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02 October, 2012

From romance of revolution to politics of murder


The Communist Party of India (Marxist) routinely claims it is a party of the people built by cadres who willingly gave their blood. In Kerala, it has also a history of extracting the blood of opponents. For decades, the state’s killing fields have been littered with the bodies of those who came forward to give the party blood and those from whom the party extracted blood.

Unofficial estimates put the number of persons killed in political warfare since the 1960s at around 300: on an average six persons were killed in a year for political reasons. Most of them were done to death in planned operations.

The CPI (M) claims it has lost more people than any other party. The claim is true but that does not mean the party is more a victim than a perpetrator of violence. It has suffered more casualties than others because it has been involved in incidents of violence more than any other party.

The CPI (M) stronghold of Kannur in northern Kerala has recorded more political killings than any other district in the state. The party established supremacy in the district fighting off challenges from different parties -- the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Indian Union Muslim League etc

The chain of violence, which still continues, began in the 1960s with the CPI (M) bumping off members who crossed over to the Congress. Gradually the Congress went out of the scene and the BJP emerged as the main adversary. This happened primarily because those who left the CPI (M) moved to the BJP in the belief that the Rashtreeya Swayamsevak Sangh was in a better position to protect them than the Congress. The defectors belonged to one Hindu backward caste, and most of those killed on both sides belonged to that caste. Violence involving Marxist and Hindutva cadres declined after the RSS organized simultaneous attacks on the CPI (M)’s headquarters in New Delhi and its offices or leaders’ residences at several places in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in retaliation for a series of clashes in Kannur in which it lost three men and the CPI (M) two.

There has been a change in the religious complexion of political violence in Kannur in the recent past. In two murder cases now under investigation the victims were Muslims who defected from the CPI (M). One of them had joined the IUML and the other the National Democratic Front, another Muslim outfit.

The Kannur region has a tradition of honour killings going back to the feudal era. Often rivals conducted proxy fights employing trained warriors. Ballads narrating the heroic deeds of the warriors are a part of the region’s folklore. The spree of political murders was, therefore, interpreted as continuation of a gory tradition.

On May 4, while all eyes were on the southern constituency of Neyyattinkara, where a crucial Assembly by-election was due, T. P. Chandrasekharan, Area Secretary of the Revolutionary Marxist Party, was killed at a place not far from his home at Onchiyam in the Kozhikode district. It was an extremely brutal action. There were 51 cuts on his face. Evidently the killers wanted to make an example of him. His family and colleagues immediately alleged the CPI (M) was behind the killing.

A camp follower of V.S. Achuthanandan, who has been at loggerheads with the party’s state leadership, Chandrasekharan had been a thorn in the party’s flesh since he walked out of it with a large number of supporters. Refusing to seek sanctuary in the Congress-led United Democratic Front, as several prominent defectors had done earlier, he floated the RMP and began exploring the possibility of a Left alternative to the CPI (M). That made him a dangerous adversary in the eyes of the party leadership, which has attracted the charge of rightist deviation.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections Chandrasekharan rejected Congress plea for support and entered the contest himself at Vadakara to offer the voters a Left alternative to the CPI (M). He polled more than 50,000 votes, not enough to win but enough to ensure the CPI (M)’s defeat in a constituency which had stood by the Left Democratic Front for decades. There were several attempts on his life subsequently. When the LDF was in power there was a steady flow of intelligence reports into the office of Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who is a Politburo member, about plots to kill Chandrasekharan. There was no action on them. After the United Democratic Front came to power last year, Chandrasekharan personally informed Chief Minister Oommen Chandy of the threat to his life but turned down offer of protection, saying if the party was determined to liquidate him no one could save him.

Even as the police began investigations the CPI (M) State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan said the crime was committed by hired killers and suggested that the possible involvement of religious extremists be examined. His lieutenants insinuated that Chandrasekharan had an affair with a Muslim woman and that he was killed while on his way to meet her. When the vehicle hired by the killers was found, there was an Arabic sticker on it. The CPI (M) leaders pointed out that the vehicle belonged to a Congressman, who was related to a Union minister, and wanted that angle also to be looked into. Police concluded that they were drawing red herrings across the trail to divert the investigators’ attention away from party men.

Over a two-month period, the special investigation team arrested more than 70 men, most of them CPI (M) members or fellow-travellers. They include one state committee member, one district executive committee member and secretaries or members of areas committees and branch committees of the Kannur and Kozhikode districts. As the police grabbed one party man after another, the state leadership kept repeating that the party had nothing to do with the murder and that the UDF government, using the police, was falsely implicating its leaders. However, V.S. Achuthanandan struck a different mote. “No one who eats rice will believe party men have nothing to do with the crime,” he told newsmen, 

The party’s formal position is that it has nothing to do with Chandrasekharan’s murder and that if it is convinced that any of its members had anything to do with the murder it will take action against them. It will not go by the police account but will make inquiries on its own. However, those familiar with the working of the party apparatus point out that office-bearers of area committees of two districts cannot come together and mount a joint operation without the knowledge and approval of persons at a higher level. 

At the time of writing, the investigation is far from over, and the public are waiting to know if the long arm of the law will reach up to those at higher levels in the party. If media reports are right, interrogation of the arrested persons has revealed a wealth of information not only about the plot to kill Chandrasekharan but also about some earlier political murders. In some cases, it appears, the party and the police collaborated to save the actual killers. The persons whom the police arraigned before the courts were volunteers supplied by the party. Some of them were acquitted for want of evidence. Those convicted were paroled or released by remitting their jail term when the party came to power.

In the light of the facts that have surfaced now the police has reopened some old cases and instituted a few fresh cases. Among those figuring in the new cases is M. M. Mani, who was the party’s Idukki district secretary for two decades.

As the police cast the net wide and drew in a number of party functionaries whom the leadership had hidden in safe havens, the CPI (M) launched a calibrated campaign, marked by massive protest demonstrations and defiant speeches. Pinarayi Vijayan publicly warned that the party would turn into a burning torch. One leader asked party men to keep kitchen knives and chilli powder ready to tackle the police.  Clearly the purpose of the campaign was to intimidate the investigating officials and boost the sagging morale of party cadres. Mani landed in trouble as he tried to match the bravado of the Kannur leaders. In a speech, he declared that the party had drawn up a hit list and bumped off those on the top of the list. He said the accused in the cases registered by the police in connection with the murders were men whom the party had supplied. A video recording of the speech, delivered at a remote place, reached the television channels which aired it. In a bid to protect him, the state leadership explained he was a leader who had risen from the ranks and was given to coarse language. However, the national leadership, rattled by the wide publicity Mani's speech received outside the state, directed that he be removed from the post of district secretary.

Given the newly unveiled history of systematic scuttling of cases through political compromises worked out behind closed doors, it will be foolhardy to assume that the cases now under investigation will result in the conviction of those who committed the murders as well as those who ordered them. A disturbing part of the recent revelations is the CPI (M)'s attempt to pin responsibility for Chandrasekharan’s murder on extremist Muslims. The Central Bureau of Investigation, which is investigating the murder of a CPI (M) defector, has stated that the party attempted to implicate the RSS in the case. The LDF was in power at the time and Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan publicly stated that the RSS was involved. The cynical attribution of criminal acts of party cadres to Hindu or Muslim communal elements suggests the existence of a dirty tricks department where devilish minds are at work.

The CPI (M) has made a transition from politics of revolution to politics of murder. It is a story with all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy. The Communists emerged from inside the Congress, where they had functioned as part of the Socialist group, during World War II. When the country gained freedom, accepting the Soviet assessment that transfer of power by the British was a sham and that conditions were ripe for revolution, they adopted the Calcutta Thesis which called for overthrow of the new regime through a violent uprising. There were stray acts of violence in Kerala in pursuance of this decision. The government banned the party but the heavy repression that followed the ban generated a wide measure of sympathy and support for it, especially among the poor and downtrodden masses radicalized by the movements of Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali. The Guru had set before the society the vision of a model state where everyone lived as brothers without caste differences or religious hatred. Communist leaders have acknowledged that they reaped a rich harvest by sowing seeds on the ground prepared by the Guru and other reformers. The party also drew support from sections of the declining feudal aristocracy whose members believed it offered them an opportunity to safeguard their position in the emerging society. Poets painted highly romantic visions of the revolution and playwrights and novelists spread the message of a fair and just society.         

In 1948, the princely states of Travancore and Cochin held the first elections in the country on the basis of universal adult suffrage. The Communist Party of India fought the elections in alliance with other Left groups. Its leaders, who entered the fray as independent candidates as the party was under ban, were all trounced. After the two states were merged and their legislatures integrated to form the Travancore-Cochin Assembly, a Communist was elected to the house from Kodungallur in a by-election. In the first general election, held in 1951-52, the CPI, still under ban, established a substantial presence on the opposition benches. In 1957, it came to power in the newly formed Kerala state.

The CPI tasted power in less than 10 years of electoral activity. Its government was, however, short-lived. A land reform measure, which sought to set a limit on holdings and distribute the surplus among the landless, endeared it to the dispossessed but earned it powerful enemies.. Another measure aimed at checking malpractices in the educational sector, dominated by the Church, angered the Christian community. Together these sections launched a ‘liberation movement’. The agitation provided the Centre with a pretext to dismiss the government while it still commanded a majority in the State Assembly.

In the elections that followed, the CPI received more votes than in 1957 but could not prevail over the combined forces of the Congress, the Praja Socialist Party and the Indian Union Muslim League, which received the whole-hearted support of caste and religious forces across the spectrum. The split in the Congress and the CPI and subsequent fragmentation of the polity created a situation in which no party could win a general election on its own. An Assembly elected in 1965 could not throw up a government and was dissolved without meeting even once. Determined to get back to power, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) forged a seven-party alliance, which included not only the CPI but also the IUML and other sectarian outfits. The alliance had a facile win and the CPI (M) gave the sectarian parties representation in the government. With that communalism gained respectability. Although small parties have switched sides from time to time, since the 1980s two fronts, one headed by the Congress and the other by the CPI, have alternated in power. Sectarian parties are present in both the fronts. Since their support is considered essential to ensure electoral victory the professedly secular Congress and the CPI (M) cannot muster enough courage to oppose the communal forces resolutely. Initially the CPI (M) took care to make contacts with such forces secretly. Lately, however, its top leaders have been dealing with them quite openly.

Half a century after the split, the principal element that sets the CPI (M) apart from the residuary CPI is its propensity for violence. Indoctrinated Kerala cadres enthusiastically took up coercive forms of agitation like gherao and bandh, which the Bengal party had developed. There is reason to believe that the party was able to outgrow the mother organization in the two states primarily because radicalized Bengali and Malayali masses saw its readiness to resort to violent campaigns as a sign of genuine revolutionary fervor. It is not without significance that Stalin, whom the Communist Party of the Soviet Union disowned posthumously, and B.T. Ranadive, author of the Calcutta Thesis which was repudiated and rejected by the undivided party, have pride of place in the CPI (M) pantheon.     

So far there is no sign of remorse on the part of the CPI (M) for the violent acts that have come to light. Its leadership in the state apparently believes it can brazenly ride through the storm, relying upon the loyalty of its cadres and the vulnerability of the government to political blackmail. Its organizational pattern of democratic centralism does not leave room for the rank and file to assert themselves. The central leadership, which, in theory, has the authority to call a recalcitrant state unit to order, is powerless to act against the Kerala party, which is the richest unit and provides a substantial part of the resources that sustain it.

From the book Crisis of ‘Corporate’ Communism, edited by V. K. Cherian and published by Har Anand Publications Pvt Ltd, which was released in New Delhi on Saturday, September 29, 2012.

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