When Chinthu Pradeep and his brother Chandu, both fishermen working in the Azheekal port of Karunagappally, a municipality in Kerala’s Kollam city, left to rescue those stranded in the floods that swept the state, they were prepared to incur the resulting losses. “We would have made Rs 10,000–12,000,” Chandu told me. “This is the time when we have a lot of work. At the end of this month, work will reduce.” But as Kerala’s flood waters recede and its survivors begin the struggle to resume their daily lives, the ugly political violence of the state appears to be one of the first things returning to the fore. When the brothers left for the rescue operations, they expected to make up for the lost time at the sea upon their return. But on the evening of 25 August, in an incident that has since gained media attention in the state, Chinthu was attacked with swords by activists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. With grave wounds on both hands, his future now appears bleak.
I met Chinthu and his family at a private hospital in Ernakulam district, though the family lives in Kakkathuruthu, an island in Karunagappally's Alappad village. He had returned to Karunagappally on 24 August, after five days of rescue operations in the districts of Alappuzha and Idukki, during which he said the team had saved around 350 people. The next evening, Chinthu and his friend Arun Das, who was also part of the rescue team and is a resident of Alappad village, left Das’s house to go to Alumkadavu, another village in Karunagappally, to buy gifts for the festival of Onam. “There is nothing available in our village, so I had to go to buy sweets and other things for children,” Chinthu said. At around 7 pm, they left on Das’s bike, with Chinthu sitting pillion. On their way, while driving past a small library named after the former president APJ Abdul Kalam, they were attacked.
“There were five or six of them,” Chinthu recalled at the hospital, where he lay on a bed with both his hands heavily bandaged and suspended in the air. Almost everyone I spoke to, including Chinthu, Chandu, and the local residents of Karunagappally, told me that local RSS workers were known to spend time outside the library building every evening. According to Das, as they approached the library, “a young man, holding an iron rod, walked to the middle of the road.” He continued, “I was riding the bike and stopped. He approached us, extending the rod towards us. Before I could ask what was going on, a team of six or seven carrying swords rushed towards us and yelled, ‘Stab and kill him!’” Both Chinthu and Das got off the bike and started running.
Das recalled that he ran ahead quickly, and when he turned to look behind him, he saw that the attackers were “were brandishing the swords as they ran behind Chinthu.” In that moment, he said, Chinthu also turned around, and seeing that a sword was about to hit his neck, he “grabbed it with his hand.” Das continued, “I saw that he started to bleed. But they hadn't left him. They were hitting him with the rod and with the blunt side of the swords.”
Chinthu believed that the attack was premeditated because the group was carrying weapons. “Two of them were carrying swords, one was carrying a rod.” Das, on the other hand, said “there were eight or nine people—of whom, five or six had swords.” According to Chinthu, “they produced the weapons within five minutes, suddenly, from one side of the library.” He described the attack: “They were stabbing me even as I ran. I could see them clearly under the street light. They first stabbed my left, and then my right hand.” Das added, “They had surrounded him and it looked like they would stab and kill him.” He tried to pull Chinthu out, but “at this time, I got beaten myself with an iron rod.” At that moment, “two–three speeding bikes came from behind,” and the attackers fled upon seeing them. One of the men riding the bikes, who was also a resident of Alappad, then rushed Chinthu to a hospital in the locality.After receiving immediate treatment at the local hospital, he was brought to the hospital in Ernakulam in an ambulance, where he is still admitted.
Three days after the attack, six people surrendered before the Karunagappally police station. The police had earlier arrested another accused person two days earlier. They were all subsequently lodged in Kollam District Jail, so I was unable to speak to any of them. But a sub-inspector, who requested not to be identified because he was not the investigating officer in the case, showed me their names—Renju, Kannan Unni, Sujith, Oori and two people both named Akhil. The sub-inspector described them as RSS “sympathisers.” Umarul Farooq, the investigating officer in the case, told me the police were “not clear about which shakha they are from,” but identified them as “RSS activists.” Curiously, however, neither Chinthu nor the police could explain themotive for the attack.
Chinthu is a member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, or DYFI, the youth wing of the CPI-M, and his brother Chandu is a member of the party’s Kakkathuruthu branch. They both claimed that the attack was an outcome of an old rivalry. According to Chandu, around 18 years ago, men from his home town of Kakkathuruthu had beaten up two people from a local RSS shakha. Referring to the people who attacked his brother, he added, “All these boys weren’t even born then.” Chandu claimed the dispute had been ongoing since then. According to Pradeep, the father of the two brothers, there had also been an attack on Chandu in early June this year.
Media organisations in Kerala broke the story about the attack on Chinthu the day after the incident. All the reports noted the involvement of the RSS, with one newspaper headline stating, “The RSS attempted to cut off hands that saved 350 lives.” But none of the reports described the immediate cause for the attack.
Both the police and Chinthu’s friends and family said the rivalry between the two groups has led to recurring fights. “It was existing rivalry, nothing else,” Farooq said. “There was one fight one month ago and another one, four months ago. It happens often between them.” Shemnaj Raghu, another friend of Raghu’s from Alappad, also spokeof previous clashes. “A couple of issues have happened before. Around ten days before Onam, Chinthu’s cousin had a fight with these boys. And brawls have happened during local festivals.”
The police appeared to consider the attack a trivial issue that had gained unwarranted attention due to the political affiliations of those involved. “It is not political,” Farooq insisted. “There may have been a fight between two people on a personal level and because they have distinct political ideologies, it is made out to be about political rivalry.” The sub-inspector, too, denied that the incident had any political connotations. “You must have heard that this was a political attack. All fights are made out to be political. It was Onam that day. Plenty of drunken brawls happen.”
Das and Chinthu, however, disagreed with the police’s assessment of the incident. “There was no provocation at all,” Das said. “It is definitely a political problem. He is in DYFI. And they say that all the attackers are in the RSS. I don't know any of them.” According to Chinthu, there was “no way that there can be a personal rivalry.” He added that the attackers and he were “from different places. Not from the same village.”
The sub-inspector also told me that “Chinthu himself has cases in Oachira”—another village in Karunagappally, which Farooq later confirmed as well. “A social issue has just been politicised,” the sub-inspector insisted. Hinting at previous such fights, he added, “There have been cased which never made it to the police station. They were settled outside.” But Chandu denied that his brother has any cases against him. “There is no such case and he is not the kind to go pick a fight. Not before and not even now—100 percent.” According to Chinthu, the only possibility was a “petty” fine of Rs 100 that was “slapped against me for riding a bike without a license through Oachira.”
The police were insistent that they have only just initiated the investigation and that they will take a few days to form a conclusion about the circumstances of the attack. When I asked Farooq how the attack had been described in the first information report, he responded, “That will be clear only after the investigation. We will have a detailed understanding only after he leaves the hospital.” He added that after Chinthu is released from the hospital, “we will meet him and find more details. We will examine the case and what were the motives behind the attack.”
I visited the library outside which the incident took place.Bold, blue Malayalam letters at the entrance to the one-storey building painted in bright yellow announced, “Shri Narayana Guru Memorial Committee. APJ Abdul Kalam Library.” The library was locked, with a few plastic chairs lying outside, and a handwritten notice pasted on its wall, which read, “Protest. Protest against the anti-social attack that took place before this library on 25.8.2018 at 7 PM.” None of the residents of the area spoke to me about any details of the incident.
On the night of 28 August, when I met Chinthu at the hospital, he had just undergone major surgery on both his hands. The doctors said that it’s possible for Chinthu to regain complete functionality of his hands after six months of physiotherapy and rest. He was surrounded by his family, who were all worried about whether he would be able to return to work. “I will enter my boat. I will return to work,” Chinthu told me, in a matter-of-fact tone. “The boat was bought by my brother, me and four others. It is my source of livelihood.”