Black flags hung from the electric poles in Kallampally, about 10 km from Thiruvananthapuram city in Kerala. “Tributes to RSS basti karyavah Rajesh,” read posters on the walls of houses in the area.

SL Rajesh, a 34-year-old mason who was the basti karyavah, or ward-level shakha secretary, of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Kallampally, was killed by a group of 12 people on July 29. The police inquest found 83 injuries on his body.

Inside the blue-and-white painted house where he lived with his parents, wife and two sons, an uncomfortable silence prevailed. In a corner of the house, sat his grim-faced father, Sudarshan, his head down. “The attackers had chopped off my son’s hands,” Sudarshan said. “The police needed a bed sheet to pick up his severed limbs before taking him to hospital. I cannot imagine the pain he suffered in his final moments.”

Tears rolled down Sudarshan’s face as he described how Rajesh shouldered the responsibility of taking care of his a family at a young age. “I could not earn much though I worked in Saudi Arabia for many years in a construction firm,” said the 60-year-old. “I earned a meagre income and hence I used to send money back home once in three months. Rajesh recognised the tough situation and started working after completing his secondary school.”

Outside the house, around 30 RSS workers sat on chairs in the tent erected in front of the house where Rajesh’s body had been kept for public viewing. They spoke in hushed tones about the murder, which came after a series of clashes in the city between members of the Sangh Parivar and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Democratic Front coalition in the state.

SL Rajesh's wife Reena with children Adityan and Abhishek at their home in Kallampally in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).
SL Rajesh's wife Reena with children Adityan and Abhishek at their home in Kallampally in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Tension begins

The tension began to build on July 18, after activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the students’ wing of the Sangh Parivar, destroyed flagpoles erected at a city college by the Students Federation of India, the students’ wing of the CPI(M). On July 24, Students Federation of India activists marched to the college and erected around 10 more flagpoles.

The situation took a violent turn when CPI(M) workers attacked the Bharatiya Janata Party state committee office on July 28. Party state president Kummanam Rajashekharan, who was in the office, escaped unhurt. A retaliatory strike took place within a few hours when Sangh Parivar workers attacked the home of the son of CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan.

Rajesh, a Dalit, was murdered the next day, at about 8.45 pm, when he was returning home after attending a shakha. His murder is thought to be a continuation of these events.

The Sangh Parivar alleged that the murder was planned and executed by the CPI(M) and is part of the political attacks on its cadres by the workers of the ruling party across the state.

On July 30, CPI(M) state secretary Balakrishnan told a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram that party workers were not involved in the murder.

By July 31, the police arrested eight persons for the murder, including prime suspect Manikuttan, and four others for harbouring the accused. Of the 12 arrested people, two of them are active members of organisations associated with the CPI(M) – the Centre of Indian Trade Unions and the Democratic Youth Federation of India.

The First Information Report in the case states that the murder was the fallout of political rivalry between the CPI(M) and the BJP.

Kerala is no stranger to political violence, especially in the district of Kannur, which has seen a series of brutal murder over the decades. However, many have expressed alarm that the political violence, which was earlier confined to northern Kerala, has now reached the state capital.

Political observers point out that the murder took place in a Dalit locality, where the BJP is competing with CPI(M) for supremacy. However, the view from Kallampally shows that the murder might have been connected to personal rivalries and skirmishes in a Dalit colony, where young men struggle to make a living without any economic security.

SL Rajesh's father Sudarshan and mother Lalithakumari in their home in Kallampally in Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).
SL Rajesh's father Sudarshan and mother Lalithakumari in their home in Kallampally in Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Dalit colonies

Kallampally lies in the Edavacode ward of the Thiruvananthapuram City Corporation. Panachakkunnu Colony and Prathibha Nagar Colony are two Dalit colonies in the area. The majority of the 84 families that live here belong to the Pulaya Scheduled Caste community, while others hail from the Ezhava community, categorised among the Other Backward Classes, a dominant community that constitutes about 22% of the state’s population.

Rajesh, who was a member of the Pulaya community, used to live in Panachakkunnu Colony. But even after he first moved about 1 km away after building own home, he continued his association with the locality. He was appointed the first secretary of a RSS shakha that was set up earlier this year to serve the two colonies in Kallampally. Rajesh’s father said that theirs was a traditional RSS family, which is why his son joined the Sangh.

About two decades ago, both the CPI(M) and the RSS had only a negligible presence in the area. The undivided Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha, an organisation formed in the 1970s to work for the Pulaya community, was the dominant force then. However, the Sabha weakened after a split in the 1990s. Its workers then began to join CPI(M) and the RSS.

Initially, the CPI(M) enjoyed the upper-hand in the area, but the RSS has steadily been attracting youngsters to its fold. However, despite an increase in its cadre base, the Sangh’s political branch, the BJP, has been unable to make electoral gains in Edavacode ward. In the last corporation election held in 2015, the CPI(M)’s V Shalini defeated the BJP’s G Rama Devi by a margin of 48 votes.

Kallampally falls under Kazhakoottam Assembly constituency. Its current MLA is the CPI(M)’s Kadakampally Surendran.

Rajesh's home in Kallampally in Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).
Rajesh's home in Kallampally in Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Tit-for-tat

The main accused in the Rajesh murder case is 34-year-old Manikuttan, from Panachakkunnu. The police said he had a history of criminal activity. Residents of Panachakkunnu Colony say that he does not have a permanent job, but made money by illegally transporting soil from quarries. He has been jailed twice before under the Kerala Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act.

The BJP’s assembly committee general secretary, Pramod, told Scroll.in that Rajesh had been killed to send out a warning to the BJP. “They are afraid of the BJP’s growth,” he alleged. “So they deputed Manikuttan and his gang to finish off Rajesh.”

Pramod said that an altercation between Rajesh and Manikkuttan on July 7 possibly led to the murder three weeks later.

According to the residents of Panachakkunnu Colony, Manikuttan had attacked the home of a daily-wage labourer named Vishnu in the colony on July 7. According to a resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Vishnu is Rajesh’s cousin. “We don’t know the exact reasons for the attack,” said the resident. “Vishnu was a good friend of Manikkuttan’s but their relationship turned sour after the former [Vishnu] joined the RSS.”

Vishnu’s friends retaliated the very next day by attacking the house of Vijith, Manikkuttan’s friend and associate, in the colony. Vijith is a porter and member of the CPI (M)-affiliated Centre of Indian Trade Unions.

Anoop Krishnan, the sub-inspector of police with Sreekaryam Police Station, confirmed these incidents. “The police had charged a total of 10 people from both sides with Section 308 [attempt to commit culpable homicide] of the Indian Penal Code,” he said. Manikuttan was the only person identified in the First Information Report.

News reports suggested that Manikuttan had attempted to personally settle the case as one more criminal case would land him behind bars under the Kerala Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act. However, Rajesh used his political influence to ensure that Manikuttan was booked. The news reports suggested that this led Manikuttan’s friends to murder Rajesh.

The entrance to Prathibha Nagar colony in Kallampally in Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).
The entrance to Prathibha Nagar colony in Kallampally in Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

‘Communists to blame’

But RSS cadres insist that the murder was clearly linked to the communists. “Manikuttan worked as a booth agent for a CPI(M) candidate in the last Assembly election,” said Pramod. He noted that Vijith and his brother Vipin, two other men accused of the murder, were linked to the communist party. “All the accused have been working for the communist party,” said Pramod. “What else you need to prove that it was a political murder, planned and executed by CPI(M)?”

However, local CPI(M) leader LS Saju claimed that the murder was the fallout of a family rivalry. “The party was not involved in the incident that happened on July 7 as we knew that it was a family issue,” he said.

Saju admitted that Vijith and Vipin were party workers but denied that Manikuttan was. “CPI(M) does not have any connection with history-sheeter Manikuttan,” said Saju. “He had attacked many of our party workers in the past. He even hurled a bomb at my house two years ago.” He also denied Pramod’s claim that Manikuttan worked as a booth agent for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) during elections in the past.

Wooing Dalits

Even as the BJP has been trying to corner the communists for Rajesh’s murder, Dalit activists say that all political parties in the state – from the Left to the Right – have been using Dalit youth to kill and maim their political rivals.

Dalit activist and author OP Raveendran said that the murder indicates that the competition between political parties to establish their dominance in the two Dalit colonies was intensifying. “The RSS has been organising shakhas to attract Dalit youngsters into its fold,” he said. “The initiative has gained a momentum in Kerala in recent years.”

Kerala is the only state in the country where the BJP has been unable to make significant electoral gains.

Dalits, who constitute 9.8% of Kerala’s population, used to support both the CPI(M) and the Congress. But successive governments led by these two parties ignored their demand that they be alloted farm land. The Sangh Parivar has been working hard to capitalise on the disenchantment of Dalits and Adivasis with these parties. Ahead of the Assembly elections last year, Adivasi leader CK Janu and a faction of the Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabha were roped in as partners of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The BJP won one seat in the elections.

VB Ajay Kumar, director, Rights, a Dalit academic research initiative based in Thiruvananthapuram, said that the Sangh is trying to draw Dalit communities in the state into its fold. “RSS campaigns are afoot in various colonies, and the majority of them are happening in Thiruvananthapuram district,” he said. “CPI(M) and weak Dalit organisations are incapable of preventing the Sangh agenda.”

Dalit social reformer Ayyankali's portrait and Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabha flags in one of the streets in Panachakkunnu Colony in Kallampally in Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).
Dalit social reformer Ayyankali's portrait and Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabha flags in one of the streets in Panachakkunnu Colony in Kallampally in Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Hope for peace

As the tension between the communists and BJP continued in Kallampally, ward councillor Shalini of the CPI(M), visited Rajesh’s house earlier this week in an attempt to calm tempers. “Rajesh’s death has orphaned a family,” she said. “It is a deplorable incident. I condemn it. I hope peace will return to our place soon.”

That is the hope of those who live in Panachakkunnu Colony too.

Mini, a resident, said that she could not sleep after she heard about the murder. “I know Rajesh and many of the accused,” she said. “I am a mother of two boys. I am worried about their fate.”

She added: “I have been living in this colony for the last 20 years. I have never heard such a gruesome murder all these years. I feel that people from outside the colony are manipulating the minds of our youngsters. It is time to stop this.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated the distance of Kallampally from Thiruvananthapuram and described Adivasi leader CK Janu as Dalit.