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Credibility muddle

Print edition : Jun 15, 2012 T+T-

A political murder and its repercussions have left the CPI(M) in Kerala in an unenviable position.

in Thiruvananthapuram

MAY has not been a good month for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala, a State crucial to the party and the Left movement in terms of mass support, resources and pro-people achievements and as the laboratory of their historic struggles for political and democratic rights and development and welfare initiatives. Never in recent history has the CPI(M) in the State been in such a big credibility muddle as it has been since the barbaric killing of former party dissenter and Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) leader T.P. Chandrasekharan near Vadakara in north Kerala on May 4 ( Frontline, June 1, 2012).

Chandrasekharan had been among the crop of relatively young CPI(M) leaders who had been for a while openly posing their own convictions about the party and its ideals against what they often alleged as deviations in the policies and programmes of the CPI(M) under the official State leadership, or the dominant party faction led by State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. They had initially tried to link their dissenting views to the factional banner raised by former Chief Minister and Opposition Leader V.S. Achuthanandan within the CPI(M). Many of them also remained a silent source of strength for Achuthanandan, even calling upon him at times to quit the party when he faced repeated setbacks within the CPI(M), despite his popularity outside and the public approval of many of his positions ( vis-a-vis that of the State leadership) that won elections for the party.

But, as the official leadership tightened its grip on the party, a number of dissenters eventually left the CPI(M) for one reason or the other. Some, including Chandrasekharan, formed the RMP in 2008 following differences of opinion with the State leadership over sharing of the president's post at Eramala grama panchayat with the Janata Dal(S), then a constituent of the Left Democratic Front (LDF). The RMP also became part of an anti-CPI(M) umbrella platform, Edathupaksha Ekopana Samiti (the Left Coordination Council), which was a thorn in the flesh for the CPI(M) in several constituencies, especially in north Kerala, in many elections that came thereafter.

Significantly, in the last local body elections, the RMP emerged victorious at Onchium panchayat near Vadakara while the LDF was ruling the State. (Onchium is a traditional communist stronghold known for the martyrdom of eight members of the banned Communist Party during British rule in 1948.) With that symbolically significant victory, its architect, RMP's Onchium area secretary Chandrasekharan, found his popularity and his and his party's troubles vis-a-vis the CPI(M), too, increasing. In the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, the nearly 21,000 votes that Chandrasekharan got as the Ekopana Samiti candidate in the CPI(M) stronghold of Vadakara played a significant role in the victory of the Congress' Mullappally Ramachandran (now Union Minister of State for Home) there.

The RMP, however, remained largely a pocket-borough phenomenon since its victory at Onchium panchayat, but its nuisance value to the CPI(M) was more than evident. There were several occasions when RMP leaders and cadre organised large party programmes in the area and complained of being threatened and physically attacked by CPI(M) activists.

Kerala generally sought to see the May 4 murder of Chandrasekharan as a natural corollary to such a vicious, one-sided series of physical attacks. Chandrasekharan had in a very short time gained a reputation in the State for his commitment, honesty and gentlemanly behaviour and as an effective party organiser and popular leader. However, he and others like him who left the party and helped the CPI(M)'s enemies had promptly and unambiguously been described by Pinarayi Vijayan as traitors who needed to be kept out of the party. For the CPI(M), they remained potential local threats who could harm the party's interests in the region in the long term and perhaps be a permanent source of strength to the forces opposing the official leadership within the State CPI(M). Chandrasekharan had reportedly even refused the CPI(M) local leadership's subsequent half-hearted offer of a return to the party fold.

Denial mode

After the murder, even as RMP leaders alleged that there had been about half a dozen attempts on Chandrasekharan's life earlier, and his wife described to the media how he had been living under the constant fear of death, the official leadership of the CPI(M) went into aggressive denial mode, refuting allegations that the party had any role in the killing.

North Kerala is not new to political murders, and there were a large number of instances in the past when all the major political parties, including the CPI(M), the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the Muslim League, and religious fundamentalist organisations resorted to the murder of opponents or retaliatory serial killings. But the sheer brutality of the attack on Chandrasekharan had very few parallels in recent years in the State.

Hired killers, almost all of whom the police were able to identify within a fortnight, waylaid Chandrasekharan on that fateful night, about four kilometres from his home at Onchium. They ran him down from his bike, threw bombs and attacked him with swords and other weapons in such a manner that it left over 50 wounds on his body. There were two deep wounds on his face. A blow to his head shattered a part of the skull. His left ear was severed and a part of his face was beyond recognition.

A simple man, a committed young leader from a communist family who had no known personal enemies, was done to death in such a pitiless manner, and there was an immediate outpouring of support for Chandrasekharan, his wife and son and his fledgling party from all sections of Kerala society most prominently, from Achuthanandan, CPI(M) party workers and sympathisers, prominent ruling front leaders led by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, and coalition partners in the opposition LDF, including the Communist Party of India (CPI).

People, among them a large number of his former colleagues in the CPI(M), thronged Chandrasekharan's funeral site and condolence meetings. The RMP had announced that Chandrasekharan's family and friends did not want those who had a role in the murder to come to his residence to offer condolences. Leaders of the CPI refused to be part of the LDF delegation led by the CPI(M) that then visited the nearby areas.

A numbed Kerala had no evidence before it to believe that the ghastly deed was done for anything else other than political enmity and seemed worried about what such a trend, if it was not curbed and the guilty found and punished, portended for the State.

In such a context, it seemed that the most jarring notes heard after the murder were, unfortunately, the aggressive statements of the official State CPI(M) leadership immediately after the event and its actions that followed, including hostile warnings and incongruous public posturings at several meetings about a conspiracy to implicate the party in the murder and veiled threats of the dire consequences that would follow if party workers or leaders were falsely implicated in the case. With Pinarayi Vijayan reiterating his earlier view that Chandrasekharan and his fellows were indeed still considered traitors by the party, and Achuthanandan describing Chandrasekharan instead as a brave communist, the police inquiry that followed and its initial conclusions have only helped highlight the contrast between public perception about the murder and the CPI(M)'s official position on it.

At the time of writing this report, the police had arrested over 14 persons, including several prominent CPI(M) leaders and workers; identified the gang of contract killers; and eventually arrested one of the killers from Mysore in neighbouring Karnataka.

Those arrested or taken in for questioning by May 25 also included CPI(M) area and local committee members who had allegedly helped the hired killers before and after the deed, those who had identified Chandrasekharan for the killers, those who paid them blood money, those who helped hide the murder weapons, and those who helped them find accommodation or escape from the scene of the crime, and so on initial police findings that, indeed, need to be proved in a court of law.

Criticism from within

However, for the State CPI(M) unit, the most discomforting facet of this unsavoury turn of events was the unusually strong criticism that came from within the party. At a press conference, Achuthanandan, who everyone thought had been effectively sidelined in the State party leadership after the last party congress, left no one in doubt that he as the only surviving leader among the 32 founding members of the CPI(M) who had quit the (undivided) CPI in 1964 did not agree with Pinarayi Vijayan, especially on his views about a former comrade who was so cruelly done to death.

The party secretary's opinion need not be the party's opinion, Achuthanandan said, framing his answers in such a way that it immediately drew a comparison between the situation in the State CPI(M) to that which existed in the undivided CPI under chairman S.A. Dange. Pointing out that the 32 members who later founded the CPI(M) had unitedly walked out of the communist party's National Council expressing their opinions against the anti-party revisionist policies of chairman S.A. Dange, Achuthanandan said: Comrade Dange called us class enemies and expelled us from the party. Instead of formulating a united party line through discussions with colleagues on policy issues, Dange had adopted a purely autocratic approach to negate the views of one-third of the council members, after describing them as betrayers of the [working] class and expelling them from the party.

Referring to the growth of the CPI(M) in the 48 years that followed, Achuthanandan said: It is a growth made possible by those who organised the right struggles against the wrongs in the party and fought for right party policies.... Colleagues and others who expressed opinions about the wrong policies of the party should not have been dubbed as betrayers and expelled from the party. The responsibility of the leadership is to hold discussions with such colleagues and take necessary decisions based on it and thus lead the party forward unitedly. When the leadership failed to do it, the comrades who walked out naturally had to form a new party.

More or less similar is the case of T.P. Chandrasekharan at Onchium, Achuthanandan said. When the party refused to hold discussions and did not accept their stand [on sharing power with the JD(S)] in the local [Eramala] panchayat, they left [the party] in protest. They were dubbed as traitors' and it was declared that they would continue to stay out. Subsequently, on May 4, enemies had surrounded Comrade Chandrasekharan, threw bombs at him and hacked him to death. On the very day of that barbaric act came Pinarayi Vijayan's statement that [in translation, meant] traitors will have to stay out of the party forever'. When media representatives sought my comment on it, I said I do not hold such an opinion and that it was solely Vijayan's viewpoint.

Asked whether he thought Pinarayi Vijayan was following Dange's line, Achuthanandan said: Yes. Dange was expelled by his own party. After we left the CPI, serious discussions took place within that party, and the CPI itself expelled Dange. If you look at later events, you will see that they took a position along with other parties to jointly fight the Congress. Then, subsequent party congresses saw party sympathisers joining hands in their hundreds and thousands with those who were earlier described as betrayers of the working class'.

To another question on why, if Pinarayi Vijayan was an autocrat like Dange, it was not challenged before the party leadership, Achuthanandan said: It cannot but happen. The trend to correct wrong policies will naturally grow within the party and the committee. Whatever may have been his political motives, Achuthanandan's critical statements echoed the general opinion in the State that was already deeply worried about the unwelcome tendencies that Chandrasekharan's murder seemed to foretell, namely a penchant within mainstream parties to annihilate dissent instead of confronting it politically and the sad state of affairs within the CPI(M), whose basic pro-people character appeared often as being held to ransom by a spreading culture of arrogance and muscle power and the unseemly compulsions of a never-ending factional feud.

The death of Chandrasekharan, Achuthanandan's controversial press conference on May 12 and a subsequent letter he wrote to CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat and Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury, reportedly seeking a leadership change and threatening to quit his post as the Opposition Leader, had the effect of a bombshell on Kerala politics, on the eve of a crucial byelection at Neyyattinkara on June 2 ( Frontline, June 1, 2012).

His statements and actions have put Achuthanandan once again in an unenviable position within the CPI(M) open to the charge of violating party discipline, albeit for a good public cause, and hence, if found guilty, likely to face further humiliation within the State party or left with the only other option of quitting the party and joining an eagerly waiting but hopelessly weak array of former party colleagues and sympathisers.

Carefully calibrated

But Achuthanandan has not yet given any indication that he is getting ready to choose that ultimate, drastic option. It is clear that, as usual, his attack against the State leadership has been carefully calibrated: even as he has left himself open to the criticism of violating party discipline, he has endeared himself to the general public and a large number of party sympathisers and well-wishers through his views expressed in the context of a former comrade's untimely death. The CPI(M)'s Polit Bureau and central committee meetings, scheduled on June 8 to 10, may not be able to ignore such a curious but familiar political situation that has evolved in the State party after May 4.

Nonetheless, Chandrasekharan's murder and its repercussions within the CPI(M) have put the Congress and its coalition partners within the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), too, in a spot. As the CPI(M)'s legislature party leader, Achuthanandan was instrumental in pressing cases against top leaders of the UDF, including the Muslim League's P.K. Kunhalikkutty (in the ice cream parlour sex scandal case), R. Balakrishna PIllai (in the Idamalayar corruption case) and lately even Chief Minister Oommen Chandy (in the ongoing court cases on the palmolein import deal).

Naturally, once it came to power, the UDF had been aggressively targeting Achuthanandan with allegations in a land transfer case involving a relative in Kasargod district and in several vigilance cases against his son Arun Kumar.

Many UDF leaders would, therefore, prefer not to see Achuthanandan getting a grip on the State CPI(M) once again. But against their best judgment, perhaps, the ruling Front leaders find themselves being forced to back Achuthanandan on the highly emotive issue of Chandrasekharan's murder and its implications, against that of his opponents in the State CPI(M).

It is an extraordinary political situation in Kerala on the eve of the Neyyattinkara byelection in which a disgruntled MLA who resigned from the CPI(M) is contesting from the same constituency as the Congress' candidate. A sensitive question that agitates the entire State, however, is how far, and how independently, the police will be allowed to go with the murder inquiry that has led to such a churning in Kerala politics.