ON THE MORNING of 30 July 2016, within two months of him taking over as chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, accompanied by leaders Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and V Sivankutty, broke protocol and drove down to Mascot Hotel, a heritage building that once housed British officers during the First World War. There was no pilot jeep and no security paraphernalia accompanying them. It was a pre-planned meeting. Vijayan’s mission was to meet Kummanam Rajasekharan, the Kerala president of the BJP; O Rajagopal, the veteran BJP leader and lone legislator of his party in the state assembly; and Gopalankutty Master, an RSS heavyweight in the state. The sole agenda of the meeting was to find ways to make peace.
Such a meeting was considered unthinkable and was not disclosed to the media for a while, for there was a mutual understanding to keep these talks low profile; the intention was to gradually communicate the need to bring the rank and file on to the same page. It had to be confidential, and the attempt was to thrash out, step by step, ways to bury the hatchet between the extremely hostile cadres on both sides.
The man who moderated the meet was Sri M, the Kerala-born, Madanapalle-based spiritual leader who is close to the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat as well as Vijayan and Balakrishnan.
After the leaders exchanged morning pleasantries and settled down to business, Sri M explained the purpose of the meeting— the violence that has scarred the state for decades, and taking place mostly in the chief minister’s home district of Kannur, could not go on. Just that month in Kannur, after two consecutive murders of CPI(M) workers, a BMS leader was hacked to death in front of his family. It is also a fact that political murders rise in years when the CPI(M) and its allies are in power, and go down during the years of Congress rule—a number that is used by the Sangh to paint the Left as violent, and by the Marxists to indicate the increase in vicious provocation from the right wing.
For a state with the highest levels of literacy, a state with social indices compa- rable to Nordic countries, such violence was inexcusable, Sri M said, adding that one mustn’t engage in a blame game about ‘who started it’ if the goal was to make peace. The ongoing cycle of bloody madness had no place in God’s Own Country, the catchphrase sold the world over to attract tourists.
In such a highly aware, networked, considerably urbanized society, even a single death should make its leaders hang their heads in shame, he went on. The past was past. One couldn’t have yesterdays impinge on tomorrows; it was time for reconciliation and give and take. A consensus to save lives of men across the political spectrum was long overdue; the political will to weed out this menace could not wait any longer, the sage goaded.
But the meeting did not get off to a good start.
The RSS’s Gopalankutty Master was in a belligerent mood; he had his set of grievances and tonnes of pessimism about the negotiations that were going on. Despite repeated assurances over the decades, peace had remained elusive. He felt—as I understood after I met with him—that whenever the Marxists had come to power, the RSS, at least since the late 1980s, had been singled out for barbaric strikes by the CPI(M). Apparently, he sat with his legs crossed in a manner that was not only meant to be disrespectful to a chief minister—who also held the charge of the home portfolio— but also combative.
To everyone’s surprise, though, the otherwise irascible Vijayan smiled and agreed to hear him out. The tone of the meeting changed. Sri M intervened mildly to suggest blaming one another would take the participants nowhere. Soon, sensing the chief minister’s apparent preparedness to engage, Gopalankutty Master mellowed.
The idea behind keeping the high-level, unofficial rendezvous between the top leaders on both sides under wraps had also to do with the fact that people on either side could play spoilsport. After all, there were leaders, sidekicks and gangsters with strong party affiliations who thrived thanks to the violence.
The leaders dispersed after agreeing to convince their cadres about a ceasefire, as best as possible.
Both the RSS–BJP and the CPI(M) leaders would meet again, even in Kannur, but— despite the good beginning as is evident from the readiness to talk—the killings have shown no signs of subsiding yet. The trajectory of political assertion in Kannur and the nearby districts has shown no change of track. On the other hand, there are charges that there’s an effort to import the ‘Kannur model of politics’ to the southern parts of the state as the RSS versus CPI(M) confrontations have begun to surface elsewhere, especially in Thiruvananthapuram where the BJP has been making some gains.
In such a situation, the optimism engendered by the government- initiated talks soon wore away.
The CPI(M) leaders believe that the RSS side hopes to reap benefits and make inroads into their turf by creating martyrs. The Marxists also hit out at the national campaigners of the RSS for seeking to generate optics as part of a nationwide campaign to taint opposition parties. They are of the view that the Sangh leaders in the state are simultaneously emboldened by their prospects nationally and crestfallen about their relatively slow gains in Kerala.
The RSS and the BJP lay the blame on the chief minister for his alleged failure to clamp down on the political murders in the state. While a section of their leaders based out of Delhi called for imposition of President’s Rule in the state—one of them appealed to the RSS men in Kerala to gouge out the eyes of the CPI(M) cadres—the RSS men in the state offered a more balanced comment. Gopalankutty Master put such frivolous remarks to rest by stating that officially, the RSS was against dismissing the state government.
To those outside Kerala, the Redtrocity campaign has ensured the projection of a distorted image of the ground reality where the selective emphasis on the RSS versus CPI(M) narrative has completely submerged the violence generated by the Congress, the PFI, the Muslim League and other parties. Using their considerable ‘WhatsApp army’, the right-wingers in other parts of India have continuously painted a picture of the CPI(M) as the ‘butcher’ of Kannur. The CPI(M), on its part, has no campaign machinery at the national level, something which Pinarayi Vijayan concedes. This is not to suggest that making the violence in Kannur an issue worthy of national debate has to be discouraged. The idea, as Nandakumar of the RSS himself tells me, is to let the truth out.
Though it is widely accepted that the registration of crimes in Kerala is high, the higher incidence of political crimes is a matter of grave concern. The state ranks third in crimes whose motives are attributed to ‘political’ reasons. In 2016, Kerala (with fifteen deaths) ranked third after Uttar Pradesh (twenty-nine) and Bihar (twenty-seven). This is paradoxical for a state whose social indices are comparable to that of the developed nations.
For instance, dowry-related death was zero in the state in 2016 (in Jharkhand it was thirty-seven). Similarly, there have been almost no killings over caste, honour, love affairs and class conflicts (133 people were killed over love affairs in Gujarat in 2016; in Rajasthan, sixteen people died that year in class conflicts). Nor does water or money really create enmity here—while forty-five people were killed in Gujarat in disputes over these issues in 2016, in Kerala the figure stood at one. As for rape-related deaths in 2016, Kerala reported two, Maharashtra nineteen and Madhya Pradesh eighteen.
Besides, when it comes to Kerala, it isn’t as easy as it sounds for the ruling CPI(M) to ‘influence’ the murder cases with the help of the police. Most of the senior police officers, says former DGP Alexander Jacob, are apparently Congress or BJP supporters. It is only in the lower rungs of the police force that the CPI(M) holds sway. Vijayan has even come under attack in his party’s district- level conferences for failing to lasso senior officers of the state police who, they allege, are out to tarnish the chief minister’s image.
And so, if one glances even cursorily at claims by non-Kerala players in painting the state as a haven for murderers—and especially the contention that the communists are out to get the RSS–BJP workers—it is easy to see these are more or less politically motivated, and are not entirely based on truth.
Last year in Kannur, a group of assailants pounced on a local leader of the BJP, Sushil Kumar, attacking him with a sharp blade akin to a surgical knife. Kumar was seriously injured, but he survived. He lost no time in blaming the CPI(M) for this attempt on his life—and even claimed that he saw and knew some of his attackers. The initial probe led to a list of pro-Marxist hired guns he had ‘identified’. After a few rounds of interrogation, the police decided that Kumar could be wrong about the men who had stabbed him.
Surgical knives obtained from medical stores had been used against a Muslim League worker in the district some time earlier, prompting the cops to examine the link between the two acts of crime. Weeks of investigation led to the arrests of workers of the Campus Front, a feeder outfit of the PFI. The Kannur town DSP, P Sadanandan, who was part of the investigating team, tells me that this attack on Kumar followed a spate of clashes between the Campus Front activists and the ABVP students who often brought in RSS toughies to the College of Commerce, a ‘parallel college’ (a private tuition centre of sorts) in town, to intimidate their rivals.
The Campus Front members who were caught also complained that they were routinely harassed outside the campus by BJP-RSS workers. Yet, despite such constant bickering between the ABVP and the Campus Front in that part of the town, the Sangh student leader decided to name CPI(M) men as his attackers; he also claimed that he could identify some of them, but then retracted his statement when the police called his bluff.
DSP Sadanandan had been involved in the investigation of the TP Chandrasekharan murder case of 2012 which led to linking one of the accused, TK Rajeesh, who owed allegiance to the CPI(M), to earlier killings, including that of KT Jayakrishnan Master of the RSS.
There is no doubt that the CPI(M) has done its share in turning Kannur into a political battlefield, and the killings of TP Chandrasekharan— leader of a breakaway group, the RMP—and Ariyil Shukoor are a testimony to that. Shukoor was killed a few hours after he and a few other Muslim League workers had allegedly attacked a vehicle in which CPI(M) district secretary P Jayarajan and other party workers were travelling, on 20 February 2012, near Taliparamba. Shukoor was killed in Kannapuram, while his associate suffered stab injuries in the same assault. The case is being probed by the CBI.
But not all murders in the area have had to do with the CPI(M), as some national campaigns suggest. Earlier in 2012, another ABVP leader, Sachin Gopalan, was killed by the Campus Front activists. Prior to that, in 2005, thirty-year-old Ashwini Kumar of the RSS, who was also the Hindu Aikya Vedi district secretary, was bumped off by suspected workers of the National Development Front (NDF), avatar of the PFI. In retaliation, many Muslim homes in Iritty where Kumar was killed were torched and looted. Deep fissures within the district RSS over the issue meant that there were rumours about a ‘financial settlement’ between the top brass of the RSS district leadership and the NDF. And yet, several RSS leaders blamed the CPI(M) for the attack.
On 19 January 2018, a three-member gang of suspected PFI men slew Shyam Prasad, an Industrial Training Institute (ITI) student, on his way back to his home in Koothuparamba on a bike at a place called Kommeri at around 5.30 pm. He died on his way to the hospital. Several RSS men in and out of Kerala charged the CPI(M) with the attack though initial reports had made it amply clear who the attackers were. The PFI versus RSS clashes are now as common as the RSS versus IUML clashes earlier. Raghav Pandey, a research fellow with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (IIT Bombay), even used the occasion to launch into a tirade against communist atrocities and Stalinism.
The frequent murders in Kannur, followed by immediate political blame games, are ripe case-study material for criminal-law students wanting to know how perceptions are built around a crime. In a case involving the murder of PFI activist Mohammad Fazal that is being probed by the CBI, and in the process has courted controversy over its apparent lack of direction, the CPI(M) has alleged a witch-hunt by the investigation agency.
Inconsistencies in the probe by several independent agencies give credence to the CPI(M)’s version that both the RSS and the PFI are out to implicate them in murder cases because the communists are equally hostile to them both. Court records and CBI’s own charge sheet in the case point to inconsistencies in the versions of key witnesses to the crime that took place between 3 and 4 am on 22 October 2006. Witnesses had later said that they were asked to lie to the police by a National Democratic Front (NDF) lawyer and say that it was not the RSS but CPI(M) workers who were behind Fazal’s murder. Ajnas and Shahnad, two NDF workers who claimed to have witnessed the killing, later reversed their statement. In fact, one of them was in Coimbatore at the time of the murder.
More importantly, the police are in possession of a video disclosure by RSS worker Subeesh, an accused in the murder of CPI(M)’s K Mohanan at Valankichal. In an indiscreet moment, Subeesh spoke to an RSS leader about Fazal’s murder on the phone; the audio clip of the chat was leaked, probably by some rivals within the Sangh. He is heard telling the RSS leader, an audio that I was able to listen to, that in a bid to escape, Fazal had tried to break through the grills of a home. Subeesh goes on to describe all the details of the escape attempt to the RSS leader. After questioning by the police, Subeesh later publicly confessed that a group of RSS workers, including him, were involved in the murder of Fazal. Ever since, the CBI inquiry into the case has hit a roadblock.
The web of complex lies spun to implicate CPI(M) leaders has attracted much ridicule in local conversations, and given rise to several social-media memes and jokes on the subject, one of which depicts two RSS and NDF men fighting and crying while pointing accusing fingers at a CPI(M) passer-by. On a serious note, however, the botched CBI case strengthens the CPI(M) argument that their rivals lose no opportunity in framing and maligning them as part of a political agenda to weaken the party. However, given its own history of violence, the CPI(M) has been, as it seems, unable to gain political mileage from it.
(This is an excerpt from Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics by Ullekh NP | Viking. Buy it here.)