Why violence is the main political narrative of Kannur

To understand Kannur’s politics of violence, we have to understand the class and caste architecture of the region, according to P.K. Yasser Arafath, a DU faculty member

Slain BJP activist Ramith’s relatives crying at their residence at Pinarayi in Kannur on October 13. Photo: PTI
Slain BJP activist Ramith’s relatives crying at their residence at Pinarayi in Kannur on October 13. Photo: PTI

Bengaluru: A spate of political murders, including two last week, has put the spotlight back on north Kerala’s Kannur district. The casualties belong to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, which is ruling the state under chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

In a phone interview with Mint, P.K. Yasser Arafath, faculty at Delhi University’s history department, explained the complexities of deep-rooted political violence in Kannur.

Arafath has been working on this subject over the last one decade and has published papers in journals such as the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). Edited excerpts:

What’s so wrong with Kannur?

Kannur lives with violence. Everywhere else in Kerala, political violence is limited to small pockets. But across the length and breadth of Kannur, violence can spread within minutes. Violence is the main political narrative of the region.

The individual and the party have become almost inseparable in Kannur. The region acts like a human embedded party-body. For them, RSS or CPM is not organizations anymore. They are separate forces.

Multiple kinds of intimacies run between an individual and the party, making a multi-layered social cohesion defined by caste, class and kinship. The party-body defines or regulates the economy too, providing and assisting in everything from birth to death.

What political mileage parties expect to get by such violence and by killing the innocent?

This is the most fascinating part. Many people are often surprised when people get randomly killed in Kannur, or when people who have never participated in violence, the so-called innocent ones, get murdered. What they don’t understand is that there are no innocents in Kannur. The idea of innocence—a person who does not belong to any party—was killed a long time ago.

It’s a very rare political structure. The initiation to the party is almost natural. If you are born to a CPM family in Kannur, it doesn’t matter whether you vote for the party or not, you will be considered as belonging to the party. It’s similar to the way social initiation by birth happens in the case of religion.

After a person is initiated, he becomes a part of the party-body. The reason why it is possible for the party to murder randomly and still be seen as making a statement is because of this de-individualisation of violence. What makes Kannur unique, from say Naxalite areas, is this multi-layered emotional architecture which emphasizes group affiliation and makes the violence de-individualized. You will not be able to put an address to the violence. There is only the addressee. The violence has the faces of victims, or martyrs, alone. The perpetrators are faceless. That’s the dynamics it creates. It makes the job tougher for the police. They cannot anticipate who is going to get killed next.

How did this metamorphosis happen?

To understand Kannur politics, we have to understand the class and caste architecture of the region. The lower caste Thiyya community is the predominant demographic constituency in Kannur with which both parties are trying to engage. Unlike other parts of Kerala, Kannur is, perhaps, the only region where the RSS has managed to systematically engage with the OBC community in Kerala. Both parties employ continuous and almost equal pressure tactics to engage with the same community, which makes clashes inevitable.

There is also a class angle. Which explains why the violence spiked towards the end of the last millennium. From 1920s to early 1980s, the RSS was only having capital engagements in the region, rather than a strong political engagement. You can call it a bourgeois engagement. The reason why we didn’t see that much of a clash between the RSS and the CPM during this period is that the engagement space of two parties was different. The engagement space of the RSS was urban or mofussil areas, while that of the CPM was largely rural population. After the ’90s, as part of its new identity and communitarian formation nationally, the RSS got into engaging with the rural constituency in Kannur. This was also the time when the CPM started looking to expand to urban areas.

The closer they tried to engage the same class and caste, the higher the friction became. The CPM sees it (BJP-RSS) as an urban bourgeois party trying to colonize their last party body. So the violence is not only physical, but also ideological.

That is also why you see a gradual spike in violence, and murders becoming more like a spectacular event. It started with the murder of Sudheesh, a leader of Students’ Federation of India, CPM’s students’ wing, in 1994. He was hacked to death, bearing 32 wounds. They could’ve murdered him with just one deep stab. But that wouldn’t have made the point. Each incision counts. Each wound is a statement to the other party. The more the number of wounds, the greater the visualization, bigger the news, the longer the memory.

What’s the way out?

It’s gone beyond the control of the police or the political leadership now. Even they can’t anticipate who’s going to get killed next. So it may not be possible to end it anytime soon. But by rephrasing the political narrative, it could be slowly reduced. The violence comes from excessive pride. Only excessive shaming will contain it.