A macabre scoreboard

Monu Rajan | Updated on July 20, 2018

Violent means and violent ends: Congress workers vandalise a CPI (M) statue in Kannur in February to protest the murder of a party functionary   -  SK Mohan

Kannur, a district best known for its bloody history of political revenge-murders, is the subject of journalist Ullekh NP’s latest book

Throughout 2017, much national attention was focused on Kannur, a district in northern Kerala, also the subject of journalist Ullekh NP’s latest book, Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics. For decades, Kannur has been the site of bloody wars between several political players. Increasingly, the brutal battles in the district are fought between the CPI(M), the party that dominates the district’s political landscape, and the BJP-RSS, which is an influential force, but still a political minnow. Referencing multiple data-sets, Ullekh shows how casualties on either side are evenly matched: a 45 against 44 (crime bureau statistics for 1990-2016), or a 31 to 30 (police data for 2000-16, obtained through RTI). Moreover, 15 workers of the Congress and four from the Muslim League have also been killed.

But numbers do not tell the whole story. A death, especially one that has come too soon, kills more than just one man. It scars several and debilitates them from within. In Kannur, it does more: it spawns the death of another. The locals use a ghoulish phrase for these revenge killings: goal scoring.

As the son of the late Pattiam Gopalan, a prominent Marxist leader in Kannur, Ullekh saw much from close quarters. He is, therefore, well-positioned to answer questions that those from elsewhere, even people from other parts of Kerala, may have. Why is Kannur, unlike much of the rest of the State, a hotbed of revenge killings? How has the RSS, a non-entity in Kerala, managed to grow its clout in the district? Is Kannur really as bloody as it is made out to be?

Ullekh provides answers through personal anecdotes from his boyhood in a politically-charged milieu, as well as from his career in journalism. In doing so, he looks to demography and national politics, while also rummaging through history and lore.

For instance, the original communist party, the CPI — of which the CPI(M), the M for Marxist, is the breakaway outfit, albeit the more dominant — was never opposed to violence to achieve its ends. In 1948, the CPI decried Indian independence as a sham, claimed the Indian National Congress was a representative of the ‘bourgeoisie’, and called for the ‘Telangana way’ — an armed peasant rebellion — to be replicated elsewhere in the country. This led to the CPI being banned for three years by Nehru’s administration. In the Kannur of the time, the forward-caste Nairs and Brahmin Namboodiris held most of the land in Kannur, and the ground was ripe for a struggle against feudalism. Riding on the shoulders of the legendary revolutionary P Krishna Pillai and, later, the iconic AK Gopalan, the landless weaver and beedi worker fought off belligerent Congress workers and the police force to survive. The communists trained themselves in kalaripayattu, which, according to lore, flourished in the land during the times of the martial communities of Othenans and Chekavars. According to Ullekh, if the CPI(M) today is “invariably vindictive, overly spiteful” in Kannur, the “murderous Congress workers” of the early years of Independence are to blame.

The defensive aggression under Pillai and Gopalan, whose ‘Gopalan Sena’ trained the cadre in hand-to-hand combat, gave way to a muscular, confrontationist approach under local strongman MV Raghavan. MVR, as he was known, would abuse his adversaries, enforce an aggressive masculinity on the cadre, and incite them to violence. The oppressed had turned oppressor.

The year 1967, Ullekh claims, would prove a turning point. The barely three-year-old CPI(M) won 52 of the 59 seats it contested in the State elections. The elections to the Lok Sabha gave India another Indira Gandhi government, but the Congress’ majority was vastly reduced. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the RSS’ political wing and a predecessor of the BJP, won an unprecedented 35 seats in the Lok Sabha. In Kannur, the RSS-BJS smelled opportunity: they had drawn a blank in Kerala, but the national elections emboldened them to try their luck in the district.


Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics Ullekh NP Penguin Viking Non-fiction ₹499




Ullekh describes how it was a beedi that lit the fire. For long, the CPI(M) had been organising beedi workers in Kannur. The EMS Namboodiripad government of 1967 introduced labour-friendly norms that incensed the beedi barons of northern Malabar. Mangalore-based Ganesh Beedi, which reportedly financed the RSS in Malabar, shut shop, and 12,000 skilled workers lost their jobs. To circumvent the labour rules, the owners of Ganesh Beedi would send raw material to the homes of the laid-off workers. A front organisation, Mahalaxmi Traders, would then collect the rolled beedis. To counter this move, the CPI(M) set up a co-operative, the Dinesh Beedi. The ensuing rivalry between the two beedi collectives stoked the simmering fire. Skirmishes, assaults and revenge murders soon became an everyday reality.

By the 1990s, the Congress withdrew from the battlefield, leaving the CPI(M) and the RSS-BJP to do the blood-letting.

The communists celebrated their rakta-saakshikal (martyrs) and the Sangh, more brazen now from their national clout, sang paeans of their balidaanis.

With the finesse of a seasoned journalist, Ullekh sketches a fuller picture of a macabre conflict. If one were to tide over narrations that seem wayward in parts — many details that could have been indexed or footnoted find their way into the body — and the many editing faux pas, Kannur is worth your time.


Published on July 20, 2018

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