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November 13, 1998


Naxalite's ghost returns to haunt Kerala Communists

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Venu Menon in Thiruvananthapuram

Communist leaders who pay copious tribute to Che Guevara are less inclined to honour the memory of a local variant of the Bolivian folk hero. For that is how the adivasis of Wayanad and members of the radical Left like to see A Varghese, the revolutionary figure who put his signature on the bloodiest chapter of the Naxalite movement in Kerala.

In the late sixties, Varghese led his band of followers on a killing spree that invoked the Naxalite theory of annihilation of class enemies.

On February 18, 1970, the State struck back. Varghese was captured and killed by the police in a Latin-American style execution in the jungles of Wayanad in north Kerala. An event that has since languished as a footnote to history for close to three decades, is now hogging the limelight and raising questions of accountability over the extra-judicial execution of a prisoner in police custody.

The policeman who pulled the trigger 28 years ago has lit the fuse to the current controversy revolving around repression and human rights violations perpetrated by the State. Traumatised by guilt, constable P Ramachandran Nair penned a confessional note shortly after he shot Varghese. The letter was handed over to the slain Naxalite leader's compatriot, A Vasu. It gathered dust for two decades, until it popped up in the local media a fortnight ago and unleashed a controversy that has reverberated all the way to the corridors of power.

In effect, the controversy has put the police in the dock, resurrected the memory of Naxalite leader Varghese and pumped fresh adrenaline into a clutch of mutually hostile Naxalite groups labouring to revive a movement that lies forgotten in the trashcan of history. Constable Nair's letter represents possibly the first known case of a subordinate functionary going on record with an admission of a custodial killing carried out on the orders of a superior officer.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist-led Left Democratic Front government found itself fielding the awkward questions thrown up by the furore over the killing of the Naxalite leader. The Marxists have grounds to feel unjustifiably targeted. The government of the day, which drew flak for condoning the event, was headed by Achutha Menon of the Communist Party of India in partnership with the Muslim League whose leader, C H Mohammad Koya, was the home minister.

The CPI-M, then in Opposition, credits itself with raising the demand for a probe into the killing. Today, ironically, the LDF government is stalling the same demand being raised by late CPI-M leader E M S Namboodiripad when he was leader of the Opposition in the state assembly 28 years ago. The current Chief Minister E K Nayannar has rebuffed the demand by human rights groups, Naxalite organisations and prominent personalities for a full-fledged inquiry into the circumstances that led to Varghese's killing.

Nayanar's politburo colleague V S Achuthanandan seconded his stand. But as the issue gathered momentum, the CPI-M leadership appeared to face pressure from party men to concede the probe demand. The CPI-M state secretariat, overruling Nayanar and Achuthanandan, has called for a comprehensive inquiry into Varghese's murder. If the probe gets underway, there could be unpleasant surprises in store for key figures in the police, and possibly the political establishment.

The police team that arrested Varghese in the Wayanad forests in 1970 was led by the then DIG, P Vijayan. According to constable Nair, the order to execute the Naxalite leader was issued by the then deputy superintendent of police K Lekshmana.

There is speculation that the mainstream political parties had a vested interest in throttling the growing influence of Varghese among the tribal communities.

Varghese started out as a CPI-M leader, working among the adivasis of his native Wayanad district. The Naxalbari uprising swept him into its wake and he soon emerged as the leader of a group of idealistic young men and women pledged to the armed overthrow of the State. They attacked police stations and killed ruthless landlords.

Following the murder of landlord Vasudeva Adiga and a suspected police informer Chekkoo at Thrissileri in Wayanad in 1970, and the subsequent police crackdown, Varghese and his comrades retreated into the Thirunelli forests. Central Reserve Police Force personnel eventually tracked him down in a safe house for Naxalites run by an old widow.

The legacy of the Naxalite movement in Kerala is a dubious one. The annihilations alienated the public and invited a backlash in the form of police terror. The movement failed because it could not strike root in native soil; its leaders looked to China.

Today Varghese's comrades-in-arms have served time in prisons and come out chastened. Vasu is an active trade union leader. Ajitha is a crusader for women's rights and Philip M Prasad is an advocate and a devotee of Satya Sai Baba. The torchbearers of the Naxalite movement, who believed that class enemies did not have the right to live, have found their respective slots in bourgeois society.

'Before I am killed, give me a signal so I can shout a slogan'

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