In the run-up to the May 16 elections in Kerala, the near unanimous opinion in the state was that if the Left Democratic Front won, Kannur would rule Kerala.

The Left did come to power – the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led LDF pushed out the Congress-led United Democratic Front to form the government, and a Kannur boy, Pinarayi Vijayan, is indeed the chief minister. But the prediction was as much about Vijayan becoming chief minister as it was about the political violence that Kannur has been known for dominating the political discourse.

The verdant landscape of Kerala conceals the underbelly of political violence, which destroys people and families. Kannur – the cradle of the Communist movement in Kerala – is the epicentre of this violence. This is the district where the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has attempted to make inroads into since the late sixties. The CPI(M)'s inability to brook any challenge in its territory has resulted in bloody consequences. Around 225 people have been killed on both sides of the political divide since 1968, when the first RSS activist V Ramakrishnan was murdered here.

Political murders

Kannur has been reduced to a scoreboard, said Professor T Sasidharan, who has researched the political violence in the area.

Revenge killings add weight to the CV of party activists.

“In this area, the Left is very strong and the RSS is trying to capture that,” said Sasidharan. “That is leading to friction and violence. In four decades, some 60-odd men have been killed on the RSS side and 120-odd on the CPI(M) side.”

The violence began within hours of the May 19 election results. That day, RSS workers allegedly attacked CPI(M) victory processions in different parts of Kannur district in which one person was killed and eight others injured. The retaliation was swift. CPI(M) cadres allegedly burnt down houses of RSS workers. The Bharatiya Janata Party took the battle to Delhi on May 22, trying to gherao AKG Bhavan, the CPI(M) headquarters. Six hundred BJP workers were detained.

Kannur-based political analyst KA Antony said that the stepping up of the CPM-RSS clash was on expected lines. “With the CPM coming to power, we expected that it will force the RSS cadre to join the CPM or face attacks,” said Antony. “I do not rule out that fearing attacks, some of them may even desert the RSS.”

BJP 'victim' strategy

The BJP’s strategy has been to show itself as the victim of CPI(M) violence. It did so effectively in this year’s Assembly elections when it fielded C Sadanandan Master from Koothuparamba constituency in Kannur. CPI(M) activists chopped off Sadanandan Master’s legs 22 years ago. He lost the election but the BJP drove home the point that its cadre have been at the receiving end of CPI(M) highhandedness for decades.

In the last two weeks, along with the monsoon, several BJP leaders also arrived in Kerala. From Union Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to BJP general secretary Ram Madhav to National Commission for Women chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam to MP Meenakshi Lekhi, the effort to nationalise what the BJP calls CPI(M)-sponsored violence in chief minister Vijayan’s backyard, is on.

Last week, Prasad was seen in the company of BJP activists and their family members who were attacked after May 19. Faulting Vijayan for turning a blind eye to violence in Kannur, Prasad said: “Mr Pinarayi Vijayan, I would like to appeal to you, this kind of violence cannot be accepted. Police is with you now. It must be stopped.”

On the ground in Kannur, the BJP-RSS cadre fear with the LDF in power, police cases will be slapped indiscriminately on them.

Realising that attack is the best form of defence, the BJP is taking the fight to the chief minister. BJP state president K Rajasekharan, who visited the houses of BJP workers that were allegedly damaged by CPI(M) cadres in the chief minister’s Dharmadom constituency asked: “How can a leader who cannot ensure peaceful life for people in his locality promise peace for everyone in Kerala.”

Vijayan retorted in a Facebook post: “BJP has lost the tolerance to accept the people’s verdict in Kerala. That is why they have unleashed violence.”

With both sides at fault, exaggeration, half-truths, and canards are part of the game. The BJP has been showcasing the hacking of a seven-year-old boy in Iritty in Kannur district in May as an example of CPI(M) brutality. The CPI(M) and Kerala police deny the charge, saying a family feud was being given a political colour because the parents of the child are BJP activists. The CPI(M) has accused the RSS of adopting violent means to stay relevant in Kannur.

But Kerala’s political violence is not all about the CPI(M) vs RSS.

The most sensational political murder in Malabar took place in May 2012 when TP Chandrasekharan, a senior CPI(M) leader who had quit the party to form his own outfit, was hacked to death in Kozhikode district. Several CPI(M) activists are behind bars in connection with the case.

Chandrasekharan’s widow, Rema, said she feared that all those behind bars will walk free soon. “The accused have been protected and taken care of by the CPM all these years,” said Rema. “Money is sent regularly to the homes of all these criminals. With the CPM in power now, all efforts will be made to ensure all of them walk out free and they are back in social mainstream.”

Give peace a chance?

In Kannur, tired of swords and bombs doing the talking, neutral voices are trying to broker peace. Sherfuddin, a peace activist said: “It will be in the interest of Kannur if both sides sit down and talk about eschewing violence.”

But P Jayarajan, secretary of the CPI(M)‘s Kannur unit pointed to a trust deficit. “The RSS-BJP central leadership used the Central Bureau of Investigation to implicate me in the Kathiroor Manoj case even though there was nothing against me,” he said.

But former BJP state president, V Muraleedharan said that the party was ready for a discussion “but the CPM has always responded by ridiculing our proposal. The party does not want to accept that it is at fault.”

But even if the white flag is waved, senior journalist NP Rajendran does not give peace a chance. “Kannur culture is of continuous killings,” said Rajendran. Occasionally, they stop for a couple of months after peace talks. But then they start again. They make a living out of it.”

The folk songs of Malabar, called Vadakkan Paathu, are replete with stories of revenge killings. In these songs, the killings are glorified and deserters are challenged and killed.

Pinarayi Vijayan has the opportunity to make a clean break from the past. The question is whether he will wear the hat of a CPI(M) party strongman or the chief minister.