Understanding the Majoritarian Violence and Politics of Kerala’s Kannur

Political competition in Kerala has turned into concerted efforts to control bodies, minds and thoughts through brute force.

The question that Kannur poses is then not about which party is the victim and who is the aggressor. Credit: Reuters

The question that Kannur poses is then not about which party is the victim and who is the aggressor. Credit: Reuters

The Sangh parivar has recently tried to draw greater attention to North Kerala’s Kannur district. At the Delhi University campus, ABVP members put up gruesome images of RSS-BJP workers slain in Kannur. In a now infamous speech, an RSS pracharak offered a large bounty for anyone who would avenge the killings of Hindu right-wing workers in the southern state. In all such displays and statements, members of the Sangh parivar have sought to position themselves as innocent and abject victims of the dark and menacing “anti-national” hand of the Left, which has allegedly destroyed Hindu lives. What these statements fail to mention is that in the long-running conflict the between the CPI(M) and the RSS-BJP combine, young men of both groups have been the victims and agents of grievous violence against each other. Lives have been lost on both sides and the accused have also come from both sides.

However, this conflict deserves our attention not only because it has been long-running or gruesome, or because it involves members of both groups, but especially because it highlights several other dark aspects of our polity: how competitive democratic politics can take a majoritarian turn, encourage the use of brute force and produce violent enmities; and how such violent enmities can take over the lives of young people from marginalised communities.

The number of lives destroyed in Kannur varies in different media accounts. But police records for the period from 1983-September 2009 show 91 murders in political cases. In 31 cases RSS-BJP workers were slain and CPI(M) workers were accused of the murders; in 33 cases CPI(M) workers were killed and RSS-BJP workers were accused of the killing. In 14 other cases, Congress (I) workers were the victims and CPI(M) workers were the accused; murderous exchanges also occurred during this period between BJP and Congress (I) workers, Indian Union Muslim League and CPI(M) workers, and CPI(M) and National Democratic Front workers.

These events repeat a pattern that was particularly prominent in the period between 1978-81, when according to court records and media reports approximately 30-40 workers of the CPI(M) and RSS-BJP were killed. These numbers do not capture the brutal nature of the killings on different sides; however my fieldwork in the area and figures gathered by others scholars do tell us the following:

  • Members of most political parties in North Kerala have been both victims and agents of violence against each other
  • 80% of these victims and agents of political violence have been Hindus
  • Approximately 70% of them have been unemployed and underemployed Thiyya youth whose families own little more than hutment land. (Thiyya are currently classified as OBC in Kerala.) The Kozhikode-based political scientist, T. Sasidharan’s recent book Idathupakshavum Kannur Rashtreeyavum (The Left and Politics of Kannur) will be especially useful for those interested in these sociological details.

Becoming an instrument of violence

The question that Kannur poses is then not about which party is the victim and who is the aggressor. Instead, it compels us to ask us another question: how have young men from ‘lower’ caste, low-income groups become casualties and instruments of the terrible violence that the district has seen for more than 30 years? How has their desire for recognition, equality and a place in the world got tied up with various political parties’ search to become dominant in the region?

The RSS and Jan Sangh’s search for a foothold in North Kerala began in earnest after 1977, in the post-Emergency period. Currently we are waiting to see who will come on top in the Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa and Manipur elections. But local politics is not only a numbers game and a question of who gets majority of the votes; it is also about which group appears to be a major force in an area, which group has greater visibility and say in people’s everyday lives, whose name is displayed during neighbourhood commemorations and festivities, who are people compelled to turn to in times of need, and who becomes their means of accessing different structures of power. In this terrain of the local, alliances are made, friendships are forged, loyalties are produced, rivalries are generated and young men from various political parties become a force trying to steer residents in the direction of one group or another.

For many young men of Kannur from deprived backgrounds, such mobilisation work for the party and the Sangh has become a source of identity and mobility. They have found a community there, along with modes of grasping and relating to the rest of the world. In turn, these young men have been ready to deploy their own masculine physical force to secure the dominance of their different groups and beat back and counter the influence of competing parties. The deployment of such force has meant bullying, intimidation and, in some instances, participation in ghastly killings of members of opposing groups. In common parlance, we call such men ‘foot soldiers’ of a party, or “thugs” and “lumpen” ready to do its “dirty work”. Their violence in Kannur has taken exceptional forms, but such young men have not only been part of North Kerala’s political landscape but have also been part of parties that have risen to state power in other parts of the country – from the Shiv Sena, to the Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, BJP, CPI(M), Congress as well as older formations such as the Praja Socialist Party. And, at one moment or another, all these parties have mobilised young workers and their masculine force in search for electoral power, presence and dominance in various neighbourhoods, towns and villages of the country.

Structural problems of our political system

When we ask ourselves how our political system has given rise to and accommodated this violence, some basic structural features become pertinent. Our political system upholds the dominance of that group which can secure an electoral majority. Modern democracy is a mode of rule that is anchored in the creation of winners and losers. The desire to win and the impulse to defeat have structured the life of many parties, leaders and political workers on the ground in different parts of the country. It has produced manipulations and machinations, and even regular fights, beatings and conflict that we have come to accept as normal part of our polity. Drawing on the historian Ajay Skaria’s work on Mahatma Gandhi’s political thought, we can describe this aspect of our political life as the impulse to become major and make minor. In a democratic polity, winners and losers are meant to be instituted through elections; but when the call to gain an upper hand takes hold, then some groups seek to become dominant in every sense of the word. They seek to rule over people’s bodies, minds and thoughts. At that point the use of what Gandhi called “sharirbal” or brute force becomes all pervasive.

This impulse to become major and make minor has brutalised many. In Kannur, this battle has been an ongoing one; it has produced numerous victims and aggressors. Victims and perpetrators have switched roles there. At the same time, those who have suffered and enacted the violence have largely been members of the same marginalised community.

In Delhi University and many other parts of the country, members of groups such as the ABVP want to settle the question of who is on top and who will make up a numerical, cultural and ideological majority, once and for all. Sangh members would also like to settle that question in Kerala. Words of the RSS pracharak from Ujjain are telling, for not only was he offering a bounty for the Kerala chief minister’s head but promising to bring the same kind of vengeful violence to Kerala as was unleashed against the Muslim-minority population in Gujarat in 2002.

The road to counter this politics of brutal minoritisation is a long one. It calls for refusing the use of sharirbal in Kannur and elsewhere. It also calls for offering multiple modes of grasping and being in the world to young men and women everywhere – modes that do not translate their search for recognition and equality into a hunt for dominance, modes that do not make the opposition appear as enemies and do not convert the wish to become a numerical majority into the desire to become a force so major (and, shall we say, creepy) that it seeks to be everywhere and control everything and everyone.

Ruchi Chaturvedi is an anthropologist and lecturer at the University of Cape Town.

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