Two stars will rise in the sky over Thirunelli tonight. They were once Varghese's eyes.
Hundreds of thousands of tribals living in the backward Wayanad district of north Kerala do not recognise the names of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
It is Areekkal Varghese, who is their hero and demigod. He is their folklore champion. Thirty years after his death, the ghost of Varghese, Kerala's most famous Naxalite leader is stalking the tribal hamlets bordering the Thirunelli forests in Wayanad.
The story of Varghese is part of the folklore of Thirunelli. For Varghese, Wayanad where exploitation of tribals and poor by rich landlords was the order of the day was like the Bolivia of Che Guavara. Varghese led the Naxalbari movement in Kerala, by attacking police stations and killing feudal lords. Varghese had the support of the local people on his route to revolution.
But he did not last long. Legend has it that he was killed by the police in an encounter. The police then plucked out his eyes and cut his body into pieces. That was in 1970.
These days, scribbled in the mud walls of many houses in Thirunelli is a popular belief on Varghese. Written in Malayalam, it reads: "Two stars will rise in the sky over Thirunelli. They were once Varghese's eyes."
But Varghese's death in an encounter was replaced by "the real story" of his murder when a retired police constable, Ramachandran Nair confessed in 1998 that the Naxalite did not die in a police encounter.
Nair confessed in a weekly that he shot an unarmed Varghese in the Thirunelli forest on orders from higher police officials.
Since Nair's confessions, human right activists and splinter Naxalite groups in the state have been demanding a probe into the killing.
The revelations have made Varghese a demigod among the tribals of Wayanad. Some huts have pasted on its walls Varghese's faded black-and-white photo cut from newspapers. Many villagers now adore Varghese as their folklore, romantic hero.
C K Kesavan, a former Naxalite activist working among the tribals in Thirunelli is writing a book on Varghese. "Varghese is the most important historical personality that northern Kerala has ever produced. His ideals were revolutionary, but his aims were the upliftment of the poor and oppressed," says Kesavan.
Therefore, Kesavan wants the book on Varghese to be "the Bible of the poor and the distressed in Wayanad."
"The exploitation of the poor that Varghese rose against still continues in Wayanad. The Naxal movement may have lost its sheen. But I want to ensure that people continue to know Varghese and his mission through my book," Kesavan adds.
But politicians campaigning for the assembly elections in the areas where Varghese operated claims his revolutionary ideas were too romantic and therefore were not the answer to the upliftment of the poor.
"The Naxal movement only resulted in bloodshed and anarchy in the villages. In this modern age, it is not revolution but democratic means of development that should be implemented in villages," says K P Prasad, a Communist Party of India-Marxist leader.
The controversy over Varghese's death still dominates the landscape. If his name is mentioned among the villagers, a passionate discussion about Varghese and his brave deeds follow.
Thanks to Varghese's revolutionary methods, feudal landlords may have put an end to bonded labour in Wayanad. But exploitation of the tribals continues. Wayanad has the largest population of tribals in Kerala. Political parties have often demanded that Wayanad be declared a tribal district. But Wayanad has not yet produced any politician of influence and importance.
So in the absence of any political developmental programmes in villages like Thirunelli, Varghese still remains the ideal emancipator of the poor.
That must be why every year on his death anniversary, hordes of tribesmen gather around the rock in the forest side where he was shot dead to hail the Che Guavara of Kerala.
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