Violence leaves north Kerala bloody as political equations change
After a 60 km drive from Kozhikode, one of the first things you see in Nadapuram is a poster of Kerala’s new icon of love, Kanjanamala, whose love for a Muslim man, has become a household story with the release of the biopic film, Ennu Ninte Moideen starring Prithviraj and Parvathy. The poster announced her as the chief guest at a local school function.
This was a reassuring non-violent note in a place otherwise known for a series of political and communal violence. There were police forces deployed at various points with khaki disrupting the lush greenery of this village in north Kerala. As we travelled to the interiors of Nadapuram, the Kanjanamala posters were replaced by a new set portraying a young man that read, “With Prayers... Mohammed Aslam, who was brutally killed by CPI(M) gundas.”
On August 12, Mohammed Aslam, a 22-year old Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) worker, was brutally murdered in broad daylight. Aslam’s hands were chopped off and his body had 67 stab marks. The murder was allegedly committed by CPI(M) workers to avenge the killing of 19-year-old Shibin CK, a member of CPI(M)’s youth wing Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), on January 22, 2015. Aslam was an accused in the Shibin murder case although he, along with others, had been acquitted by a special court on June 15, 2016.
North Kerala has been witness to increasing bouts of politically motivated violence. Many party workers keep a scoreboard of how many workers have been killed in each respective party. According to police, nearly 600 rioting cases have been registered here since 2000, while five political killings have been officially recorded in this small area since 2001. Last year, the area witnessed massive violence with 80 Muslim houses attacked immediately after Shibin’s murder. Since the assembly elections were declared in March, 178 cases in connection with political rivalries have been booked in nearby Thanur station.
Nadapuram is on the border of Kannur, a well-known political battleground in Kerala where violence and murders occur frequently between CPI(M) and RSS cadres. Nadapuram was already infamous for the cycle of violence between CPI(M) and IUML and Aslam’s murder has raised political tensions again here. The political rift between these two parties first became significant after the murder of IUML’s Ariyil Shukkoor in Kannur in February, 2012. More recently, there have been reports of violence between IUML and CPI(M) workers in Thanur area as well in neighbouring Malappuram district.
Shibin’s father Bhaskaran CK remembers how both Shibin and Aslam studied in the same school. “They used to play together when they were children,” he says. On the night of January 22, 2015, two IUML workers had a quarrel with some CPI(M) workers, including Shibin. The quarrel began when the IUML folk were accused of spreading dust with their bike, leading to violence. More IUML workers were called as reinforcements, and they arrived with weapons such as axe, sword, iron rod and knife. Shibin was killed in the fight. Bhaskaran returned from Dubai after his son’s murder.
Aslam’s mother Subaida, 45, says her son was the sole breadwinner of the family after her husband’s death. “My son had left for the Gulf to earn a living at the age of 18. He was home on vacation. On the night of Shibin’s murder, his friends called him saying there was a quarrel going on. He later told me that the quarrel was over by the time he reached there.”
Subaida’s house was subsequently attacked and looted during the violence that broke out in Nadapuram after Shibin’s murder. Nearly 80 Muslim houses were attacked. “My two daughters and I ran away from the house. The mob screamed and warned us to leave for Pakistan,” says Subaida, who now lives in a rented house along with her daughters. She says that some CPI(M) workers had openly made threats to kill her son after he was acquitted by the special court. “We won’t spare him even if the court spares him, they had told me,” she says.
On August 12, Aslam was riding a two-wheeler with two friends as pillion riders. They were stopped by a car, and a gang came out with sharp weapons which targeted Aslam while his friends escaped. His murder created shockwaves with its brutality – in the way that CPI(M) rebel TP Chandrashekharan’s 2012 assassination at Onchiyam, Kozhikode had. Chandrashekharan’s body had been found with 51 wounds.
The communal angle of violence
While Kannur often evokes images of bloodshed and country-made bombs in the general Malayali psyche, political violence in Nadapuram has seen a somewhat different trajectory. The secret documents of station crime history (SCH) at Nadapuram police station state that the violence here between CPI(M) and IUML has been actually communal in nature.
The area is supposed to have witnessed conversion of upper caste Nairs and Nambiars into Islam in the 16th century. With Tippu Sultan’s invasion in 18th century, the Muslims here became landowners. Historically, the clash here has been between the Muslim landlords (who later became richer with the Gulf boom) and the Thiyya caste (an OBC community). Over the years, Muslims have been represented by the IUML and the Thiyyas by the CPI(M). For example, Thiyyas used to be disrespectfully called chekkan (boy) and pennu (girl) by Muslims, and CPI(M) leader A Kanaran led a famous protest against this practice in the late 1980s. Similarly, former Kerala chief minister and IUML leader CH Muhammed Koya once famously said, “Defeat CPI(M) to save human heads and coconut bunches.”
A senior political leader in Kerala said on the condition of anonymity that Nadapuram is now central for both major political alliances in the state – the United Democratic Front (UDF, which IUML is a part of) and the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). “Though Kerala is largely perceived as a secular state with no communal tensions, vote bank politics here are increasingly becoming dependent on violence,” the senior politician says. “While Nadapuram helps CPI(M) to hold its largest vote bank of Thiyya/Ezhava community, it also helps the IUML and UDF to project themselves as the saviors of the Muslims.”
Meanwhile, Nadapuram residents say that the police are inclined to act on behalf of whichever is the ruling party. Thus, it’s not surprising that Aslam’s brother-in-law Namshid claims that he is doubtful of a fair inquiry into the case by the police under the CPI(M) rule. “The recent transfer of Nadapuram ASP Karuppasamy after Aslam’s murder is questionable in this regard,” he says. “The police have not yet arrested the murderers. Witnesses are scared to testify as they do not want to go against the ruling party [the CPI(M)].”
Neither side is happy. Shibin’s father questions the special court’s acquittal of all the accused in his son’s murder case, calling it an “injustice”. Aslam’s mother, too, says the police didn’t do anything despite the previous threats against her son.
CK Subair, State General Secretary of IUML’s youth wing, Muslim Youth League, also hails from Nadapuram. He too accuses the police for the violence in the area. “The police failed to act according to the intelligence reports (on Aslam’s murder). They failed to provide adequate security in the region,” he says. On the tensions in Nadapuram, he says the issue has an economic angle as the tensions are also between the rich and the poor. “The IUML has helped the Muslim community grow socially and economically. However, the CPI(M) has failed to bring in a similar growth among its constituents,” he adds.
However, KP Abhilash, sub inspector at Nadapuram, claims that the police have taken a number of measures to curb violence in the area. “The police have opened a new control room in Nadapuram. It has been made a sub division. Also, the Nadapuram station, which used to have a large jurisdiction, has been divided into two smaller ones [for better policing],” he says.
CPI(M) Kozhikode district secretary P Mohanan, who was himself an accused (and later acquitted) in local politician TP Chandrasekharan’s murder case, says that the IUML has been trying to project CPI(M) as an anti-Muslim party in Nadapuram. “The IUML represents the upper class Muslims, while the CPI(M) has always stood with the poor and the working class irrespective of caste and religion,” he says.
Some of these animosities go back decades and these skirmishes have also been depicted in popular cinema and literature. A popular 2009 film starring Mammootti, Paleri Manikyam: Oru Pathira Kolapathakathinde Katha (Manikyam of Paleri: The Story of A Midnight Murder) – earlier a popular novel by TP Rajeevan set in the 1950s – portrays the tension in this area as the friction between the Thiyya caste and Muslim landlords. Also, a short story called Nadapuram by the famous Malayalam writer Akbar Kakkattil portrays a man visiting the area to meet his childhood friend. He finds a quiet, serene place with lovable people who turn violent and vengeful overnight.
Arsha V Sathyan, a research student from Nadapuram studying at Ambedkar University in Delhi, says that the conflict here is turning more communal rather than less. “The sad part is that, unlike in the past, nowadays such feelings are even visible in children,” she says. “I was shocked to see a Facebook post by a class 9 boy from the village after Aslam’s murder who said ‘Pavanayi Shavamayi’, which is a famous film dialogue meaning Pavanyi became a corpse. And a comment under the post read, ‘This will be your fate if you play with us’,” she says. Villagers in Nadapuram agree after the acquittal of all the accused in the Shibin murder case, young boys had publicly celebrated on the streets.
Dr Yasser Arafath, Assistant Professor in the Department of History, University of Delhi, who also hails from Nadapuram and has researched the violence in the area, is apprehensive that the violence is only going to increase unless there is consistent social and civic engagement between the different communities. “Such conflict is likely to increase not only in Nadapuram but also in other parts of Malabar due to factors like the assertion of hyper identity politics, changing class positions, emergence of groups trying to hold the same demographic constituency, and new social mobility in the subaltern social segment,” he says.
One such new emerging group has been the Popular Front of India (PFI), a right-wing Muslim organisation in Kerala that was the successor of the National Development Front (NDF). One of the political murders in Nadapuram – the murder of CPI(M) activist Binu in 2001 for alleged rape attempt of a Muslim woman – was committed by the NDF, while the PFI was behind the chopping of a professor’s hand in 2010 for allegedly insulting the prophet.
Malayalam writer PK Parakkadavu, who is an editor at Madhyamam in the Nadapuram area, says that it is this “us vs. them” narrative that drives the day-to-day life here. “Social media plays a key role in propagating vengeance. The political leadership should take efforts to curb the violence instead of protecting the culprits,” he says.
Violence spreading across district lines
Dr Arafath’s apprehensions look like they are coming true. There has also been recent violence between CPI(M) and IUML workers in Thanur in Malappuram district. In the last few months, dozens of houses have been looted and destroyed in coastal Thanur. “178 cases were booked in Thanur station in connection with political rivalry since the assembly elections were declared in March,” says Sumesh Sudhakaran, sub-inspector at Thanur.
Both CPI(M) and IUML workers were recently targeted on the evening of August 21. Sudhakaran was also injured in one of these clashes. Syed Mon, a 55-year-old fisherman and IUML worker, was also one of the victims. “When the mob came to my house, I tried to push the door against them. When they succeeded to smash it open, a sword just sparked before my eyes. I thought it would cut my neck,” says Mon.
When we visited the place a week after the incident, these houses remained as they had been left by the mob, even though the families still lived there. In most households, the mob destroyed drinking water facilities, any means of livelihood, food grains and kitchen utensils. Nafeesakkutti, a 45-year-old widow, says, “They cut the water pipes, looted my tailoring machine and destroyed all the utensils in the kitchen as if to force me and my family to starve and remain thirsty.”
“Violence in Thanur is not as bloodthirsty as in Nadapuram, and it is not communal in nature as both the sides are predominantly Muslim,” explains Dr Adeela Abdulla, sub-collector, Thirur (under which Thanur falls). “There is no class difference either as both sides are poor people.”
Thanur residents told us that that they see politics everywhere in their daily life. Fishermen colour their boats red [for CPI(M)] or green [for IUML] as per their political allegiance. One resident said that they even colour the meezan stone on their family graves accordingly. Sometimes the clash between Sunni factions like AP and EK (named after the leaders Kanthapuram AP Aboobakkar Musliyar and EK Aboobakkar Musliyar) also take on a political colour, since the AP faction supports the CPI(M) while the EK faction supports the IUML.
“Thanur may not be as violent as Kannur and Nadapuram but unlike them, Thanur faces massive law and order problems,” says sub-inspector Sudhakaran. Several villagers showed us pictures on their mobile phones of vehicles burnt or left in fields and canals. They said such incidents happen frequently. “People are so suspicious of their political rivals that they even approach the police to do a postmortem of their chicken when it dies,” adds Sudhakaran with some sarcasm.
Many Thanur residents claim that the police sides with the ruling party, and that the recent increase in violence here is due to the shift of power in the constituency. After holding it for 60 years, IUML lost Thanur to a CPI(M)-backed independent candidate in the assembly elections in May. Both parties are now trying to whip up passions among cadres to hold their vote banks.
Unlike Muslims in West Bengal, all Kerala Muslims are not disenchanted with the Left. Instead, they are inclined to believe that the Left is more proactive than the Congress and UDF in resisting the growth of the RSS and BJP in the state. This was visible in the May assembly elections where a large number of Muslims are believed to have voted for the Left. A viral WhatsApp meme in the run-up to the May elections discussed how Pinarayi Vijayan, now the Chief Minister of Kerala, had heroically saved Muslims from RSS men during a riot in Kannur in 1971. MN Karassery, a social commentator, says that “generally, Muslims in Kerala believe that CPI(M) and its youth wing DYFI are instrumental in stopping RSS violence against Muslims since the 1971 Thalassery riot.”
However, there is speculation that the BJP’s entry into the state assembly with one seat, its first ever in Kerala, and its high-voltage campaigns may change this narrative. Both the CPI(M) and the BJP target the Thiyya (Ezhavas in south Kerala) caste, who form the largest community in Kerala and the largest support base for the CPI(M). The social organization Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, which represents the Ezhava community, formed a new political outfit under the leadership of Vellappalli Nateshan in the in the May assembly elections – called the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) – and had allied with the NDA. However, the outfit failed to make any political gains with the Ezhavas standing firmly with the CPI(M). Also, it is understood that the increase in BJP’s vote share affected the UDF more than the LDF in terms of the number of seats. Nonetheless, the CPI(M) is still worried that the rise of BJP will hit them badly in the long run. The party is now making careful new moves with its constituents; for example, it has now begun celebrating Krishna Jayanthi to counter the BJP’s cultural campaigns among the Hindus.
This changing narrative could have terrifying consequences in Nadapuram. Some residents here say that after Shibin’s murder, the BJP had openly challenged the CPI(M) local unit to take revenge against the IUML. In Thanur, you hear a different story. A local CPI(M) worker alleged that the IUML and BJP are hand in glove here to fight against the CPI(M). The BJP is the main opposition in Thanur municipality where the IUML is the ruling party.
This may be one of the most unlikely, but not the last, strange alliance to form in this storm of violence in north Kerala.
Published in arrangement with GRIST Media