Editor’s note: Kannur, the northern district of Kerala, hit the headlines for a spate of political violence that saw two murders in just 48 hours last month. The murders have given rise to fears that the cycle of violence, which had ebbed to an extent in the last few years, may be returning to haunt the regions. The new political context – the state ruled by the CPM-led LDF and the Centre ruled by BJP-led NDA – makes the situation in Kannur all the more complex, since the key parties that are involved in the violence are the CPM and BJP. Firstpost travelled to Kannur, probing the historical, sociological and communal dynamics of the political violence in the region. This is the second in a five-part series from ground zero.
Kerala's political milieu favouring the Right and Left combination alternately every five years has all the trappings for political violence. Yet, barring a few isolated cases of clashes, the political rivalry between the two contenders — Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) headed by the Communist Party of India(Marxist) — did not lead to lasting hostility.
Political clashes became endemic in the state only after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that backs the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) started establishing their base in the state in the 1940s. RSS leaders consider the Communist attack on its gathering in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram in 1948 addressed by Sarsanghachalak M S Golwalkar as the beginning of political violence in the state. They viewed another attack on a similar gathering addressed by Golwalkar at Alappuzha in 1952 as a continuation of the violent politics.
This was followed by a series of murders of RSS workers in Ernakulam, Kottayam, Thrissur and Palakkad districts. However, these attacks did not manifest into pestering frictions in many of these places. They fuelled relentless hostility leading to cycles of brutal killings and counter killings only in Kannur. Historians trace the roots of the political violence in Kannur, which incidentally has a strong legacy of warfare between warrior groups in the past, to a host of factors. Even though they do not rule out the influence of the warrior culture, represented by martial art (Kalarippayattu) and the ritual art (Theyyam) on the violence, they feel that it got an organic shape with the fight against the British rule.
Kannur witnessed one of the longest and bloodiest resistances to the British in India. The revolt led by Pazhassi Raja kept a large part of the district in a state of war from 1792 to 1806. This was followed by prolonged rivalry among the landlords, who maintained their own gangs equipped with arms and martial training.
This gave way to peasant-landlord rivalry following the arrival of communists in the 1930s. The Communist Party of India (CPI) made a strong base in Kannur through a series of peasant and agrarian movements against landlords. Political clashes erupted when other parties tried to make inroads into their bastions.
While the Congress and its partners in the UDF yielded the field to the communists, the RSS tried to resist it physically, resulting in violence. The RSS came to the district from neighbouring Karnataka state as foot soldiers of Mangalore-based businessmen, who tried to make a footing in the district.
Muslims who controlled the trade in the district resisted the move. This gradually led to communal tension between Muslims and Hindus and culminated in 1971 into a major communal riot at Thalasserry, which is the epicentre of the current political violence in Kannur.
The CPI(M) that viewed the anti-Muslim violence as part of a strategy by the RSS attempt to make inroads into their bastions took up the fight. Senior CPI (M) leaders like V S Achuthanandan claims this as the beginning point of the political violence between the CPM and the RSS in Kannur. The party veteran said that the CPM was forced to retaliate after the RSS workers ruthlessly attacked his party men.
However, RSS leaders alleged that the CPM was trying to give sanctity to political violence by terming it as a struggle for the protection of minorities. They said that the Communists had started murdering innocent RSS workers in Kannur even before the communal riots.
The CPM leaders say the RSS had begun its murder campaign in Kerala originally as the tool of capitalists and owners who wanted to smash the unions and the working class movement in Kannur. T Sasidharan, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science, Sree Narayana College, Kannur, supports this view. He says that the enmity between the two had begun following the implementation of Central Beedi and Cigar Workers' Act by the Communist-led government in 1968.
The troubles started after private manufacturers like Ganesh Beedi shifted their units to the neighbouring state after the Act with several provisions for the welfare of the beedi workers started affecting the business adversely. The Communist party that controlled the beedi workers locked horns with the private manufacturers when they tried to employ workers aligned to the RSS as contract labourers to keep their production going. Though the Communists brought majority of the workers under a cooperative network, the rivalry continued with the RSS trying to establish their presence in the district through beedi workers.
The rivalry entered a bloody phase after RSS tried to woo the CPI(M) cadres. The flow from CPI(M) started with the RSS setting up shakhas in areas that were considered as their impregnable fortresses. The flow gained momentum after the Emergency. RSS leaders attribute the exodus of the CPI(M) rank and file to the RSS and the BJP to the compromising stand the CPI (M) leadership took on Emergency.
The frustrated comrades found an outlet in the underground activities that the RSS organized against Emergency extensively in Kannur and other parts of the state to express their political dissent. The comrades, who joined these underground activities, became active RSS activists after the Emergency.
The exodus of the rank and file made the CPM leadership desperate. They tried to prevent the flight by murdering the deserters. The RSS sought to counter the attack by targeting the CPM men resulting in frequent tit-for-tat murders.
Sasidharan feels that the spectre of revenge killings going on in the district now could also have been influenced by the system of 'kudippaka' that prevailed in the district in medieval days. Kudippaka, which in Malayalam means running feud between two families, is normally declared after one commits an atrocity and it goes on till those responsible for it and their children are eliminated.
However, political analysts like Umesh Babu and Prof M N Karaserry attribute the political violence in Kannur to the distrust and intolerance that the communists have developed towards their political rivals.
"The communists, who suffered police atrocities and repression under British and the subsequent Congress regimes, viewed anyone who opposed them as enemies. They distrusted all those who opposed them and tried to eliminate them," says Umesh, a writer with Left leaning.
Though the communist manifesto approves use of force against class enemies, the old timers were against attacking political rivals. Their descendents, however, followed the manifesto in letter and spirit. Umesh said the new crop of leaders led by Pinarayi believed that they can build the party only by eliminating the political rivals.
"They are continuing the annihilation of political rivals like some of the primitive tribes, who practised headhunting and preserved the heads of enemies as trophies. Though these tribes have stopped the practice long time ago, the communists in Kannur are still continuing the archaic practice," said Umesh.
The CPM started the practice in Kannur by murdering Vadikkal Ramakrishnan, a Mukhyashikshak of the RSS in 1969. He was brutally murdered while engaged in establishing RSS units in Thalaserry region of the district. Umesh consider this as the beginning of the chain of political murders in Kannur.
According to Sasidharan, the number of political killings from both sides crossed 200 by March 2015. He said more than 90 percent of the victims were members of Thiyas, a Hindu backward caste. Thiyas form the backbone of the communist movement in the northern parts of Kerala known as Malabar. Sasidharan feels high unemployment in the district may have forced the youths to embrace political activity.
"Political parties have succeeded in organizing these unemployed youths under their flags by manipulating the frustration prevailing among them. They use the youths to settle political scores and to strengthen their bases in the region," says the college professor, who chose political violence for his doctoral degree.
The CPM blames the RSS for the violence. The party claims that the RSS and its political front have been playing game of political annihilation of the CPM as it is standing in the way of its rabid communal ideology and politics.
"Ours is a party with a big mass base. We don't have to discredit ourselves by using violence against a political force that is trying to make their presence in the state without the support of the people. They think they can gain ground through violence. Therefore, they are killing our workers. We are only defending ourselves when they are attacking us," says party state secretary Kodiyeri Balaakrishnan.
Former state BJP president P S Sreedharan Pillai refutes the charge. He said that neither the RSS nor the BJP had become number one party in the country today without resorting to violence.
"We are locked in violence only in Kerala. This is because the CPM does not allow us to organize ourselves in the state. Our workers are being killed when they try to enter the party strongholds," says Pillai.
He said that the CPM was trying to protect Kannur as their exclusive preserve by maintaining iron control over villages. The party has taken control of more than 100 such villages in the district. The CPM men do not allow the rival parties to enter these villages let alone allowing them to exercise their democratic rights.