You can imagine how it is like for a journalist to write a book. It is not easy to shake off a daily habit. Of writing with rules. You have to be balanced, they say, talk to all parties involved, listen to every side. You have to be objective, fair, yada yada.
Ullekh NP knew he would need to speak to a lot of people when he chose to write his book - Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics.
He was born there, he has seen and heard stories. But he was going to rely on data, not stories. He was going to talk to the people who had been there. The people who experienced, the people who witnessed. And the people who maintained the records.
It must have hurt him that the place he grew up became known for its political killings across the country. By all political parties, but mostly known for the political violence by RSS-BJP and CPI(M). What really made Ullekh, a journalist with the Open magazine, write the book now are the ‘excessive doses of misinformation in the air about Kannur’s political violence’.
“Those were the result of the RSS-steered Redtrocity
He wouldn’t blame them, he says. They deserve his ‘thanks’ for being the inspiration to take up this challenge now. Of putting the spotlight ‘on the true picture of violence in this northern part of Kerala’. “The RSS is not a victim here, as they claim in their national campaigns. Nor are the Marxists engaging in some kind of resistance against Hindutva fascists as they suggest.”
Ullekh has made it clear in the beginning that he grew up as the son of a senior Communist leader, Pattiam Gopalan. But he wasn’t going to let his past affiliations guide him. He spoke to leaders of both the parties, he spoke to policemen. There is an extended interview of the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who even speaks of his younger days when he was accused in a murder case.
“The court later threw out that case. You can read about all that in detail in the book ... RSS veterans such as P Narayanan and J Nandakumar were equally enthusiastic to talk to me and share their views on the subject. Mr Narayanan, who is from Thodupuzha, is a walking encyclopaedia of sorts when it comes to the geography of Kannur. He had worked in north Malabar in the 1950s and 1960s, and he is blessed with an elephantine memory,” Ullekh says.
He agrees the Marxists have to share the blame ‘for infusing toxic masculinity and the mafia-like revenge culture in Kannur politics’, while the RSS has to be called out ‘for their bigotry and divisive ways to gain a foothold in the area’.
“The Sangh in Kerala and especially in North Malabar has been desperately trying to gain in popularity and electoral strength. It has been a frustratingly long wait for the organisation,” the writer says.
“The state unit of the BJP is yet to emerge as a force to reckon with and its leaders are in a tearing hurry to make an impact. Notably, BJP President Amit Shah is known to have conceded that the Redtrocity campaign, aimed at inviting sympathy among Hindu voters within the state and without, has not worked in Kerala,” Ullekh adds.
It is the other campaign that he is worried about, the ‘massive misinformation campaign’. And this is what he tries to give the correct picture of through his detailed research, including histories of both the parties and their iconic leaders.
“Since I was sure I was going to deal with an extremely sensitive political debate, I had decided that I would speak to as many people as possible. My goal was to be fair. Above all, one needs to be brave enough to speak the truth even if you have to swim against the tide. I did that too,” Ullekh says.
He got his information from police records, through his sources and contacts, and also several RTI pleas. “It wasn’t always easy to collect information about how killer squads of various political parties train and act, but thanks to my contacts and my credentials as a local guy I was able to do it without insurmountable difficulty.”
There were stories and revelations that surprised him too. “I was appalled by the insensitivity of the killers who care two hoots about the consequences of a murder in cold blood. Most of them have no sense of guilt whatsoever.”
About Kannur, he has a simplistic yet interesting observation: “RSS, the self-appointed custodians of the Hindu faith, end up finishing off Hindus who are affiliated to the Marxist party while the CPI (M), crusaders of the working classes, eliminate mostly workers affiliated to the Sangh. The CPI (M) thinks this is some sort of a class war and the RSS thinks they are battling a genocide of Hindus in Kannur -- it would be funny if it wasn't so devastatingly tragic.”
Tragedy has once again come to Kerala, when a 20-year-old student leader of the SFI was killed in Kochi on Monday. Members of the Campus Front of India, the students’ wing of the PFI (Popular Front of India) came into the hostel premises and killed Abhimanyu with a single stab.
Coincidentally, Ullekh’s book narrates an incident towards the end, when a group of assailants pounced on a local leader of the BJP, Sushil Kumar, with a surgical knife. The injured Kumar had blamed the CPI(M) but the police found that Campus Front workers were behind the attack. Ullekh quotes the Kannur town DSP P Sadanandan as telling that the attack followed a spate of clashes between Campus Front and ABVP students. And yet Kumar chose to blame the CPI(M) until the police called his bluff.
“Campus politics in Kerala has always been volatile. As a former student leader I should know. It is often the case that students end up being part of mass mobilisations. There is nothing wrong with that. After all, students have played a pivotal role in revolutionary movements worldwide,” Ullekh says.
But, he adds, when you look specifically at Kerala, you find that the use of force to settle petty scores often leads to disasters and tragedies. Such instances are too many. “Students should be encouraged to engage in intellectual debates, not in physical fights.”
Read an excerpt from Ullekh’s book here: Breaking down Kannur’s violence and why it’s caught in India’s bloodiest revenge politics