Two back-to-back killings of political rivals — with communal overtones — in Alappuzha district have shattered the peace. Sam Paul A. reports on the murders of the two friends from rival organisations, and why both the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Popular Front of India are spreading hatred against each other
As twilight descended upon Mannancherry in Alappuzha on Saturday evening (December 18), Fanzilla called her husband K.S. Shan to enquire when he would be home. “Very soon,” was the prompt reply. The couple’s two daughters, Hiba Fathima (12) and Liya Fathima (4), waited, yearning to spend the evening with their busy ‘vappi’ (dad) who was not always around to care for them due to his many commitments. The wait only got longer and ended in tears and tragedy.
Shan, the State Secretary of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political arm of the Islamic organisation Popular Front of India (PFI), also ran an interior design products shop at Mannancherry for a living. Following the brief phone call, Shan, who had already closed the shop, hopped on his motorbike for a four-kilometre ride home to Ponnad (ward 4) in Mannancherry gram panchayat. Once he entered the Mannancherry-Ponnad road, a white car started tailing his two-wheeler. When he reached Kuppezham Junction (Masjid Junction) around 7.30 p.m., the car rear-ended the bike and knocked him down. The intentional road accident and what followed were caught on a CCTV camera on the compound of an under-construction house in the location. Four men jumped out of the vehicle and three violently attacked Shan, who was lying in the middle of the road, with iron rods and sharp-edged weapons. While the assailants carried out the deadly attack, the driver of the car blocked the road by putting the vehicle across. The entire episode lasted less than two minutes and the assailants sped away.
A grievously injured Shan, 38, was first taken to a hospital, 100-metres away before he was shifted to another hospital near Alappuzha. He was later taken to a third hospital in Kochi, where he succumbed to his injuries around 11.30 p.m. A post-mortem examination of his body revealed 50 injuries including stab wounds.
A day later, Dwaraisar lane at Vellakinar in Alappuzha municipality, some 13 kilometres south of Mannancherry was to witness a bloody spectacle. It was around 6.30 a.m. on Sunday (December 19). Septuagenarian Vinodini had just returned from a visit to a nearby temple offering a pooja in the name of his son Ranjith Sreenivas, 45, State Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) OBC Morcha. Sreenivas’s elder daughter Bhagya, 14, had just left the house to attend her tuition classes.
Suddenly, a dozen people carrying swords, machetes and hammers travelling on six motorbikes kicked open the gate of the house and barged into the drawing room. Sreenivas who was preparing to go for a morning walk rushed to the room hearing the noise. Though he was able to ward off the attacks from the machete-wielding men twice, one of the assailants struck his forehead with a hammer. He fell to the floor. When Vinodini tried to intervene, a gang member brandished a machete at her. She fell down and injured her hand. Her face was forcefully pressed to a sofa, while a machete was placed on her neck. The desperate pleas of Lisha, wife of Sreenivas, and younger daughter Hridya, 11, fell on deaf ears. While Lisha was shoved away, someone in the gang waved a weapon at the child. The girl retreated to her room crying. The assailants removed the dhoti from Sreenivas’s body and repeatedly hacked him. He was rushed to a nearby hospital but died immediately.
According to the police, the attacks bear the hallmark of the typical tit-for-tat targeting of political rivals in the State. These communally tinged political killings within a span of 12 hours in Alappuzha, often referred to as the cradle of the Communist movement, have rocked the State raising fears of a possible communal conflagration.
When it comes to political murders, the northern district of Kannur has long been identified as the killing fields. As Kannur and other parts of northern Kerala remain calm in recent times, the theatre of action seems to have shifted to central Travancore. “Both RSS and PFI are religious fundamentalist outfits. The Alappuzha killings are not pure political murders. There was no religious factor in the Kannur murders. Almost all the victims were Hindus (Thiyya OBC). In the south, religious factors are clearly visible. By retaliating within hours, Muslim fundamentalists show that they can take on Hindu fundamentalists,” says social critic and political commentator Hameed Chennamangaloor. Three days after the tragedy, a sombre mood prevails at the house of Shan. Rahuma Beevi, mother of Shan, is unable to come to terms with the loss of her son. “We don’t know why he (Shan) was targeted. When I saw him at the hospital in Alappuzha my son was writhing in pain. I saw deep cuts on his stomach and neck. He had never indulged in violence or hurt anyone. He had always helped others, but still met a horrific death,” says a teary-eyed Salim, Shan’s father, who is an autorickshaw driver.
Abhijith Sreenivas, Ranjith’s younger brother had returned from a visit to Sabarimala shrine the day before, and was sleeping upstairs when all hell broke loose. “I woke up to the desperate cries of my mother and rushed to the ground floor. Before I reached the room, the assailants had left the house. My brother was lying motionless in a pool of blood. His face had been disfigured. I tried to lift him, but I couldn’t. I went out and called the neighbours. A boy came to help but ran away unable to bear the dreadful scene. Later I called the police control room and he was taken to the hospital in an ambulance,” recalls Abhijith, an IT professional.
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Ranjith Sreenivas was a lawyer. His wife too is a lawyer. Theirs was an inter-religious marriage. “To my knowledge, there was no threat to my brother. He had no criminal case against him. As a politician, he used to say things sometimes critical of others. But at the same time he maintained a good relationship with everyone,” says Abhijith.
Link to a February killing
The trigger for the murder of Shan is said to be the killing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker Nandukrishna, 22, by SDPI men on February 24, 2021. It was the aftermath of a dispute that ensued between RSS and SDPI workers over the provocative language used by some of the speakers at a campaign meeting organised by SDPI. In the evening, members of both organisations conducted separate protest marches, ending in clashes at Nagankulangara Junction near Cherthala in Alappuzha. Nandukrishna who suffered hack injuries in the scuffle later died at a hospital. The police had arrested 40 SDPI activists in connection with the murder.
In the immediate aftermath of the slaying, a few shops and vehicles belonging to SDPI activists and sympathisers were torched and burned down in Cherthala. Though it did not snowball into major violence, investigators say Shan’s murder was a “retaliatory strike”, which was “in the making for two months”. The police believe the murder of Shan led to a chain reaction resulting in the killing of Sreenivas. A special investigation team led by Additional Director General of Police, Law and Order, Vijay Sakhare, is probing the twin murders. Sakhare hinted at a high-level conspiracy in the two murders. The police are looking into whether an RSS State leader who was in Alappuzha on December 18 had motivated the assailants to kill Shan. The police have recorded the arrest of around two dozen RSS and SDPI men in connection with these slayings.
Jayaprakash, who sells Kerala lottery tickets by the side of the Alappuzha-Madurai road at Komalapuram on the outskirts of Alappuzha town, does not remember any such horrific incident in the region in the name of politics or faith in recent times. “Last time a political killing happened in our region was the murder of C.G. Francis (Benny) some 25 years ago. Francis, a CPI(M) worker, was killed by RSS men at Pollethai in Mararikulam South grama panchayat,” says Jayaprakash.
Much to confront: Salim H., father of K.S Shan, and his granddaughters, Hiba Fathima and Liya Fathima.
Clash of communal outfits
What gives the recent killings a religious hue is the involvement of the RSS and the SDPI, both considered communal organisations. The SDPI has its roots in the banned Students Islamic Movement of India and the National Democratic Front (NDF). The PFI was formed after NDF, the Karnataka Forum for Dignity and the Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu merged in 2006. The SDPI, the PFI’s political front, which was formed in 2009, calls itself a “socio-political movement that strives for the empowerment of the Muslims and other marginalised sections of society.” Prior to the murder of Sreenivas, SDPI men were accused of the killings of RSS worker A. Sanjith in Palakkad in November, and Students Federation of India activist Abhimanyu in Kochi in 2018 among others.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid is one of the key reasons for the long-running rivalry between the RSS and PFI, says Subash Babu, a retired Superintendent of Police who had spent considerable time in probing extremist elements and led several anti-terror operations in the State. “The RSS is less militant in Kerala compared to some other States largely due to their relative lack of influence on society. In a sense, the PFI can attack the RSS only in Kerala, whereas in other States the Hindu outfit is in a much stronger position. Their rivalry and targeted communal killings are likely to continue in Kerala, but it won’t necessarily snowball into a larger war or riot,” claims Babu.
Both the RSS and the PFI spread hatred against each other as a major ploy to thrive. “If there is no Muslim community in India, there is no scope for RSS. There are a lot of limitations to the consolidation of the Hindu religion or culture. To succeed, they want all Hindus to see Muslims as their enemies. On the other side, Muslim fundamentalist organisations are portraying their community as victims and the Sangh Parivar as hunters. They use the 2002 Gujarat riots and actions of the BJP government at the Centre to fan anti-Hindu sentiments. All these organisations practise communal politics,” says Chennamangaloor.
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According to him, the vote-bank politics of the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) have helped the fundamentalist organisations to expand their footprint in the State.
“Political killings are becoming communal murders in Kerala,” opines political analyst N.M. Pearson. “The CPI(M) and the RSS were the major parties involved in the political killings in the State. After coming to power, the CPI(M) seems to have ditched murder politics. The organisations involved in recent murders utilise religion in order to gain political goals,” says Pearson.
He says that when it comes to vote-bank politics there is no ideology. “We cannot say political parties including the CPI(M) have joined hands or made compromises with communal forces. But at the same time, the recent elections saw secular parties indulging in appeasement of communal groups at the local level and in some places crossing the ideological lines to ensure victory.”
Signs of polarisation
As per the 2011 Census, the total population of Alappuzha was 21.28 lakh. Of this, 68.64% were Hindu, 20.45% Christian and 10.55% Muslim. Murders of this kind or communal violence are not common in the district. But there are signs of polarisation. Following the murders, calls for retaliation and hate-mongering were intense, especially on social media. The remarks — “We aren’t mourning, it’s a march of jubilation” — made by SDPI State General Secretary P.K. Usman during the funeral procession of Shan exemplify it. Political observers feel that despite suffering electoral setbacks, fundamentalist forces like the RSS and the PFI/SDPI have been able to strengthen their base in the district.
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“Alappuzha has not witnessed any real communal problem in recent times. But it is not completely correct to say that the district has always been peaceful. Clashes have occurred in Alappuzha town. There was even a police firing during a Nabidina rally in the 1980s. Intermittent clashes have taken place between Hindus and Muslims in Kayamkulam. Of late, there has been a significant shift in Muslim politics,” says a senior journalist and political observer from Alappuzha.
The rise of Islamic organisations like the SDPI in Alappuzha is in tandem with the eroding influence of the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), both constituents of the UDF. In the 2020 local body polls and 2021 Assembly elections, the LDF swept the elections in the district winning a majority of the local bodies and eight of the nine Assembly seats. “The UDF has become more or less irrelevant in the district. Muslim voters have drifted away from the UDF and aligned with the CPI(M) and SDPI. The CPI(M) has made significant inroads into the Muslim community by creating a sense that they are in the best position to fight the BJP. The SDPI is also pitching itself as a force against Hindu fundamentalist forces. The CPI(M) has consolidated Ezhava (Hindu) and Muslim votes, which is helping them to sweep polls one after another in the district,” the observer adds.
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The targeted political killings have sparked a wave of outrage, partly directed at the district police. Soon after the back-to-back murders, Congress leader and former Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala asked why the local law enforcement had not swamped the streets with officers soon after the first murder, given the communal implications of the crime.
Soon, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan condemned the crime. In an FB post, he urged people to isolate the forces that seek to spread hate and terror in the community. The Chief Minister also promised resolute legal action against the perpetrators.
The CPI(M) sees a political ploy to undermine Kerala’s communal peace, secular character, and law and order record in the Alappuzha killings. According to a press statement from the CPI(M) State secretariat, the Alappuzha killings are attempts from two religiously opposed fanatical forces to instigate a communal conflagration in Kerala. The CPI(M) said they sought to divide society into religious lines for political dividends.
Since the home portfolio is with the Chief Minister, the spate of killings in Alappuzha turned out to be a shot in the arm for the Opposition. Leader of the Opposition V.D. Satheesan said the Chief Minister had outsourced the police station to local CPI(M) satraps. He asked the government to rein in the RSS and SDPI outfits to ensure lasting communal peace.
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BJP State President K. Surendran alleged that the CPI(M) and the SDPI were in cahoots in scores of local bodies in Kerala, and tacitly supported each other in the elections. The police seemed to be supportive of the SDPI, he said. Surendran alleged that the SDPI was an Islamist outfit with secret terror and assassination cells.
Rejecting the accusations, SDPI State General Secretary Ajmal Ismael said the SDPI was a secular and democratic organisation. He alleged that the police had arrested and tortured innocent SDPI workers in connection with the murder of the BJP leader in Alappuzha and made them chant “Jai Shri Ram”. He accused the BJP of derailing public peace.
Critics say the police failed to correctly assess the tense mood and initiate measures to check further violence following the killing of the SDPI leader. The retaliatory strike, which happened less than 500 metres from Alappuzha South police station and less than one kilometre from the District Police office, has baffled the police. However, the police top brass denies any laxity on the part of the force.
Caught in the middle
At Ponnad, villagers are yet to overcome the shock of the brutal murders and the religious animosity which is unheard of in the region. Every year, the Ponnad Muhiyudheen Juma Masjid committee offers water and sweets to participants of the procession marking the celebration of Sree Narayana Guru Jayanthi. Likewise, the Ponnad temple serves payasam (kheer) to members of the Muslim community on the occasion of Nabidinam (Eid-e-Milad). Kushan, a headload worker from Mannancherry, says he has not witnessed the deployment of such heavy security in the area in recent times. “People here live in total harmony. I think the murder of Shan was aimed to stir communal tension in our locality, but it has failed. But, the murder certainly created panic among people.”
“It is not easy to destroy the secular fabric of Alappuzha,” says Shameel, a fruit vendor in Alappuzha town. “But there is always a chance of violence escalating with wide ramifications,” he warns. According to him, a few fringe elements in the two communities are trying to flare up communal feelings.
Though Shan and Sreenivas believed in different ideologies, they were known to each other and remained friends until the abrupt end of their lives. “I am proud of my son. But, no other family should go through this kind of ordeal. The killings should stop now,” says Salim. “Issues of murdering one innocent person do not get solved by killing another,” Abhijith echoes.
With inputs from G. Anand in Thiruvananthapuram