“I am scared, the memories of that day still haunt me,” says Kunjami. The 50-year-old belongs to one of the 50-odd families that have been running from pillar to post to recover the valuables they had lost during the riots that took place on 23 January in Nadapuram panchayat of Kozhikode district, Kerala.
The violence was triggered by the killing of an activist of the CPM’s youth wing, the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI). On the night of 22 January, 20-year-old Shibin Bhaskaran was hacked to death by a gang allegedly linked with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a constituent of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF). Six others, including two Youth Congress activists, were seriously injured in the attack.
The prime suspect, Theyambadi Ismail, who was arrested along with two others from Gudalur, Tamil Nadu, two weeks after the incident, is said to be closely associated with the IUML.
Bhaskaran’s killing was enough to rekindle the long-dormant communal tension between the Hindus and Muslims in the region. In the ensuing violence, the houses of Muslims were looted and set ablaze. Local leaders of the IUML blame the CPM for the violence.
“We had never witnessed violence on this scale,” says Kunjami. “I lost everything, including jewellery and important documents. The marauders burnt everything they came across. They spared nothing, not even the stock of medicines of my ailing father-in-law.”
While the affected villages are limping back to normalcy and the curfew imposed soon after the violence has now been lifted, the police are still keeping a strict watch on the entry of ‘outsiders’. Relatives of the victims, too, have to undergo multiple security checks before entering the villages. Earlier, the CPM had demanded that outsiders should not be allowed to visit the riot-hit villages. Locals allege that the party perhaps did not want people elsewhere to know the full extent of the violence perpetrated by its cadres.
Returning to his home after three weeks, Hameed, 40, says that if the police had been as sincere in their duty at the time of the attack as they are now, people like him would not have had to suffer so much.
Hameed vividly remembers the fateful day. On the morning of 23 January, his pregnant wife informed him that some men were destroying the posters, billboards and flags of the IUML in the streets. Anticipating more trouble, he took their two children to his brother’s house in another locality. When he returned, he saw that a mob of around 200 men was attacking his neighbour’s home.
“Fearing that we would be their next target, my wife and I decided to flee immediately,” he says. “As she couldn’t run fast enough, I had to lift her on my shoulders and run as fast as I could. The attackers had already started pelting stones at our house.”
Tears running down his cheeks, Hameed remembers how he called the police frantically to come to their rescue. “I called them five times and pleaded that they should at least help my wife escape, but to no avail,” he says. Fortunately, an ambulance was passing by and he helped his wife hop on to it before running away.
KM Aboobacker, a local IUML leader and social worker, says that the mob attacked and looted his house as well as that of his son. “First, a group came to identify the Muslim houses. A second group pelted stones to create panic. And a third group barged into houses, looting some valuables and setting the rest ablaze,” he says. The mob that attacked his son’s house threw household items such as a refrigerator, washing machine and LPG cylinders into a well and torched his car and motorcycle.
“Even though the Nadapuram police station is equipped to handle insurgencies, the police failed to stop the violence perpetrated by the mob, claiming that they were understaffed,” says Aboobacker. The marauders were able to roam around freely and perpetrate violence for nearly six hours. Most of the houses had only women and children as the men are mostly employed in the Gulf countries. The police got into action only in the evening, but by then, most of the victims had fled their homes.
Both the CPM and the IUML accused each other of being responsible for the violence, while the Congress desisted from blaming either its rival or its ally.
VV Muhammad Ali, district vice-president of the Muslim Youth League, alleges that the CPM was playing the communal card. “We regret Bhaskaran’s death. It should have been avoided. But we cannot tolerate the way the houses of innocent Muslims were targeted,” he says.
Ali also accuses the police of being in cahoots with the CPM and says that a judicial probe is necessary to bring the facts behind the violence to light and ensure that the guilty are punished. “For quite some time now, a criminal mindset has afflicted the politics in the region. We must put an end to that,” he says. “We want all the communities to coexist peacefully.”
On the other hand, CPM district secretary P Mohanan Master blamed the IUML for the planned attacks on the houses of Muslims. “We strongly suspect a conspiracy behind the violence as it was carried out in front of the police force. What were the police doing? Why didn’t they try to stop the violence? This shows that there was some conspiracy behind the incident,” he says.
The police, however, have rubbished these allegations. “There is no basis to the allegation that the police were inactive. We could not open fire or order a lathicharge when Bhaskaran’s body was being taken to the funeral. No one was injured as we were quick in dousing the fires and shifting the people to safe locations,” says District Police Chief (Rural) PH Ashraf.
Even as the blame game continues, CP Salam, a block panchayat member, resigned from the cpm in protest against the party’s alleged role in the violence. “I was hurt by the callous silence of my party with regard to denouncing the violence. Neither the police nor the political leaders came to the rescue of the people. I resigned to protest against the apathy of the system,” he says.
Salam also rues the fact that no cultural or literary figure of Kerala has denounced the violence even after so many days. “This lack of sympathy for the victims strengthens the hands of the criminals. In the past three weeks, no efforts have been made to heal the wounds and work towards restoring communal harmony. The government and the police have failed in protecting the people and ensuring peace,” he says.
Incidentally, Akbar Kakkattil is the only writer in Kerala to have openly condemned the attacks. He wrote in one of his columns that the issue is related to unnecessary problems created by a certain section of people and urged political parties to refrain from taking sides in personal rivalries between individuals.
MK Bhaskaran, father of the slain DYFI activist, says that no compensation would be enough to make up for the loss of his son. “The demolished structures can be repaired and rebuilt, but can I get my son back?” he asks.
Meanwhile, the local youth see the violence of 22-23 January as a portent of worse to come. “The danger is that extremist forces such as the Popular Front of India could be eyeing this as a perfect opportunity to infiltrate the villages here,” says Ajmal, a local youth.