I have closely studied political violence in Kerala, especially that of its volatile northern district of Kannur, which is sometimes described by gullible reporters as ‘Kerala’s Bihar’. The outcome of this research became a book, which was published in 2018, and was immediately criticised, at times with extreme bias, by the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the Congress.
The recent political violence in Kerala brings to the fore a new, and dangerous angle in these conflicts that are more than just political. While political violence in Kannur, the home state of several of Kerala’s chief ministers including incumbent Pinarayi Vijayan, has seen a remarkable slide, it has begun to show a marginal rise in a few other districts.
It is not to say that other districts have not witnessed political crimes. They have, but Kannur was often in the limelight because political grandees from there were known to make war cries amid turbulent moments that (invariably) instigated the cadre, who, in turn, felt emboldened by the malignant narcissism and toxic muscularity of their leaders. Besides, Kannur saw sustained violence, until it began to drop over the past three years or so. Crime numbers confirm this welcome trend — that some sense has prevailed in the higher echelons of various warring parties.
The new dimension in Kerala’s political violence is its loathsome communal hue — and that portends disaster. Such viciousness was largely unseen in the state’s political clashes in the past, at least at this scale. Such tensions were often brief, and human casualties almost zilch, except in a handful of localised strife in northern Kerala over the past several decades. One example is Nadapuram in Kozhikode district in north Kerala where hostilities between Hindus and Muslims still run deep.
Given this, the recent effervescence of communal passions in political violence is worrying. This phenomenon coincides with the growing rage and aggression of Islamist organisations such the Popular Front of India (PFI), and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the PFI’s political arm, in response to the RSS’ strategy of fanning Islamophobia and religious polarisation to pull in Hindu votes in Kerala.
Voters from Kerala’s majority community tend to choose between the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). The BJP won its first-ever assembly seat in the 2016 elections, but drew a blank in 2021, adding to its anguish and frustrations, in the face of high hopes from the central leadership.
If you’ve read so far, you might feel that Kerala is the hotbed of crime. No, not yet. Kerala makes news because despite the near absence of crime over other reasons — like caste, honour, communal clashes, etc. — the state stands out in political violence. Political violence is also seen as an anomaly in a state whose social indicators are on a par with Nordic nations.
Meanwhile, the murder of student activist and engineering student Dheeraj Rajendran in Idukki in central Kerala on January 10 has put the spotlight again on how students are often targeted by mainstream political parties to incite violence either to settle scores or one-up on each other. Twenty-one-year-old Rajendran was affiliated to the CPI(M) feeder organisation, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), while his alleged killer is a member of the youth wing of the Congress.
The incident has shone light on the rampant criminalisation of politics in some parts of Kerala, and the soaring influence of criminal syndicates, referred to as ‘quotation gangs’, that hope to walk away with impunity because of their political links. Amid trading of charges against one another, the SFI leaders claim that it has so far lost 34 of its comrades to political violence although it doesn’t seek the path of revenge.
This claim is contested by other political parties, saying the Leftists very often suppress rivals in their strongholds, and create tense situations that result in violence and possibly deaths. The belligerent posturing of political leaders in the event of a death, especially of rival parties, is often seen as partymen indulging in mindless violence. Statistics favour the CPI(M), which has lost more of its activists and leaders to political crimes. But the politics of domination and suppression in their respective strongholds are factors that end up in such crimes — and each party has blood on its hands on that count.
One thing that is certain is that party workers take cues from the speeches and assertions of their leaders. Statistics also show that sensible leaders are able to contain violence at the grassroots. However, some leaders are wont to opt for a confrontational stance as a way of cementing their position as a strong leader—and many seem to follow this approach. Yet, there are signs of hope. Due to pressure from the media and popular resentment against this culture of violence, these leaders have lately begun dialogues between parties.
However, there is more to the clashes involving the PFI and the RSS than meets the eye. Successive governments over the past three decades have failed to see the writing on the wall, and the nefarious designs of religious fanatics. Unless checked meticulously, the prospects of God’s Own Country getting caught in the vortex of a maelstrom cannot be ruled out.
Ullekh NP is executive editor of Open, and author of three books, including Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics. Twitter: @ullekh.