Kerala is a warning about political violence in India

The communist parties have been shown to have the worst record of political violence over the past five decades


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The wave of violence in Kerala’s Kannur district deserves more attention than it has been given thus far—not just for its immediate context but also because it is an important warning for the country as a whole.

For those who came in late: Seven political activists have been killed in the past five months. The state administration led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) last week said that it is considering setting up a cabinet sub-committee to investigate the violence—and offer a road map to end the five-decade-old clashes between the Communists and their political rivals, mostly workers from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who is incidentally a Kannur native, as are at least three of his high-ranking ministers, has also proposed all-party peace talks to restore normalcy in the region.

This isn’t the first time such an initiative has been suggested. There have been several rounds of such talks over the years, and committees too have been set up after particularly vicious rounds of violence such as the Thalassery riots of 1971. However, none have yielded any desirable result in the long term. Yes, there have been times when the violence has been punctuated by a few years of relative peace, but the larger problem of retaliatory political violence, which has claimed more than 300 lives since 1969, has been persistent.

What has happened in Kannur has its local reasons as well, but such incidents should be seen as advance warnings for the rest of the country. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that political violence in India peaked in the 1980s. It has since declined. Some analysts have tried to link the relative social peace over the past three decades to the rapid economic growth that India has experienced since the 1991 economic reforms. Economic advance could have acted as a valve to release pressure, but that is still open to debate. However, there have been worrisome signs that political violence has begun to increase over the recent years. The riots in states as diverse as Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal cannot be ignored.

Many theories have been floated to explain political violence. For example, University of Cape Town sociologist Ruchi Chaturvedi builds on Harvard anthropologist Stanley Tambiah’s work on violence, community formation and modern democratic politics in South Asia to argue that the “conflict highlights how modern practices of political mobilisation and competition condition the formation of close-knit antagonistic masculine unities regardless of the ideological affiliations in question….Violent experiences emerge as idealised modes of imagining communion with members of one’s community, as well as forces that individuate them.”

There are two points worth noting here. First, no major political party can escape responsibility. Economist Rohit Ticku of the Graduate Institute in Geneva has shown in his detailed work on political violence in India that it is the communist parties that have the worst record of political violence over the past five decades. Also, almost a third of all deaths linked to political violence over the same period were in West Bengal. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are not innocents—but their participation in political violence has been far less than that of the communists.

Second, political violence almost always hurts the working poor the worst. Not only are their communities less protected but they are more likely to suffer economic losses because of the fact that they live on daily wages. A breakdown of the rule of law hits those who have the least protection. The photograph in the aftermath of any riot underlines this brutal reality.

Local dynamics also matter. In an interview to this newspaper, Delhi University’s P.K. Yasser Arafath looks at the problem from another angle. He says that to understand Kannur, it is necessary to understand the “class and caste architecture of the region”. He highlights how both the CPM and the RSS have sought to engage with Kannur’s OBC, or other backward class category, Thiyya community. He also points out that since the 1990s, the RSS, which was previously active only in urban areas, has made a move to the rural areas which has further threatened the CPM, and heightened their rivalry.

India is still a far more peaceful country than it was three decades ago. All political parties have an equal responsibility to ensure that the law rather than violence is the primary instrument of conflict resolution.

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