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'Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics' review: Vendetta rules

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, the desire for revenge is an adaptation that humans have inherited from our past. Michael E. McCullough, American psychologist and author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct (2008), shows how the trait serves as a deterrent. A bully who knows that though his bullying may bring him some advantage (food shelter, a good mate) the transaction cost he incurs (wounds, loss of status if he loses the fight) turns that advantage into half. So, the bully thinks twice before he decides to bully. The deterrence advantage of this adaptation appears to be rendered inactive among workers of rival parties in Kannur district of Kerala, especially those of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Sangh Parivar. Both sides have shown time and again their willingness to avenge, no matter how costly it is.

‘Sicily of Kerala’

In the political matrix of Kannur, located in Kerala’s northern parts known as Malabar, the Old Testament principle of “Whoso sheddeth blood will have his blood shed” is the rule that drives the culture of cyclical vendetta bordering on tribal warfare, except that ideological loyalty is substituted for tribal affiliation. Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics by Ullekh N.P., who is a native of the district and son of a late leader of the CPI(M), captures the nature of the political blood feud among the ideological opponents in Kannur which he calls the Sicily of Kerala. The political rivalry in Kannur, he notes, resembles a mafia-like operation where if you don’t avenge the killing of a gang member, you are immediately treated as a non-entity.

The new ideological tribalism ossified over the past several decades in this part of the region of Kerala has its own roots which the author rightly identifies as the emergence of political identities as a catalyst for social change.

Unlike in the southern parts of the State, it is political affiliation, rather than caste, that has become a prominent identity in the Malabar region. Political violence in the district is the manifestation of the turf war between two competing ideologies.

For the CPI(M), Kannur district is its bastion and most of the party’s top leaders in the State including Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and party State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan hail from the district. The Sangh Parivar’s attempt to make inroads into CPI(M) strongholds is the main source of conflict.

Every incident of violence tends to be turned into a narrative where facts vie with fiction. The author acknowledges that in Kannur’s spiral of political violence the perpetrators are indistinguishable from the victims amid the propaganda war between warring groups.

Fact vs fiction

A 2006 case of murder of a National Development Front (now Popular Front of India) worker Muhammad Fazal at Thalassery, which the book has mentioned, is a good example. The murder occurred when Kodiyeri Balakrishnan was Home Minister. Though the CPI(M) accused the RSS of the murder, the CBI, which probed the case following a writ filed by the victim’s wife in High Court, arraigned as accused eight CPI(M) workers, including two local leaders, in the chargesheet. Last year an RSS worker arrested in another case of murder was claimed to have ‘confessed’ in police custody that the RSS workers including himself were involved in the murder of Fazal, though he later retracted his confession stating that he was tortured by police into making the ‘confession’ which was leaked to a section of the media. The author says that the ‘inconsistencies’ in the probe lends credence to the CPI(M)’s ‘version’ of the murder. But the CBI court has not entertained the supposed inconsistencies as it has dismissed a plea seeking further investigation into the case.

The book uncritically presents a menagerie of fancy theories presented by local worthies about the culture of retaliatory violence in Kannur. One of them is that the retaliatory violence in the region is a remnant of the hired gun culture of Chekavars (local warriors trained in kalarippayattu who had been handpicked by local rulers to engage in duels). A local spiritual guru attributes the present violence to the curse of ancestors. A whole chapter is dedicated to pet theories of a former senior police officer. Prominent among them is the theory that people of Kannur inherited a martial nature because of repeated racial mixing with martial classes.

The book is not without inconsistencies while explaining underlying factors of the political blood feud in the region. While at one place the author says that Kannur has seen politicians throwing open challenges to their rivals in a stark display of masculinity in politics, at another place he presents Communists’ use of force in the past as a form of resistance. The flipside of the resistance argument is that the same logic can be applied by the Sangh Parivar today to claim that it is using force to resist the CPI(M) which politically controls large parts of the district.

Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics; Ullekh N.P., Penguin/Viking, ₹499.


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