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The Devil in God’s own country

4,000 clashes, 140 dead, hundreds maimed — a 30-year-old war festers in a corner of picture-perfect Kerala. Ramesh Babu reports.See Graphics

india Updated: Jan 24, 2009 23:46 IST
Ramesh Babu
Ramesh Babu
Hindustan Times

Lying unconscious in his bed at the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital, K Sreejith is yet to hear the worst — that he has lost his right leg and that his bride-to-be has backed out of the wedding. The 29-year-old worker of the CPI(M) was supposed to tie the knot on January 23. But then violence erupted in Kannur early this week, adding yet another chapter to the vicious battle between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party (RSS-BJP) that has ravaged this region in north Kerala for nearly 30 years now, leaving many, like Sreejith, ‘living martyrs’ to the cause.

A few wards away lies Biju, an RSS activist, battling for his life. He was attacked by CPI(M) workers who barged into his house where he lay recuperating from a similar attack last year. Doctors say he will remain in bed forever.

No wonder, crippled survivors like him call the dead ‘lucky’.

Biju’s mother, who was also stabbed as she tried to save her son, lies in a bed nearby. “Will I be there next time to save him?” she asks hysterically.

Like in the ‘Vadakkan Pattu’ (medieval ballads where revenge killings are always lauded) legends, most of the ‘martyrs’ in this belt known for its traditional martial art ‘Kalari Payattu’, live on the walls. Faded and framed — only their wailing mothers and sisters remain to tell the story of their savage killings. The worst sufferers of the violence, they plead for an end to the vicious cycle — but their voices are lost on the advocates of an-eye-for-an eye politics.

“My son Latheesh was very popular in the area. He was chased into the sea and stabbed 28 times,” says his mother, busy doing the last rites of her son. Latheesh was killed by RSS-BJP workers last week.

A teacher killed before his students, a son hacked to death in front of his parents, an old man dragged out of his house and murdered in cold blood just to equal the score — such viciousness is not new in these parts. The red-saffron politics of violence has claimed more than 140 lives in the last two decades, and crippled hundreds. More than 4,000 clashes have taken place in the past ten years in the worst-affected Thalassery, Panoor and Kuttu-parambha areas.

It is as if the CPI(M) and RSS, both cadre-based parties, are in a race to create martyrs and build colourful columns over their bodies. Look around and you’ll see innumerable concrete sickles, ‘oms’ and lotuses everywhere. Note also the many youngsters in Thalassery and Panoor without their palms or blind — the result of the crude bombs they were making going off in their hands. Bomb-making is almost a cottage industry in party villages in the area.

Both the RSS and CPI(M) try to outdo each other in planning and executing the attacks and retaliation. Last week, Ravindran, a CPI(M) activist, was stabbed to death by BJP-RSS workers. Within hours, his neighbour Babu, a BJP sympathiser, was murdered in similar fashion. Wails from the two neighbourhood houses can still be heard. “Babu was not an activist. He used to be a BJP sympathiser years ago. Still they killed him to equal the tally,” his brother laments.

Party before family

For the activists, loyalty to the party comes before blood relations. N Shalin, an RSS activist, was critically wounded in an attack last year. His father is a former CPI(M) branch secretary and his brother an activist of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI, a youth organisation linked to the CPI(M)). Shalin believes that his brother had prior knowledge of the attack. “I can’t do anything on my own. I have already undergone two surgeries, another is round the corner,” the 29-year-old says. There are at least 24 RSS ‘martyrs’ (of the 68 killed so far) whose parents are CPI(M) sympathisers.

So deep set is the fear that injured activists prefer to get admitted in hospitals guarded by their parties, fearing another attack. Thanks to the violence in Kannur many surgeons are making a quick buck in Kochi and other cities.

It doesn’t take much to set off a battle — a missing flag, a defaced party wall or a damaged bus shelter named after a martyr. Often, nobody knows the exact cause of the killings. But once they begin, the violence ends only after the ‘tally’ has been equalised.

After every round of violence, politicians play out the usual blame game. The Marxists say they were attacked because they protect the Muslims, the dominant community in Kannur. They cite the murder of UK Kunhiraman, who was killed while protecting a mosque in Meruvambhai. “Without us, the north Malabar region would have become another Gujarat long ago,” says P Sasi, CPI(M) district secretary.

RSS leaders, on the other hand, argue that they are targetted to check the depletion of the red bastion. “Almost half of our martyrs are former communists or belong to popular communist families. Even the former BJP state president, C.K. Padmanabha, is an ex-communist,” claims RSS leader Suresh Babu. “The CPI(M) controls 90 per cent of the local bodies in the area. They should allow others to function,” he argues. “The basic reason for the violence is the Marxists’ intolerance. They refuse to allow political freedom to others and kill those who try to cross over to other parties. The Muslim card is just a ploy. Not even ten per cent of the dead are Muslims,” RSS leader Para Sasi alleges.

A close look at the religious and caste profile of the victims shows that most of them are from the backward Thiyas (Ezhavas) community. Indeed, sociologists say that the root of the conflict is the desire to have political supremacy over the Thiyas, the dominant caste and once the backbone of the Marxist movement in north Malabar.

But RSS-BJP leaders attach no caste or religious tag to the recurring violence.

“People have lost faith in political parties. Women are the worst affected. The initiative for peace should now come from them,” says NK Ravindran, a senior journalist with Asianet, a Malayalam channel.

The enmity between the two cadre-based parties dates back at least three decades. Kannur is to the CPI(M) in Kerala what Nagpur is to the RSS. Feudalism, poverty, a complex caste system and backwardness had helped it penetrate the area easily. All its legendary leaders like AK Gopalan, EK Nayanar and KPR Gopalan belonged to this area.

In the early 60s, the RSS, with the blessings of the Mangalore business lobby, started sneaking into the Communist bastion. The business lobby needed the RSS to check the Koyas, influential Muslim traders. The uneasy co-existence between the two took a bloody turn in 1968 when the Marxists killed an RSS activist, Vadikkal Ramakrishnan. Since then, the two have locked horns in a bloody battle for supremacy, competing to appropriate villages from which opponents are kept out, even as the leaders fan trouble to keep their flock together.

The results are there for all to see. Potential investors have kept well away from this economically backward area. In some of the party villages, girls remain unmarried because outsiders are afraid to enter. In the last one month, the area has seen three factories shut down. What’s more worrying, the Kannur model is spreading to other areas.