“Once again RSS workers triggered the violence,” P Jayarajan, secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kannur, alleged when asked about the murder of two political workers in his district and neighbouring Mahe on Monday. “They killed comrade Kannippoyil Babu first. It was the handiwork of trained killers. The RSS has been patronising killer gangs to scuttle peace.”

Babu, 47, a member of the CPI(M)’s local committee, was returning home in Mahe’s Pallur at around 9 pm when he was waylaid by suspected workers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Mahe is an enclave of Puducherry on the Arabian Sea, sandwiched between Kerala’s Kannur and Kozhikode districts. The Puducherry police are investigating the murder.

Half an hour later, suspected CPI(M) workers killed Parambath Shamej, 36, in New Mahe, Kannur. Shamej, an autorickshaw driver associated with the RSS, is believed to have been killed in retaliation for Babu’s murder. The case is being investigated by the Kerala police.

Babu and Shamej are the latest victims of a decades-old bloody turf war between communists and Hindu extremists in Kerala, particularly in and around Kannur. The coastal district has witnessed the killings of 12 political workers – seven from the Sangh Parivar, four from the CPI(M) and one from the Congress – since Pinarayi Vijayan took over as chief minister in May 2016. Vijayan himself hails from Kannur, where he led the CPI(M) before becoming the party’s state chief in 1998.

Almost every such murder in Kannur is followed by a blame game. Moreover, while the political parties do not own the killings, they often help the accused escape arrest and provide legal assistance if they are caught.

Jayarajan stuck to the same blame game script. “Another person was killed in the retaliatory attack,” he said, referring to Shamej but without mentioning his name or political affiliation. “It was unfortunate. CPI(M) had no role in it. We will inquire whether any party worker was involved in the murder.”

As expected, the Bharatiya Janata Party too distanced itself from Babu’s murder. But it accused the ruling party of killing Shamej. “We do not know who killed the CPI(M) worker Babu. Let police find out the truth,” the party’s Kannur chief K Satyaprakash said. “CPI(M) workers killed Shamej 30 minutes after Babu’s murder. It is a testament to the fact that the CPI(M) is employing many killer gangs in Kannur. This is a serious issue. Sangh Parivar lost more workers than CPI(M) in political violence in the district.”

Peace is elusive

As chief minister, Vijayan has taken steps to address the political violence, earning appreciation from even the RSS. He held two high-profile meetings with the Sangh Parivar, one in Thiruvananthapuram in November 2016 and the other in Kannur in February 2017, while his government claims to have organised 220 “peace meetings” in Kannur between February and April last year. They came to a halt after a BJP worker was killed in May.

Political observers pointed out that the peace meetings could not yield much because the political parties did not convey the decisions taken to workers on the ground. The Sangh Parivar and the Congress, however, said peace cannot be achieved unless the murders are impartially investigated. “Police in Kannur is controlled by the CPI(M),” said Satheeshan Pacheni, district president of the Congress. We will not get justice from them. That is why we have approached the Supreme Court seeking an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the murder of Congress worker SP Shuhaib.”

After Shuhaib was killed during a skirmish at a school in Kannur in February, his family moved the Kerala High Court for a CBI inquiry. On March 7, 2018, a single-judge bench directed the CBI to take over the investigation, only for a division bench to stay the order. Shohaib’s family moved the Supreme Court, which will consider their plea in July.

Pacheni said the police needs to be given a free hand to win the confidence of the public. But Kannur police chief G Siva Vikram countered that his force is doing a remarkable job. “We have solved almost all cases involving political murders,” he said. “We will get the culprits who killed Shamej in New Mahe soon. We are also extending full support to Puducherry police to nab Babu’s killers.”

Vikram denied that the ruling CPI(M) is influencing the police’s work. “I have got a free hand,” he said. “No political leader has interfered in my work in the one and a half years since I took office.”

As to why the violence has proved difficult to control, Vikram said, “There exists strong enmity among cadres of various political parties, and it often spills on to the streets.” And it has been going on for many years, he added.

Kannippoyil Babu's wife and relatives receive his body in Mahe. Photo credit: Vijay Kumar

No end in sight?

Given this and the fact that the warring parties have shown little inclination to rein in their cadres, Kannur could remain a politically volatile region for some time to come.

“Violence in Kannur will end only when RSS people drop their knives,” said Jayarajan. “RSS started the [latest phase of] violence after Pinarayi Vijayan came to power by killing CPI(M) worker Raveendran in May 2016 during a march to celebrate our election victory. RSS wanted to create a communal rift and divide the people. They open shakahs in Kannur to create trouble.”

Satyaprakash retorted that peace would prevail in Kannur only if the CPI(M) decides not to “annihilate its political rivals”. “BJP workers can stop defending themselves only if CPI(M) changes its stance,” he said.

Pacheni argued the violence would end only if the CPI(M) and the Sangh Parivar “stop supporting killer gangs”. “Pinarayi Vijayan, who hails from Kannur, knows the killer gangs in the district,” the Congress leader alleged. “He knows who are patronising them. If he is keen to find lasting peace, he should act tough on these gangs and their patrons.”

Vikram, the police chief, sounded more optimistic. “Going by the data, the number of political clashes has come down from 383 in 2011 to 271 in 2017,” he said. “The facts make me optimistic, but we have to wait to find lasting peace.”

Bloodied legacy

A timeline of political killings in Kannur after the Pinarayi Vijayan government came to power

  • May 19, 2016 E Raveenran of the CPI(M) is killed during an election victory procession, allegedly by Sangh Parivar workers.
  • July 11, 2016 CV Dhanaraj of the CPI(M) is murdered in his homeallegedly by Sangh Parivar workers.
  • July 11, 2016 CK Ramachandran of the BJP is killed by suspected CPI(M) cadres, apparently in retaliation for Dhanaraj’s murder.
  • September 3, 2016 Vineesh of the BJP is killed in his home, allegedly by CPI(M) workers.
  • October 10, 2016 Mohanan of the CPI(M) is killed at a toddy shop, allegedly by Sangh Parivar workers.
  • October 12, 2016 Ramith of the BJP is killed by suspected CPI(M) workers in retaliation for Mohanan’s murder.
  • January 18, 2017 Santosh of the BJP is killed in his home, allegedly by CPI(M) cadres.
  • May 12, 2017 Biju of the BJP, an accused in Dhanaraj’s murder, is killed allegedly by CPI(M) workers.
  • January 19, 2018 Shyamaprasad of the BJP is killed by Social Democratic Party of India cadres.
  • February 12, 2018 SP Shubaib of the Congress is murdered, allegedly by CPI(M) workers.
  • May 7, 2018 Kannippoyil Babu of the CPI(M) is killed by suspected Sangh Parivar workers.
  • May 7, 2018 Shamej of the BJP is murdered within 30 minutes of Babu’s murder, allegedly by CPI(M) supporters.