The Bharatiya Janata Party in Kerala has taken aim at Ernesto Che Guevara, the Argentina-born Cuban revolutionary who was executed 50 years ago in Bolivia, demanding that his iconic image be wiped out of the coastal state.

Guevara has symbolised revolutionary fervour for many people in Kerala – India’s first Communist-ruled state – for decades. The South American’s face is a familiar sight across Kerala – from the coastal villages of the North to its capital city in the South, as college graffiti, and on T-shirts, wall paintings, flex boards, posters and even on footwear.

The demand is seen as part of the saffron party’s nationwide attempt to discredit cultural icons that do not fit in with its ideology while appropriating those that do.

“The Latin American revolutionary’s picture should be removed from the villages of Kerala,” said AN Radhakrishnan, general secretary of the BJP’s Kerala unit, earlier this week. “He is an evil influence on the youth, and inspired by his life, the youths of the Communist party are prompted to engage in violence.”

Political violence between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadres, especially in the northern district of Kannur, has led to the death of hundreds of people from both sides over the past few decades.

Radhakrishnan alleged that Guevara’s place in history was alongside dictators Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin.

Discrediting icons

Political commentator NM Pearson said that the criticism of Guevara is part of the BJP’s attempts to appropriate certain cultural and political icons and ideologies in Kerala while discrediting those that did not fit with their ideology.

Last September, for instance, the BJP tried to portray Sree Narayana Guru – one of Kerala’s most important social reformers – as a Hindu saint. Guru, who died in 1928, was a fierce critic of the caste system who believed in the concept of one caste, one religion and one god.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan criticised the BJP for insulting the Guru by attempting to constrain him within a Hindu identity.

In the past, Left student wings have also attempted to block attempts by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student organisation close to the BJP, to appropriate revolutionary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh as their own.

Last year, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s mouthpiece Kesari Weekly also tried to rewrite the popular myth surrounding Onam, Kerala’s harvest festival, as the birthday of Vishnu’s avatar Vamana instead of the homecoming of the benevolent Asura King Mahabali. This, and BJP President Amit Shah’s tweet wishing people “Happy Vamana Jayanthi” on Onam last year drew vociferous protests in Kerala.

“Those who discredit Che Guevara have no historical sense,” said Pearson. “There is no need to pay heed to those statements which are merely publicity stunts.”

Che clubs

Guevara became synonymous with Left-wing student politics in Kerala from the 1970s when the Democratic Youth Federation of India, Students Federation of India and other youth groups started using his image in their respective platforms. Many youngsters from the Left parties saw Guevara as an icon whose principles were to be emulated. Others were simply drawn to his charisma and style.

A reading room in Fort Kochi, Kerala. (Photo Credit: Praveen Jose).
A reading room in Fort Kochi, Kerala. (Photo Credit: Praveen Jose).

Today, youngsters subscribing to Left-wing ideology run several Che Guevara clubs in Kerala, some parents have even named their children after the South American revolutionary leader and T-shirts with Guevara’s image are still sold aplenty. Guevara is admired so much in Kerala that when his image was used as a design in footwear, members of the Democratic Youth Federation of India blocked the sale and destroyed the stocks.

A former Students Federation of India member based in Kochi said that Left parties use Guevara’s photographs in posters that carry hard-hitting secular messages that target the communal agenda of Hindutva groups.

Slippers with Che's image at Varkala Beach in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. (Photo credit: Shawn Sebastian).
Slippers with Che's image at Varkala Beach in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. (Photo credit: Shawn Sebastian).

BJP strategy

The BJP has tried its luck at electoral success in Kerala for years now, but only managed to open its account in last year’s Assembly elections when it won one seat. Its main opponents have been the state’s dominant Left parties.

As in other states, the BJP considers the tweaking of the cultural domain towards its ideology to be the key to electoral success.

“For any revolutionary movement, a vibrant youth group is a prerequisite,” said political analyst Appukuttan Vallikunnu. “Unfortunately, that is lacking for BJP.”

The core of Communist parties in Kerala come from a strong student cadre built in campuses where the youth are familiarised with the life and revolutionary ideals of Guevara.

“Che Guevara is remembered mostly for the sacrifices he made during his life,” said Vallikunnu, adding that Left parties should use the comments of the BJP leader as an opportunity to study the revolutionary icon more at a time when many among the younger generation have started to forget what Guevara stood for.

Jos PX, a former Democratic Youth Federation of India member from Kochi, helped set up Che Guevara Boys, a club of 40 youngsters who are involved in various philanthropic activities, including financial aid for cancer survivors and less privileged students.

He said that such groupings should not be considered purely political.

A Che Guevara statue at Chakkaraparambu, Kochi installed by Che Guevara Boys. (Photo credit: Jos PX).
A Che Guevara statue at Chakkaraparambu, Kochi installed by Che Guevara Boys. (Photo credit: Jos PX).

“It is a platform for youngsters with a leaning towards socialist ideas to come together,” he said, claiming that a statue of Che Guevara that the group made in 2009 probably remains the only one of its kind in Kerala.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Youth Federation of India has made a 10-foot-tall painting of Guevara in Kochi as part of its 10th National Conference to be held next month.

“Even if it were to be physically removed, certain images are deeply rooted in all our minds and Che’s is one such,” said Vallikunnu.