The Unreported Pogrom In Kerala

by Advaita Kala - May 3, 2017 12:49 PM +05:30 IST
The Unreported Pogrom In
Kerala CPI-M workers at a rally in Kerala.
  • Communist cadre and criminals backed by the CPI-M are on a murdering spree against RSS and BJP workers in Kerala. And most of India does not even know about it.

Sujith. His death introduced us. In the days that Parliament, social media feeds and television news studios resounded with the shrill consonants of righteous debate on Jawaharlal Nehru University and Kanhaiya Kumar, a young man in Kerala met his death under the most brutal circumstances. Late one night, he was dragged out of his home by a group of 20-odd men and hacked to death. One of the weapons used to torture him was a wooden plank embedded with nails that peeled off his skin from the neck down.

Every time I describe this instrument of torture, an involuntary reflex makes me lift my arm, bent at the elbow, the palm flat and facing out, mirroring the way his mother described it to me. I heard of it from her lips, and it is now inscribed in my memory and my conscience, its horror unfailing in its penetration of my distant reality. More horrific than even an assault rifle. Although the latter would have granted Sujith a more efficient exit since that was the intention of his assailants, men belonging to the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI-M).

But back in those feverish days of debate and protest, Sujith was never spoken of; his death had been snatched away from him, much like his life had been. In his last moments, Sujith was alone, as neighbours in this “party village” closed their doors and blanked out his cries for help. But in his death, he was no longer alone, for he joined a long list of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers and others who have been killed for a belief system that differed from Marxist ideology.

They are called balidanis (murdered RSS workers), a term which is a temporal compromise with the fate that each one of these men and women has been dealt. On a wall in the Sangh Karyalay in Tellicherri (Thalassery) in Kannur district, their images make a tragic collage. It is called a martyrs’ wall. This room on the first floor is sparse, almost monastic, its white granite floor swept clean, inviting one to sit and contemplate on the futility of this decades-old violence. They stare back at you, young and old, stilled into permanence and trapped in time, abridged lives, silent lips telling unspeakable stories of their death. For each killing has been a spectacle, that is how it is done in the killing fields of Kannur, the birthplace of communism in Kerala and its most brutally defended bastion.

In January, television channels flashed a news update: some 20-odd swayamsevaks were attacked en masse during a meeting by CPI-M cadre in Kannur. Electronic media finally took notice in 2017, but this is an old story and can be traced back to nearly 70 years ago. In 1948, the Sarsanghchalak at the time, M S Gowalkar travelled to Kerala for a sabha or meeting with swayamsevaks. In the Sangh, these interactions with the RSS chief are treated with reverence. The locations of these meetings attended by the Sarsanghchalak are referred to as sanghasthan, holding an almost divine symbolism for swayamsevaks because of his mere presence.

There was high anticipation and jubilation, having just emerged from a trying time, post Partition, in which many swayamsevaks lost their lives guarding life and property, especially in undivided Punjab which saw the bloodiest conflict and where the RSS had a strong presence. But in Kerala, the Sangh was still in its infancy in 1948, having been in the southern state for a little over five years.

The Communists, by contrast, were already well entrenched and deeply inspired by the “living symbol” of resistance and power, the Soviet Union, following true on that inspiration by accepting little dissent and ideological diversity in their midst. What happened on the day of this sabha was to set the template for the strategic and brutal intimidation that was to pursue swayamsevaks in Kerala. That day, swayamsevaks were attacked and beaten up for the first time, although verbal threats and surprise “checks” had already become routine.

There is a tendency to use “presentism” to interpret the violence that takes place in Kannur, by pointing to the power that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has held for three years at the Centre. Furthermore, the mere suggestion of RSS workers being killed would disrupt a carefully nurtured narrative of over seven decades. How can one explain “fascists” getting butchered, especially when in power? But it has been the case for years, carefully concealed from the public, while its perpetrators claim to be the vanguards of human rights and free speech in New Delhi. It was this hypocrisy on display in February 2016, when Sujith’s mother, her arm in a sling after being beaten up by the CPI-M men, who murdered her son, wept over his broken body and in New Delhi the CPI-M raised a hue and cry for the right to free speech, ignoring her wails.

It was clear that words would outweigh bodies, even words that called for the break-up of this country – masquerading as free speech. These words tukde tukde a mere 60-odd years after a bloody Partition would be heeded over the cries of this helpless mother. And this rhetoric would be considered more valuable than a butchered boy, who didn’t take his own life but was dragged out of his home and deprived of it. This dishonesty has been the reality of the right to life in Kerala and the corresponding discourse on human rights in the salons of New Delhi.

In 1994, a few months shy of his wedding, Sadanandan Master, a former CPI-M supporter, who had joined the RSS, was returning home from distributing wedding cards for his sister’s upcoming nuptials. As he alighted from the bus, he was dragged to the side of the road, pushed to the ground, his legs pinned in place and an axe brought down on them, severing them from his body. His assailants, CPI-M members, dragged the dismembered legs on the ground before flinging them aside to ensure they could not be re-attached to his body. Masterji told me that as the axe came down on his legs, he sang Vande Mataram. Did he close his eyes? Was the pain excruciating? He can’t remember anymore, he blanked out soon after. His crime? He had started a shakha in his village. And why his legs? He used to be a skilled soccer player, a sport very popular in the state and at the shakha, which drew young men to it.

Sadanandan Master returned to Kannur district two decades later to contest in the assembly elections of 2016 from Koothuparamba.

The 2016 Kerala assembly election had an inevitability to them; everyone knew that the Left Democratic Front (LDF) would return to power, this was how it was in this southern state, a political flip-flop between the LDF and the United Democratic Front (UDF). The BJP had never won an assembly seat and was a marginal entity in state politics.

However, the Congress-led UDF government provided some respite from the violence, but the impending return of the LDF meant that the relative dormancy of the last few years would be broken. Sadanandan Master conducted his campaign with an urgency, the premonition of impending doom and further violence pushing him along the campaign trail. After long days spent on his “feet”, he would detach his legs from his body and massage his knees, swollen, bleeding and painful from being clamped inside prosthetic legs. I saw him in these moments but had no words of consolation to offer, understanding the urgency of his message and purpose.

Although V S Achuthanandan, the liberal voice of the CPI-M, was being projected as the chief minister face to attract the moderate vote, there was a fear that Pinarayi Vijayan (from Kannur) might become chief minister, and with that, a reign of terror would be unleashed, yet again. In these few weeks, Masterji would speak of peace, use his own story to make this appeal and hope it would pierce through the apathy or at least invite attention from the national media, which would introduce censure and hence protection for political and ideological opponents in Stalinist Kannur.

Masterji lost the election. The LDF won a decisive victory, and confirming fears that Achuthanandan was a front, Pinarayi Vijayan pipped his rival to the post of Chief Minister. The violence resumed almost immediately after the election result, and it returned with a vengeance. Since Vijayan has assumed office, there have been multiple murders. In this year (2017) alone, there have already been five killings, including Vimala, a woman who was burnt alive in her house by CPI-M cadre. Another Santhosh, from the Chief Minister’s assembly constituency, was attacked in his home at night and killed. The Chief Minister has responded to this detail with silence. Santhosh’s crime? He had contested a local body election. His young daughter Vismaya, became a symbol of the violence in Kannur when she asked, “Why did you kill my father?” compelling CPI-M leaders to visit her home, flex boards announcing their stopover.

Kerala is a deeply politicised state, where every action, even a condolence visit is political currency. Police associations hold elections and candidates are backed by political parties. On the day after the results are declared, newspapers run headlines like “LDF sweeps police association elections”. How can one expect such a force to be fair? In 2013, the then chief minister of the state Oommen Chandy was attacked by CPI-M workers during a protest demonstration in Kannur. Subsequently, top cops in the district were transferred, allegedly over security lapses.

There has been a tendency to cast this violence on the scale of a “gang war” as a clash between ideological binaries. It is a deliberate obfuscation that dilutes the extent to which this politicide has consumed normal life in Kannur and now increasingly elsewhere in Kerala. Vimala, who was burnt alive in her home and died this January, lived in Palakkad. In these last few months, the violence has been seeping out of Kannur, its perpetrators emboldened by political power. The targets are across party lines. Most recently, as reported on, the communally sensitive village of Tanur saw riots on March 13, between CPI-M cadre and the Muslim League, leading to houses and properties being destroyed.

Last year, two Dalit sisters, whose father was from the Congress were arrested and sent to jail for allegedly attacking a CPI-M worker. Senior Congress leader K Sudhakaran presented a defence that outlined the ominous presence the CPI-M have in Kannur; he said that it went “against common sense that two women would attack CPI-M workers in their office”. The fear is real, and it exists across party lines. The violence does not discriminate; the most impacted are the poor and those from backward castes, disempowered by the system and with little agency to pursue justice. A few days after the arrest, one of the sisters attempted suicide and was saved in the nick of time.

Another telling aspect of this violence is how the targets are chosen. Amongst the victims from the RSS, most are people who have been CPI-M supporters in the past, be it Sujith or Master ji (two examples in this article). There is no bigger betrayal for the party than switching allegiance. The whole stance of fighting a “communal ideology” is de facto posturing. A study of those killed from the RSS will reveal that most have not been bal shakha-going swayamsevaks but people who have been raised in “party villages”, come from “party families” and have subsequently moved away from Marxist ideology.

Even other communists have not been spared. CPI and CPI-M cadre have had regular clashes, leading to murders, each accusing the other of using “quotation gangs” — a system of outsourcing violence to gangs of criminals. In this past election, Smt Rema, the widow of T P Chandrasekharan contested from the Vadakara seat. Her husband’s murder in 2012 traumatised people across the state and is still fresh in people’s minds. He was a well known CPI-M leader, who quit the party in 2009 and formed a political outfit called the Revolutionary Marxist Party or RMP.

In May 2012, Chandrasekharan was returning from a wedding on his motorcycle, when he was attacked and hacked to death. He sustained 51 knife attacks on his body, particularly on his face, which was disfigured and unrecognisable. Rema was unable to kiss him farewell. She fought this election to highlight the need for development and to move away from violence. She spoke of the women of the area who had been traumatised by this “everyday” brutality, and she also asked a very valid question in an interview, “How can they (CPI-M) speak against ‘fascism’ when they do such things in Kerala? They foment fascism here.”

She would know. Life in “party villages” is oppressive and denies access to anyone who does not fall in line. From buying property to what you read is controlled in these villages. A report in the Times of India last year called the party villages “a law unto themselves”. Citing an example of a man who had to change the venue of his daughter’s wedding from his home to an auditorium when CPI-M cadre blocked the road to his house and threatened the caterers because he refused to follow the party diktat.

Such is life in picturesque Kannur, far away from the rhetoric in Parliament that professes to speak for freedom of speech, while denying the right to life in Kerala.

There have been multiple attempts at peace, but each round of talks is eclipsed by further violence. CPI-M cadre have lost their lives as well, caught in this cycle of violence on the directions of party bosses who enjoy the fruits of power and keep their own families sheltered and safe. In West Bengal today, CPI-M cadre are being pursued with the same virulence they displayed during their decades in power. Complete control of every avenue of justice leaves opponents with few options of defence but for retaliation. It’s a never-ending cycle, which is fueled by ruthless political ambition and has no place in a democracy, but is almost always found in states where the CPI-M holds political power.

In January this year, a demonstration was held at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi outside Kerala Bhawan to highlight the increasing violence in Kerala. Post the peaceful demonstration, a delegation comprising of senior Sangh functionaries and BJP members of Parliament was to meet the Chief Minister of Kerala, who happened to be in New Delhi at the time and submit a letter to him, hoping to open the door for communication. On the morning of the day of the scheduled meet, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan left.

Advaita Kala is an award-winning screenwriter, novelist and columnist.

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