Blood on the sickle
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A few days after his murder, senior CPM leader M M Mani boasted about how the party had dealt with political enemies in the past: "At Udumbanchola taluk in Idukki in 1982, the party had prepared a list of 13 people to be killed (as revenge for a CPM worker's murder). The first person on the list was shot to death, the second was stabbed to death and the third was beaten to death."
This was no empty boast. In Kerala's blood-curdling politics of violence and vendetta, killings feature prominently and the CPM, with its organisational strength, easily leads the pack.
The early Communist movement in Kerala encouraged 'physically trained' volunteers. Ninety five-year-old Panoli Krishnan, the only living Communist to have witnessed the birth of the party in Kerala in 1949, has several unpublished accounts of his early years in the movement when he was trained in guerrilla warfare. At the first official meeting of the party held at Parapram near Thalassery in Kannur, a "trained" Krishnan stood guard at the entrance of a reading club while the secret meeting took place inside. His brief was to "keep out enemies".
After the formation of the CPM in 1964, the party continued to encourage radical training for its cadres, claiming the training would help them "defend the party". In the 1960s, the CPM had a volunteer vigilante group called the Gopala Sena, named after the then stalwart A K Gopalan. Several cadres, who later went on to become top leaders, were part of the Gopala Sena. V K Balan, an officer who had been expelled from the state police, led the Sena in those days.
This trained army of volunteers stood the party in good stead over the last three decades as the CPM and the Sangh Parivar clashed regularly. Every killing saw a counter-killing, resulting in an endless cycle of violence. Both sides had killer squads, recruited from among staunch party cadres.
The emergence of M V Raghavan—later expelled in 1986 over a difference of opinion of party alliances—as a leader of the Kannur unit in the 1970s gave the party more muscle to take on rivals. Politburo members Pinarayi Vijayan, Kodiyeri Balakrishan and some of the other prominent leaders from Kannur were groomed under Raghavan.
Kannur in the 1990s was the hotbed of vendetta politics as war cries of the CPM and RSS peaked. The Congress wasn't far behind, with district party chief K Sudhakaran flexing his muscles.
CPM sources say that in those days, the plot would be planned to perfection. Care was taken to ensure that the squad chosen for the hit-job was not from the same area as the 'target'. After the operation, the party would produce a proxy list of accused before the police.
"Those on this list would often include cadres whose ties with the party had soured or those who had petty cases against them. With cases slapped against them, these helpless cadres would rush to the party, which in turn would finance their legal battles and take care of their families. These men were destined to bear the cross of their partymen's crimes,'' says a CPM worker on condition of anonymity.
But over the years, something changed: with not enough cadres volunteering for these tasks, the party hired musclemen and part-time criminals. The police probing the Chandrasekharan case say the murder was carried out by hired assassins.
Marxist veteran Berlin Kunhananthan Nair says changing social and economic conditions left the party with fewer men who were willing to kill or get killed for the party. "There is an ideological opposition to becoming squad members among party cadres. This reluctance has forced the CPM to go for killer gangs,'' says Nair, who lives in Kannur.
After the CPM-Sangh Parivar revenge killings of the '90s, those in the crosshairs now are mostly rebels or, as the party calls them, "traitors".
At Kayalodu, a Communist-dominated village in Kannur, the main junction is awash in the red of the party's flags. Here, P T Nithayanand, 32, is recovering from a fatal attack on him and has undergone eight surgeries. He was attacked by a CPM gang on September 24 last year. His fault, says the former DYFI activist, was that he had distanced himself from the party after his wedding. Among the assailants was the son of a CPM local committee member.
"The party wanted me to do their bidding. They also wanted me to give a share of my income to the party. That wasn't possible after my marriage. I had other commitments," says Nithyanand, who is in a small-scale timber business. "The party had earlier made attempts to implicate me in criminal cases. Whenever there was trouble somewhere, some party leaders would come with a vehicle to pick me up. They would inform me of the task assigned to me only after reaching the spot.''
Of the 20 assailants, only two have been arrested so far. Police say the party has given them a list of accused, but they are looking for the "real culprits".
Nithyanand was lucky to have survived the attack, but there are several estranged partymen who have had to pay with their lives. On October 22, 2006, Muhammed Fazal, who moved from the CPM to the Popular Front of India, was hacked to death near Thalassery. The then CPM government had opposed a CBI probe when Fazal's family approached the High Court. Last week, two CPM district leaders were named as accused in the murder case, which was executed by a killer gang led by Kodi Suni.
Suni, also wanted in the Chandrasekharan murder case, is on the run. He had been arrested for the murder of two RSS workers in 2010. Suni, in his parole application to the jail department, had claimed that he was a CPM activist.
Kannur district leader Punchayil Nanu's two nephews were murdered when they crossed over to the BJP from the CPM in 2002. Nanu is still with the party.
The party is known to stand by members of its squad. A team of leaders led by Politburo member Kodiyeri Balakrishnan had attended the wedding of goon and party loyalist Anthiyeri Sura's daughter. Sura is now serving a life term for murdering a Muslim League leader in 2001. But there have also been cases when some of these strongmen have met with violent deaths themselves. Veerappan Jijesh, a gang leader, was murdered in 2008. Sajil alias Kuttan, a bomb maker in Kannur district, was blown into pieces in 2007 while he was making country bombs. Besides, CPM worker Rahis of New Mahe near Thalassery was found dead in 2008, but the party was not keen on a probe into his death. CPM-backed goon Subair of Kolavallor, who had carried out several hit-jobs for the party, was murdered in 2001. The BJP was the initial suspect, but a crime branch probe found that Subair was killed by another CPM-backed gang after he allegedly rebelled against a local leader.
Shinoj K, who has snapped ties with the CPM at Kayalode, says there is a deep resentment among cadres against the party's violent ways. "Everyone keeps silent out of fear. It is only the fear of being ex-communicated from the village that forces them to raise slogans for the party," he says.
Some of the villages in Kannur, which served as a hideout for several stalwarts of the party during the days it was underground, now harbours criminals. Last week, the Kerala police conducted massive raids on some 'party villages' to flush out party-backed goons. After Chandrasekharan's murder in the first of May, there have been three incidents of bomb blasts in Kannur, leaving the handlers, all CPM men, seriously injured.
The change in the party's strategy—from dedicated cadres as strongmen to hired goons—came with a change in the profile of the villages that were once ideologically and economically linked to the party. In the past, beedi workers formed the classic working-class base of the party in Kannur region. Until the decline of the party-backed Dinesh Beedi Co-operative, workers in Kannur villages would sit in small groups, rolling beedis. These sessions would be enlivened with discussions on national and international political developments, with a member reading out from newspapers and periodicals.
"With the downfall of the beedi industry, the CPM suffered an erosion of this committed, politically-dedicated base. These beedi workers took up other unskilled and semi-skilled jobs outside their villages, where they interacted with people from other parties and regions. It's then that they realised that Communist leaders are not different from leaders of other parties,'' says former CPM leader Chandran Churayi.
While the CPM grappled with this loss of an ideologically committed base, they realised that they had very little to lure youngsters, low on political ideology, away from their careers. At Pinarayi, a village in Kannur to which party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan belongs, a group of young government employees have started coaching men and women for competitive exams. The DYFI, the youth wing of the CPM, also holds coaching classes for members of the party.
Another turning point that saw loyalists drift away from the revenge politics of the party was the murder of BJP state leader K T Jayakrishnan in 1999. The young school teacher was hacked to death in his classroom near Thalassery. The murder, carried out as scores of lower primary school students watched, shook the conscience of the state.
The party's violent methods had wide social ramifications. Parents didn't want their children to be groomed in the violent ways of the party. Besides the economic backwardness of these regions, there were villages were people complained of aborted wedding proposals because of their party affiliations. Satellite television further brought home the horrors of vendetta politics, where earlier the party newspaper had been the main source of political news.
So while the younger generation gradually distanced themselves from party-sponsored violence, others stepped in—petty criminals, anti-social elements and school dropouts. And so, the cycle continues.
T P Chandrasekharan
The CPM rebel, who floated a new outfit called the Revolutionary Marxist Party, was murdered on May 4 this year, allegedly by a CPM-backed gang. Several CPM men have been arrested.
In February, the young Muslim League leader was hacked to death by CPM men near Kannur for having allegedly waylaid the vehicle of the party district secretary. A couple of CPM men, including the son of a party leader, were arrested.
C T Anwar
The Muslim League activist was killed by a 20-member gang of CPM men in 2011. Some of the accused are still absconding. The chargesheet was submitted in the court two months ago.
The Youth Congress leader from Kasargode was murdered by CPM men in 2009. Earlier this year, a CBI court had sentenced seven accused, including a CPM area secretary, to life imprisonment. Local police tried to close the case, but the High Court ordered a CBI probe.
The BJP worker was abducted by a gang from his workplace. His severed head was displayed on a wall in 2008.
The former CPM leader who crossed over to the Popular Front of India leader was murdered in 2006 by CPM men. The CBI probed the case and found that two CPM district leaders had conspired to kill him.
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