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FOR close to three decades, the death of A. Varghese, a radical Leftist revolutionary in Kerala, had remained a footnote of history. Till it exploded into the limelight last fortnight, with the appearance in the media of the unprecedented confession of former constable P. Ramachandran Nair. The long-buried details of Varghese's killing have now lit the fuse to a controversy revolving around repression and human rights violations perpetrated by the State.
Traumatised by guilt, constable Nair penned a confession shortly after he shot Varghese in a fake police encounter in the forests of Wayanad back in 1970. The letter was handed over to the slain Naxalite leader's compatriot, A. Vasu. It gathered dust until it surfaced in the memoirs of another Naxalite leader, K. Venu, published in a local journal recently. The intriguing question is why Vasu had suppressed the letter for over two decades. "I had mentioned its contents to anybody who cared to listen. When Venu approached me for the letter, that's when I searched for it and found it among my old papers," Vasu told Outlook. The letter promptly set off political reverberations at the highest levels in the state.
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 CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government has 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 CPI in partnership with the Muslim League, whose leader, C.H. Mohammad Koya, was then the home minister. The CPI(M), then in Opposition, credits itself with the first demand for a probe into the killing, raised by E.M.S. Namboodiripad as leader of the Opposition in the state assembly 28 years back. Ironically, the LDF government is now stalling on the selfsame demand. Chief minister E.K. Nayanar has rebuffed the demand by Naxalite organisations and prominent personalities as well as by Niyama Vedi, an organisation of lawyers against human rights violation, for a full-fledged inquiry into the circumstances that led to the killing of Varghese. A stand seconded by Nayanar's politburo colleague, V.S. Achuthanandan. But, as the issue gathers momentum, the CPI(M) leadership seems to be facing pressure from party fora to relent to the probe demand. Overruling Nayanar and Achuthanandan, the CPI(M) state secretariat has called for a comprehensive inquiry into Varghese's murder.
If the probe does get under way, 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 K.P. Vijayan. And according to Nair, the order to execute the Naxalite leader was issued by the then Dy SP K. Lekshmana—also an accused in the infamous Rajan case involving the disappearance of an engineering student in police custody during the Emergency. Both officers are now retired.
THERE is speculation that the mainstream political parties had a vested interest in throttling the growing influence of Varghese among the tribal communities. Varghese had started out as a CPI(M) leader who worked among the Adivasis of his native Wayanad district. The Naxalbari uprising swept him in 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. The revolutionaries attacked police stations and killed landlords.
Following the murder of landlord Vasud-eva 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. And were eventually tracked down by CRPF personnel 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 finally failed because it could not strike root in native soil as its leaders looked to China for inspiration. Today, Varghese's comrades-in-arms have served time in prisons and come out chastened. Among his compatriots, Vasu is an active trade union leader, Ajitha is a crusader for women's rights and Phillip 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. Yet, with the resurrection of the radical ghost of Vargh-ese, a whiff of the revolution has been revived in the corridors of power.