In Kannur’s spiral of political violence, the perpetrators are indistinguishable from the victims amid the propaganda war between the warring political entities bent on levelling scores.
When it was decided that the theme for our book club discussion for August was 'revenge', I immediately knew which book to pick for reading. Kannur: Inside India's Biggest Revenge Politics, written by Ullekh N. P., is important to me for personal reasons. I am from Kannur and have firsthand experience of the vicious cycle of revenge politics. Inside Kannur, when I said my home was at Pattiam, I could feel a sharp look from others. Anywhere inside Kerala, when I told them I was from Kannur, they gave me the same look. The writer Ullekh is also from Pattiam and happens to be the son of a very famous politician and Member of Parliament, Pattiam Gopalan, who is one of the Communist leaders responsible for making the village a Party stronghold. So for me, reading this book is essentially a part of my inquiry into my own past.
I was born in a small maternity clinic in Thalassery (which was later turned into a Lower Primary school), and I was fortunate enough to get educated in the same room into which I was born. I remember my parents recounting those days of terror when CPM and RSS were at loggerheads with each other and every day one member of either party was killed off as revenge for the killing of the other. The killings were reported like football scores in newspapers, and each party murdered desperately for that elusive equaliser.
The place I was brought up, Pattiam, a quaint village ten kilometres from Thalassery, was one of the epicentres. We were secure to some extent because we lived inside a fortification, where the appearance of a stranger begot a suspicious look and strict inquiries. Murders occurred in many places around us: Panoor, Kathirur, Kuthuparamba, Mattannur, Thillankeri, and so on. After a murder, every man in the village who was politically affiliated absconded for days.
It is with this background that I started reading Ullekh's book about the revenge killings of Kannur. It is easy to dilute such an attempt from the son of an affluent political leader as part of the propaganda war that tries to vindicate the opponents as the sole antagonists. To his credit, the writer has done a great job of placing the blame where it is due—to every political party and leader involved, to a concessionist police force, and to governmental inaction. I would prefer to extend the blame also to the media, which loves sensationalism and trivialization of core issues, and to the political strategy that denies youngsters in Kannur any scope for developing their talent or providing proper employment in the district.
The book does an incredible job of chronicling the history of political unrest in Kannur, listing the reasons that may have made the district so conducive to violence, and also providing a few good solutions that could curb the proliferation of brutality to some extent and replace the unrest among youth with creative outlets. I could see in these pages someone who genuinely loves his roots and is as pained at the notoriety they have achieved over the years as I am. It is evident that he is aware of the developmental scope of Kannur, with its beautiful coastline and green mountains, its immensely bright and talented youngsters who could be a formidable work force with enough creative opportunities, and its rich cultural antiquity.
But simultaneously, an unnatural struggle to move away from the proximity of an ideology that he was brought up with is also evident in his writing. It makes him incapable of any deep analysis of the phenomenon of cyclic violence. What we get in this book is a surface-level look at the history and sociology of the region. It may be worthwhile for an outsider, but all an insider receives is an underwhelming sense of familiarity. The book tries so hard to be nonjudgmental that it becomes jarring to read sometimes. For example, if I could get a rupee for every time the word 'alleged' appeared in the book, I could get a sumptuous dinner in a luxurious restaurant (after all, this is a small book of just 170 pages).
At the same time, the author makes some glaring omissions in his chronology that skew it in favour of the ideology with which he was brought up. For example, when he mentions that the RSS had issues with CPM and also with other outfits like IUML and PFI, he conveniently ignores the long and violent skirmishes that CPM had with NDF and with IUML in Nadapuram, a border town in Kozhikode district, just 20 kilometres from Thalassery. Somewhere else, he mentions RSS and PFI blaming CPM for murders that they committed against one another, but is silent about instances where CPM also did the same when even non-political murders were blamed on RSS. Who can forget the mischievous intent of using an Innova with a label of Islamic text pasted on it for the operation in Onchiyam, in which TP was killed?
But after reading the book in its entirety, I still feel that these instances are mere Freudian omissions by the author. After all, I am perfectly aware of the ideological tentacles that bind anyone born in Kannur and how Herculean an effort is needed to come out of them. With all its shortcomings, this book is an essential read to become aware of the pitfalls that steadfast adherence to ideologies can land a society in.