Crime bureau statistics from 2016 show that 45 CPM activists, 44 BJP-RSS workers, 15 Congressmen and four Muslim League members have lost their lives since 1991.
Statistics, though, don’t reveal the list of horrors that emerge out of Kannur: A schoolteacher who was hacked to death in front of his 11-year-old students. A mother who lost both husband and son to party violence. Snakes and dogs killed for belonging to the ‘wrong’ party leader. A youth leader chopped to pieces in front of his elderly parents. A school teacher left disabled for life.
How did Kannur, a region famed for its beaches, kalarippayattu and rituals like theyyam, get here?
Journalist Ullekh NP attempts to find answers and trace the roots of violence in the district in his new book, Kannur: India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics. He talks to politicians of all hues, policemen, families of survivors and historians to piece together a fascinating story that touches on the region’s martial and religious history, its brush with peasant revolts and uprisings by textile and beedi workers, and the rise of a muscular political culture.
“The greatest irony in the RSS-CPM fights is that the pro-Hindu Sangh Parivar has no qualms about targeting CPM-dependent Hindus, while the Marxists, the much touted saviours of the proletariat, vehemently… go after the working classes who happen to be aligned with the Hindu nationalists,” he writes.
In an interview with sify.com, Ullekh talks about the mafia-style politics in his hometown, Pinarayi Vijayan and the RSS’ Redtrocity campaign.
Excerpts from the interview:
Many reporters and writers who probably couldn't even pronounce 'Thazhe Chovva', turned 'experts' on Kannur when the RSS launched its Redtrocity campaign against the CPM in 2017. As a proud Kannurian, how did you react to the reports that were aired at that time?
Utter rubbish was peddled as facts back then. Redtrocity is a campaign managed by some shrewd people, but once a campaign picks up steam, especially in this age of shrill social media debates and hate speak, all kinds of falsehoods get shared and consumed.
There was this consistent talk about ‘genocide of Hindus in Kannur’, suggesting that Hindus of Kannur are being eliminated by Muslims the way Serbs went about massacring Muslims in the Balkans. What a colorful lie it was!
But since there wasn’t any effective counter-campaign, such pronouncements clicked outside of Kerala, especially in North India.
BJP President Amit Shah had to recently admit in a private chat to select journalists that the RSS-BJP’s Kerala strategy was a blunder and that the Sangh had to come up with something new to unseat the Marxists who still pull in a sizeable chunk of Hindu votes in the state.
The blitz carried out by the Sangh, however, brought the issue to national mainstream, prompting the CPM to at least consider in principle that violence as a business-as-usual phenomenonis a thing of the past. I have used a lot of police data to prove that RSS is not a ‘victim’ of ‘CPM violence’ as it paints itself out to be.
In fact, the first martyr in the RSS-CPM violence in Kerala was not an RSS local leader as the Sangh went about saying tirelessly, while linking the current Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to that murder (of Vadikkal Ramakrishnan in 1969). The first victim was PP Sulaiman of the CPM in 1968. I made a reference to it in this book because I was not comfortable with the vehemence and the vicious nature of lies floating around. Even pro-Left journalists and political analysts had begun to believe this.
Certainly, Redtrocity deserves praise for forcing a relook at some CPM leaders who thrived on muscular politics that sidelines peaceniks within with great ease. These leaders with affected machismo often found their way into the higher echelons of Kannur’s CPM politics.
The years you were growing up, party affiliation was as good an identity as religion in many north Malabar families. You mention that even matrimonial alliances were easier if both families supported the same party. Your father, Pattiam Gopalan, was one of the tallest Communist leaders in the region. There's a delightful nugget about your aunt asking you not to play with a relative because "They are Congress". You've tried to be fair in your account of the violence in Kannur - At no point is either party painted as the sole victim or villain. When did it become easy for you to step back and look at events and people around you objectively? Did that happen before you became a journalist?
Yes, that happened long before I became a journalist. That my aunt warned me against playing with kids whose fathers had other political affiliations – Congress or for that matter the RSS—never stopped me from being in constant touch with them. Sometimes I had greater affinity with them than boys from Marxist families. But I remained committed to my political beliefs even after I joined a boarding school when I was 10 years old. I scoured the library for works on Marx, Lenin and Che Guevara.
At the same time, I also had great exposure to anti-Marxist literature thanks to the wonderful library we had in our Sainik School (Kazhakoottam, Thiruvananthapuram). While I gorged on books on World War II, the Soviet Union andLiberation struggles across the world, I also came across books that exposed Lenin (Inside the Soviet Army is one example) and Stalin.
We had an excellent librarian in school (the late Solomon sir). When I was in classX or so, I came across the works of Swami Vivekananda and books on Hinduism and Hindutva.
Reading Gandhiji around that time was a revelation. He wasn’t the one that Marxist leader EMS Namboodiripad said he was. Looking back now, I am sure EMS who came from the Congress background knew only too well the greatness of the Mahatma but his principal opposition was the Congress and political expediency meant that he called out Gandhiji for his conservative views on caste, race and class.
But the more I read about Gandhiji the more I realized that not many people understood India as much as he did. His primary goal was to rally all kinds of people – back then the kind of groups that he mobilized included who would until then be called the scum of the earth in more ways than one; and they even included criminal gangs who gave up their lucrative vocation to join the freedom movement – against British imperialism. I realized while reading him that he was the first and the foremost leader to de-eliticise Indian politics and become a model for the world.
One must welcome all kinds of research into the life and times of Gandhiji but if such studies don’t consider the context and the primary aim of his struggle they can never comprehend him. It was his de-eliticisation of politics that helped leaders from lower rungs of caste hierarchy to gain a space in the firmament of Indian politics. If you forget it, then it is easy to make him a whipping boy for all ills of Indian society.
In college, I became an active student leader and that was when I started mingling with those who believed in Hindutva politics and those from radicalized Islamist groups. Since then, I have followed their activities closely because tracking the trajectory of any religion-based movement is crucial in understanding their designs and goals.
Personally, I abhor any ideology based on ‘racial purity’ and bigotry. There is a lot of focus on the RSS, but much less on insidious outfits such as the Popular Front of India that are not a product of minority assertion against majoritarian politics, but toxic agents of subversion.
Coming to journalism and writing, I have always said that I try to be dispassionate and look for data and facts to arrive at a conclusion. The idea is to be fair to all stakeholders, not just be balanced.
What would you term as the biggest revelations about Kannur in your book?
I have dug up data from police records. I have traced the political culture of North Malabar, that includes Kannur, as an outcome of its militant peasant and trade union movements. In south Kerala, politics was influenced deeply by caste and social reformation movements that acted as a buffer to any militant reaction to inequality and repression.
In this book, I have tried to cover all aspects of Kannur violence, the likely causes and consequences. I also put the spotlight on leaders who have flourished (and continue to flourish) thanks to this continual politics of vendetta. Leaders who will argue endlessly that without resistance (their euphemism for murderous attacks on rivals), their parties cannot sustain – nothing is more farcical than that. To give you an example, when CPM leader MV Govindan Master was district secretary of the CPM in Kannur, he expelled many goons patronized by his party. At the time he was at the helm, death toll from political violence dipped considerably.
A grave concern I discovered is that highly qualified young people hesitate to join politics. They resent the violence. The collateral damage thanks to this trend will be huge. If this continues, the unemployed and anti-social will end up joining politics and they will not question the status quo the way bright,committed young people do. They will go with the flow and perpetuate this culture of violent politics. I have done surveys that signal this emerging trend.
That said, I would leave it to the reader to make an informed comment about the book.
You write that Pinarayi Vijayan smiles more often these days, and is trying to project a softer image - But that the perception, even within the party, that he's a "Stalinist control freak" remains. CPI leaders and his critics have referred to Vijayan as 'Modi in a Dhoti'. What do you think of this comparison to Modi?
I don’t think it is true. Modi does things on his own terms; and so does the Kerala chief minister. They both have humble beginnings and the media has had strained (and strange) ties with them both. But the similarities end there. They are products of divergent ideologies and their turfs are quite different. I don’t think either of them would want to be compared with the other! I have always believed that this is a mischievous suggestion by people who dislike both Modi and Pinarayi Vijayan.
In May, the Chief Minister faced criticism when he visited only the house of K Babu, a slain CPM leader, and skipped a visit to the home of RSS worker P Shamej, who was also killed. Activist Civic Chandran had then remarked that "Pinarayi Vijayan is yet to walk the distance from AKG Centre (the state CPM headquarters) to the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram." Do you agree with this statement?
Political leaders tend to be more worried about what their cadres think of their actions than what other people feel about them. Chief Ministers ought to treat all their citizens as equal. This practice has to start at the top for others to follow. Leaders should lead by example. This is the ‘Rajdharma’ that AB Vajpayee prescribed to Modi – who intervened and effectively snubbed Vajpayee for saying that before journalists --- after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.
What is your take on the theory that traces the bloodshed and violence in the region today to Chekhavar tradition of duelling through Kalaripayattu to save the honour of kings and princelings?
I don’t agree completely with this theory, but I don’t wish to dismiss it outright as well. I have friends in Japan who say that places once inhabited by Samurais are more violence-prone than others.
Similarly, many regions in the world that have seen widespread violence in the ancient past continue to have high crime records. Understanding history is all about comprehending its dynamics, and such claims are quite acceptable to those who believe in mysticism. I have dwelt on these theories at length in the book to bring up various streams of thought prevalent in the region. Some scholars, not the academic ones, find these theories highly irresistible.
You write of three instances where teachers - two from the CPM and one from the RSS - were killed in front of their students. Of these, the one that grabbed national attention is the story of the BJP Yuva Morcha's Jayakrishnan Master, who was hacked to death in a classroom in front of his 11-year-old students. The children were warned, through a message on the blackboard, not to give evidence against the assailants. One of the accused in the attack, Pradeepan, later became the PTA president of that very same school. In your experience as a reporter, how do children in the region get affected by political violence?
Yes. I have had a chat with one of the children who witnessed the murder, and with people who know some others, off the record. They didn’t want to talk about it. Children either live with trauma all their life or they start seeing this as normal. I think that is what happens the world over. I have seen it in many parts of India – from Bastar to Assam to Kashmir. Many of theminternalize it and view these events as par for the course. A lot more study in this direction is in order.
The plant 'ChromolaenaOdorata' (ironically of North American origin) is known as Communist Pacha in Kerala - to indicate something that grows fast and spreads rapidly. You dwell in detail about the role of the early communist leaders like AKG and P Krishna Pillai in taking communism to the masses in Kannur. How differently do you think the ideology spread in the rest of Kerala?
Both these leaders were pivotal in triggering peasant and anti-establishment movements across Kerala. Pillai was instrumental in shaping the communist party in the south as well. The ideology spread differently, I assume, thanks to the influence of caste organisations in south Kerala which had a sway over leaders across political parties.
People might deny it now, but elections in Kerala had various communist leaders covertly align themselves with caste organisations. Overall, caste organisations, I believe, had a kind of sobering effect on the growth of communist parties in the south – they made them more pragmatic.
But in Kannur, the CPM maintained its militant character even during the tough days of Emergency as opposed to other district units where workers and leaders became passive. Naturally, in the 1977 Kerala assembly elections, the only district where the CPM displayed its electoral prowess was inKannur.
You dwell in detail about the colourful M V Raghavan, who introduced a more macho political culture to Kannur's CPM. The one omission I found in your book was of the story of the Parassinikkadavu Snake Park being vandalised after Raghavan's candidates won an election to the A K G Memorial Cooperative Hospital. At least twelve cobras, two king cobras and monitor lizards, painted and grey storks, peacocks, vultures, eagles, mynahs and rabbits were burnt to death. Do you have memories of how you reacted to that incident?
Raghavan was a charismatic leader indeed – and a colourful character. Yes, I did not talk specifically about this incident, while I talked about how the culture of murderous politics that he promoted came back to haunt MVR after he quit the CPM and joined hands with the Congress.
At that time, shortly after the 1993 February incident in which MVR and his men unseated the CPM to wrest control over a hospital named after AK Gopalan in the district, passions ran high. I remember a speech at that time by the legendary communist leader KPR Gopalan (one of MVR’s early mentors who was sacked from the CPM in the late 1960s) in which he praised the young people for the attack on the Snake Park, saying MVR was hurt because it was a money-spinning machine for him. I was a college student then, and I remember feeling quite bad about what happened to the animals.
CPM patriarch EMS Namboodiripad criticized the act, ruling out any involvement of party cadres. Of course, he knew only too well that his party men were involved. I was a student wing leader of the CPM at that time and so I had no sympathies for MVR. At that time, he was treated like a class enemy. But since I have always been opposed to violent tactics by the party I disapproved of what they did at the Park.
RSS leader J Nandakumar uses the term Kannurism (instead of communism) to tell you that it's mostly CPM leaders from Kannur who espouse violence. Considering your interactions with Marxist leaders all over Kerala, what's your take on that?
The majority of those who have risen in the CPM in Kannur district have a certain affinity for violence, the way someone plays to the gallery. A peacenik in that scheme of things was/is seen as a coward even by the rank and file who had over time been conditioned into the violent ways of the party.It is not that the CPM is an exception. Many leaders within the RSS and the Congress who have made a name for themselves in the district had similar temperaments and views.
You write that violence in Kannur is not just about the CPM and the RSS. The Congress is still a player. And there are relatively new entities like the People's Front of India/Campus Front of India, who have also been accused in the murder of SFI leader Abhimanyu. As someone who was part of the SFI, how do you see these new organizations changing the face of student politics in Kerala?
Campus Front of India is a dangerous organization like its parent PFI. I sense that there is a descent into greater chaos in student politics in Kerala with religion-oriented student groups gaining currency and strength. The rise of the Campus Front is a reflection of that. Earlier, organized attacks among student groups were much fewer. It’s not that such assaults didn’t happen in the past, but they are on the rise today. With political parties increasingly using their student wings to launch agitations and unleash violence on rivals, this was only waiting to happen. And when you have terrorist organisations running student units with impunityand communalizing politics like never before, things are expected to get worse.
What books would you recommend for those who want to know more about Kannur and its politics?
First, Professor T Sasidharan's ‘Radical Politics of Kannur’. I would also recommend autobiographies of AK Gopalan and MV Raghavan; and a recent biography in English of Moyarath Sankaran.
Which writers inspired you the most while you sat down to write this book?
Svetlana Alexievich and Joseph Conrad.