The Response to My Book, Kannur, and the Foreword to the Malayalam Edition

The following is a foreword I had written more than three years ago for the Malayalam edition of my Kannur book (Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics; Penguin Viking). The Malayalam version of this was printed in the translated work published by Mathrubhumi.

Ever since Kannur appeared in its original English version nationwide in June 2018, it has received widespread plaudits, surprising even seasoned publishing professionals with the attention it garnered. As a prominent book critic said, “If violence in politics is among your concerns, this book is recommended reading.” While I am humbled and grateful to all those who have hailed the book as a brave and sincere effort at going into the deep-rooted causes of violence in this part of northern Kerala, I must confess to paying perhaps disproportionate attention to the handful of sharp criticisms the book has received as well. After all, it is not always the long list of plaudits, but itsy-bitsy criticisms that a writer often remembers the most.

I sincerely wish to thank everyone, those who loved the book and the ones who trashed it. All of them. Because I have learnt something or the other from all of them.

In this book about a subject that is right up my alley, I did give substantive space for those who still argue that the murderous ways in Kannur politics are linked to its chekavar culture and to assumptions that intermingling — or miscegenation – involving various militant races from far and wide over centuries has something to do with the gravity and intensity of political violence in this north Malabar region. I also set aside several pages in this book for those who offered mystical explanations to the dreaded phenomenon. That included assertions that the restless souls of chekavars of yore, a class of people born to fight to death (or win) over frivolous quibbles between chieftains and local grandees of the time continued to haunt what was once their home, Kannur. A group of people are busy performing rituals to ward off those spells, they told me. I thought people should know about it, whether for fun or for reflection.

Should I have excluded those theories from the book? My view is no. Especially because I have clearly stated that I don’t subscribe to those views

but have merely presented such claims as they are, because these are perceptions that are far more widespread than many academics and rational thinkers like I myself would assume. That was my discovery while working on this book. And therefore, I saw no harm in dwelling on those aspects and perceptions in this book. While I do not endorse such claims, I do not dismiss them completely as rubbish either. I believe that however wild and ludicrous those theories may sound, such perceptions only enrich the nature of our understanding of the place, its history,

culture, beliefs and sociology. After all, academic explanations of Kannur’s political violence themselves are often laughable.

Some academics, who had earlier embraced the chekavar influence theory, later became to peddle a strange explanation: that the reportedly ‘marginalised’ classes of yore, like the Thiyyas of Kannur and nearby areas, tend to have an umbilical link with political parties they are affiliated to and are ready to do anything for these political entities that gave them a social identity, an ego. In the first place, the marginalisation of any kind of such caste groups, especially the Thiyyas who claim to have a chekavar history in North Malabar, was not harsher compared with their caste counterparts in Kerala’s south. And so why isn’t the trend of such blind faith in their political masters visible in the south relative to the north?

Numerous such academic explanations abound. There is indeed a seemingly credible assessment that suggests that legatees of the militant peasant and trade union movements in the north of Kerala have inherited a different political culture as opposed to the south which had seen extensive social engineering led by the likes of Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and others. Which means southern Kerala’s politics was sobered – or tempered — by the influence of the activities of such social reformers. That any such major movement evaded northern Malabar made the political parties wield a far more tremendous influence on people of the region than in the south.

This sounds logical but yet not conclusive, especially because the communist party in its early stages in Kannur and other northern parts of the state that had seen large-scale peasant and trade union struggles didn’t promote violence as the most potent weapon against adversaries. It is another matter that violence was a fact of life, since they were victims of police atrocities and private armies of the landlords. And later when they began to resist, their perpetrators came down on them with greater vehemence. The communists never gave up, and over the years as India became independent and having lived through various bans and stringent State actions, it prospered throughout Kerala, just as it did in North Malabar. For an organisation that had a militant upbringing thanks to massive repression, there was certainly a stream of violence about the party, especially in the north of Kerala.

Yet, none of it explains the reasons for politics of unending violence in the 21st century.

My research during the course of this book led me to believe that certain impulsive leaders who rose to power especially after the communist party split in 1964 and the CPM was formed were destined to leave behind a violent legacy. On one hand they were deeply influential and on the other they didn’t bother to change

tactics as new realities dawned. The modus operandi of the communist party, especially of the CPM, only shifted, over the decades, towards exercising physical dominance over others rather than interacting with people through certain welfare schemes the communists had pioneered several decades earlier, such as library movements and through various pro-Left organisations that worked in cultural and scientific spheres. Either the link between such organisations and the CPM weakened over time or those organisations couldn’t come up with imaginative, new ideas that captured people’s imaginations as the world around them changed. This distancing of the CPM organisational apparatus from the common man took place despite a vibrant local governance system in Kerala

that had earlier — through several schemes — struck a chord with the masses. Unfortunately, the CPM continued to use toxic masculinity oriented political strategies to stay ahead of the race in Kannur and in several other parts of the state. The easiest and the sure shot way to dominate was to use force, some leaders thought.

Alongside, the Congress, which had once brutally dominated the political landscape of Kerala including north Kerala, began to acknowledge with a sense of resignation that they were no match for the ruthless power of CPM’s organisational machinery. A few Congress leaders such as N Ramakrishan and later K Sudhakaran managed to give a tough fight to the Marxists in Kannur, but only briefly. Their resistance, too, soon petered out.

The undivided communist party and RSS both began their journey around the same time in North Malabar, the former in the late 1930s and the latter in the early 1940s. But the communists soon became a powerful electoral force throughout the state, while the RSS, through its political arms, first the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and then the BJP, failed miserably in converting its organisational prowess into electoral gains in the state, bringing deep frustrations to the fore. The first BJP legislator to win a seat in the Kerala state assembly, as we all know, is O Rajagopal in the 2016 elections.

The RSS, despite the presence of its shakhas, made a significant and forceful entry in Kannur as the private army of a pro-Sangh beedi baron from Mangalore

who had business interests in several parts of the district in the 1960s. How the RSS used the financial muscles of the tobacco tycoon to expand themselves is explained in detail in this book. It is no secret that the RSS expected to make gains akin to Shiv Sena’s in Bombay in Kannur, too, especially Thalassery, by battling the communists and hoping to decimate them. The Bombay experiment plotted by Maharashtra Congress leaders to batter communist influence in Bombay’s industrial estates did click as Shiv Sainiks went on a killing spree in the country’s commercial capital, but not in Kannur where RSS designs were met with disproportionate retaliation. Evidently, the RSS bared its fangs in Kerala only when its feeder political arm fared well at the national level. This time after Modi came to power in 2014, the RSS stepped up its Redtrocity campaign painting Kannur as a Golgotha of sorts for Hindus — with some of its cyber ninjas alleging a genocide of Hindus in Kannur, clearly insinuating that Marxists are hand in glove with Islamists to target Hindus in the district. What a colorful, ridiculous lie considering that Hindus form the majority of CPM’s traditional voter base.

Yet, the CPM leadership, with the probable exception of a few who are trying to closely follow the RSS’s insidious ways to spread its subversive ideology at the apex of which lies the policy of driving a wedge along religious lines, has not fully woken up to the danger of RSS’s mass outreach through the imaginative ways communists had done in the past through cultural and similar organisations that helped improve people’s lives and influenced their political priorities. The RSS, on the other hand, being patient players, have over the decades succeeded in their outreach to Hindus through temples, a long-haul programme laid down long ago by the likes of late Madhavji of the RSS. Which also means that the RSS has been able to influence a larger number of Hindus than it could earlier. At the same time, the mother of all Hindutva organisations isn’t shy of employing violence to expand itself in the state.

My close friend and former colleague, the journalist Dinesh Narayanan of The Economic Times, whose book on the RSS is expected to hit the stands early 2019 (it did hit the stands in 2020), tells me that in Kerala the RSS has made much headway in shaping people’s thoughts through their temple-centric activities and by reviving festivals and rituals that had almost faded away from public memory. This revivalist methodology, he tells me, offers the RSS an edge in hard selling its ideological viewpoints to a large section of Hindus, especially the notional upper castes now disenchanted with the Congress party, which many of them see as a party that champions the cause of the Christian leaders alone. Such perceptions have gained

in momentum since the political demise of the late Congress patriarch K Karunakaran in the 1990s.

One of the accusations against me and that came from none other than chief minister and CPM honcho Pinarayi Vijayan himself is that my book is trying to equate the CPM and the RSS. Not at all. My opposition to the CPM was in the specific context of Kannur where violence has become very much part of the political narrative, thereby alienating potential young leaders who can counter the RSS in its multi pronged strategy to counter the Sangh information-and- misinformation blitz besides creating outreach programmes and have an ear to the ground. Neither was there any attempt on my part to run down Kannur, my hometown. On the contrary, I wrote this book with an aim of highlighting two aspects about Kannur: the untruths of the Redtrocity campaign and the habit of treating murders of young men as business as usual. Such normalisation of vendetta killings motivated by political reasons is a blot on a state known for its high social indicators comparable with advanced countries in the world. Clearly, any political party that believes it will have to shut shop if it can’t engage in acts of violence to ensure its supremacy had better disband itself.

Some of my friends asked me why I revealed my political and family background in this book. It was a conscious decision. My aim was to inspire a meaningful dialogue between hostile political entities, to self-criticise, to offer ultimate faith in reason and to ensure transparency. A fair disclosure was a prerequisite, I believe.

I think where I come from matters to readers who wish to see Kannur snap out of its baggage and purge its ruthless reputation as a hotbed of political violence in an unlikely state, a state that has nothing in common with other backward states except violence for which political reasons are the key motive. At a personal level, to me, it has been a revelatory and somewhat sobering experience as I embarked on an inquiry into the roots of a local political conflict that became a hot topic of national discourse, and found the best and worst of human nature amidst the bloodshed and blame games.

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