Monday, February 13, 2012

The changing face of Kannur?

This North Kerala district was once the centre of violent murders and bloodbaths between the CPI(M) and the RSS. However, in the past few years, a tenuous peace is in place. But the rise of the National Democratic Front, a Muslim group, is threatening to plunge the region into another cycle of violence, this time, with communal overtones

Photos: P. Jayarajan, a senior CPI(M) leader. The late stalwarts of the CPI(M): A.K. Gopalan (left) and E.M.S. Namboodiripad

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 5 p.m. on August 20, 1999, P. Jayarajan, a senior CPI(M) leader, was resting at his home at Pattiam, a village in Kannur district in north Kerala. Because of the Onam holidays, there was a break in the campaigning for the 13th Lok Sabha general elections. Soon, there was the sound of bombs bursting.

Jayarajan rushed out of the house to enquire about what had happened. Suddenly, he saw a group of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers, wearing shirts and dhotis, advancing towards him. “I received a blow from a sickle across my neck,” he says. Jayarajan put up his left hand to defend himself and his thumb was sliced off.

Another blow to his right arm, at the elbow, nearly severed it. It hung by a sliver of skin. As he fell to the ground, there were blows to his legs and spine. In all, there were 17 wounds. Part of the cemented courtyard became drenched with Jayarajan's blood.

“I lay still and pretended to be dead,” he says. “The attackers thought they had killed me.”

They burst a final bomb and left. But that proved to be damaging too. Because it burst Jayarajan's left eardrum. After the assailants left, Jayarajan struggled to get up, but kept slipping because of the blood. Finally, his wife and neighbours arrived.

Initially, he was rushed to the Thalasserry Co-operative Hospital. From there, via a halt at the Kozhikode Medical College, he went to the Specialists’ Hospital at Kochi , 300 kms away, in a speeding ambulance.

“In those days, only the Specialists Hospital did micro-vascular surgery,” says Jayarajan. Dr. K.R. Rajappan and Dr. R. Jayakumar did the re-attachment of the arm to the elbow in a 13 ½ hour operation.

After two days, a nurse discovered an embedded nail on Jayarajan's skull, a remnant of the bomb blast. So, another surgery had to be done. “I was lucky that the nail did not touch my brain,” he says. After three months of treatment, Jayarajan returned home.

The attack was not a surprise. Jayarajan had addressed many public meetings in Kannur where he attacked 'the fascist ideology' of the RSS. “The RSS has been trying to infiltrate into the Kannur district,” he says. “I publicly spoke about their nefarious designs. They had already threatened me indirectly by saying, 'We will not destroy the bulb, but the transformer.'”

The police had provided two bodyguards for Jayarajan, but he found their intrusion into his privacy unbearable. They were sent away. The RSS came to know about that, and they looked for an opportune moment to kill him.

Jayarajan was one of the few people who survived a murderous attack in Kannur. K.T. Jayakrishnan Master, vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Mancha, and an active RSS worker, was not so lucky.

On the morning of December 1, 1999, he was teaching Malayalam to the Class 6 students of the Mokeri East Upper Primary school at Pathipalam.

Suddenly, a group of CPI(M) party members entered the classroom. They were dressed in white shirts and dhotis. One of them hit Jayakrishnan's head with an iron rod. When he fell down, the men hacked at his body several times with their sickles. The students watched in stunned silence.

Finally, one of the assailants took a white chalk and wrote calmly in Malayalam on the blackboard, 'If anybody steps forward as a witness, the Jayakrishnan incident will be repeated'.

Shinub M.V., 25, was a silent witness for years. Today, this mason is a strapping young man, with gleaming black hair, with a sacred white paste on his forehead. At that time, he was a student of Class five. They were learning English under Vijay Master, when Shinub saw the men enter the hall. “Soon, we heard a cry of agony,” he says. “I heard Jayakrishnan Master say, 'Amma, Amma'. Our class teacher said that it must be a snake that had bitten Jayakrishnan Master. But I knew that there was something wrong. And then with my own eyes, I saw the master being chopped up. I ran away with the rest of the students.”

Asked whether he was traumatised, Shinub shook his head. “I am fine, but I don't like to think about those events,” he says.

This murder had a searing effect on the people in Kannur. Even today, there are posters of Jayakrishnan -- with his thick black moustache and unblinking eyes – staring at you in many parts of Panur taluk.

And on a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon, I visited the school. Inside a large hall, there is a small wooden board at the middle, which acts as a partition. In effect, Classes five and six are in the same hall. There are entrances from both sides. The walls are made of exposed red brick and there is a sloping tiled roof.

It was recess time and students, both boys and girls, wearing white and blue uniforms, were running in and out. Above the infamous blackboard, a poster of Santa Claus had been put up. A butterfly flew in and settled on a wooden desk for a few moments before taking off again.

It was hard to believe that such a gruesome murder took place at this very spot several years ago. Later, inside the staff room, a teacher said, wearily, “We don't want to talk about the incident.”

In the courtyard, there was a flag pole which had numerous red CPI(M) flags. On the road, there were party flags hanging from trees. On lamp posts, the words, 'Red Fort' and 'Red Army' had been inscribed in white letters. Against one wall, flex boards in praise of a Communist leader I.V. Das had been put up. Clearly, it was a Red stronghold!

Earlier, when I had gone to another government school by mistake, the principal begged me with folded hands not to go to Pathipalam. “There is a lot of tension in the area,” he said. “Your life will be in danger. I would advise you not to disturb matters by writing about it.”

It was not a surprising statement. If you say 'Kannur' to anybody in Kerala, the words, 'political violence', 'murders', and 'bloodbath' will immediately arise. “According to the records at the Kannur District Court, 500 cases of political violence have been lodged since the 1970s,” says Ruchi Chaturvedi, an assistant professor of anthropology at Hunter College, New York, who spent several months in the area. “Around 4000 workers of various political parties have been charged with crimes that range from murder to attempted murder to criminal intimidation of political workers. However, 80 per cent of those charged have been acquitted due to lack of evidence.”

The CPI(M) held an unmitigated sway in Kannur for many decades. But what aggravated tensions was when the RSS began to make inroads in the 1970s. Soon, both parties were fighting for the same political space, and it was not long before it all descended into violence. “Attacks and counter-attacks followed, interspersed with the murders of party personnel,” says Ruchi. “The CPI(M) said that they were the defendants of the significant Muslim population of the region against the Hindu Right.”

Says P. Jayarajan: “In other parts of India , the agenda of the RSS is anti-Muslim and Christian. In Kerala, it is to attack the CPI(M). They know that it is only by defeating the CPI(M) they can hope to make inroads among the Hindus. It is a long-term project.”

P.P. Suresh Babu, the senior-most leader of the RSS in Kannur, counters that by saying, “We are nationalists. We want the country to move forward. Why should the CPI(M) only propagate their ideology? We want to tell people about Hindutva and about the future Hindu Rashtra. We are also rendering service to the people.”

This includes financial assistance for needy students, providing pension for old people, and assisting those who are in need of medical and financial help. “We also provide money to poor girls who are finding it difficult to get married,” says Suresh. “We help in the expenses of a wedding.” The RSS also run a fleet of ambulances, organise blood donation camps, distribute text-books, and micro-financing schemes. In Kannur, they run 33 schools and there are 125 Trusts rendering various schemes for the people.

The more inroads they made, the more violent was the response, till it reached its peak in 2000. Then, there was a slowing down. “There were a few reasons for this,” says K.K. Pavithran, CPI(M) Area Secretary in Panur, one of the hotspots. “The people had got tired of the war and so did the party workers. There has been a re-thinking on the part of both parties about the folly of continuing this conflict. We felt that too much of energy, effort, and time were being wasted. We could not concentrate on our party work. This abstinence from violence has increased in the past five years. Still, solitary incidents of stabbing on both sides take place. A few days ago, one of our party offices had been attacked by the RSS.”

Kannur District Superintendent of Police Anup Kuruvilla John is a personable young man, who looks more like a doctor or an engineer. At his large office, he gives another reason for the slowdown.

“You cannot kill somebody and assume that there will be no consequences,” he says. “In fact, the murder impacts not only particular individuals but the entire area. There will be constant raids by the police. The opposing party might launch a violent counter-attack. You have a situation where people cannot move around easily, and are unable to earn their livelihood.”

The assailants have to go underground for weeks together. This affects their earnings and causes problems for their families. The party has to divert its attention, money, and energy in defending the perpetrators. They have to set aside funds to look after the families of the workers. “It is a difficult time for everybody,” says Anup.

The police have also changed their modus operandi. Earlier, when a murder would take place, the parties or victims would provide the names of suspects and the police would arrest them. But it was during the time of N. Sankar Reddy, who was DIG of Kannur, and Manoj Abraham, who was Superintendent of Police from 2001-2004, that they decided to ignore the list and do their own investigations.

“As a result, the actual culprits began to get caught,” says veteran scribe R. Jayamohan (name changed). “This method is being followed now.”

Jayamohan gives another reason for the slowdown. “The judiciary became very strict,” he says. “The requests for bail from those charged with political murder or violence were usually rejected. Many leaders had to cool their heels in jail for a long time. The parties realized that violence was becoming counter-productive.”

He says that one day the RSS and the CPI(M) came to the realization that it was Hindus who were killing each other. Unlike in north India, where political conflicts occurred between high and low castes, in Kerala many workers came from the same economic background. “Most belong to the so-called low-caste community of Tiyyas,” says Ruchi. “Many make their living through blue-collar occupations such as masonry and carpentry or as daily-wage labourers in the construction industry. A few are also unemployed or partially employed.”

Another explanation for the ceasefire is the rise of a ‘new threat’: the National Democratic Front of the Muslims. “They are getting stronger in Kannur,” says Pavithran. “We have launched campaigns focusing on the danger posed by the NDF. We have warned the IUML [Indian Union Muslim League] that if something is not done to contain the NDF, there will be problems in Kanur.”

But Anup gives a different perspective of the relationship between the two Muslim outfits. “In Kannur, the NDF is trying to occupy the same space of the IUML,” he says. “This has led to tensions between the two groups. But the police are determined to nip all the problems in the bud.”

Suresh of the RSS is sure that in future there will be communal tensions because of the NDF. “I have no doubts about it,” he says. “They give an impression that they are peace-loving, but that is far from the truth.”

Overall, while travelling through Kannur, one got the impression that underneath the overall calm, there is a uneasiness in the air, and a reluctance to talk about political matters. It seemed fraught with risk for most people. “Small issues get magnified,” says Anup John. “The people are very excitable here.” So, although at present, bloodbaths no longer take place, unfortunately, there is always a danger of a tiny spark developing into a major conflagration.

Rest in peace, Kannur!


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