KERALA'S WAR ZONE
RAJEEV PIPosted online: Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 1217 hrs (Indian Express)
Last week’s killings of RSS and CPM men in Kannur is the latest incident in a three-decade-old battle being fought on imagined ideological lines. Our correspondent travels through the district where violence has maimed as many as it has killed.
Her five-year-old daughter Ashna was holding her hand and the bomb hit the child. It tore off Ashna’s right leg. Shanti says she didn’t even feel the sharpnel slice her own abdomen and mangle the left foot of her two-year-old son she was holding.
That was eight years ago on September 27, 2000. A series of surgeries later, 13-year-old Ashna, in Class VIII now, hops about her small unplastered home on one leg. She dreams of becoming a doctor, a “village doctor”. For many years, her father used to carry her home from school, the stump of her leg bleeding inside the prostheis.
Ashna’s father, Koota Nanu, who used to run the village teashop in Kannur’s Poovathur, says he had known the man who threw that bomb for years, a mason in the neighbouring village and an RSS worker. Nanu swears they had never had a quarrel. But that day the man was among an armed RSS mob pursuing Congress workers fleeing from a fight at the village school across the road, where voting was going on in the local polls.
Nanu claims to have no ill will for the bomb thrower. “We have run into each other many times since, even at times when I carried Ashna to the village market. We just try not to look at each other. I hear he wept for his mistake soon after.” The case, with 14 RSS men in the accused list, is still going on in the local court.
The Kannur blood game has mostly been a Red vs Saffron show but the Congress too has been pitching in with equal fervour. So far, since the killings began in the 1970s, close to 300 people have been injured. The targets are mostly low-level party workers or sympathisers, usually picked at random to quickly even the scores after each killing.
Nanu and his brother were Congress supporters. The RSS mob had rushed to look in their homes for the escaped quarry. Unknown to Shanti and her kids standing near their front door, they came in the way. In Kannur’s political killing fields, people have been maimed or killed for less.
Those like 24-year-old Prasoon, an RSS worker of Peruthattil village. Five years ago, on 14 July 2003, he was playing cricket with his friends at their village ground. Prasoon was about to run up to bowl when three local CPM men he knew clapped and gestured at him from the ground’s edge. He walked up to them, but saw more men come quietly out of the shadows towards him.
“I tried to run but three of them caught and pinned me down on the ground. The others waved swords to keep my friends off. They hacked off my left wrist, then removed my left leg above the knee with an axe.” The doctors sewed back the severed wrist but the leg couldn’t be put back and Prasoon, who once cleaned cement trucks on the side to support his lorry driver father, gets around on a prosthesis, probably for all his life.
All of 19 then, Prasoon had never got into a fight with anyone. But he bore the brunt of an earlier attack by the RSS on a young man of the CPM in another part of the district. And it’s always been Our Dead and Maimed versus Their Dead and Maimed here. Statistics are deadly important to keep the ranks from eroding, and scores must be evened quickly, convincingly, openly. Prasoon, young and a regular at the local RSS shakha, was too tempting a target to miss.
IT’S some 30 years now since this surreal war of statistics pitched on imagined ideological planes, began here with bombs, swords, knives, and axes. “As of last week, the RSS-BJP, the Congress and the police have killed 149 of our comrades here. We don’t have the list of our men who lost arms, legs, eyes—there are too many,” says P. Sasi, senior CPM leader and its new district secretary at Kannur.
At the newly built RSS office in Kannur’s Thalassery, mounted photos of 56 Sangh men—and a woman—bombed or cut to pieces by the CPM look down from an entire wood-paneled wall (those too poor to have left behind even a photo have a flower instead, with the name scrawled below). It’s just a partial list, the wall just cannot hold more photos.
The Congress is not keeping a strict count anymore. “I personally know well over 50 of our men here who have lost their limbs,” says K. Sudhakaran, former minister and the Congress’s powerful ex-district secretary, who escaped many attempts on his life and is accused of organising many attacks on his political foes.
The ranks die and become martyrs in brick memorials on Red or Saffron village junctions, but not too many Kannur leaders want to be caught without a gun handy. Kannur is where leaders like the CPM’s central committee member E.P. Jayarajan walks around with a bullet still lodged inside his head after a political attempt on him a few years ago. It is also where local Marxist satrap, politburo member and state CPM secretary Pinarayi Vijayan must carry his .38 revolver at all times—remember the stir at Chennai airport last year when he inadvertently carried bullets into the security check.
THIS is also a region where unemployment is galloping and where few investors are stepping in. Parties vie to draw in the swelling army of jobless young men. The local handloom industry, once India’s most active, is collapsing in this “city of looms and lores”. The ruling CPM, which was actually born in Kannur in 1930 and had bagged over 60 per cent of the votes polled even in the last local elections, has no solution. Famously commanding many thousands of crores worth of assets, even the party’s biggest showpiece cooperative hailed internationally, the Dinesh Bidi Cooperative, has crumbled despite many Government- funded resuscitation bids. But the CPM still commands most of Kannur’s surviving little cooperatives, most offering ready liquid cash for party-sponsored initiatives.
Bomb making, however, is looking up. “Enough bombs are made and stocked here to last a long time. It’s a political activity, very little is for non-political use. We can’t go beyond certain limits to catch them,” a senior police official admitted. Even last week, after seven RSS and CPM men were chopped to death here in a space of four days and RSS and the CPM mobs spent time throwing scores of bombs at each other at half a dozen a village junctions, the police had seized no more than 41 bombs as of March 13.
Bombs come in many forms here. “Steel tiffin carriers from Salem, ball bearings from Coimbatore,” are among the preferred stuff for making the more potent steel bombs, says a political worker in Thalassery. The bombs are made in remote village homes, stockpiled in abandoned compounds, even party offices and buildings that few cops would risk raiding in normal course, often even disused village wells and rubbish bins. Party-inclined village blacksmiths, paid handsomely, churn out regular supplies of swords, axes and special equipment like the popular ‘S’ shaped stabbing knives from hard steel, including from old suspension leaves of trucks. Samples from bomb batches are duly tested and passed before handing them to the political sponsors, in deserted quarries and compounds. Usually, banana trees are used to test newly made hatchets and to train greenhorn assault teams.
Sometimes the stocked political bombs forget whom to kill or maim. A few years ago, a little Tamil orphan boy picking rags in Kannur (someone with a black humour had given him the name Amavasi, meaning lunar eclipse) rummaged in a rubbish bin to find a steel container. Amavasi had never seen a bomb before. It blew off both his hands. An NGO later took him in—after renaming him Poornachandran, which means full moon.
Another is Madathumkandi Surendran, a mason of Ponniath village. His pickaxe hit metal while digging a house’s foundation in November 1994—a hidden steel bomb, again. It blew up in his face, injuring both his eyes. No party went to his aid since he belonged to none.
Much of the mostly nocturnal bomb making takes place in or around the many “party villages”. Entire villages have been taken over by the parties who control them and ferociously defend them from incursion by other parties. The CPM, naturally has the largest number of these here, followed by the BJP-RSS. The non-cadre based Congress has only a few. Party villages are where the parties concerned decide who buys or sells property there, who moves in or out, who gets invited to marriages and funerals—sometimes even what newspapers are read, who marries whom. These are easily identified, all the electric posts leading to them wear the respective party colours and stenciled or scrawled symbols, some even have welcome boards such as “welcome to the communist village”, or massive hammers and sickles in concrete. Most Red villages have red-festooned buildings, local clubs, reading rooms and streets bearing portraits, slogans and names of men from the local and international communist pantheons, besides the dead from the battles with the Congress and the RSS. The saffron ones sport huge lotuses, trishuls, flags and typical street names like Shivji Nagar and Durga Nagar, apart from names of Sangh men the CPM had killed.
In these transgressing political opponents are seldom dealt with kindly. One who did is C.H. Suresh Babu, mandal president of the Congress in the 9th ward of Mokeri, a village the RSS was trying to make its own. He filed his nomination in the local bodies poll three years ago, despite threats. Four nights later, a bunch of RSS men caught him in a dark village street with steel clubs. He spent over a month in hospital and is immobile from waist down now.
The hit teams don’t like their quarries escaping a planned strike. Last week, a masked RSS hit squad broke down the door of the CPM’s branch secretary Rajesh in Kavumbhagom. They found only his 65-year-old mother Sarada there. Both her legs were broken with iron rods. Sarada, recovering at the CPM-sponsored Thalassery Cooperative Hospital, is still in shock. In Kathirur, CPM men who came for BJP worker Kunnummel Chandrika, beheaded her cow last Tuesday. In Pulluvam, the hitmen cut off the head of BJP man Balan’s dog.
THERE is a pattern to everything in Kannur. The CPM men are almost always taken to the party’s own well-guarded Thalassery Cooperative Hospital, the saffron brigade takes its casualties to the Congress-sponsored Indira Gandhi Hospital farther down. Neither side wants to risk their casualties being attacked inside a hospital.
But there is no guarantee here. Even a spouse actively supporting the opposite party is no guarantee of safety here. Praseetha, wife of Prakash Babu of Pernthattil, a BJP worker and a truck driver, is a CPM worker employed in the CPM-run Dinesh Bidi Cooperative. But on October 26, 2000, time when the local death tally of the period favoured the RSS, Babu driving a firewood truck in the wee hours was an easy target. Ten men waylaid him on the street, cut open his head, then severed his wrist and took it away. He lives on a subsistence allowance from the BJP-RSS now.
Not being an active supporter of either side may be no insurance either. The only thing 65-year-old Elancheri Kumaran, a coconut plucker of Kappummel, had to do with the CPM was voting for the party at the elections. On the night of January 13, 1997, Kumaran ran out of his bidis and walked across the road near his home to buy some. A bunch of men led by an RSS man living next door, a man he had known for years, stepped out of the shadows and threw a bomb. It took away one of his legs below the knee. Infection set in soon after, and the doctors amputated much of his remaining leg.
THE many narrow escape lanes in the area and plenty of cheap 100 cc motorcycles to be bought and junked mean the hit men can strike at any hour. K.P. Kumaran also known as Valsan, a local grocer and branch secretary of the CPM in Chalakara, was attacked in broad daylight by eight motorcycle-borne men last November in his shop. “They kicked me down and cut off my right wrist with a sword. Then a man took out a short axe, kept swinging it till my right leg was cut off at the knee,” recalls Valsan, who underwent a Rs 5 lakh, 16-hour long microvascular surgery at Kochi to get his wrist and leg joined back. But he has no sensation in or control over either, and is confined to a wheel chair, lifted and moved by relatives when the pain is more bearable.
But for Valsan, it has been a double tragedy. His ailing 38-year-old wife, Mahila, went into depression soon after the attack and never got out of it. She died last month and their relatives now take care of the couple’s two children.
CPM district secretary P. Sasi points out the case of Harindran, a taxi driver and party secretary in Panur. The RSS attacked him on a crowded road while he was ferrying school kids home. “They threw out the screaming kids, cut off Harindran’s head, hacked his wrist off. They carried away the severed hand in a plastic shopping bag, we later came to know that was since the hit team had a student on his first strike, and he was to present the hand before his gurus.” RSS sources, however, deny this story about the cut hand taken away as gurudakshina.
Police sources say the two sides have lately been hiring ‘quotation’ killers from places like Mangalore. Both the RSS and CPM leaders refute that. “We are a mass-based party and it is the lay people who retaliate when our comrades are murdered,” says P. Sasi, the Kannur CPM chief.
More insight comes from a man in Kannur, one of CPM’s chief hit men till sometime ago until he fell out. “Nothing is done by the ranks without proper authorisation in both the RSS and the CPM,” he says.
Significantly, almost all the dead since the bloody political killings began here in the 1970s have been the poor. The exceptions have been the likes of P. Jayarajan, one of the state’s senior CPM leaders, who was left for dead at his Kannur home, only to recover. On the other side are the likes of Kannur’s former RSS Saha Karyavah C Sadanandan —CPM men cut off both his legs—the police took him to hospital carrying the legs in a plastic sack.
Both parties here take care of their injured. Each series of bombings means injuries and high hospital bills. CPM sources say the party has already spent close to Rs 1 crore on medical and support bills in recent years. The RSS-BJP helps out its victims too, but is obviously not as cash rich as the CPM.
Violence is something Kannur can no longer afford.