India File

Entering the fort red

| Updated on January 09, 2018

Unique Most foot-soldiers of the Left and the Right in Kannur hail from the same community, making the conflict unlike most others   -  SK MOHAN

The BJP, led by its President Amit Shah, think that the road to power in Kerala is through Kannur. Given the coastal district’s Communist legacy, it might well be. Monu Rajan reports

In October, as the last of the monsoon clouds moved away and the sky cleared, the BJP flew in a horde of its most recognisable national leaders, led by President Amit Shah, to Kerala. With the list crowded with BJP Chief Ministers, including new poster boy Yogi Adityanath from Uttar Pradesh, and a host of Union Ministers, one could be forgiven for assuming that elections were imminent. Only, elections in Kerala are four years away.

The leaders were here to participate in the Janaraksha Yatra, a State-wide rally intended to draw national attention to the killings of Sangh Parivar workers in Kannur, allegedly by those of the CPI(M), the district’s most influential political force and the party that rules the State.

It’s not the BJP-RSS alone which can play victim. In the bloody political war that has headlined Kannur for over 40 years, 200 political workers have lost their lives. Close to 4,000 have been tried in courts. Since 2000, says a Factchecker report from earlier this year, 61 of them were killed, with 31 from the Sangh Parivar, and 30 belonging to the Left party. Over the past year, at least 12 have been killed.

Still, the BJP wants to highlight the bloody political scene in Kannur. It has been doing so ever since the party made its debut in the State’s Assembly in last year’s elections — it won a seat and finished second in seven constituencies, raising its share of the total vote to 14.6 per cent, eight percentage more than in the 2011 polls.

The BJP has even spoken of Kerala as the next Assam. Last year, the saffron party stormed to power in the north-eastern State, which also has a prominent Muslim population, and where the party was a marginal player.

And by using the victimhood narrative in Kannur, the Sangh believes its fortunes could rise in Kerala.

The October yatra was flagged off from the Communist bastion, which is also home to Kerala’s Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan. The Communist leader’s first name is borrowed from his birthplace Pinarayi, in Kannur.

What makes for Kannur’s volatile history? Why does the BJP think that the road to power in Kerala is through this coastal district?

Party village

At the CPI(M)’s Area Committee office in Pinarayi, Purushothaman, in his 70s, sits at the main counter. The Washington Post had just come visiting, he says. The veteran CPI(M) worker says he can speak, but only once he had the approval of Area Secretary, the party’s local leader. When requested again, Purushothaman says, “We cannot.” Shobha, who is sitting on his right, adds: “It would not be right.” Purushothaman, who heads the party’s local association of toddy-tappers, and Shobha requested that their true names be withheld.

The party’s influence — or control, as one might see it — is almost complete in the region. At every stop on the Thalassery-Pinarayi route, bus shelters have a strong coat of red paint; and each is named after a deceased leader or a raktasakshi, a ‘martyr’. An outsider might be amused but the red walls, red buntings and stone carvings of the hammer-sickle-star are to the locals, symbols of the ‘Party’, the CPI(M), and of everyday life.

For many years, they have known no other.

Chief Minister Vijayan is the MLA of the area. A stone’s throw away is Peralassery, the birthplace of the legendary AK Gopalan, the Lok Sabha’s first dejure Leader of Opposition, after whom the CPI(M) offices at Thiruvananthapuram and Delhi are named.

Pinarayi and Peralassery are among several ‘party villages’, strongholds of the CPI(M), where its influence over-arches not just elected offices, but also co-operative societies, trade unions, libraries and sports clubs — an ideological apparatus, if you will — many of which it helped set up. An individual born here is Marx’s child, too.

The Left has never lost an Assembly election here since 1965. The CPI(M) is the party of choice by default. Sarang, a 19-year-old undergraduate student, is one of them. Ask him why he votes for the CPI(M) and pat comes the reply: “Pinarayi is a party village.”

But some have taken a turn to the right. Long ago, K Vinod, too, was a CPI(M) worker. “I wished to go on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala. But the party frowned upon it,” he says, referring to the Marxist party’s atheistic moorings. For the last 35 years, he has been with the RSS. “It is a way of life. I’ve had no bad habits for so many years; it’s all thanks to the RSS.” Vinod, who hails from Pilathara, a CPI(M) stronghold, says workers of both parties get along well, and it is only the extreme among them who resort to violence.

Genealogy of violence

While some trace the violence in Kannur to the Congress’ clashes with the CPI(M) during Emergency, others point to the 1969-murder of Jan Sangh’s Vadikkal Ramakrishnan, who organised Ganesh beedi, a counter to the CPI(M)’s Dinesh Beedi collective. Two years later, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Kannur’s Thalassery region.

Academic Dilip Menon says it all goes back even further. He quotes from a 1946 special edition of Deshabhimani, the CPI(M) mouthpiece, on the 25th edition of the Khilafat movement and the Moplah Rebellion: “The party ‘is of the opinion that any non-violent struggle and all sectional struggles are bound to fail.’”

The two parties have preserved the legacy. At the Azhikodan Smaraka Mandiram, the CPI(M)’s district headquarters, Rajya Sabha MP KK Ragesh asks visitors to glance through the boards listing out, what Menon would call, the ‘pantheon of martyrs’. On the other hand, in Thalassery, on the second floor of the Savarkar Bhavan, Prant Pracharak A Vinod shows photographs of 75 Sangh workers murdered, allegedly by the CPI(M).

The brutality of the killings in Kannur makes it appear redder than the rest of the State. The 1999 murder of school teacher KT Jayakrishnan, the Yuva Morcha State Vice-President — he was hacked to death by CPI(M) workers in front of children in primary school — is now part of Kerala lore. In October 2016, the CPI(M)’s Paduvilayi branch secretary, 52-year-old K Mohanan, was killed by masked men, allegedly RSS workers. A couple of days later, CPI(M) workers allegedly hacked to death BJP activist KV Ramith, who was ten when his father suffered the same fate in 2002. Influential RSS strongman Valsan Thillenkeri says the killings are “unfortunate”, and that they have no sanction of the Sangh. He claims they are “spontaneous killings”. He adds: “Plan cheythitolla murder njangal cheythittila…(we’ve never been part of planned murders),” he says, standing at the venue of a sermon by spiritual leader Swami Chidanandapuri in Kannur.

“For instance, if I’m attacked or killed, there will be people who love me, who follow me as their leader; they might retaliate as part of a reaction.” But what of the much-vaunted RSS discipline? “They are ultimately humans,” he proffers. CPI(M) MP Ragesh, too, terms the killings “unfortunate”. He says: “But it is the RSS’ ‘politics of hate’ that is driving these killings. They realise that in Kerala, the CPI(M), which practices the ‘politics of class’, stands in their way as they attempt to polarise.”

Unlike any other

While the numbers seem mind-numbing, academic Ruchi Chaturvedi, who has worked extensively on the issue, terms them “ordinary and routine”, comparing the violence to that between workers of the AIADMK and DMK in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, and between the Samajwadi Party and the BSP in faraway Uttar Pradesh.

But there’s a difference, making the conflict in Kannur unlike most others in India, and perhaps, even the world. Chaturvedi points to the similarities in the Left and the Sangh Parivar. Most foot-soldiers of the Left and the Right in Kannur hail from the same community, the backward-caste Thiyyas (the largest sub-group of Hindus in northern Kerala), and are, more often that not, blue-collar workers.

She observes that members of the RSS-BJP, and those of the CPI(M), exhibit a strong sense of, masculine, fraternity, and pronounced ethnocentrism. This, crucially, creates “vengeful hostility” towards other groups, Chaturvedi says in a 2015 paper titled Political violence, community and its limits in Kannur.

So is it the idea of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, or a ‘Classless Society’ that draws them to either party?

Whatever the reason, the RSS-BJP combine sees obvious political gains from a heightened focus on the violence in Kannur, which is famous for its temples. And while precipitating votes from Hindu sentiment could be difficult, it is not impossible — the district is nearly 60 per cent Hindu, 30 per cent Muslim and 10 per cent Christian.

The State has traditionally witnessed a bipolar fight between the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front. Though the yatra may not have evoked the response the BJP desired, the Sangh is unlikely to stop at attempts to position itself as a strong alternative. But as the political machinations are at play, lives are lost and families shattered.

Blood is a strange blend of red and saffron.

Published on November 06, 2017

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