Political Violence

The Blood Sport of Malabar

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As the murder politics of CPM and RSS in northern Kerala continues to seek martyrs in the most gruesome ways, ULLEKH NP in Kannur traces the origins of the violence to a martial tradition of fearlessness and honour
Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader P Jayarajan welcomes you with a disarming smile, as if he is meeting a comrade-in-arms after decades. Long years of pain and suffering following an attempt on his life by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh rivals have not dented his sense of humour and hearty laugh, nor his enthusiasm for exchanging pleasantries. Neither does he seem overly distracted by the political turmoil building up in the aftermath of the murder of 42-year-old local RSS leader E Manoj, which could put several of his party workers in the dock. He would rather enjoy the pleasant yet unrelenting rain outside. He goes on to crack a joke or two about Rahul Gandhi, pokes fun at the naïveté of expelled former CPM MP AP Abdullah Kutty, who has found sanctuary in the Congress, and enquires about national politics and Modi with the curiosity of a teenager. He then picks up a call with his left hand—he can barely move his other hand—to brief his lawyers about the latest criminal cases slapped on party workers in this northern Kerala district that has been a simmering pot of political violence for long. Someone mischievous or subversive just had to open the lid, and all hell would break loose.

Jayarajan is back in chat mode as soon as he hangs up the phone. In between explaining the nature of the cases against his party workers, he talks about his exercise regimen: he goes for a brisk walk. That is all. At 64, he is still youthful and jovial despite having to live with a right arm rendered immobile and with numerous other scars. “I used this one to eat rice with until I was 49,” he says pointing at his right hand. The story is now part of communist lore of the district: on the day of Onam in 1999, alleged RSS goons attacked him at his then home in Kizhakke Kathiroor with bombs, axes, machetes and cleavers. He suffered extreme wounds on his spinal cord, limbs and chest, and almost died. Kathiroor is known for its rich martial-arts culture and for the legendary 16th-century warrior Kathiroor Gurukal, who is believed to have been killed by another martial arts great Thacholi Othenan through deceit. It is now known as poozhikkadakan, an unethical act in a duel and involves splashing of sand to blind the opponent.


Like CPM’s Kannur district secretary Jayarajan, Sadanandan Master, the former Jillahsahakaryavah of the RSS in the CPM citadel, too, lived to tell the tale. Master, a lower primary school teacher and a former member of the CPM who had emerged as a charismatic RSS functionary, was based in Mattannur, Kannur, until 1994 when he was attacked by a group of armed CPM members from another part of the district—a well-known ruse to camouflage the identity of the murderers—who chopped off both his legs below his knees. He did not die, but while he was being taken to hospital, suspected RSS volunteers slewed to death KV Sudheesh, a leader of the CPM’s student wing, SFI, right in front of his elderly parents. Unlike Jayarajan and Master, both accused of being votaries of eye-for- an-eye politics prior to attacks on them, Sudheesh, who lived in a relatively RSS dominant area in the district called Thokkilangadi, seemed to have had no inkling that he, of all people, would be the target of a murderous RSS attack. He had ignored warnings from party colleagues advising him to shift to a ‘safer’ location, saying RSS cadres in his neighbourhood were friends.

Friends they may be, until the urge of vendetta strikes. Though not as diabolical as Sicilian vendetta and the code of Omerta, the region called Kadathanaad—south of Thalassery and north of Koyilandy by the side of the Kotakkal river and comprising violence- ravaged areas such as Pattiam, Panoor, Pathayakkunnu, Kathiroor, Konkachi, Palloor, Nadapuram, Vanimel and so on—has seen repeated clashes among members of the CPM, RSS and various Muslim organizations. Hundreds have been left dead and maimed by bloody bouts of what is widely described as revenge politics. Politicians elsewhere in the state, even those of the CPM, RSS and other parties, hasten to distance themselves from the political violence that continually hits Kannur, calling this northern district ‘Kerala’s Bihar’ or some kind of Wild West that’s distant from the political discourse in other parts.


For his part, historian and social scientist Rajan Gurukkal smirks at what he describes as frivolous claims by uppity southerners: “I also once thought that there could be an anthropological explanation to the violence in the north Malabar or northern Kerala, a region of heroic poems called Northern Ballads that eulogise the fighters. If you read these 18th-century heroic poems, you come across the tradition of using mercenaries, just as in cock-fights, for resolving individual-level conflicts. The killed mercenary’s heir would retaliate, and then there was the chain of retaliation and counter-retaliation.” Adds he: “Now there is no meaning in relating such culturally contingent associations by way of explanation, because it is as individualised a society as it is anywhere else. The crime statistics show that there is no difference between Kannur and Thiruvananthapuram or Alappuzha in terms of murder rates, political or other types. It has evenly spread to all of Kerala, and the murder rates in Kottayam and Pathanamthitta are higher than what they are in Kannur.”

True, crime stats alone can’t establish the connection. Despite Gurukkal’s numbers, though, the part of Kannur under Kadathanaad has seen a series of political murders that can be described as vendetta killings, and the sight of mothers mourning their sons being cremated in the frontyards of homes is common in places like Kathiroor, Pattiam, Pathayakkunnu and Chokli. RSS activist PP Mohanan was killed in 1994; his murder was followed by a series of murders which saw several RSS and CPM leaders getting killed. Jayarajan was one of the accused in the Mohanan murder case. It was after a wild cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation that, in 1999, Jayarajan was attacked. Within months, and merely six days after a ‘ceasefire’ thrashed out by Justice VR Krishna Iyer, RSS leader KT Jayakrishnan was hacked to death by a CPM killer squad in front of his students on 1 December 1999. To be fair to the CPM, contrary to the nationwide propaganda launched by the RSS, Jayakrishnan was no pacifist who looked the enemy in the eye with compassion to win him over. Besides, he was not the first school teacher to have been killed or attacked in Kannur in front of his young students. In 1978, Raju Master, a CPM local leader in Pannoor, was slain by RSS workers inside a classroom. Similarly, an attempt on the life of CPM leader Damodaran Master was made inside a school in nearby Thrippangoottor in 1972; the CPM’s Suresh Babu, a teacher, was stabbed inside a school in Thalassery in 1999. The list of brutal attacks and counter-attacks is a long one.

A senior police officer asserts, “If all this is not vendetta politics, then nothing is. Among them, the RSS, the CPM and Muslim radical outfits often celebrate the murders of their opponents by distributing porotta and beef curry (irrespective of party affiliations) and by bursting loud crackers. All this tends to continue despite the passage of time and despite the fact that the younger generation is in no way able to connect with this kind of abominable behaviour.”


In earlier days, when the roads were narrower, if two local kings met face to face, one had to yield and lean a bit to let the other go. But very often neither would relent, resulting in a duel that would see two hired Chekavars (practitioners of martial arts whose heroics are celebrated in the Northern Ballads) fight until one of them dies. The spiritually inclined (or the superstitious, whichever way you look at it) believe that the restless souls of those who lost their lives in these duels of the past haunt Kadathanadu, and it is their spell over the region that stirs up political mayhem. Says a priest with a local temple in Koothuparamba in Kannur, “The modern-minded among us might dismiss such pronouncements as superstition, but I have enough reason to believe that until those souls of the dead find redemption, violence of this kind will always be there.” He adds that he and several other priests in the area are conducting rites to ensure moksha—an escape from the cycle of birth and rebirth—for “our forefathers”.

One may dub such utterances as whimsical, but then the recent killing of Manoj, the Shareerik Shikshan Pramukh of the RSS in the district—his vehicle was bombed before he was hacked to death— a few days before Onam has re-opened old wounds. Bitter memories of the Onam attack on Jayarajan 15 years ago still fester. A local CPM leader based in Kathiroor bluntly tells Open “that one should have no doubt about our intent”. He goes on, “Comrade Jayarajan was forced to flee from Kathiroor after the attack, and this guy, Manoj, who was among the attackers (he was among the accused), was roaming around freely around here. That didn’t go down well with our comrades here. Let me tell you that much. You can guess the rest.”

Jayarajan’s son Jain’s Facebook post congratulating the killers of Manoj also sparked hostilities. Though the posts were soon deleted, the RSS’s Kerala Pranth Karyavah Gopalankutty Master says that the killing was done with the blessings of CPM’s top leadership. “They killed Manoj without any provocation. In a short period of one week, two of our activists were murdered and a series of atrocities were staged. CPM is carrying out their policy of uprooting enemies. They are trying to stop the flow of their workers to BJP/ RSS. This will not only destroy peace in the district, but will also wreak havoc elsewhere,” he says.

Meanwhile, Jayarajan, who often appears calm and composed, has come under criticism for being deeply vengeful and for using the party apparatus to settle personal scores. A Kannur-based CPM leader says that the majority in the party “disapprove of this action (Manoj’s killing)”. He adds, “It is high time the party started appealing to the middle classes and purged its old mentality of bumping off rivals physically. We all can coexist. More importantly, Jayarajan, despite his ‘cool’ nature, has internalised the kind of politics he has learnt from his political masters such as MV Raghavan and others… he is able to offer his blessings to such dastardly acts and still remain unperturbed.”

Kannur-based RSS leader Valsan Thillankeri says that he and his organisation have reached out to peace-loving leaders of the CPM to get rid of this “rotten politics run for personal reasons”. He vouches for the fact that several CPM leaders, both within the district and outside, have conceded that the latest killing, which has triggered protests from even within the CPM, was absolutely unwarranted.


Thillankeri traces the political violence in Kannur to CPM leaders’ intolerance of any opposition to their views. CPM leaders, on the other hand, contend that it was the RSS central leadership’s “nefarious designs” to foment anti-Muslim violence in north Kerala as early as the 1960s that fathered all this mindless violence.

“Both reasons are valid,” notes a former CPM leader. He emphasises that leaders of the undivided Communist Party who had suffered police atrocities and repression by landlords under Congress rule, kept up an aggressive political stance by targeting anyone who opposed them as a spy of the feudalist Congress and the police. “It is a very complicated subject to analyse. Having been through hell, old- time communists distrusted all those who opposed them and behaved as though they were enemies. But I can’t say they tried to eliminate them. They just stayed away from them. The next-in-line leaders didn’t inherit the humaneness of their predecessors, and, when they started becoming powerful, began to suppress any dissent, both inside and outside the party. So, intolerance towards other views became a habit too difficult to break,” he notes. “The RSS made some progress in establishing a presence in Kerala through beedi workers and they instigated violence against Muslims in Thalassery. The CPM resisted it and they became sworn enemies. The anti-Muslim violence of 1971 in Thalassery that destroyed communal amity in the region was the brainchild of the Nagpur man in charge of some parts of Kerala, Bhaskar Rao. The RSS was the first to use bombs and also axes in attacking political opponents,” he adds.


While the CPM accuses the RSS of training cadres to kill using various weapons, including axes, the communists were not far behind themselves. A person who was a mastermind of numerous anti-RSS and anti-Congress ‘operations’ to liquidate rivals says that the CPM used to meticulously train its cadres “where to stab, what angle to aim from, the power required while pulling out a knife, [and] how to make a bomb, defuse it, activate it and so on”. He says that he doesn’t regret heading the team because that was a time when the CPM had to resist attacks and protect its leaders. “Please don’t forget that Congress goons and RSS workers used to hunt down CPM leaders in broad daylight in those days. I have escorted many leaders to safety during Emergency… if I was required to kill someone to protect a leader, I would do it,” he states with finality. During the Emergency, the CPM even entered into a tacit pact with the RSS to fight the Congress. In the past, the CPM used precisely such loyalists to lead killer squads of party workers. But not any longer. “The 2012 slaying of a leader of a breakaway faction, TP Chandrasekharan, only proves that ‘quotation gangs’ who are hired for money have encroached onto [the territory of] CPM’s killer squads, making its leaders far more vulnerable. Unlike dyed-in-the-wool party workers, these guys just spill the beans during interrogation,” says the former CPM leader. He emphasises that all this talk about ‘party villages’, where the CPM holds enormous sway, is an exaggeration. “There are no such villages where the rule of law doesn’t apply. The arrests of TP’s assassins prove that party villages are not cohesive units as they are made out to be. Let’s not overrate the strength of the CPM and the wisdom of its leaders. Most often they are whimsical and foolish,” he insists.

A local Congress leader says that the CPM leadership doesn’t seem really aware of the RSS-BJP’s fresh designs. “Those leaders of yore may have tackled the RSS problem, but the new leaders don’t seem even aware of that. With Amit Shah, a powerful organiser, at the helm, the BJP is certain to have an agenda for each state. My feeling is that the BJP will use the Manoj murder, which will be investigated by the CBI, to spread its wings in northern Kerala, where it currently doesn’t have much electoral prowess. With Islamists gaining in strength in the region, more and more Hindus who had earlier aligned with the CPM may now veer towards the BJP,” he offers. The growth of Islamist groups in the region remains a major worry, he adds. Interestingly, the jailed Lashkar-e-Toiba operative in south India, Kannur-born Thadiyantavide Naseer, is accused of recruiting numerous Malayalee Muslim youths for LeT camps in Pakistan.

The signs of vendetta politics taking on communal hues in Kannur are plain for everyone to see with the CPM clashing with both the RSS and radical Islamists. Unfortunately, like in vendetta politics, there are no winners in the game of communal polarisation. And in all likelihood, there will be no end anytime soon to the clangs of swords in Kadathanadu.