North Kerala and Democracy’s Violent Demands
The vengeful violence between workers of the Left and Right in Kerala, the number of assailants and martyrs amongst them is then perhaps a tragic testimony to their success in generating communities marked by an impetus for homogenisation and held together by strong kin-like ties and shared symbolic logic.
The murder of one time member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) in Kerala and Revolutionary Marxist Party leader, T. P. Chandrasekharan, has been in the news for several months. Its place in the headlines was further assured when a 2010 video emerged of the CPI (M) Onjiyam local committee secretary warning Chandrasekharan of decapitation and other dire consequences. Chandrasekharan’s murder, and the televised spectacle of the CPI (M) secretary issuing ominous vengeful warnings with aplomb, are just some exceptional instances in a long history of political violence in North Kerala. This history can be traced back at least to the early 1960s. Over the years, Congress party workers have allegedly participated in violent attacks against their political opponents, so have members of the Indian Muslim League and the erstwhile Praja Socialist Party amongst others. In the last few decades however local-level workers of the CPI (M) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)- Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine have been some of the key protagonists of such violence in Kerala.
Violence between members of the two groups in Kerala has seemed exceptional in some instances, and ordinary or routine in others. At times, the conflict produced just a sense of foreboding that something terribly violent might happen; at other times it led to numerous murders of CPI (M) and RSS-BJP workers in a matter of a few hours and days.i The degree and nature of media attention brought to political violence in North Kerala has shifted accordingly. In some years, the violence between the two groups abated as the number of workers killed from each group evened out; at other junctures, the scores were leveled in the following years. In the interim, smaller acts of violence (crude bomb explosions, beatings, physical intimidations, etc.) and the political workers’ fear and dread of them merged with the humdrum of everyday life in the neighborhoods, towns and villages of North Kerala.
And yet, as violent contexts in India and elsewhere go, these incidents (while significant for the persons involved and for the residents of the region) have fortunately not taken as severe a toll on individual and collective lives as several other conflicts across the country. With approximately 150-200 deaths reported in “political clashes” in the last three decades, one might even say that this violence spread over a long time is not so exceptional but, in fact, ordinary.ii Resembling clashes between members of other political groups elsewhere in the country (for instance between Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party workers in Uttar Pradesh, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam members in Tamil Nadu, and the Shiv Sena and the Congress party in Maharashtra in recent years) the violence between CPI (M) and RSS-BJP workers can also be seen as ordinary and routine inspite of its several exceptionally terrible manifestations the horror and memory of which has not been completely eroded with time.
There is a specific history to be plotted here but the history and ethnography of this violence in North Kerala can also provide us with important insights into the nature of the Indian and other democratic polities. Liberal democratic processes and principles are crucial here. If we don’t simply deem this violence as exceptional or abnormal, we might in fact be able to discern the ways in which democracies themselves normally generate the potential for violence – violence that appears ordinary in some instances, and exceptionally vengeful in others. In the rest of the essay I will draw on my research on the violence between CPI (M) and Hindu Right-wing local-level workers in Kannur district of North Kerala to do precisely this – that is, garner critical insights about some key features of political life in modern democracies, and examine how they condition the kind of violence we have seen in North Kerala for the last several decades.
Specific History, General Insights
As we know, Kerala’s recent political history is closely tied to the growth of the Communist Party of India and CPI (M) in the region. In its early years, the undivided CPI sought to be an exemplary expression of the “general will” and an agent of “people’s democracy” through insurgent “extra parliamentary” methods. As its insurrectionary methods failed it in the late 1940s, the Communist Party embraced the parliamentary form and went on to become the biggest opposition party after the first general elections in the country. Yet the language of people’s democracy through insurrectionary methods has continued to be available to its workers.
One area secretary drew on this language in the course of my research in the early 2000s to describe the imperatives underlying his party workers’ more recent violence. In a quiet, persuasive and yet forceful tone, he invoked the relationship between Communist utopias and violence:
Our Party runs its activities with the aim to bring a working class revolution in India. Today ‘People’s Democracy’ is our aim. We have ascertained our aims and duties for this. There is a need to understand, the Party understands that sometimes action has to be taken, law has to be broken, and then it has to be evaded. (emphasis added)
At the time, he did not dwell on why exactly, or what specific aspects of the pursuit of people’s democracy, generated violence. But as an area secretary he had to be constantly watchful about the extent of support amongst the demos of the area that his party did or did not enjoy; the need to constitute a general will, become its vivid, visible, and (in the parliamentary regime) its enumerable expression was as sharply felt under the aegis of electoral democracy as it might have been when the party was overtly pursuing revolutionary goals. Furthermore, at the time that this conversation occurred, the area secretary was also managing the consequences of breaking the law in the pursuit of democracy.
The district court trial of 7 CPI (M) workers for the murder of the BJP-Yuva Morcha leader, Jaykrishnan Master in December 1999, was about to commence. The defense team’s work was cut out and the area secretary was supposed to assist the lawyers; witnesses had to be gathered and evidence for the defense had to be mobilised. The secretary had to make sure that once the law had been broken it could also be evaded.
At the time of the murder, the first accused, Acharaparambath Pradeepan, was a CPI (M) branch secretary. At the end of their trial, prosecution lawyers sought capital punishment for Pradeepan and the other men accused of Jaykrishnan Master’s murder. As per section Section 235(2) of the CrPC, the judge gave Pradeepan and his co-accused the opportunity to speak before he pronounced his judgment. It is notable that in the court Pradeepan did not evoke his membership in the party. Instead he described himself as a “social worker” who dealt with “social problems” and helped to “improve things.”iii
Pradeepan did not emphasise how dealing with “social problems” and helping people “improve things” was in fact part of his everyday work of mobilising support for the party. Nor did he speak about the ways in which the work of securing visible, popular and electoral support for the party generated tensions between local level workers of various groups. All this remained unspoken for now – even though as a local secretary it was Pradeepan’s responsibility to ensure that the party had visible and enumerable support in his area.
Amongst other things visibility came from party colors painted on tree trunks and walls, from the presence of cadres at street corners (even when they were doing nothing but just standing around), and from large public demonstrations. Support for the party was also enumerated and determined in local panchayath and other elections. As a branch secretary, Pradeepan had to ensure that the party was ahead on all these fronts. This is what democracy demanded of the party and of Pradeepan – to be a “social worker,” engage with everyday issues of the residents of his area, mobilise support for the party and make sure that this support was not just visible on walls and trees, but could also be counted on – during elections. Achievement of these goals was also contingent on mitigating and neutralising the influence of opposing groups. In this context, one might say that by killing the competition through the murder of the charismatic opposition leader of the area, Pradeepan was simply deploying illiberal means to achieve ends that are at the heart of liberal electoral democracy.
We should question his violent means, but we might also pay attention to the ways in which the ends of electoral democracy condition such violence. Political violence might then be regarded as a potential born of democracy’s demands – demands that parties compete to forge a ‘general will,’ compete to articulate it in the public sphere, on walls and trees and amongst supporters who, come election-time, can always be calculated and computed. This paradigm might enable us understand the violence that has routinely occurred in Kerala and elsewhere as workers compete to display party colors and symbols, during election time at polling booths and counting centers, and when supporters switch allegiances between the two groups. Reducing that violence to the work of “depraved” and “diabolical” individuals, or pathologising the persons and parties involved as some lawyers, judges and media persons have done,iv will mean forsaking the opportunity that this violence provides us to think critically about our polity and the liberal democratic processes that foster it.
Individuals, their Violence and Communities
It is also important to note that while the rhetoric of liberal democracies emphasises the insular, individualised nature of each citizen, individual identities are themselves derived from participation in collective action and membership in collectives and communities that are forged in the course of such actions. Understanding the violence of political workers of various ideological shades in a democracy, and drawing insights from it demands that we study these individual ‘I’ (s) in relationship to their respective ‘we’ (s), the collectives, political communities and parties that they form. CPI (M) and RSS-BJP workers’ narratives about their violence contain some important articulations of their relationship to their particular political communities.
Indeed if one set of the political workers’ violent acts in North Kerala have occurred in the context of competition over displaying party colors, during election time and to equalise scores of those attacked or killed, then strong evocations of a vengeful spirit accompany another set of acts. Notions of justice as retaliation (an eye for an eye) achieved with a spirit of vengeance were especially pronounced in the wake of Jaykrishnan Master’s murder in December 1999.v Consequently 9 workers and members of the two groups were killed in a matter of 5 days following Jaykrishnan Master’s murder.
CPI (M) and RSS-BJP workers’ narratives that accompanied these murders evoked a vengeful spirit but also loss, grief, camaraderie, kin-like relations and even “love” or “sneham” that workers of the two groups shared amongst their colleagues and friends. Many workers of the two groups describe and understand their violence in terms of sneham, fraternal ties, and the spirit that leads them to enact vengeful violence. While there are important differences between the ways that CPI (M) and RSS-BJP workers talk about their violence, there are also similarities. According to many workers of the two groups, their love for friends, colleagues and their parties impels their violence. Workers of both the groups describe ideas of love and camaraderie as binding them to their respective groups; in their narratives about it, retributive violence becomes a means of further realising those ties, as well as asserting and experiencing solidarity and oneness with one another.
We might regard such narratives as mere justifications of violence offered by criminal minds in bad faith; I would however recommend a less dismissive stance and call for examining the relationship between, on the one hand, the intersubjective relations and the structure of feelings underlying the fraternities that CPI (M) and RSS-BJP workers form on the ground and, on the other hand, the political processes and principles that condition them. As we analyze the workers’ violence, we might ask ourselves who is the object of love that workers of the two groups speak about, and on whose behalf is retribution sought? The answer is a simple one: retribution is sought on behalf of the one who the workers’ feel a-kin to, and one who is their own.
As in many other contexts, in this context too, friendship, camaraderie, brotherly love, and feelings of being akin, evoke a familial model. The familial worlds of the party, party kutumbam, notions of the party “flowing in one’s blood” are common tropes. Such organicist conceptions are not just common amongst workers of the Hindu Right, but also found amply amongst members of the CPI (M). Sociological and ideological differences are elided in this model of the party as family – so that the party might assert itself not just a cohesive unity on the ground, but also as a translocal unity.
Populist and electoral democracy, large public displays of popular support and victory in elections often demand such cohesive identities and translocal unities. Locally embedded histories and biographies can’t simply be effaced; nevertheless parties seek to generate a larger commonality on a different but coeval register. Degrees of homogenisation and cultivation of sameness thus become crucial. Over the years, many scholars have shown how such sameness has been cultivated amongst members of the Hindu Right in various parts of the country; it would be instructive to learn how CPI (M) and other parties have also engaged in homogenising processes of their own.
Jean-Luc Nancy reminds us that if communities are sought to be anchored on alikeness and similarity, if they especially emphasise commonness and seek to assert unity between otherwise distinct, separate beings, then death and violence seem to assure the most complete communion between different beings.vi In death, the peculiarities of others, separate and distinct from us, are effaced. Our union with ‘our own’ is then said to become even more complete in vengeful violence – spurred because ‘we’ or one of/like us has been attacked. Similarly, martyrdom and the desire to give up one’s life for a cause and community are exalted; martyrdom too promises to efface an individual’s given separateness and realise the promise of unity with her or his community.
The vengeful violence between workers of the Left and Right in Kerala, the number of assailants and martyrs amongst them is then perhaps a tragic testimony to their success in generating communities marked by an impetus for homogenisation and held together by strong kin-like ties and shared symbolic logic. We can only hope that over time the party Left and the Hindu Right become less and less successful in forging such communities with a propensity for violence, and also find other ways of responding to the violent demands of liberal electoral democracy.
i In the years between 1977-1983, 1988-1990, 1993-1995 and 1998-2000, Kannur district of North Kerala was especially in the news. In 1980 for instance, in a week’s time, 14 local-level workers of the two groups were killed separately. In 1981, the same numbers of workers were killed in a span of three days; in 1998, six murders were spread over four days. And in 1999, nine CPI (M) and RSS political were separately killed in five days within a radius of 25 kilometers. My computations are based on records of trial court judgments archived at Kannur District Court, Tellicherry, newspaper records referenced below and statistical records received in response to an RTI filed at the District Collector’s office, Kannur District in 2009. There are no officially published statistics available; however, one report compiled by the then District Superintendent of Police lists 352 cases of political violence including 69 attempts to murder and 28 murders that occurred in the region from 1978–1981during a particularly intense phase of the violence (Alexander 1989:890–1091).
iiMedia accounts speak of 2000 “clashes” through the 1980s and 1990s (Mary 1999). According to The Hindu, 127 political murders took place in Kannur in those two decades (Tampi 1999); the Mathrubhumi lists 142 political murders from 1980–2000 (Sasindaran 2000).
iii Sessions Case (SC) 146 of 2001, Kannur District Court.
iv These adjectives were especially invoked during the Jaykrishnan murder trial as lawyers demanded capital punishment for the accused and the district court judge acquiesced describing the accused in similar terms. Other workers of various political groups have been similarly pathologised in media accounts. For a dramatic instance, see Indian Express November 7, 1998 where the correspondent describes local level workers of various political groups as “blood hounds” and members of “blood thirsty death squads.”
v In local lore, Jaykrishnan Master’s murder is itself regarded as retribution for the terrible attack on CPI (M) leader P. Jayarajan in August 1999.
vi Nancy 1991:12-14
Alexander, P. J (1989), A Study of the Riots of Tellicherry, Police Training College Library, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India.
Mary, John (1999), Political Murder Tally 118 in Kannur. New Indian Express, October 16.
Nancy, Jean-Luc (1991), The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor, Garbus, Holland and Sawhney, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Sasindaran, P. P, (2000), Akramarashtreeyatintay Pinnaaburrangallil. Mathrubhumi, December 9.
Sessions Case (SC) 146 of 2001. Kannur District Court.
Tampi, K. M (1999), A Bleeding District in Kerala. Hindu, December 9.
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