One key factor behind the cycle of CPI(M)-RSS violence in Kerala is the political turf war, where the RSS has begun to make inroads into traditional Communist bastions. An incident from last August best illustrates this.
RSS pracharak 30-year-old Manu Mohan told The Indian Express how he slipped into an old dyeing unit in Mayyil, a CPI(M) “party village” in Kannur, to attend a Raksha Bandhan ceremony. Within an hour, he said, the venue was surrounded by CPI(M) workers who allegedly beat up some of the 50 men gathered there and forced Mohan to flee.
“I hid inside the store room of a CPI(M) member’s house (the comrade, Mohan said, was his friend) for several hours. By midnight, the RSS gathered people from outside, who stormed the village and rescued me,” said Mohan, an MSc graduate from neighbouring Thrissur.
The attack in Mayyil may not have ended in murder but according to senior police officers, a majority of the killings involving the BJP-RSS and the CPI(M) in Kannur, the northern district at the heart of the political violence in Kerala, is fuelled by the drive to avenge “martyrs”. And, is triggered by “minor incidents”, such as an uprooted party flag or defaced wall graffiti.
There is another layer to the violence. An investigation by The Indian Express has unearthed migration of workers and leaders from one party to another for ideological and personal reasons. Police officers in Kannur say the tension has become acute now with the RSS starting to knock at the doors of CPI(M) bastions.
Underpinning this migration, say political observers here, is the identical support base of both sides when it comes to caste and community — mostly members of Kerala’s Thiyya community. Police officers estimate that “80 per cent of martyrs” on either side are from this Hindu OBC segment.
According to Dileep Raj, professor of philosophy at the Government Brennen College in Kannur’s Thalassery, “The support base of both CPI(M) and RSS comprises the same Thiyya OBC community with a known aspirational mindset. Now, the CPI(M), too, has started addressing the religious sentiments of this Hindu community by celebrating Sri Krishna Jayanti and other Hindu festivals to prevent their cadre from joining the RSS.”
In Kannur, RSS-affiliated outfits organise around 200 “Shobha Yatras” during Sri Krishna Jayanti every year. In September 2015, for the first time, the CPI(M) held around 180 marches of its own in Kannur on Janmashtami — with children dressed as Krishna, and men and women carrying images of Karl Marx, Josef Stalin and Harkishen Singh Surjeet. The party, however, said these marches were timed to mark the end of its Onam celebrations. Also Read | Kerala political murders: Why law doesn’t take its course | Click here
“Those in the ‘action teams’ of both sides, who go for attacks, are not so different when it comes to applying sandalwood paste from temples on their foreheads. But what really marks out BJP-RSS cadre are the rakhis tied on their hands,” said a senior police officer.
P Jayarajan, CPI(M)’s Kannur chief, rejects any suggestions of political insecurity or delayed understanding of caste and identity politics. “It is just that the CPI(M) has acknowledged the sentiments of party cadre, who comprise believers and non-believers,” said Jayarajan.
This caste equation works both ways, says Raj, who has been a part of many civil movements against the violent politics in Kannur. “The top Kannur BJP leader, O K Vasu, who joined the CPI(M) three years ago, used to remind people at BJP functions that they were essentially Thiyyas, not Communists,” said Raj.
According to a report by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), based on data compiled between 2008 and 2014, Thiyyas or Ezhavas formed 65.1 per cent of the population in Kannur — the highest for any district in Kerala, where this OBC community comprises 39.2 per cent of the population. Also Read | In Kerala war, how RSS and CPI(M) are two sides of the same violent coin | Click here
Vellapally Natesan, who heads the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), which represents this community, claims that both CPI(M) and BJP-RSS are “using them”. “Ezhavas in southern Kerala have better livelihood options, they are entrepreneurial. But in Kannur, the beedi and weaving industries that sustained the Thiyyas are in shambles, so the CPI(M) and RSS are using them,” said Natesan, an Ezhava from Alappuzha with wide-ranging business interests from bars to civil contracts.
According to RSS leaders, their approach in Kannur is to project a “compassionate and friendly” face since they feel there is considerable resentment on the ground against the “authoritarian” face of the CPI(M) in the district.
“Some are distressed or disillusioned with CPI(M)’s authoritarian leaders, some need a job, some are attracted to the lifestyle of RSS pracharaks and nationalistic values,” said Mohan, the pracharak who was forced to flee Mayyil.
But the CPI(M) leadership is quick to counter this line.
“It is the party’s conscious decision to disown certain criminal groups, which finally leads them to the BJP-RSS camp for protection and legal help. It is the violent machinery of the RSS that triggers unrest in villages,” said Jayarajan, the party’s district secretary.
How peace moves get stuck
But what both sides agree on is how difficult it is to broker peace once violence breaks out because of the intensity of this turf war.
“Once, I had to face the wrath of the local RSS cadre when I issued a statement condemning the killing of a CPI(M) worker. The complicated relationship of rival parties in villages defeats any peace strategy. Even if there is a minor clash, many CPI(M) area secretaries and their counterparts in the BJP-RSS refuse to answer their phone to launch a negotiation,” said a senior state-level RSS leader.
A state-level CPI(M) leader said the leadership was “helpless” after retaliatory attacks followed the killing of RSS worker E Santhosh Kumar in Andaloor in January. The party even issued circulars to all branch committees in the area to stay away from those involved in the murder. “We have taken strong measures to isolate such criminals, and the government will ensure they are put behind bars. The leadership clearly told local leaders that we cannot afford to kill or get killed in such violence. Unlike in the past, district secretary Jayarajan himself visited the victim’s house,” said the leader.
‘Driving force is revenge’
But beyond the politics of caste, Kannur police officers say, the violence continues to be driven by traditional factors, mainly “revenge in the name of martyrs”, which mostly plays out during crowded temple festivals in the region between December and March. These attacks, in turn, lead to more revenge attacks during the same period every year (see box).
Kannur DySP P P Sadanandan says that often the personal angle blends into the political narrative. “Many attacks gain a political angle as the friends and relatives of the victim, all belonging to the same political party, have a strong conviction to retaliate physically instead of taking the legal route,” he said.
“A minor provocation would lead to a clash or retaliation over a previous murder, even if the victims may have been total strangers. The trigger for this annual spiral is not just ideology but commitment to the family and friends of those killed earlier,” said Sadanandan.
However, this cycle of revenge may not always end up in blood and tears — the story of K K Pavithran, a former Malayalam teacher at a government school in Kannur, is a case in point.
During the peak of political violence in Panoor, Pavithran faced death threats from the RSS, especially because the high school where he taught was in a Sangh bastion. In the late 1990s, Pavithran was sitting inside the staffroom one afternoon, when a colleague tried to pull out a file from under his bag. The bag fell down, and there was a loud blast — there was a bomb inside.
Laughing when reminded of the incident, the soft-spoken 64-year-old, who is now the CPI(M)’s area secretary in Panoor, said, “I had managed to escape RSS attacks narrowly on many occasions. The purpose of keeping a bomb in those days was not to kill anyone but escape in the smoke from the blast.”
(Tomorrow: Leaders in shadows, cadre battle trauma of violence)