Explained: 50 years on, recalling the communal violence in Kerala’s Thalassery

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Wednesday (December 29) marks 50 years of the four-day communal riot between Hindus and Muslims in Thalassery, a municipal town in Kannur district, regarded as a significant event in the politics of Kerala. The CPI-M has highlighted the incident ever since as evidence of the party’s commitment to protecting Muslims against the Sangh Parivar, and used this refrain in elections.

The Thalassery riots

The rioting began around 1.30 am on December 29, 1971, and went on for four days. According to official data, 569 violent incidents took place, and 480 Muslims and 89 Hindus were impacted by it. Sixty-three mosques or madrasas, and three temples were attacked. Hundreds of houses and business establishments belonging to both Muslims and Hindus were looted, vandalised, and set on fire.

Most of these incidents took place on December 29. The Justice Joseph Vithayathil Commission appointed on February 14, 1972 by the government of Chief Minister C Achutha Menon of the CPI, concluded that the violence had been provoked by the Hindu side, and had triggered retaliation by the Muslim side, setting off a spiral.

A build-up of tensions

Communal tensions in Thalassery began after the RSS and Jana Sangh set up units in the area. The Sangh Parivar’s anti-Muslim campaign was countered by opposing propaganda from the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the largest Muslim party, which held some key ministries in the Achutha Menon government.

There was an impression among the public, especially Hindus, that the IUML was interfering in the administration, which was strengthened after police were seen to act in a partisan manner on several instances. Incidents of violence involving Hindus and Muslims took place in Thalassery in the first half of 1971, adding to tensions and mistrust.

On December 24, a Hindu taxi driver was attacked by a Muslim, and at a meeting organised on the following day, speakers raised provocative slogans and accused police of appeasing Muslims.

Night before the riot

On the evening of December 28, 1971, the annual ‘Kalasam Jatha’ religious procession was to be taken out from a local temple, Meloottu Sree Muthappan Madapura. The Justice Vithayathil Commission found that in a departure from traditions followed in previous years, the procession was delayed and a roundabout route was taken through the heart of Thalassery.

Women and children were kept away, and many regular participants were missing from the procession. A local CPI leader deposed before the Commission that most of those in the late-night Kalasam Jatha were supporters of Hindu political outfits.

A Muslim boy selling ice sticks was assaulted, and a taxi was waylaid and its Muslim occupants were attacked. At 1.30 am on December 29, a hotel owned by a Muslim was attacked, with the attackers claiming that a chappal was thrown at the procession from the hotel. The Commission recorded: “…The question is whether a chappal was thrown at the jatha from the hotel and whether there was any provocation for the attack on the hotel. I hold there was no provocation, the attack was deliberate and pre-planned.”

Days of violence

The targeting of the Muslim-run hotel was followed that night by attacks on several mosques and homes of Muslims. After day broke, Muslims retaliated: shops owned by Hindus were looted and set on fire. Rumours of Muslims attacking Hindu women swept through Thalassery. A wave of violence from the Hindu side followed — and the next day, Muslim shops and places of worship outside Thalassery were targeted as well.

It was New Year’s Day in 1972 by the time the situation was brought under control. Muslims claimed losses worth Rs 50 lakh; Hindus Rs 6 lakh.

Commission’s findings

The judicial commission found that the riot had a clear communal character, and that political developments, mainly involving the Jana Sangh and IUML, had paved the way for the building of tensions. The Congress had joined hands with the Jana Sangh and the Marxists in the propaganda against Muslims, the Commission said.

“Evidence goes to suggest that Hindus belonging to all parties took part in the attacks on Muslims. In some places where Marxists are strong, Marxist supporters have taken part in large numbers in disturbances… In some places Jana Sangh families had helped their Muslim neighbours… The IUML cannot escape from the responsibility for the situation that led to the communal disturbance,” the Commission said.

CPI-M and Pinarayi Vijayan

Pinarayi Vijayan, now the Chief Minister of Kerala, was at the time a CPI-M MLA from the nearby Koothuparamba constituency. Before that, he had been the CPI-M area secretary in Thalassery.

Vijayan toured the riot-hit areas, working to dispel rumours and fear. CPI-M cadres stood guard at mosques and houses of Muslims. CPI-M member U K Kumaran, who was guarding a mosque, was stabbed to death, allegedly by RSS workers. The Commission noted, “There have been instances of Marxists lending help to Muslim victims. It is also evident that Marxist workers went by car with party flag on December 29 and advised people to stop rioting.”

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In a statement, the CPI-M district committee said “religious harmony should be maintained even at the cost of self-sacrifice”. In the final stages of the rioting, senior state level leaders toured the affected areas, visiting mosques and families that were affected.

Young officer Ajit Doval

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, a Kerala cadre IPS officer of the 1968 batch, took charge as assistant superintendent of police in Thalassery on January 2, 1972, a day after the rioting stopped.

Doval, who was deputed from his posting as ASP in Kottayam to curb further flare-ups, toured riot-hit Thalassery, urged people to return to their homes, and initiated steps to get back their looted belongings.

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