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.