Kerala’s most wanted Maoist couple are using fiction and journalism as weapons of mass delusion
In 2013, Malayalam literature had an unexpected bestseller called The Maoist. The novel was brought out by DC Books, the leading publisher in the language. The name of its author is Roopesh, and its first-person narrative has the plot of a young IAS officer who in her past had links with a far Left group that believes in armed revolution; her friend, a wanted Maoist, turns up to meet her on the day of a meeting being held on anti-Naxal operations, and so she has to hide her from the authorities—the novel revolves around this tension. The book has minute details on the modalities of anti-Naxal operations.
The same novel was re-published that year by Green Books under a different title, The Flowering Spring Trees. This was because of some confusion with DC, which was reportedly unwilling to publish it at first but hurriedly printed it after Roopesh approached the other publisher. In any case, the book sold well in both its forms. Part of the mix-up was because Roopesh wasn’t present in person to oversee negotiations. He is, after all, Kerala’s most wanted Maoist leader. The Maoist woman leader in the novel is modelled on Shyna, his wife. Both Shyna and Roopesh have been underground since 2006.
A few things are known about Roopesh’s political evolution—he is originally from Valappadu in Thrissur district, and even as a student in ITI-Palakkad, studying a technical course, was an active worker of the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML-Red Flag). Classmates and friends of Roopesh recollect how he had the makings of a rebel at a young age. “He was not attracted to the CPM or other traditional Left parties. He was always a follower of the far Left ideology,” says Ima Babu, a freelance photographer from Valappadu, Roopesh’s native place. “I remember he used to work when he was in college,” he adds, “It was not because of any financial problems at home, but he was just very hard-working. He used to sell newspapers and do many such menial jobs.”
Roopesh later joined the CPI-ML Janashakthi, a Naxal group that had roots in Andhra Pradesh. In 1995, he led a struggle to reclaim land that Adivasis had been alienated from in Kerala’s Peechi forest belt. “He used to write in Madhyamam weekly in those days,” recollects Sunil Kumar, a senior journalist in Kerala who worked with that weekly at the time and used to receive articles from Roopesh, who would write about Marxism, Leninism, the rights of tribals, land issues, a class war and so on.
Next, Roopesh joined the People’s War Group (PWG), another armed formation and a rival of Janashakthi. Both these organisations were operating in Andhra Pradesh without any base in Kerala. BS Baburaj, a journalist working with Thejus, a Malayalam daily, studied with Roopesh in ITI and watched how he got radicalised. “We studied together at ITI. Both of us worked in the Kerala Vidhyarthi Prasthanam [the students’ wing of the CPI-ML Red Flag]. Roopesh was a staunch opponent of the Students Federation of India (SFI). He was once badly beaten up by SFI activists and admitted to hospital for a few days.” Baburaj says that Roopesh and Shyna began seeing each other as college students. “Shyna was put under house arrest by her parents after they came to know about it. That was why they got married at such a young age.”
Baburaj and Roopesh’s political journey went along similar lines until the latter joined the PWG. “We worked together in Janashakthi, but I believe he had ties with PWG even in that period,” he says. Their friendship came to an end when Roopesh joined the banned organisation and went underground. “I have little information of him since then,” he says.
Unlike Roopesh, Shyna wasn’t a firebrand Naxalite. She had been an upper- division clerk at the High Court of Kerala and was involved in the trade union movement. She took an active role in organising workers at the Special Economic Zone in Kochi. The police started keeping an eye on her in 2007, when a group of activists from Nandigram, West Bengal, were arrested in a raid at Shyna’s house in Kochi. Both her daughters, Amy and Savera, were taken into custody. No case was registered against Shyna, but she was now under constant surveillance.
The same year, the police arrested Malla Raja Reddy, a top leader of CPI- Maoist in Ernakulam district of Kerala. Shyna took her children and went underground, expecting the police to come in search of her. After a raid on her house, the police claimed to have found evidence of Reddy having stayed there. In 2008, a letter written by Shyna to the then Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan hit the headlines. In it, she blamed the state’s Left government for turning her into a Maoist: she said that constant harassment by the police left her with no other choice. The daughters were entrusted to the care of their grandmother, and both parents have been in hiding ever since. The police has kept watch of the children, their old grandmother and whoever visits the family, but they have not found any trail that could lead them to the couple.
Roopesh and Shyna dropped off the map a decade ago, and neither friends nor journalists know where they are. But the couple do keep in sporadic touch with them. While in hiding, Roopesh and Shyna have had no trouble getting their voices heard. Articles by them have been appearing on and off in Malayalam periodicals.
Then the novel happened. “The manuscript was handed over by an unknown person. We signed the contract with Amy, their daughter, and the royalty goes to her,” says P Sreekumar of DC Books. The newspaper writings too follow a similar pattern. “We receive the articles by courier,” says Kamal Ram Sajeev, assistant editor of Mathrubhumi weekly. Other magazines that have carried Roopesh’s articles, like Samakalika Malayalam and Kalakaumudi, have the same story to tell.
Recently, the couple surfaced in the media again after the Maoists launched a fresh wave of attacks in the state. On 10 November last year, the corporate office of Nitta Gelatin India Ltd, located at Kathikkudam village in Ernakulam, was vandalised by nine masked men who the police claim are members of an ‘Urban Action Force’ of Maoist rebels. According to the police, the CPI Maoists of Kerala are led by Roopesh and Shyna. The party, however, did not claim responsibility for the attack. Nitta Gelatin, which makes gelatin, is hated by environmental groups and activists in Kerala because of its pollution of the River Chalakudy. For a decade now, there have been rallies and hunger strikes against the company with little to show for it. Environmental activists don’t support the Maoist action, though. “We believe only in democratic means of protest. Any action by Maoists or whoever is doing it in the name of Maoists will only help in weakening our movement,” says KM Anilkumar, convenor of an action committee against the contamination of teh river.
In December 2014, local outlets of KFC and McDonald’s in Palakkad were ransacked by a seven-member gang of masked men. The window panes of these fast-food eateries were smashed and leaflets were distributed calling for a battle against US imperialism. On the same day, a 15-member group barged into the forest range office at Silent Valley in Palakkad and set files and computers on fire, apart from damaging a vehicle. Posters were pasted on the wall urging people to take up arms against the government. A forest aid post in Wayanad was also attacked that day and copies of Maoist literature distributed. The KFC and McDonald’s ambushers were caught by the police. “I interrogated two youngsters. They don’t know anything about Maoist ideology but like the idea of armed struggle,” says an officer of the state’s Department of Intelligence.
Recently, the office of the Highway Authority of India at Kalamassery, Kochi, was ransacked by the masked men of the Urban Action Force. The police could not find the culprits, though they did arrest Jaison Cooper, a government employee who is also a human rights activist, and Thushar Nirmal Sarathy, a human rights lawyer, and charged them under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
For the police, the toughest question is how to identify a Maoist. “We have to watch human rights activists because Maoists have an agenda to infiltrate lawful organisations and struggles,” says the Intelligence officer. Many such people are alleged to have been arbit- rarily detained and released with no arrests recorded.
On 22 December, the office of Keraleeyam, a 30-year-old weekly magazine focusing on environmental issues, was raided by the police and three people were taken into custody. The police seized copies of the magazine, and one article came to their notice. “It highlighted the environmental concerns in the construction of the Metro Rail. The cops became furious and asked why we were standing in the way of development,” says S Sarath, editor of Keraleeyam. To the police, it was enough to label the article ‘Maoist’.
In another raid, conducted at the house of Jolly Chirayath, a women’s right activist based at Kochi, the police asked her why she had been keeping books on ‘Marxist Philosophy’. The police team had barged into her house in the morning, grabbed her mobile phone, and checked her private messages. “They insisted I give them the password of my son’s laptop. He is a plus-two student. I did not know it. I called him up and collected it. The password was ‘government’. Hearing this, the cops shouted that my son was a Maoist,” says Jolly.
Human rights activists say that it is not difficult to nab Maoists since they turn up often to visit friends and journalists. “I think that the police do not want to touch them,” says Shyam Balakrishnan, coordinator of One World University, a collective for the study on Dialectics and Geopolitics. “In the guise of Maoist hunting, they actually target environmental groups and human rights organisations that are working lawfully.” Last year, Balakrishnan, who also does organic farming in Wayanad, was taken into custody and stripped in the police station as a humiliation measure. He says he has no links with Maoists and does not agree with the ideology of an armed struggle to overthrow the system.
On 1 February, two post-graduate students, Shahid Shameem and Uday Balakrishnan, were detained in Kannur on their way back from a meeting held in solidarity with Perumal Murugan, the Tamil writer who’d announced his literary ‘suicide’ after caste groups had threatened violence over a novel of his. The two youngsters were held overnight in the police station. “They checked our bags,” says Shahid, “I had Arundhati Roy’s The Broken Republic and The Shape of the Beast. The police asked us why we carried such books.”
The fixation of the state’s police with Maoist literature seems counterproductive when it is so easily available, and articles by writers like Roopesh appear openly in mainstream publications. “The police are making things easy for Maoists,” says KP Shashi, a documentary filmmaker and rights activist. “Random raids, arrests and surveillance will only raise distrust towards the police and weaken movements functioning in a democratic manner. The Maoist movement wants that to happen.”
On their part, Maoists seem to see Kerala as a special case for an armed revolution. One of their pamphlets outlines a strategy that the central leadership of the CPI- Maoist is said to have adopted to launch the struggle in Kerala. Penetrating this southern state, in the party’s analysis, is not as easy as other states because civil society is in active negotiation with the state through political parties, rights activists and the media; and the main hurdle has been identified as ‘friendly ties’ between the police and citizens. The party had called for a weakening of this relationship. Its other ideas include exploiting the dissatisfaction among Muslim youth in the state’s northern districts.
Maoists also realise that Kerala’s society is media-driven to a large extent. That is why Roopesh writes regularly for Malayalam magazines. A year ago, he wrote an article in Mathrubhumi about the exploitation of Adivasis in Wayanad. And a recent issue of Samakalika Malayalam, a current affairs weekly run by the Indian Express Group, had an open letter by him that addressed the state’s home minister. In response to Thunderbolt, an ongoing anti-Maoist operation by the police, Roopesh argued that militarisation was not the answer to problems being faced by the poorer and weaker sections of the society and that the government cannot and would not succeed in curbing the Maoist movement. He also charged the government with lending a free hand to corporates, finance companies and middlemen to exploit poor people in general and Tribals in particular.