Between hope and fear

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

In Marad, there is hope, amid fear, after the peace agreement. Only when the government machinery lowers its guard will it be known whether it is yet another false dawn.

in Marad

THEY were walking into an uneasy calm, along the same path they had fled five months earlier. It was a strange sight in an empty neighbourhood. Conservatively attired Muslim women, escorted by a few khadi-clad men lugging vessels, provisions and firewood, and policemen, government officials, television crew and photographers. Occasionally, cold, unwelcoming eyes peered at them from the houses. The women finally said, "that is our home", and looked aghast. The `home' had no doors, the windowpanes were shattered, the furniture was broken, and there were signs of looting. Someone shouted: "Here they come, with the press and some Gandhians. Where were you peace brokers when they killed our people?"

A day after the government-initiated rehabilitation of Muslim families began, Marad, which had in five months become the bastion of the `Marad Arayasamajam', a Hindutva community organisation of local fishermen, was once again telling the world that memories still torment.

"They have shattered our lives. They don't realise what they have done," said Siddique, a fish vendor who had returned home with his wife and son after five months in a relief camp. His house was a shambles. The doors have been plucked away. A paan shop he had started nearby looked worse than a hen house. His wife called out to a group of women watching them intently from the compound beyond: "Edathiye" (sister). The hot, salty breeze carried the reply: "Phoo, lousy lot. We have nothing to do with you." Siddique lowered his eyes. Then he held his son close.

Marad is about 12 km from Kozhikode. At the entrance to Sagarasarani, as the narrow road leading to the beach is called, every vehicle is stopped by the police for scrutiny. At the other end, at the junction where it hits the beach road, is a big police camp. On May 2, the day of the second bout of blood-letting, there were a handful of policemen there in Marad (Frontline, June 6). Now there are over 700, about a third of the police force of Kozhikode district. In addition, a group of peace volunteers belonging to the Gandhi Peace Foundation, the Kerala Sarvodaya Mandalam, the Madya Nirodhana Samiti and some other organisations have set up a tent nearby. "There is too much tension in the air. We don't expect the healing process to be an easy one. After all, nine people were killed. Shedding distrust and prejudices is a long way off," a peace camp leader K. Gopinathan Nair said. A senior police officer told Frontline: "It is like putting cats and dogs together in a cage and then asking the police to keep them calm."

The massacre on the beach early this year was in retaliation for the murder of three Muslim men in the riots of January 2002, in which two Hindu fishermen had also died. It came at a time when the two communities were trying to forge permanent peace. The hurt and anger at the turn of events were so palpable that within the next few days all the Muslim families at Marad, nearly 400 to 500 of them, had fled to three relief camps or to the houses of relatives or friends. What followed was a systematic, belligerent Sangh Parivar campaign. It demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry in order to prevent the return of Muslim families and used a series of high-profile visits by Union Ministers I.D. Swamy and O. Rajagopal, national and State leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, including Pravin Togadia, and the Marad Arayasamajam to convert Marad literally into Hindutva territory.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, even Chief Minister A.K. Antony visited the village only with the help of the Arayasamajam leaders, and uneventfully at that. His Cabinet colleagues, and members representing the area in the Assembly and the Lok Sabha, especially those from the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest constituent of the ruling coalition, could not accompany him to the beach. Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and other Opposition leaders were compelled to return from the village in the face of extreme hostility by men and women rallied under the Arayasamajam's unseen banner. When the bodies of the victims were brought home, Marad literally became a mobilisation platform for the Arayasamajam and the BJP-RSS-VHP combine which guided it from outside. But the visitors who came to console could only watch in helpless silence as the grieving families demanded justice "not sympathy".

The government ordered the constitution of a special investigation team (SIT) of the Crime Branch of the police and within two months, the SIT finalised a charge-sheet against 150 persons. Five of the key accused are at large. Charge-sheets were filed also against five children. Significantly, a majority of those arrested were members of various mainstream political parties. Some were known activists of the NDF, an extremist Islamic fundamentalist organisation variously known as the National Democratic Front, the National Defence Force and the National Development Fund, which claims to have supporters in every political party. But all of them were Muslims and among the key accused were close relatives - brothers and sons - of Aboobecker, a local Muslim leader who was killed in the communal violence in 2002.

The SIT report said the operation was carried out to avenge the killings of those murdered in 2002 and to foment communal riots in the coastal areas. The police ruled out the involvement of any outside element and said no political party or any other organisation had supported the conspiracy. The SIT also found that the conspiracy was hatched eight months earlier at the local mosque, and that the conspirators met at several places on the beach and at a lodge in Kozhikode. Over a hundred swords and knives, some of them blood-stained, country-made bombs and other weapons were recovered from the local mosque and some houses on the beach. The police arrived on the scene to find a huge crowd of Muslim women blocking the narrow gate to the mosque, where many of the perpetrators had sought cover. The then DGP, K.J. Joseph, described the police finding thus: "It was not a communal riot, but murder, pure and simple, which had a communal background."

But given the stiff resistance from the Sangh Parivar organisations, it took three more months for the Antony government to start the rehabilitation of Muslim families. On October 5, Antony announced that a "miracle" had happened and that a resolution to the Marad crisis had finally been found. Rehabilitation began on October 11, with the concurrence of the Parivar leaders, who reached an agreement in Kozhikode with Muslim leaders, including Minister P.K. Kunhalikkutty, under the auspices of the Gandhi Smaraka Nidhi. Other mainstream political parties were kept away even from the final discussions that took place at the Chief Minister's residence in Thiruvananthapuram.

Conceding the demand of the Sangh Parivar organisations, the government agreed to conduct a "partial" CBI inquiry into certain aspects of the case, "provided it was allowed under the law". The Central agency was to inquire specifically into the conspiracy behind the May 2 incidents and into whether the perpetrators had inter-State or extremist links.

Under the terms of the consensus, the rehabilitation of Muslim families was to start immediately, even before the government tried to solve the legal tangles of conducting a "partial" CBI inquiry in a case in which the State police had submitted a charge-sheet. The government also announced an ambitious development package for Marad and a slew of placatory measures: Rs.10 lakhs each to the families of the eight Hindu fishermen killed in the incident; Rs.5 lakhs or Rs.3 lakhs each to those injured, depending on the nature of injuries; employment to a dependent of each of the eight persons killed; and compensation for all those who lost houses, fishing gear and household utensils. A local police station was to be established at Marad, and a Coast Guard station at nearby Beypore.

WHAT has all this done to Marad and its people? The agreement lends hope of short-term peace. But it also generates long-term concerns, as Frontline found during a three-day visit. In most homes there was festering bitterness, if not hatred, towards the other community. There was little sign of people wanting to renew friendships. Women still cry and fume about the murder of their husbands or sons. They show wedding photographs to visitors and speak hatefully about Muslim neighbours, whom they say they saw brandishing swords and bombs that evening. In retrospect, they believe that a whole lot of strangers who used to frequent their neighbourhood were plotting all the while to kill their dear ones. Women were most bitter when they spoke about "neighbours who knew of it all along" and yet did not warn them. Some, they say, quietly left the village just before the incident. Others had shared food with them the previous day, but did not warn them.

Young men too, some of them with wounds still to heal and fingers surgically joined, displayed disturbing determination in the way they spoke about their neighbours. Their brothers had been killed or maimed and their livelihood shattered. "Now the government is bringing them back with fanfare. My sons were injured seriously and cannot go out to sea. We made the mistake of trusting them," said Sugunan, father of two young men.

Despite the peace accord, religious polarisation is still pronounced in Marad, though remaining beneath the surface. In the initial days, in most of the rehabilitated Muslim families, which are so registered in government records, only women members were at home most of the time, especially at night. Every other house was a police camp. Many Muslim houses remained empty, their doors and windows wide open, ceiling fans contorted, furniture broken, walls and parapets damaged, power supply disconnected, and wells polluted.

Muslims, too, are bitter and angry, but subdued in expressing them. Mustafa, a fisherman-turned-boat owner (after a stint in the Gulf), is one of the few voices of sobriety. But he is worried about the change in the attitude of his neighbours, including childhood friends with whom he used to go out to sea till "troubles started". Clearly, most Muslim families are nervous about restarting their lives in the village. Their worries seem as real as those of the Hindu families.

The sharpest Hindu protests were against the rehabilitation of family members of the accused involved in the May 2 killings. About 25 families whose members are among the accused were brought to a nearby school on the second day of the rehabilitation process, but in the face of stiff protests they were forced to stay there instead of proceeding to their homes. Among them were the wife and daughters of Aboobecker.

Sumayyat, Aboobecker's daughter, demanded justice when Frontline spoke to her. "We too are pained at the loss of our dear ones. The government has provided Rs.10 lakhs as compensation to each of the victims. Yet they are now against our rehabilitation. The government is trying to pacify them, but it is denying justice to us. My brothers are innocent. We want justice. We will not leave this school unless my brothers are released from jail," she said.

The secretary of the `Marad Arayasamajam', T. Suresh, who was a key signatory in the peace agreement, told Frontline: "Though we agreed to this rehabilitation, we now find that the Muslim families who return home into the midst of a community which has lost eight lives and has suffered a lot of pain and hurt have a defiant, triumphant, attitude. They display no remorse. They act as if they have won a victory over us. Moreover, they also seem to have an attitude that if eight of our men were killed, we have been sufficiently compensated by the government. They have put a price tag of Rs.10 lakhs on us. They are not bothered about the pain that this society is going through. Such arrogance and defiance is evident in all their activities."

Suresh, whom Frontline met at the Arayasamajam's office among many doting supporters, is, in a way, a symbol of the psychological climate that exists in the fishermen's colony. He is proud to announce to the world: "I was born here. I was brought up here. I am a fisherman and have been a member of the Arayasamajam from the 1970s. I have held all important positions in the Samajam, except that of the president. I rose through the RSS. When my work proved a hindrance for everyday RSS activity, I joined the BJP, a party in which I have held several important local responsibilities. Now I am the secretary of the Arayasamajam. I have no hesitation in saying that all members of the Arayasamajam are RSS supporters. Nobody sings a different tune here. Our activities are fully supported by our leadership."

As against such supreme confidence, the local Muslim community faces a leadership vacuum, which is a serious problem for the peace-makers. About 150 of the local Muslim men are in jail and many of the others have not returned home. The community, therefore, is pulled in different directions by organisations that try to influence their actions. In short, there appears to be nobody at the local level who can take decisions on behalf of the community, to engage in a dialogue or to moderate emotions. However, more startling is the absence of effective, secular political activity by the mainstream parties, which have virtually been sidelined.

Asked whether the absence of a strong local Muslim leadership is not a hindrance to finding a real solution to the communal tension in Marad, Suresh said: "We do not feel that it is such a major hindrance. From experience, we have understood that the local Muslim leaders involved in the peace moves earlier themselves took part in the planning and helped in the execution of the attack later. So just because the Muslim community is able to find a leadership may not mean that there will be peace in Marad."

Pinarayi Vijayan told Frontline that it was Antony who allowed a situation to develop wherein even the Chief Minister had to seek the RSS' permission to visit a part of the State. He said: "They then raised a condition that Muslims cannot enter the village. That too was accepted by the government. Condition after condition was imposed. How can a secular government ask one section of people to evacuate their homes in order to solve a communal problem? Here, the RSS is trying to impose its Hindus-alone policy in a region."

The dominance of the RSS-supported organisation in Marad has caused the most concern among Muslim organisations, especially those with extremist views. The NDF's supreme council member P. Koya told Frontline: "The government succumbed to the pressure tactics of the RSS. Muslims left their homes because the police asked them to. By delaying a decision till October, the government allowed the Sangh Parivar to run a long-drawn-out, vicious campaign against Muslims. In Marad, RSS activists who are guilty of the crimes committed during the 2002 incident are roaming around freely. [A charge-sheet is yet to be filed on the Marad 2002 violence.] The Sangh Parivar has, however, utilised the present opportunity well to claim that Hindus are being annihilated at Marad."

Koya said that the Sangh Parivar had gained so much political mileage out of the event that his organisation did not think a Hindu backlash would take place at Marad. "At least, not in the near future," he said.

Pinarayi Vijayan accuses the Antony government of faltering at every step in handling the Marad problem. "Immediately after the first bout of murders, the government entrusted everything, including the power to control the police, to representatives of the two communities. The result was that the real culprits were let off and persons whom both sides did not favour or found to be their enemies were declared as the accused. When the real culprits roam around freely in their midst, what will be the reaction of the families of the victims? Thus resentment grew on both sides and they prepared themselves to retaliate. At an opportune moment the Muslim fundamentalists unleashed their fury first, killing nine," he said.

Interestingly, according to Arayasamajam secretary Suresh, what worries his organisation most now is the fact that the areas adjoining Marad are a "sanctuary of Muslim fundamentalist forces". "Our organisation is the strongest and most well-organised threat that such forces face in the region. Our destruction is a pressing need for them. Therefore we fear that they may attack us in some other fashion."

Is there any hope of the fishermen community in Marad delinking themselves from such organisations? Are not there a lot of ordinary people on both sides who want to lead peaceful lives, free of communal tensions? Says Suresh: "Given the present circumstances, a Muslim who holds such ideas of peaceful coexistence will have no place within the Muslim community in Marad. He will be pushed out. This fear of being chucked out makes people who hold such views join hands with the extremist and fundamentalist forces." But would the same allegation not stick on his organisation too? "People are free to raise the same allegation against us. But no one will be able to prove it. Because we have not indulged in violent activities," he said.

According to Dr. M.P. Mathai, Professor, School of Gandhian Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, there were a lot of young men in the area who refused to be part of the peace effort and distanced themselves from the normalisation process in the village. He found that to be the most troubling aspect in the rife-torn village, where he is a peace volunteer.

One look at the face of the rugged young man whose hand still sports a bandage is enough to know how challenging the peace process is going to be. Only when the government machinery lowers its guard will it be known whether it is yet another false dawn in Marad.

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