It was with renewed hope that Palakkad district celebrated Vishu on April 15, shaking off the worries that had plagued its people for the last two years following the COVID-19 pandemic, dampening spirits and taking the joy out of the Malayalam New Year’s day festival. As restrictions gave way to festivities, music and the aroma of food filled the air. Then came the news of a murder and everything came to a standstill as it were, stopping people in their tracks. This was followed by another murder, a gruesome tit for tat.
A Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) worker, A. Subair, 44, was hacked to death allegedly by a gang of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) men while he was heading home after attending ‘jummah’ prayers at Elappully village. He was murdered in front of his father Aboobacker.
While Subair’s body was being taken home after post-mortem at the Palakkad General Hospital on Saturday, a gang of alleged SDPI men barged into the auto shop of a 45-year-old RSS worker A. Sreenivasan at Melamuri, some 20 km away from Elappully, and murdered him brutally. The back-to-back murders in less than 24 hours left the two families devastated as both lost their primary breadwinners. As communal tension prevailed, Palakkad sunk into gloom. “I still can’t believe my eyes. What have I done to see my son being slaughtered in front of my eyes,” sobbed Subair’s father Aboobacker as his widowed daughter-in-law Zeenath lay in her bed inside their house at Elappully. Zeenath, wearing her white prayer dress, remained inside the house as her children, Shuhaib, Sahad and Sajad — all of them in school — came out to greet those who had arrived to console them. Subair, popular in the neighbourhood, ran a small restaurant adjoining his house. It remained closed as the burial took place at the Elappully Juma Masjid graveyard on Saturday.
Sitting inside Subair’s tiny restaurant, his mother Nafeesa is reciting the Koran. The entry to the murdered man’s house is through the restaurant he managed. From the house, she could watch the spot on the Pollachi-Palakkad highway where her son was felled and butchered. It was only 200 metres away from the house.
At Melamuri in Palakkad town, Sreenivasan’s widow Gopika is inconsolable. A teacher of Karnakiyamman Higher Secondary School at Moothanthara, Gopika and Sreenivasan adored their daughter Navaneeta, a student of Class 7. She is still in shock.
A former physical trainer of the RSS, Sreenivasan, people say, was friendly and helpful. He played an active role in different organisations such as Karnaki Seva Sangham, Pranavam Art and Culture Forum, Seva Bharati, and Vegetable Traders Forum. “We never imagined such a tragedy would strike my family,” says Mohanan, Sreenivasan’s father-in-law.
Though Sreenivasan had planned to go to Palani along with his friends on Saturday, he cancelled the trip at the last minute as he expected several friends and relatives to arrive for a temple festival at Pallippuram village. “We never knew he would leave us in such a manner. When I called him at 11.30 a.m., he talked to me so cheerfully. In about three hours, we saw him dead,” says Saravanan, a friend.
In this region of central Kerala, the copycat murders have revived painful memories of the past. The two killings mirrored the SDPI-RSS murders that took place in Alappuzha in December last year. When SDPI State secretary K.S. Shan was hacked to death by a gang at Mannanchery, Alappuzha, on December 18, BJP OBC Morcha State secretary Ranjit Sreenivas was murdered by another gang in a retaliatory strike at his house at Vellakinar, Alappuzha, the next day.
The murders at Elappully and Melamuri are a reminder of communal clashes at Palakkad town back in the 1970s and in the 1990s. “But for those two undesirable incidents, Palakkad was by and large calm, although there has been communal polarisation in the last few years,” says Akbar Ali, a leading lawyer. As per the 2011 Census, Palakkad has a population of 28.09 lakh, of which 66.76% are Hindus, 28.93% are Muslims and Christians constitute 4.07%.
The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) used to be influential within the Muslim community in Palakkad. When it lost ground, other parties like the SDPI took that space, he points out.
Prior to this, the northern district of Kannur was the battleground to settle scores as reprise killings took centrestage. Slowly, new battlegrounds have been identified with Palakkad joining the list.
The SDPI, the political face of the Popular Front of India (PFI), which in Kerala was formerly known as the National Development Front (NDF), has gained support in the last decade. Elappully, located 15 km from Palakkad town, had witnessed several face-offs between the RSS and the SDPI in this period. The murder of Subair on Vishu was in apparent retaliation for the killing of RSS worker A. Sanjit by an SDPI gang on November 15, 2021. And Sanjit’s murder was to avenge the brutal RSS attack on SDPI worker Sakeer Hussain at Mayamkulam near Palakkad on July 26, 2021. Although Sakeer survived the attack, the seeds of hatred and vengeance have struck deep roots within the SDPI and the RSS.
Unlike the political murders that the State has witnessed, involving the RSS/BJP and the CPI(M) in most cases, the SDPI-RSS killings that have took place in the last five months in Palakkad and Alappuzha have different undertones. They are increasingly being perceived, often deliberately projected by some groups, as communal rather than political. “This is where the real danger lies,” warns social critic M.N. Karassery.
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Both the RSS and the SDPI, an offshoot of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India and the National Development Front, are regarded as communal organisations. To drive home the point, Karassery points to the timing of Subair’s murder. Subair was killed after the second ‘jummah’ prayer of Ramzan, the holiest month for Muslims. It was the day of Vishu as well. “One can naturally presume that the timing of the execution of this heinous crime was carefully chosen with a plan to send a larger communal message,” he says.
The five RSS-SDPI murders that have taken place in Palakkad and Alappuzha in the last five months have many similarities. The modus operandi is similar. In three cases (that of Shan, Sanjit and Subair), the victims were knocked down using cars while they were on motorbikes and then hacked to death. All of them suffered dozens of deep wounds all over. While Sanjit was murdered in front of his wife, Subair was killed in front of his father. Ranjith was hacked to death at his house and Sreenivasan at his shop.
Subair’s killers had used Sanjit’s car to knock him down from his bike, and they left the car at the scene to advertise the vindictiveness of the action. A senior police officer views political and societal polarisation as the primary motive for the Palakkad killings. Vendetta remains a relatively distant reason.
“Targeted slayings have provided a foil to extreme fringe elements on either side of the religious spectrum to depict the opposite community as an incrementally existential threat” is how the police read the murders. The mafia-style hit-and-run operations carried out by the assailants at Alappuzha and Palakkad are strikingly similar.
The police investigation into the Alappuzha killings has revealed that the conspirators used spotters to guide the assailants to their “randomly selected” target. Other backup teams facilitated the getaway of the killer squads via pre-planned escape routes. An investigator says that these revenge murders point to a well-entrenched criminal ecosystem of safe houses, seasoned assassins, escape vehicles, robust legal aid and strong alibis.
Such killer gangs employed by some extreme outfits also profit from crime, given the political cover they often enjoy. The investigator says that trained assailants need not necessarily figure in the suspect organisation’s list of members. They are often a motley crew of motivated and predominantly low-profile youth responding to local situations at the behest of their controllers for some quick money; some are members of mainstream parties, “hiding from the law in plain sight.”
The tendency to celebrate the victims of these revenge murders as ‘martyrs’ is all too evident. In the latest round of killings, the SDPI men were heard raising slogans like “Ya Shaheed, Subair” when they took Subair’s body back home from Palakkad General Hospital. The spirit of a shaheed or martyr was loud throughout the funeral service. And it was no less loud at Sreenivasan’s funeral either. Belligerent cries of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” rose as the RSS worker’s body was taken for the last rites.
“This trend should be arrested. The parties should take a stand to glorify neither the killer nor the victim. The killers should be viewed as criminals. The victims, too, should not be glorified as they are targeted almost invariably for their past deeds,” says Karassery.
Few religious organisations in Kerala look upon the SDPI-RSS murder victims as heroes or martyrs. The Kerala Muslim Jamat (KMJ), the orthodox Sunni group led by Kanthapuram A.P. Aboobacker Musliar, says that the SDPI has been promoting its own ideals and it does not represent the Muslim community. “It’s taking recourse to the religion to promote its objectives. It doesn’t have any monopoly over the community,” says KMJ State secretary Wandoor Abdurahman Faizy.
Poet and social critic Alankode Leelakrishnan frowns on the “barbaric and uncivilised manner” being followed by the SDPI and the RSS in settling scores between them. “We are living in a modern world. The way people are being mercilessly butchered with machetes and knives cause revulsion,” he says. “If we can’t check this dangerous trend, our next generation will not be able to share the same love, trust and camaraderie that Kerala society has been enjoying for long,” he cautions.
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The government, particularly the Home Department handled by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, has come under criticism for failing to prevent the revenge killing that occurred within 24 hours of the murder of Subair. “The police should have anticipated an SDPI attack on Sangh Parivar workers and prevented it. Instead of providing security, the police focused on conducting raids in the houses of BJP and RSS leaders,” says BJP State general secretary C. Krishnakumar.
The comments of Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) in charge of law and order, Vijay Sakhare, and Minister for Power K. Krishnankutty suggesting that the police cannot prevent planned murders drew sharp reactions.
The attempt to politically cash in on the murders is already under way, with Union Home Minister Amit Shah now set to attend a public rally in Thiruvananthapuram on April 29 against rising radicalism. Announcing Shah’s arrival, BJP State president K. Surendran, accuses the Kerala government of green-lighting the Islamists to reshape Kerala into a Kashmir. The Chief Minister, he alleges, has sacrificed public peace and secularism at the altar of political expediency by playing second fiddle to fundamentalist outfits.
The CPI(M) reaction was that killers cannot be complaining about law and order. “You are committing murders and then saying that the law and order in the State has broken down. This is ridiculous,” quips CPI(M) State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan.
“The SDPI-RSS gambit to fan religious sectarianism for electoral gain resulted in the Alappuzha and Palakkad killings,” he maintains.
A fight for survival
With their vote share plummeting in the 2021 Assembly elections despite an inflammatory campaign moored to the Sabarimala temple entry issue, the Sangh Parivar had chosen to rally the Hindus under the saffron flag by portraying the Muslims as the ‘other’, he says. While the RSS-BJP combine thrived on stoking anti-Muslim hatred by every means possible, the SDPI sought to exploit the prevailing uncertainty to gain traction in the Muslim community by portraying itself as the sole bulwark against violent majoritarian Hindu communalism, he argues. “Both extremist outfits share a political interest in turning Kerala into a battleground of religions,” he says.
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Not to be left out, the Congress has joined the debate with Opposition leader V.D. Satheesan placing the primary responsibility for religious polarisation on the government. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds simultaneously, he says.
It was in alliance with the SDPI and the BJP in several local bodies. The CPI(M)’s sole agenda is to author the Congress’ ruin, he says.
The Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President K. Sudhakaran claims that when the CPI(M) envisioned a Third Front sans the Congress at its recent party congress in Kannur, it forgot the fact that the Congress is the only national force capable of countering the country’s majoritarian turn orchestrated by the Sangh Parivar.
Amidst the scramble for political brownie points, Prof. Karassery sees a worrying attempt by both the SDPI and the RSS to try and ‘decriminalise’ the murderous assaults carried out by their cadres.
“They are sending out a message to their cadres that there’s nothing criminal about retaliatory strikes. It’s a serious offence. We understand the RSS and the SDPI not from their books, but from their behaviour. Time and again they have proven that they engage in communal and criminal activities, including murder,” he says. It’s also futile to distinguish between majority and minority communalism, as both are dangerous and feed each other, he maintains.
Karassery’s words of caution are lost on BJP cadres. Party officials say that Shah’s visit will galvanise the cadres. As the ideological parent of the BJP, the RSS is pushing hard with the objective of opening more shakhas in all districts of the State by 2025, when it celebrates its centenary.
It has 1,000-odd shakhas in Palakkad district alone.
(With inputs from G. Anand in Thiruvananthapuram)