RSS started expanding its base in Kerala, especially in the Kannur belt. “Both the RSS and the CPM are essentially Hindu parties. A large section of their cadre base comes from Hindu society,” said Ullekh NP, a journalist and author of the book, The Untold Vajpayee. Christians and Muslims traditionally support the Congress and the IUML.
A RSS banner in Kakkampara, which reads: Sangh is our life, nothing else. Whether I am dead or alive, I will hold the saffron flag up high.
The rise of the RSS was a direct threat to the CPM. “CPM workers tried stop their family members and young men from attending Sangh shakhas. Violence followed and the RSS started expanding,” said KA Antony, a former journalist with the Indian Express.
There are pockets in Kerala and Kannur where the RSS is strong. In the nearby district of Kasaragod, two of the five Assembly constituencies are divided on communal lines. Here, the BJP is the second-largest force, after the IUML.
RSS leader Balaram said that after the Emergency, the organisation has witnessed a surge in membership. “Today, we have around 300-400 shakhas in Kannur itself,” he said.
Anti-CPM and Hindutva sentiments are what the RSS and the BJP bank on. Deceased RSS worker Biju’s father Purushothaman, a resident of Kakkampara, had no qualms in saying that he and his son had joined the RSS because of the Hindutva sentiment. Same was the case with Sujith’s family.
Shivaji, Vinayaka in Red Land
The Vinayaka festival is gaining popularity in Kannur. “This is a new culture. The sound system and the participants make the law and order situation worse. Loud DJs provoke members from the rival party and clashes occur,” said a senior police officer. “There were reports of clashes in a few pockets of Kannur like Chakharakkal and Edakkad last time. CPM areas were targeted,” he said.
The RSS is tactically using Hindu religious events such as the Vinayaka festival for its expansion. Arun Kumar, a taxi driver in Kannur, said:“Abhi hum log Vinayak ka procession nikalega, to isme CPM ko kyun problem hota hai. Wo iss par kyun attack karta hai? (Why does the CPM attack our Vinayaka procession? What problem do they have against Hindu festivals?).”
The RSS is possibly eyeing the likes of Kumar. One could not miss the large saffron flags with Emperor Shivaji’s face on it. There is also the inscription ‘Janata Raja’ (People’s king) on the flags.
Why would Keralites use Hindi or Marathi flags? Is it brought by certain organisations? This correspondent had noticed similar flags in the Mangaluru belt – the Dakshina Kannada district – which is an RSS-stronghold.
If clashes between the CPM and the RSS erupt during these processions, it would be easy to tag the Marxists as anti-Hindu. This will be suicidal for the CPM as it cannot afford to lose its Hindu cadres. The Marxists know that the RSS has already infiltrated their base camp.
The CPM has now found a way out. Tackle religion with culture. It played out on August 27.
On this day, the Chief Minister attended the Kalari festival – local martial arts – in Kannur. It was organised during the Vinayaka procession day. By doing so, Vijayan ensured the CPM cadre remained busy and pre-empted the chances of clashes.
Is peace dawning?
Vijayan initiated peace talks with the RSS in the beginning of 2017. The move is appreciated even by RSS leaders like Jayaprakash and KK Balaram. “We don’t doubt the CM’s intentions, but cannot say the same about his cadre,” said Balaram.
Under the new arrangement, both parties agreed to monitor incidents of violence, and if CPM workers are at fault, the RSS is supposed to inform the district leadership and vice-versa. Then, it is the responsibility of the local leadership to act against the guilty. “If this arrangement works out, peace will prevail in Kerala,” hopes Balaram.
Political enmity is deep-rooted. Both parties accuse each other of being the aggressor.
According to BJP MLA Rajagopal, “Violence is in the blood of CPM. Only the RSS and the BJP have resisted Communist violence. Other parties have been passive. But here in the Sangh, when they see no other way, we retaliate.”
That is precisely what the CPM also claims. But when in power, the CPM faces a different dilemma. Being the ruling party, it is their duty to check violence. If it claims that the RSS is responsible, it would to be tantamount to accepting that the government has failed to maintain the law-and-order situation.
Artwork: Anish Daolagupu
Animation: Venkateshwaran Selvaraj
Picture Credit: Amit Bhardwaj
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