Life in a deadly democracy

Pulapre Balakrishnan

Yet another murder involving India’s political parties has taken place in north Kerala but this time it was different. It does not follow the pattern that we have got used to. The parties involved are not the RSS and the CPM. A Youth Congress leader S.P. Shuhaib was killed, and the police have identified the killers who surrendered as CPM workers. It is reported in the state’s leading newspapers that one of them confessed that the district leadership of their party was not merely in the know of it but had actually instigated the action. While we cannot be sure of the veracity of this statement it is believable. A minister in the state cabinet is on record that in the eighties the leadership of his district in south Kerala had discussed the elimination of political rivals.

            In a history of violence in Kannur District the CPM has lost many of its workers to killings by the RSS. This removes credibility from the claims of the BJP that the RSS is a victim of violence in Kerala; it is actually a perpetrator and not only deserves no sympathy but also its actions should be called out. The nation knows of its commitment to violence, evident in the assassination of Gandhi. However, I am here concerned about the situation in Kerala today. Here and now the promise of power for the RSS, through its proxy the BJP, is no more than a glint in the eye of Amit Shah. The CPM however is a major player on the political stage of the state and its actions must be viewed sharply. By now this party’s workers stand accused of killing widely across the political spectrum. Apart from this most recent killing of a young Congressman, its members are accused of the killing in 2012 of T.P. Chandrashekaran, a former comrade who left the fold to form the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP), and of Muhammad Aslam of the Indian Union Muslim League in 2016. The fig leaf of secularism, or more so of “fighting communal forces”, does not hold up as it would be difficult to argue that party workers of the Congress or the RMP are communal in any way. These murders are to be seen for what they are, a form of political vendetta and nothing more inspired.  Unlike the Maoists who do not believe in parliamentary democracy, the CPM, while decrying Indian democracy as bourgeois, are happy to partake of the loaves and fishes of office. A reminder that the violence unleashed by those with access to state power has little to do with some lofty ideal came recently when a gang of men assaulted a pregnant woman over a property dispute in Kozhikode District. The woman was so bodily harmed that she lost her child. Press reports are that seven left activists have been arrested including a local-level CPM leader.

            Going a little deeper into the so-calledpolitical violence in Kerala we are able to see a frightful pattern. Frightful not in terms of the violence, which is brutal even at the surface, but in terms of the class element clinging to it. In almost all cases the actual killing is undertaken by young men of the working classes while the party leadership rests with a class that does not soil its hands with labour of any kind. At the national level, so-called intellectuals lead the CPM while its rank and file are of the subaltern class. It is members of this underclass that cannot hope to ever lead the party who find themselves in the frontline of the assault against opponents named ‘class enemies’. The leadership in Kerala is seen as not just seen as property-owning but perceptibly rich. They are distinctly bourgeois in the sense of advancing the career of their progeny. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the young men who commit murder in the name of a political ideology that they very likely do not comprehend will ever own as much. It is this social distance that makes the situation approximate feudalism as it is understood. Under feudalism the lord owned the land which was farmed out to peasants who not only paid taxes for the privilege of cultivating it but also had to bear arms for their lord in the event of war. The striking similarity with the situation in Kerala today where a property-owning leadership directs unemployed youth to eliminate political opponents is there to see. It is rumoured that in return for their murderous services these youth have their families provided for by the party. Gandhi was able to see that for the poor God appears in the form of bread. In the formal democracy that is India, where the equipping of the poor with capabilities that set them free has not been a priority of the state, it appears that politics appears in the form of food. Despite Kerala’s much-vaunted social indicators, economic inequality here is the highest in India, and the poor can perhaps yet be encouraged to kill in return for material gain. Of course, the case of assailants mesmerised into seeing an aesthetic in violence cannot be ruled out. What is uniform, however, is that the killers are foot soldiers of a party which is firmly in the hands of a clerisy that teaches but does not itself do.

            Unsurprisingly, the Malayalee nomenklatura has remained silent on the recent killings. The communist intelligentsia have always glorified “necessary violence” while delegating murder to the working class. Condemnation of the use of violence in a democracy need not rest on moral considerations. Actually, no criterion external to democracy itself is required. Violence is to be rejected on the ground that it is contrary to the essence of democracy, which is deliberation through public reasoning. Violence aimed at eliminating political opponents eliminates the space for deliberation and thus disables democracy. In a contest between political parties, most parties represent a section of the people. Therefore, to kill a representative of another party is to set upon a section of the people themselves. Democracy is legitimised by the existence of a demos or the people. Parties that turn against the demos delegitimise themselves.            

            But surely, the supporters of the CPM cannot be singled-out for their silence. There is little outrage in Kerala in the face of the visible butchery. In a democracy the demos can hardly escape blame for the violence, for they are expected to discipline the political parties. Kerala’s identity-conscious populace fail to converge on the greater common good but effectively make common cause on a form of welfarism. Welfarism is a re-casting of democracy as the citizens’ entitlement to unlimited public services without the responsibility to deliberate upon the common good and how to attain it. We should hardly be surprised that in such a society this February 22 a mentally-challenged adivasi was dragged out of the forest and beaten to death by a mob. And it seems Kerala’s political class can never be separated from violence. A man present on the occasion, and reportedly clicking selfies with the youth while he was being humiliated, has been linked to the Indian Union Muslim League. It speaks volumes for our democracy that a hungry citizen is killed for stealing rice while politicians facing charges of corruption never leave the stage.