Ground report: How a brawl in Kerala’s Chirakkadavu morphed into political violence
A sleepy village, Chirakkadavu seems serene from outside. In a vast compound is the Sree Mahadeva Temple; a few shops on either side of the road in front of the temple; an office of the Co-operative bank in a small building; an auto stand; and private buses on frequent trips to Ponkunnam. Chirakkadavu would attract an outsider for its lush greenery and its calm atmosphere.
But not all is well inside the village in Kottayam district. For almost two months now – since May 14, to be precise – life has been not been the same for the people of the village. That was the day when an altercation between CPI (M) and the RSS-BJP turned violent. That incident led to several others, which led to the imposition of Section 144 in the village on two occasions – the second of which was lifted on Tuesday.
And the 28 days of curfew means that businesses in the region have been badly hit.
“This has never happened before,” a shopkeeper tells TNM. “We have no part to play in the issues, but we are the ones who suffer the most,” he adds.
How it all began
On May 14 around 7 pm, an altercation began after a car passed near the Mahadeva temple. A few men were standing near a bike. The car brushed the bike – whether it was accidental or not, no one knows. But this resulted in an altercation – the men in the car were CPI (M) members, and those standing near the bike were RSS workers.
Soon, the altercation turned violent. And by next morning, a charged atmosphere prevailed in the otherwise peaceful village. Three men, Vishnu Raj, Sajan and Renjith, who belong to the CPI (M)’s youth wing, DYFI, were injured in the attack. Eight houses and 15 vehicles, of the BJP and RSS workers, were vandalised.
The attack was not isolated, but a manifestation of the tension that prevailed in the region in February – when offices and flag posts of both the parties were vandalised. Why? No one knows.
Back then, the Regional Transport Officer held a peace meeting which resolved the issue; but the peace was shortlived.
The second wave of violence
The tension that began on May 14 led to a series of violent incidents.
On June 6, 22-year-old Suraj S Nair, an RSS activist, was injured in an attack by a group of people who followed him in vehicles when he was riding his bike along with his friend Arjun.
On June 8, Kunnath Ramesh, RSS Taluk Sikshan Pramukh, was hacked. Thirty-year-old Ramesh’s legs were severely injured in the attack and he almost lost his left leg. Two other RSS workers Athul and Parayil Satheesan were also injured in the attack. Mukesh Murali, a local leader of the CPI (M) was arrested in connection with the incident. But the CPI (M) defended the attack, saying it was to protect the family of Mukesh Murali from the RSS workers who had gathered in front of his house.
On June 12, District Collector BS Thirumeni, based on the report of the police, declared Section 144 in the region for 14 days. The 144 was imposed on wards 14, 16 and 19. On June 14, the Collector held a peace meeting in which representatives of all the parties took part.
But just 10 days later, on June 24, ML Ravi, a CPI (M) worker was seriously injured in an attack. Following this, the Collector extended the 144 to all 18 wards, again for 14 days.
The latest incident of violence was reported on Monday night: Two cars, one parked outside a house and one parked on the road, were vandalised by unidentified assailants.
It happened on the day when the 144 was about to be lifted.
How business has been affected in the region
Ponkunnam is the only town that falls under Chirakkadavu panchayat, ruled by the CPI (M). The 144 imposed on the region has adversely affected the business of the town like never before.
A rough estimate by the traders suggests that they have collectively incurred a loss of around Rs 2 crore in the past month.
The business in the town is kept moving mostly by the daily wage workers and farmers. The imposition of Section 144 means that the shops needed to be shut at 8 pm – while the peak time for the businesses was between 7.30 pm and 9 pm.
Yusuf CM, a former member of the Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi executive committee, is the owner of a fancy and stationary shop, and has rented out some other shops too.
“Five of my staff were given leave, since I can’t afford to pay salaries to all of them,” Yusuf says. “Now, only two people are working with me.”
“Loss is loss – we cannot retrieve that money. We have lost out on the Ramadan sale too,” Yusuf rues.
Four fast food shops in the town have closed after the imposition of 144. “There were five workers in each shop, now they all have lost work,” says Tomy Dominic, Secretary of Vyapari Vyavasayi Samithi.
“There are five hospitals including the government Taluk hospital. The hospital canteens usually close at 7 pm. The fast food shops were the only ones serving the patients and their relatives who came to the hospitals. The nearest big town is Kanjirappally – six kilometres away. Koorali, a small town, is three kilometres away. Ponkunnam’s loss turned out to be Kanjirappally and Koorali’s gain,” Yusuf explains.
“Everyone’s business – big or small – has been affected. When we pleaded for exempting Ponkunnam town from 144, the Collector said that it was based on the police report. The police in turn said that it was based on the Special Branch report,” Tomy says.
The curfew also affected the turnover of bus operators.
“We can’t say that all the violence has been caused by political vengeance only, there are anti-social elements as well behind this. What we need is peace and it is the job of the police to ensure that,” Yusuf says.
What the villagers say
The people of Chirakkadavu are unanimous in their view: “Our village has never been like this before.”
After 144 was declared, the village has been waking up to the daily sight of a police van halting in front of the temple. Policemen scattered in groups of two or three, check every private vehicle that enters the village.
An auto rickshaw driver says, “People don’t move much, they don’t come out of their houses often, and hence our revenue has been adversely affected. People who were neighbours, who knew each other, don’t trust each other anymore. They view each other with fear.”
What the CPI (M) says
Vazhur area secretary of the CPI (M) VG Lal says that it was the RSS who broke the consensus reached at the peace meeting.
“It was when the 144 was to end that CPI (M) worker Ravi was attacked. Violence is an agenda of the BJP, they can’t survive without resorting to violence. When they blame the CPI (M) for the violence, they should answer the question of why there is violence in the BJP ruled states, where the CPI (M) doesn’t exist at all,” he says.
“The policy of the BJP and the RSS is to defeat political opponents through violence. By unlashing violence in a CPI (M) ruled state, their agenda is to destabilise the government and set the stage for the 2019 elections by destroying peace in the non-BJP ruled states,” he adds.
The BJP’s version
G Harilal, BJP Chirakkadavu panchayat president, says that the CPI (M) has been resorting to one sided violence for some time now, led by Mukesh Murali.
“They vandalised the BJP office here. In Central Travancore this is the only place where BJP has a block panchayat member, which might have provoked the CPI (M). In the last local body election, the BJP won in six wards and also got a member elected to the Vazhur block panchayat where the CPI (M) had a hegemony. Things here are not in the control of the CPI (M) leadership.”
The Congress watches
Like in many other regions in the state, the BJP grew in Chirakkadavu using the loss of strength of the Congress. Kanjirappally block secretary of the Congress, Jayakumar Kurinjiyil says that the altercation began in the night and the very next morning the violence turned political.
“Since it’s a village, everyone knows each other. The Chirakkadavu and the Cheruvally temples are the centres of all the activities taking place in the village. This is a Hindu majority village and the growth of the BJP has been stable over the past five-six years. Like in other places, they grow with their activities in the temples. Men who participate in temple activities may gradually become RSS workers. We don’t know who began it first, we the Congress would educate people on the need to persist peace,” he says.
Poet and cultural figure of Chirakkadavu P Madhu says that the end result of all this is that people have been reduced to mere subsistence, losing all their human elements. “It was a calm village, everyone was friendly with each other. The atmosphere began to change in the last five years. The clash and violence would create a feeling that politicians are violent. Section 144 has been imposed on innocent people, who have no role in the violence. Recently we conducted well-known writer Ponkunnam Varkey commemoration; we had to get prior permission from the police for that, this was not so in the past. People now have become scared to gather for such public or cultural activities. The impact is that ordinary people may turn apolitical, they would shrink to their mere existence. These acts would dehumanise people which is frightening, everything which is human would be lost,” he warns.
The police however is tight lipped on the whole issue. Ponkunnam Circle Inspector K R Mohandas’s sole reaction to the queries was, “We have booked people and the investigation is on.”