Pinarayi is a sleepy little village 20 km from Kannur in North Kerala. It is perhaps best known as the home town of Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister and leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the state. But a recent surge in political violence here has brought the spotlight on the nondescript village and its most famous resident.

On Wednesday, a Bharatiya Janata Party worker was hacked to death barely a kilometer from the chief minister’s home, allegedly by workers of the ruling party. It came barely two days after suspected members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent, on Monday killed a CPI(M) branch secretary in Dharmadam – Vijayan’s Assembly constituency of which Pinarayi is a part.

The violence has triggered an outcry across the state, with questions being raised about Vijayan’s inability to maintain order and rein in his cadre even on his turf. The chief minister has not helped matters by appearing to politicise the killings instead of condemning them.

Addressing a party function on Wednesday, he said, “The RSS is trying to create a law and order situation in the state and it is very evident that they have the blessings of the central BJP leadership.”

The police claimed they could not contain the violence without the help of the political parties. “The efforts of the police alone cannot restore normalcy in Kannur,” said Inspector General Dinendra Kashyap of the Kannur Range. “If political parties are engaged in this madness of killing each other, what can we do?”

Critics of the government accused it of ignoring the district administration’s appeals to call an all-party meeting – the norm whenever political violence flares up in Kannur – and said that by being a mute spectator, it was taking on the role of a passive partner in the crimes.

The BJP, on its part, called for a state-wide strike on Thursday and the intervention of the Central government, calling the situation a “complete breakdown of law and order in the state”.

The party is desperate to make inroads in Kerala, encouraged by its performance in the Assembly elections earlier this year when it opened its account in a state so far dominated by the politics of alliances led by the CPI(M) and the Congress.

The party’s central leadership was reportedly furious that the latest killing came within a day of BJP workers in Delhi marching to the CPI(M) headquarters in protest.

In this power tussle, the saffron brigade in Kerala has found an unlikely partner – the Congress, which has called for Vijayan to relinquish the home portfolio he holds in addition to the chief minister’s post.

“The chief minister has lost the moral responsibility to continue holding the home portfolio,” said state Congress chief VM Sudheeran. “He has completely failed to maintain law and order. Vijayan is behaving more like a party secretary than a chief minister.”

Power centre

In fact, this is what most of Vijayan’s detractors have to say.

Vijayan is the top leader of the CPI(M) in Kerala and the state’s chief minister, a position he faced no competition for from the moment elections were announced. Even his worst critics then believed he was an able administrator and expected him to deliver.

But today, they allege he is still behaving like the party state secretary he was for 10 years before becoming chief minister. They point to his response to various issues in the past few months as proof of this.

In the case of the RSS worker’s murder, for instance, the elected head of the state should have treated it as a crime and taken an appropriate stand. Instead, he chose to play politics over it.

“There is a certain weight in the argument when you say Vijayan is behaving like a party secretary,” said civil rights activist CR Neelakandan. “Otherwise, how can a chief minister justify a revenge killing, whatever the reason?”

He added, “If Vijayan wants to be an efficient administrator, the police under him should be able to act impartially and people should feel safe whatever their political allegiance.”

There is another line of thought on Vijayan’s response to the ongoing political violence, and that is that he is the absolute power in the party in his state. He may not be party secretary anymore but there is hardly anyone in the Kerala CPI(M) to challenge his authority on crucial decisions.

Therefore, many believe that whatever step the party takes in Kannur has the chief minister’s blessings. They believe Vijayan still heads what many call the Kannur lobby, which runs the CPI(M) and, to a large extent, the government.

“When the police themselves are saying they cannot prevent violence in the chief minister’s own panchayat, what should we understand from it?,” asked BJP general secretary K Surendran. “The chief minister went on to say in the Assembly that whatever is happening in Kannur is revenge killing. So, is the government clearing the ground for people to commit revenge killings? Nothing happens without Pinarayi Vijayan’s knowledge.”

It is an allegation Vijayan will find tough to prove otherwise in the backdrop of the growing violence in his backyard.

History of violence

As pressure mounts on Vijayan to stop the killings in Kannur, many point out that the violence is not a recent phenomenon but one that goes back over half a century. The tensions that flared in the 1960s between the then Praja Socialist Party and the Communist Party of India passed on to other political players. Down the years, the torchbearers changed hands but Kannur’s temperament for violent politics remained.

At present, the CPI(M) appears to be willing to go to any length to hold on to one of its strongest citadels in the country. But others like the BJP, Congress and even the Muslim League also want a piece of Kannur. The result is that anyone who comes close to questioning the communist party’s supremacy is shown blood. This leads to retaliation and killing scores are maintained by both sides. The violence takes a temporary halt only when scores are level.

More than 250 lives have been lost in the last five decades, according to official data, though the unofficial figure is perhaps higher.

In the four months since the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front came to power in Kerala with a brute majority, Kannur has seen seven political killings and 116 cases of violence, most of them with no conclusion.

Twenty six-year-old BJP worker Ramith became the latest casualty of this violence on Wednesday. His murder was reportedly in retaliation to that of CPI(M) branch secretary Mohanan barely 48 hours before.

Ramith is survived by his mother and sister. His father Uthaman, who was a member of the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, was hacked to death in 2002, also allegedly by CPI(M) workers. His grandmother died in a bomb attack on Uthaman’s funeral procession.

There are hundreds of such families in Kannur, on either side of the political divide, that bear the scars of this violent politics.

CPI(M) versus RSS

As the CPI(M) and the RSS carry on with their violent politics in Kannur, its effects are starting to spill over, perhaps for the first time, into other parts of the state.

A BJP worker was killed in Thiruvananthapuram and a bomb hurled at the party’s headquarters in the city by suspected CPI(M) workers a few months ago. The trigger was violence that erupted in Pinarayi in May within hours of the election results being announced. Suspected BJP and RSS workers had then attacked a CPI(M) victory procession and killed a party worker.

Tensions between the parties hit a peak in July when the CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan called on his comrades to “give it back” to the RSS if provoked. The BJP demanded a case be filed against Balakrishnan for inciting violence, but there was no investigation or action against him.

There were even reports of the state government contemplating a ban on RSS activities in Kerala with the chief minister saying the saffron organisation should be kept out of temples, where it has a sizeable presence.

On Thursday, the state-wide strike called by the BJP resulted in businesses and educational institutions staying shut and vehicles keeping off roads. There were reports of sporadic violence between workers from both sides. Kannur was peaceful for most of the day, save for a few minor clashes. But the question now is how long the fragile calm lasts till the knives come out again.

Top minister resigns

As the political violence and the growing chorus against it threaten to become Vijayan's biggest headache, the chief minister has other serious problems to contend with.

Kannur is facing a new threat – terrorism. The National Investigation Agency recently arrested six young men from the district on suspicion of being linked to the Islamic State, giving rise to fears that the place has become a recruitment ground for the terrorist group.

To add to the government's problems, a new controversy emerged last week, embroiling Industries Minister EP Jayarajan – who also holds the sports portfolio and is said to be the chief minister's right hand man – in a corruption case. On Friday, Jayarajan, who is accused of getting his family members top positions in public sector companies overseen by his ministry, resigned. The announcement came after a meeting of the state secretariat that was attended by Vijayan and Balakrishan.

The scandal is a big blow to the CPI(M), which came to power on the promise of corruption-free governance. In the last few days, the government had come under attack from the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the BJP on the issue.

CPI(M) leaders, however, sought to turn the development around by saying the "tough action" against Jayarajan would bolster the party's image. Balakrishnan told reporters Jayarajan had resigned to "uphold the party's image and set an exemplary model in contrast to the previous Congress-led UDF government".