Alappuzha murders: Simmering tension could explode in the long run

Alappuzha murders: Simmering tension could explode in the long run

A few years ago, at Pathanad, located close to Kangazha in the eastern part of Kerala’s Kottayam district, a vernacular journalist spotted severed heads and bodies of dogs lining up the streets of the sparsely-populated rural countryside. Intrigued by the sight, he decided to get to the bottom of the matter and upon further inquiry, found that these dogs were target practice for cadres of the Popular Front of India (PFI) camping in the neighbourhood. The mock drill was simulated to behead people on the run, using machetes. Back in the 1990s, there were multiple reports of plantains being ‘beheaded’ in a similar fashion.

The back-to-back political murders in Alappuzha of Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) – the political wing of PFI – state secretary KS Shan and BJP OBC Morcha’s state secretary Ranjith Sreenivasan in retaliation, within 11 hours of each other, have sent shock waves across the state.

While there has been a spurt in political murders in Kerala of late, the sheer barbarism and cold-blooded planning and execution of these crimes have stood out. The immediate trigger for the murder of KS Shan is assumed to be the murder of RSS worker S Sanjith in Palakkad’s Elappully; another murder of an RSS worker in Vayalar, near Cherthala in Alappuzha district in February when the Assembly elections were underway, is also supposed to be a contributing factor.

‘Not a death, but a celebration’

Political murders were earlier restricted to Kannur and other parts of Malabar in North Kerala, but of late, such crimes have been replicated in the central Travancore and south Kerala regions. What also makes this round of bloodbath different is the hierarchy of leaders targeted – generally, it is the lower functionaries who are ‘martyred’ for their parties. This round of political violence also runs the risk of turning communal, with the RSS and PFI at the opposing ends of the spectrum.

Also read: Kerala police arrest two in connection with SDPI leader’s killing

The assertion of SDPI general secretary PK Usman not to call Shan’s funeral procession ‘a mourning’ with the justification that SDPI workers covet martyrdom was shocking. Beyond the general utility of martyrs to political parties, the response seemed to be a statement about the significance of Shan’s death to SDPI’s political existence. Just as the BJP and its ideological fountainhead, the RSS, have found the going tough in Kerala despite their pan-India dominance, the SDPI hasn’t managed to convert its steady growth to make electoral gains and Shan’s death has the potential to alter that.

PFI’s radical roots

The 1990s’ saw the growth of Islamist fundamentalist outfits in Kerala, a state which takes pride in its communal amity, following the felling of the Babri Masjid by Hindu fundamentalists in Ayodhya. At this juncture, Muslims saw a new political lodestar in Islamic Seva Sangh (ISS) founder Abdul Nazar Mahdani, renowned for his fiery oratory prowess. In Malabar, where the moderate Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) held sway, its leadership intervened on time to ensure there was no communal flare-up following the demolition of Babri Masjid.

On the other hand, the likes of Mahdani, who hailed from south Kerala, ran amok, giving communally charged speeches leading to his outfit’s ban. The ban of ISS and Jamat-e-Islami Hind saw the formation of National Development Front (NDF) in 1994 with the cadres of banned outfits switching to the new party led by the likes of P Koya, founder member of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

Mahdani would later become a non-entity in politics after being embroiled in multiple terror cases, but NDF managed to make its presence felt in Malabar in the years that followed by successfully radicalising a section of the Muslim community. In 2006, the NDF reincarnated as the PFI after merging with like-minded parties in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. SDPI was floated in 2009, but the PFI soon gained notoriety through a dastardly attack on prof. TJ Joseph for what it deemed ‘blasphemy’ in central Travancore.

An eye for an eye

Early on Sunday morning (December 19), this writer woke up to receive a call from a friend who informed about a retaliatory attack on a BJP leader bang opposite his home at the narrow Dwaraisar lane of Alappuzha’s New Bazar locality by a bike-borne gang. The violence in the high-profile locality, even as the stench of blood spilt in KS Shan’s murder hung in the air, caught the police unawares as they failed to anticipate SDPI’s ability to retaliate in quick time right under their nose. There is a reason why the assailants chose to be on bikes as only one car can make its way through the narrow lane which opens to both ends.

Meanwhile, the kind of public turnout to mourn KS Shan’s death from Ernakulam to Alappuzha demonstrated the extent to which the PFI has managed to spread its wings in the coastal regions – from Vaduthala and Panavally to Mannanchery and Zakariya Bazar. Of course, the fact that KS Shan was a well-known political activist in these regions, having also contested the 2016 Assembly election and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, is an additional factor. Huge wails of grief rent the narrow alleyway leading to Shan’s home; he leaves behind two young daughters, wife and elderly parents.

Ranjith Sreenivasan too contested the 2016 Assembly election on a BJP ticket and leaves behind two young daughters and wife. The families of Ranjith and Shan aren’t the archetypical BJP/SDPI moulds and the young men seemed to have gravitated to extreme ideologies on their own. In fact, Ranjith’s father used to be associated with the Communist Party of India (CPI).

Both Shan and Ranjith seemed to have friends cutting across party lines as the reactions of local politicians and traders indicated. Shan ran a small shop that sold interior design products and he was attacked on his way back from his shop on December 18. The Kerala police haven’t covered themselves in glory as the retaliatory attack on Ranjith Sreenivasan happened within a stone’s throw of Alappuzha South police station, municipality office, general hospital and district collectorate among other government offices close by.

The growing communal menace

Unlike its earlier avatar as NDF, the PFI/SDPI have been making inroads into Central Travancore and south Kerala. Along with the dominant Students Federation of India (SFI) and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), its student outfit Campus Front has emerged as a potent force in many colleges with a waning Kerala Students Union (KSU) of the Congress failing to attract youth. In 2018, the student outfit was in focus following the stabbing of tribal student Abhimanyu in Maharajas College (Ernakulam) following a scuffle. It took the Kerala police three years to nab all the accused, underscoring the kind of network it has across the state despite SDPI’s status as a fringe outfit.

Cadres of PFI are also engaged in infiltrating into other political outfits. While IUML is the vehicle for its activists to operate clandestinely in Malabar, Left parties are targeted in south Kerala. When Abhimanyu was murdered, an SFI leader in Maharajas College said, “A comrade of ours who was associated with SFI throughout suddenly switched to Campus Front prior to the Abhimanyu incident and it came as a huge shock to us.”

Religion is used as a tool to lure gullible Muslims in south Kerala to PFI. The lack of an IUML-like party’s presence and failure of Congress and Left parties to nurture strong community leaders from its ranks have contributed to PFI gaining a foothold in southern districts.

Social critic MN Karassery also said that the PFI has been misusing religion to further its agenda and questioned its source of funding. A recent raid by Enforcement Directorate (ED) on PFI leaders revealed details of the acquisition of bars and restaurants abroad by its leaders, allegedly to launder money. The ‘un-Islamic’ nature of such businesses for a supposedly Islamic cause is reminiscent of the modus operandi elsewhere in the world.

At a press conference on December 20, Sheikh P Harris, the former secretary-general of Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD) and grandson of PK Kunju, former Kerala finance minister who was the president of the disbanded Travancore-Cochin Muslim League, announced that he would join the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Speaking to The Federal, Harris didn’t concur with the idea that there is a vacuum in south Kerala as far as Muslim politics goes and instead spoke on the need for Muslims to join secular parties in larger numbers. But Karassery questioned the sincerity of Left parties (and the Congress) on their stated mission to isolate SDPI even as they enlist its support in certain pockets.

Also read: Twin political murders rock Alappuzha; prohibitory orders for two days

The growth of SDPI is also conversely linked to the growth of the BJP as they feed off each other. Following the Sabarimala protests and post K Surendran taking charge as state BJP president, the BJP and RSS have been toeing a more hardliner approach with the blessings of the central leadership. While there have been no short-term gains (with setbacks aplenty), the Sangh Parivar seems to be playing the long game, trying to sow seeds of distrust which it hopes to harvest in the long run.

It would take urgent intervention from the part of civil society and a sluggish administration to ensure that the fallout of these murders is contained locally lest communal elements misuse it to their ends.

(The writer is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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