The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) is speaking in multiple voices on the murder of a Congress worker in Kerala’s Kannur district last week. After keeping quiet on the issue for five days, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan issued a statement on Sunday in which he condemned the murder of Muhammad Shuhaib, and said those guilty will be arrested irrespective of their party affiliations. The next day, on February 19, the police confirmed that the two people arrested in connection with the case were CPI(M) workers. However, the party’s Kannur district secretary, P Jayarajan, first distanced the CPI(M) from the murder and then alleged that the slain Congress worker had a criminal record.

“By raising allegations to tarnish the image of Shuhaib, the party actually supports the murder,” said political observer KA Antony. Antony said that the ruling party has a reason to protect its workers. “The leadership will try to protect those involved in the political clashes just to keep the cadre base intact,” he said. “It will be difficult to bring back those who left the party.”

Brutal murder

The 30-year-old Congress worker was killed on February 12 near a road-side eatery in Kannur. A gang of men attacked him with sharp-edged weapons after hurling country bombs at him. According to the First Information Report, there were 38 deep cuts on both of Shuhaib’s legs.

The murder undermines the chief minister’s public overtures to the Congress and Sangh Parivar to find a solution to the political violence in the state.

The Congress accused CPI(M) workers of the crime. It alleged that the communists had publicly threatened to kill Shuhaib during a march on January 11, at Edayannur in the same district.

But the CPI(M) countered the allegation, claiming that no party worker was involved in the assault. On Monday, the party’s state secretary, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, even promised to take action against workers if their role in the murder was established. “Ours is a peace-loving political organisation,” he said.

That same day, Rajesh Dewan, Director General Of Police (North Zone), confirmed that Akash and Rijil Raj, the two people arrested in connection with the murder, were CPI(M) workers.

Kannur clashes

Kannur has been the hub of political violence in Kerala for decades. Between the 1970s and 1990s, the district saw violent clashes between the CPI(M) and Congress. Since the late 1990s, clashes between the CPI(M) and Sangh Parivar became the order of the day. During this period, the CPI(M) also clashed with workers of other political parties, such as the Indian Union Muslim League and National Development Front.

According to official police data, 69 political murders were reported in Kannur between 2000 and 2016. As many 31 of the deceased were from the Sangh Parivar, 30 from the CPI(M), five from the Indian Union Muslim League and two from the National Development Front (which had merged with Popular Front of India).

This data does not include the 10 murders, including Shuhaib’s, that have taken place after the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front government came to power in May 2016.

Leadership losing control?

Since 2016, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who hails from Kannur district, has held several discussions with Congress and Sangh Parivar leaders to end the political violence that plagues the district.

The first such meeting was held in November 2016. After it concluded, Vijayan said all political parties had extended their support to bring about peace. His efforts even won him praise from the RSS state chief.

But the peace process did not make much headway as cadres of the CPI(M) and Sangh Parivar clashed at regular intervals, resulting in casualties on both sides.

The police suspect that Shuhaib’s murder was executed at the local level, without the knowledge of higher-level CPI(M) leaders. The police said the murder was a continuation of a January 11 clash between Congress and CPI(M) workers at Edayannur high school. Members from both parties entered the school premises after a scuffle between members of the Students’ Federation of India, the students’ wing of the CPI(M), and the Kerala Students’ Union, the students’ wing of the Congress, during an election. The police had arrested four Youth Congress workers, including Shuhaib, and two workers of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions in connection with the incident.

After the clash, a few CPI(M) workers took out a march in Edayannur that same day, during which they threatened to kill Shuhaib. A video that emerged recently shows CPI(M) workers shouting: “Shuhaib, your days are numbered.”

The murder gives credence to the theory that the CPI(M) leadership is struggling to control its grassroots-level workers. “The loosening grip of the party leadership was evident when BJP worker Santosh was killed last year in the chief minister’s constituency of Dharmadam,” said a former CPI(M) leader, who left the party following differences of opinion with the leadership and spoke on condition of anonymity. “The chief minister had made good progress with his peace initiatives at that time,” said the leader. “But his own partymen let him down. The murder would not have happened had the party leadership enjoyed good control over local workers.”

He said that in the past attacks were executed with the permission of the top leadership. “But the scenario has changed now,” he said. “Youngsters carry out the attack and approach the leadership for help when they are about to land in police net.”