The Anti-Politics of Murder

No, this post is not mainly about the ghastly murder of the rebel communist leader T P Chandrasekharan at Vatakara in Kerala early this month. It appears clear now that irrespective of whether the CPM leadership was directly involved or not, local CPM cadre were involved in the conspiracy. Certainly, it is an act gruesome enough to feed nightmares through many nights. And the way the gory details of the planning and execution of the murder continue to appear in the print and visual media, the Malayalee public is almost on its knees, holding on to their stomachs, racked by seemingly never-ending bouts of nausea. But I have my reasons for not wanting to focus on this incident here, reasons more than the sheer irritation felt with sections of the media that demand shrilly that ‘cultural leaders’ have not condemned the murder sufficiently.

I don’t want to spend my words in  statements that merely condemn the violence because I am sure that they will ring empty and ultimately, sound silly.  For the politics of murder in north Kerala rests upon solid illiberal foundations on which such liberal modes of protest and expression of public anguish will not leave even a dent. Indeed, such efforts, especially by eminent figures like Sugatha Kumari and G Kumara Pillai, have steadily followed such violence in north Kerala which has erupted sporadically for many decades now. Such gestures — peace marches, meetings and poetry readings for peace– have attracted media attention and often had a temporary impact, but have failed to make an lasting impact on that society.

The kind of intimacy that holds together the moral communities of the RSS and the CPM in that region is a modernized version of the older feudal clan loyalties. It has been observed by political theorists who have reflected on the intimacies that bind modern political communities that the communist ideal of the political community is not bound by the republican ideal of intimacy among equals that allows for free expression in the intimate space and a life without hypocrisy within it. They point out that in both nationalism and communism, the ideal of the political community has rested upon bourgeoisfied versions of the medieval metaphors of the family, the body, and theatre — that is, re-imagining these metaphors in such a way that the prospect of intimacy is accommodated in the ideal of the political community.This has allowed for a more expansive political community but certainly not for one open to interventions that assume the presence of a community of equally reasonable individuals who may be persuaded to change through liberal debate, especially by outsiders. I think this holds for the communist political communities in India as well — they are intimate communities, which however, rest on self-images derived from feudal metaphors of community. Thus they function as spaces of intimacy which are ultimately undemocratic.This is why  the struggles like those of the working class Dalit woman Chitralekha, who fought for her right to work against the CITU in north Kerala (of which I have written earlier on Kafila) are important. They ought to be recognized as not just efforts to secure the interests of particular groups, but as struggles for the wider democratization of society.

Nowhere does this ring more true than for north Kerala.The history of that region has been bloodied by the string of conflicts and murders between the CPM and the RSS. These murders are more than just taking life; they are symbolic violations of the ‘enemy community’ and hence involve horrendous mutilation and humiliation of the lifeless corpse.I am not denying that the murdered T P Chandrasekharan was a brave man — but I cannot forget that when he and his friends who broke with the CPM were not exactly opponents of the anti-politics of murder pursued by the RSS and the CPM in earlier times — these are people who justified the horrendous murder of the Yuva Morcha leader K T Jayakrishnan in 1999. He was butchered in a sixth standard classroom, in front of his young students; the assailants chased him inside the classroom, cut him to pieces and left a warning on the blackboard of another classroom that witnesses would suffer the same fate, ostensibly for the petrified children. While this does not allow us to take the present murder lightly, it does remind us of the extent to which both perpetrators and victims are equally complicit in the anti-politics of murder.Ultimately, the violence in this region will cease only when processes of democratization gain strength and it is to this end that intellectuals should devote themselves —  piety and words of condemnation might get some cheap moral credit dished out by the media but will not change anything fundamental.

But what really troubles me is that the anti-politics of murder is spread far wider in Kerala than what the mainstream media would care to see. This is why I think it is important to discuss the anti-politics of murder beyond the particular variety of it that has been long in prevalence in north Kerala. I am thinking here of the (markedly poor) media reportage of the murder of the gay rights activist Anil Sadanandan at Kollam in south Kerala soon after the murder in Vatakara. Anil seems to have been murdered by a gay friend with the help of petty criminals bent on robbing him, on the suspicion that he passed on HIV to him .It is really interesting that Anil’s friends who followed the case feel that the police investigation was efficient and refreshingly non-homophobic — surely something that is newsworthy in these hard times. Yet the media has very little to say about this — and this is in sharp contrast with the media’s complaint about the incompetence of the police investigation at Vatakara. And it is also intriguing that while the very possibility that communists may have conspired to murder an ex-communist and the breach of intimacy it implies have sent the media into a tizzy of outrage — despite the grim fact that such murders have been going on for quite some time in that region, some of the meager reportage of Anil’s death seems to assume that such breach of intimacy must somehow be expected of, natural to, the gay community.That is the impression one is left with when the story about a hate crime fired by the fear of HIV is accepted uncritically by the media.As Anil. A, a close friend of Sadanandan points out, it is very difficult to accept that anyone who has interacted closely with him could think that he could have silently passed on HIV to another. Sadanandan was much respected for his courage and openness about his sexuality, his insistence on being fair to heterosexual people intimate with him, and he was indeed a vocal leader in the campaign against HIV/AIDS. The murderer was closely associated with him for a period long enough. Therefore there is indeed reason to probe further into this killing — whether it was set up by homophobic elements. But there is no discussion at all about such possibilities in the media; that has been left to Sadanandan’s friends and colleagues.

And does the anti-politics of murder now extend further now? This is a question that we do not pay attention to. Since the last few days, I have been haunted by the suicide of a 14-year-old schoolboy in Trivandrum, who hung himself after he was chastised by the Principal of his school, in the presence of his family for having sent irritating emails to a girl student. I am stunned by the fact that a young person can throw away his life for such a reason. In my childhood — and this experience is surely shared by many in my generation — punishments for similar misdeeds were far more harsh, public, painful and humiliating. One could be caned before the whole school, made to stand up on a bench in the sweltering sun, and so on. Yet these experiences somehow steeled most of us (there were of course some who collapsed, physically or mentally, on in both ways, also, but I don’t remember such cases to be very common). What makes children kill themselves so easily? Is it the fact that punishment is now far more faceless — it arrives slowly, after investigations by committees in school, and is meted out in formal, almost ritualized settings — in contrast to earlier times when the caning or pinching arrived quickly, actually revealing the emotional strain, and in that way, the only-too-human nature, of that the person delivering it more directly? Does the present mode of investigating students’ lapses look as if they are delivering some final judgment on unforgivable crimes? In this case, did the Principal evoke, without deliberate malice, the state and its punishment of cyber-crimes? I have no easy answers to this — I am no fan of the canings of earlier times. But I myself have punished my children, even beaten them at times, but these incidents were always followed by warm reconciliation both through words and touch and also through discussion, in which all of us would speak up about the issue, try to make sense of it, and were left equally healed. Are the procedure-bound punishments of today’s schools followed by such reconciliation? Or is it that the authorities feel that because their mode of punishment is not directly violent, such making-up is irrelevant? If despite all the elaborate investigation and procedure these new systems of identifying and punishing lapses does not give children a chance to speak up, heal, and move ahead, then they are part of the anti-politics of murder, if indirectly. They push the erring student into death pronouncing a seemingly-unquestionable judgment while denying him/her a voice.
I admit that I am probably rambling here — it is hard not to feel confused and disoriented in a context in which murders seem to contain layers and layers of intentions, and about which simple and clear positions seem completely impossible. But I do know clearly that the moral platitudes demanded of intellectuals by the mainstream media are not the responses that these murders and deaths demand. They demand that we get beyond the mainstream media’s directions and take a hard, honest look at the many ways in which life — and voice — are being annihilated or denied to dissenters and even to those who may merely seem off-track. And I am also certain that if we do venture to do so, then the mainstream media will itself probably emerge as guilty as any other force in the production of the anti-politics of murder and death.

9 thoughts on “The Anti-Politics of Murder”

  1. // the assailants chased him inside the classroom, cut him to pieces and left a warning on the blackboard of another classroom that witnesses would suffer the same fate, ostensibly for the petrified children. //

    A leftist intellectual like late M.N. Vijayan went around justifying this ghastly murder and people could only listen to that in stunned silence. Finally, the assailants were punished on the basis of the testimony provided by children and the court had words of praise for the witnesses.
    Generally, the conspiracy behind such political murders would never be investigated and the case would b closed on the basis of a list of “assailants” provided from the party offices. For the first time, the conspiracy “angle” is being probed in the case of TP Chandrasekaran and look at the reaction of the bigwigs of CPM in Kerala.

    And the whole posse of leftist intellectual are busy condemning Israel, US etc :(

  2. Thank you for a refreshingly nuanced view on how political murders precipitate within political movements.

  3. TP was a popular leader with lot of friends among CPM cadres and middle level leadership. This murder has shocked CPM cadres more than general public. No one is ready to swallow the official Party line. It is high time the Left in India convert themselves into more democratic liberal Socialist Party. Communism is a dead idea.

  4. While it is salutary to read an attempt at critiquing the sordid nature of Kerala politics, I am afraid that the writer displays the convoluted rationalizations of someone who is embedded in a society permanently condemned to medieval mind-sets and practices.

    While on the one hand the writer tries to evoke the horror felt by the children who had to witness the political murder, the fact that the writer engaged in beating children is not only acknowledged as something that recurs, these incidents are glossed over by the fact that they “were always followed by warm reconciliation both through words and touch and also through discussion:”. As any psychologist worth the name will acknowledge, this is a classic characteristic of someone who is an abuser.

    The Kerala family. the extended social-cultural system as well as its religious and educational components are standing monuments to institutionalized intimidation, repression and violence. Little wonder that what is a pervasive epidemic in the privatized sphere of the family, expresses itself in so many virulent ways in the body politic.

    It takes amazing feats of incredulity not to smell something fishy in the fact that the increasing number of violent childhood deaths in Kerala are routinely classified by the powers that be, as “suicides”. Should we for a moment believe that evidence not just in Kerala but across the length and breadth of the police system is forcibly extracted through torture and assorted acts of brutality.

    cyrus ;p

  5. Cyrus, I do agree with you. I think beating children is wrong and hurtful — and it is important for me to own up that I too have done it very rarely, but anyhow. I am not in the race for some impossible purity — I do make mistakes and I try to correct myself all the time. And I do think it is silly and actually unscientific to try and provoke guilt trips when one tries to introspect — that’s a potent form of anti-politics, actually.

    A lot of it was because I myself was facing very heavy domestic abuse at that time. Once I extricated myself from that really terrible scene, my own behavior changed a lot. Even anger became such a rare occurrence! But I often marvel at the way my girls — actually, my older child — tided over those times. Thinking back on those times together, she (she in 19 now), she often tells me those beatings were less distressing to her than my broken state. Maybe that’s why she forgave me — but I am quite sure that she was a far bigger person than me to have been so understanding. Yet I think it is a mistake to ignore the total quality of the relationship when one thinks of the harm that a beating can create. It was a situation when we clung to each other literally — all our pleasures were shared. It is reductive and I feel quite sceptic about such simple psychological models which ignore the relationship as such and pick on incidents of beating, and even ignore the specificities of such incidents. My girls have both weathered the bad patch better than me and I think that was because despite stray incidents of violence, we shared much, much larger pleasures and indeed, vistas of the imagination.

    I think children are far more intelligent and resilient beings than most of us think — and the way they are treated as somehow too delicate and impressionable is simply wrong. It is wrong, I think, to equate an act of murder perpetrated before children, and an incident in which a child receives a few cuts. Both are undesirable, no doubt, but then both the Concorde and the bullock cart have wheels.

  6. @jdevika I sympathise with you, and all the horror that you went through.

    But this:
    I think children are far more intelligent and resilient beings than most of us think — and the way they are treated as somehow too delicate and impressionable is simply wrong. It is wrong, I think, to equate an act of murder perpetrated before children, and an incident in which a child receives a few cuts. Both are undesirable, no doubt, but then both the Concorde and the bullock cart have wheels.
    and this:
    Thinking back on those times together, she (she in 19 now), she often tells me those beatings were less distressing to her than my broken state.

    Is subjective in nature, and they are still unethical. I do NOT want to judge you and your circumstances at all.

    Just because something is unethical, doesn’t mean that someone should be punished by canings, institutionalized violence, or death. Ethics doesn’t demand punishment, law does.

    This entire article has no mention, that murder is wrong, BECAUSE it is unethical. Period. End of sentence.

    While i appreciate the author’s views and his viewpoints on a political situation i barely know about, his delving into his own personal emotive issues with respect to how kids are treated, does make me feel… VERY strongly, that justification might be forgiven on a context basis, but NOT an ethical basis. I’ve made mistakes, which were unethical as well. They help me refine my temper, and more importantly i can’y justify myself because it was ethically wrong.

    Please take law and ethics separately….. and like it or not, law comes from ethics, and a discussion of ethics, it makes way for context is a good thing, because we are all flawed, but it doesn’t give you the ability to objectively declare yourself free from guilt. That doesn’t mean i’m guilt tripping people for all their follies, i’m just saying this is a CRITICISM each and everyone of us will face when we try to justify an unethical act.

    Also just because we’re all flawed doesn’t mean, that we can go about justifying murders, rapes, beatings or screaming at someone in public.

    Objective reflection and self-criticism is a very desired quality, but can’t be passed at all times. I do NOT want to judge anyone at all, but i would want to criticize justifying unethical actions under the garb of emotion. It is something done by abusive personalities, and the message that this article sends out in the latter half, kind of waters down the analogies made prior.

    So good first half, bad second half. That’s all.

  7. jdevika. Thank you for your comments. My regrets if there were grounds for misinterpretation. There was no attempt at instigating guilt trips but to indicate precisely what you observe in your comments-that the pervasive nature of the tediously predictable and outrageous patriarchy means that the prime recipients of violence and trauma are women and children 1. This is internalized and transmitted across genders and generations.

    If we can agree that violence against women in the public and domestic spheres is despicable and attempt to legislate against it, so too we can perhaps agree, that violence against children is intolerable and attempt to redress it. Corporal punishment of children in schools is prohibited, and the time for banning it in homes is long past overdue. Other societies have achieved this in our lifetime.

    Given that most everything in this society has been and continues to be sacrificed on the altar of patriarchal despotism and prerogatives, is it any wonder that politics becomes the prime staging ground for this deep-seated personality disorder. Combine that with quasi-religious zealotry, raging self-obsessions, demagoguery, manipulative populism and mob frenzy and we have a recipe for what unfolds regularly in this society.

    Little wonder that a place that boasts of “total literacy” is beset with relentless decline and near collapse of already decrepit public amenities. Seniors, women and children bear the brunt of this daily inventory of chaos and disarray. And this too is taken for granted as the “natural”order of things. Resilience perhaps.

    1. Nancy Chodorow’s work is instructive on some of this.

  8. I would like to characterise the socio-political zeitgeist of northern Kerala today as a certain kind of inadvertent nostalgia towards old feudal set ups that continue to linger on in subtle ways – from desperation for blood revenge to lopsided political priorities. Decades of communist activism in the state seems to have only cleansed the overt forms of these set-ups with the rot inside the communist programme and its probable demise besieging the hearts of the people with another form of nostalgia towards a past that talked of equality. These hearts are thus in chaos and confused over their allegiances. They are befuddled over the war between the need to seek security and warmth in a pristine and morally sound life that is itself shaped by the feudal notions mentioned above and the demand to display tolerance towards others with a different political/religious/sexual allegiance. Martha Nussbaum has described a similar ‘clash within’, though in a separate context.

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