In the aftermath of Marad

Published : Oct 24, 2003 00:00 IST

Chief Minister A.K. Antony's recent actions and inaction have led to the charge that he is adopting a pro-Hindutva approach.

WHAT went wrong? No one would have thought Chief Minister A.K. Antony would be accused of such a "crime". Today, the man who won the 1995 Assembly byelection virtually on the wings of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in the Muslim-majority constituency of Tirurangadi in Kozhikode district stands accused of being "an enemy of Muslims and of all minorities".

In a State where once it was thought that Antony's secular credentials would never be questioned or tarnished, the Chief Minister is being convincingly reviled for his "appeasement policy", his "pro-Hindutva positions" and his "clearing the way for the saffronisation of Kerala".

From New Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram, his own partymen, most prominently Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee(I) president and K. Karunakaran's son K. Muraleedharan, declared that Antony was trampling on the party's policy and helping the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). "It is always better to wear `red' than having to don `saffron'," Muraleedharan said referring to the statements of the Chief Minister and to the Karunakaran-led `I' group's recent inclination towards the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF). Worse, one of the first persons who defended Antony against Muraleedharan's statement was BJP State general secretary P.P. Mukundan.

Earlier, Antony had refused to ban the `Trishul Diksha' programme of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in the State, contrary to what other State governments, including those led by the Congress(I), had done. Nor was he prepared to order action against VHP leader Pravin Togadia for making inflammatory speeches in Kerala or to prevent the construction of a temple by the VHP in the reservoir area of the Idukki hydroelectric project. The Opposition harangued Antony all along. CPI(M) State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan said: "Antony does not come through as a leader of a secular party, or as a person whose thinking is on secular lines. His mind is set on the appeasement of the Sangh Parivar" (see interview).

WHAT has gone wrong? On May 3, in a clear case of retaliatory action, fundamentalist forces hacked to death eight persons belonging to the majority Hindu fishermen community in the coastal village of Marad in Kozhikode district. It was pay-back murder for the communal violence a year earlier in the village which had left five persons killed (three of them belonging to the minority community). In the communal flare-up that followed this year's incidents, Marad was terrorised and nearly 500 Muslim families had to leave their homes for refugee camps. In a coalition government with the IUML as a prominent partner, pressure mounted on Antony to pave the way for the immediate return of the innocent families to Marad.

But Antony was in a dilemma. Given the communally charged atmosphere at Marad, used well by the local Araya Samajam (a fishermen's Hindutva outfit), the BJP, the RSS and the VHP to terrorise Muslim families, and without bringing the culprits to book or providing compensation to the victims of the violence, Antony could not ensure the rehabilitation of the families without the risk of yet another incident.

The police had arrested over 100 people belonging to various political parties including the IUML, in connection with the violence. Although a comprehensive inquiry by the State Crime Branch was ordered, the Sangh Parivar demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), without which, it said, it would not let the Muslim families return. A CBI inquiry was not acceptable to the IUML.

Officials warned Antony against trying to use force to bring back the displaced families. Intelligence reports said a forced rehabilitation would cause a widespread communal flare-up in the State. But the innocent families, who lost everything and had to flee their homes, were suffering, just like the families of the victims of the latest killings.

The government was under pressure, despite what seemed like an impartial Crime Branch investigation, caught as it was between the demands of a CBI inquiry on one side and immediate rehabilitation of the Muslim families on the other. Yet the wounds needed time to heal. Antony knew it well. But so did his detractors, especially those in his own party.

At about the same time, elsewhere, Kerala was witnessing a rush of cash-rich community organisations trying to make use of the government decision to establish self-financing professional colleges in the State for the first time. No sooner had the government, in which the IUML holds the Education portfolio, announced its decision to allow such colleges, than there was a flood of applicants. But once these colleges started functioning, some of them began to go back on their word on the fee structure and claimed protection under their `minority' community status to charge the students exorbitant fees. This went against the very reason behind the government decision to allow such colleges.

In retrospect, it was then perhaps that Antony made his worst tactical blunder, especially in the context of Marad and the Karunakaran-led revolt in the Congress(I). On July 9, on his arrival in Thiruvananthapuram airport after attending the All India Congress Committee(I) meeting in Shimla, Antony launched an out-of-the-blue offensive targeted at all kinds of pressure groups that were burdening his government. Responding to questions from mediapersons, he spoke of the "BJP's hidden agenda at Marad" that made the party refuse to cooperate with the government to solve the issue, despite the good relations that his government tried to establish with the Centre.

In reply to another question about the allegation that the stand taken by him was similar to the soft Hindutva policies of Chief Ministers Ajit Jogi in Chattisgarh and Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh, Antony said: "I will say the truth... .We should see the reality in Kerala. The minorities in Kerala are organised. Other communities in the State have a complaint that these organised (minority) communities are securing more benefits from the government using their organisational clout and that they are bargaining for more benefits. There is such an atmosphere of grievance in Kerala. At the same time, it was the minority communities, which benefited more through the largescale migration to the Gulf, the United States and Europe. It has created an economic imbalance in Kerala's towns and cities. There is no point in shutting your eyes to this reality. Simultaneously, one can see the attempts of various political forces to take advantage of this situation politically. The minority leaders of the State should be willing to see this reality. They should also show a bit of restraint. My personal opinion is that no organisation should believe that it can make the government do anything using its organisational clout. As Chief Minister I have a responsibility to advise them. Call it soft or hard (Hindutva)... I am not such a sensitive man... "

ANTONY may have meant every word he said, and indeed had expressed similar opinions earlier. His colleagues told Frontline that he often airs his "good-intentioned" views even in Cabinet and UDF executive committee meetings.

Antony refused to withdraw his statement. But the context in which his statement was read in Kerala proved later that it was really a double-edged sword. Only the other day had Pravin Togadia made a virulently anti-Muslim tirade in Kozhikode in the context of the situation in Marad and the Antony government chose to ignore it rather than act against him.

There was, therefore, an immediate outcry and mobilisation against Antony's statement. Christian and Muslim organisations, including fundamentalist forces, mainstream Opposition parties and, significantly, from within the ruling coalition, the so-called Christian parties, the various Kerala Congress groups, and the IUML criticised the statement. The IUML was highly agitated. After a visit to Marad a day or two later, IUML president, the usually soft-spoken Panakkad Syed Mohammad Ali Shihab Thangal, immediately dissociated himself from the government efforts to solve the Marad issue and declared: "He is everybody's Chief Minister. Let him solve the problems which he himself has created." A lone but significant voice supported the Chief Minister - that of the then BJP State president C.K. Padmanabhan.

And, then, surely, K. Karunakaran got Antony where he wanted him to be - on a platter where he could paint him freely as "anti-minority" and "pro-Hindutva" - and as "a Chief Minister who works against the policies of the Congress(I)".

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