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Kerala's communal challenge

Print edition : Jun 06, 2003 T+T-
The bodies of the victims of the violence being taking for cremation.-RAMESH KURUP

The bodies of the victims of the violence being taking for cremation.-RAMESH KURUP

The violent incidents in Marad in Kozhikode district, which resulted in the death of nine people, have brought to the fore the threat posed by fundamentalist forces to the largely secular Kerala society.

UNTIL January 2002, Marad in Kozhikode district was but yet another fishing hamlet in coastal Kerala. But barely had the New Year celebrations ended, the village shocked secular Kerala by becoming the scene of the most rancorous communal violence in recent memory in the coastal regions of the State. An incident on January 3, 2002, which left five people (three of them belonging to a minority community) murdered, nearly 100 houses destroyed and the boats and fishing gear of hundreds of families destroyed, was reportedly sparked off by a quarrel over the New Year festivities. But given the peculiar demographic pattern in coastal Kerala, one of the most thickly populated regions in the country where people belonging to various religious denominations live interspersed, the spark had in reality ignited a communal bomb.

Marad was never the same again, though normality reigned outwardly. In fact, the village had, for nearly one and a half years since then, given the impression that January 2002 was but a bad dream. The inevitable and routine peace initiatives that followed seemed to bring a sense of effective peace in the region. The State government and its police machinery became complacent. They failed to gauge the suppressed anger and resentment, especially among the youth and the relatives of some of the victims of the violence, and identify unseen forces that were raring to seek vengeance.

On May 3 this year, Marad donned the colour of blood once again. In a meticulously planned and executed operation which was reported to have lasted less than 15 minutes, fundamentalist forces hacked to death eight persons belonging to a particular community and unleashed a reign of terror. One of the assailants too was mistakenly killed by his fellow gang members. A large cache of arms and ammunition, including swords and daggers, and crude but powerful bombs, was subsequently found, including in a place of worship. Over 100 people, belonging to various political parties, were arrested in connection with the violence.

Even a fortnight after the incident, Marad remained terrorised and an uneasy calm prevailed there. Police personnel had been deployed in large numbers and the State government took over the place of worship where arms were discovered. Nearly 500 families of a community had vacated their homes fearing retaliatory attacks. The authorities said they would be unable to ensure the safety of those who wanted to return to their homes at that point. The incidents of May 2003 were planned and brutal but, unlike in 2002, it was unprovoked and one-sided. The village once again was in the grip of communal madness.

Preliminary inquiries by the police seemed to suggest that the events of May 3 constituted retaliatory action engineered by the family members of one of the victims of last year's violence, with the help of some fundamentalist forces, the kind of which are increasingly gaining strength and influence in Kerala.

The incidents at Marad stand out as perhaps the first of their kind in Kerala where Hindu and Muslim fundamentalist forces have locked horns and have deliberately left the embers burning. What they have eventually succeeded in doing is to bring communalism centre-stage in political terms.

Significantly, Kerala's coastal villages have of late become places of high social tension, where the impact of the policies of globalisation and liberalisation have been severe on the fisherfolk who have found their incomes and employment opportunities dwindling. Hence they become easy victims of communal forces that are out to create a base in the State.

It is significant that nine persons were killed at Marad in an incident that had no immediate provocation. It was a manifestation of pent-up communal anger and vengeance, an act that called the attention of the entire State to the fact that the people in the coastal areas were being taught a new lesson: that the only way to resolve the injustices and inequities being suffered by members of any community is to annihilate those of other communities. The message, so far seen only in other parts of the country, was that a community's prestige lay in seeking bloody revenge on members of other communities. The lessons of communal harmony that Kerala had taught so far were being swiftly erased.

THERE was no immediate retaliatory action at Marad. One reason could be the presence of a strong contingent of the police. The other was the fact that a majority of people belonging to a particular community had left the village fearing retaliation. But the situation is bound to change eventually. The police will be withdrawn and those who left the area have to come back.

But statements from the Sangh Parivar leadership suggest that, at least initially, they were out to gain the maximum political mileage from the incidents. Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including Central Ministers, have repeatedly questioned the credibility of the inquiries ordered by the A.K. Antony-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government, especially when the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), whose members are allegedly involved in the incident, is a prominent constituent of the Front. The Sangh Parivar demanded that the government recommend an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which would, in no small measure, help them in their propaganda that Muslim fundamentalism is gaining ground in Kerala just as in Jammu and Kashmir.

The BJP's immediate objective seemed to be to gain maximum mileage from the Marad incident in the context of the coming elections in three north Indian States and in Delhi. The killing of eight people, allegedly by Muslim fundamentalists, in a State where the Congress(I) and the IUML are constituents of the ruling coalition, is a factor that the BJP hopes to exploit in order to gain political points elsewhere. Perhaps it was in response to this that Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi asked Antony to take strong action against the culprits. Unlike in 2002, Antony visited Marad two days after the event and initiated a series of measures aimed at easing tension and providing relief to the victims.

But the fact remains that in the communally surcharged atmosphere that prevailed in Marad in the immediate aftermath of the event, Antony had to seek the help of Sangh Parivar leaders to make his visit to the homes of the victims a smooth affair. In the wake of apprehensions that the presence of IUML Ministers in his entourage would constitute an act of provocation, the Chief Minister had to drop the idea of visiting the area along with his Cabinet colleagues. He finally went alone.

Major Opposition parties have alleged that the Marad incidents are the result of the increasing inability of the Antony-led coalition to control the very communal forces that had helped it come to power in 2001. In this context, there was large-scale opposition to Chief Minister Antony's stand that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's trishul diksha programme was best left ignored and that a ban on such programmes would only help alienate sections of the people from the mainstream. His stand was at variance with the Congress(I) national leadership's position opposing such practices and the stand of other State governments led by the party. Ironically, the political controversy that followed Antony's announcement had the potential to act as a catalyst on the already surcharged communal situation in the State.

Significantly, after last year's incidents at Marad, which had led to an outcry against the growing influence of communal forces in the State, the government went back on its commitment to pursue the cases against the accused. The Antony government displayed a singular lack of interest in pursuing the cases and filing charge-sheets against the accused, several of them members of prominent political parties in the State. Such lack of attention to providing a sense of justice to the victims of one of the worst communal conflagrations in coastal Kerala also helped fuel allegations against one of the IUML Ministers. It was suggested that he had a role in the events. But such serious allegations remained unsubstantiated and were emphatically denied by the IUML leadership as being attempts to weaken the only strong secular force capable of curbing fanatical tendencies within the community.

What is most alarming with regard to the Marad incidents is the fact that once again those arrested during the swift police action that followed them included members of several mainstream, secular political parties who have been active in the locality. It was an indication that fanatical elements had started using their membership in mainstream political parties as a cover for their communal and criminal activities and that the secular base of many a political party in the State was being eroded by communal forces. It also showed how comprehensively communal polarisation was taking place in Kerala, where a large section of the people was being encouraged to think and act in a communal manner, even fanatically so, irrespective of their political affiliations. Seen together with several other facets of this drastic process of communalisation of Kerala society (Frontline, December 6, 2002), the State seemed already on a downhill ride to increased tension and violence.