My normal Saturday morning routine (or Saturday afternoon, depending on the largeness off the previous evening) is to have coffee by the front windows, look out at the bush-clad hills that surround Wellington's northwest suburbs, and read a few things online. This invariably involves a quick scroll through my Facebook News Feed. Statuses get liked, a selection of shared articles get read and a few photos get clicked on. Many of you reading this will be familiar with these activities – close to a billion people were registered on Facebook at last count – and you'll know that the News Feed is generally an innocuous, almost comforting addiction.
Last Saturday, as I went about this routine, my usually tame News Feed was interrupted by a brown face hacked brutally open, with deep bloody gashes back to the bone. When confronted with an unfamiliar face, I usually look first to the eyes and see what characteristics I can recognise in them. These eyes, however, were rolled back in their sockets and as useful an indicator of this man's personality as the straggly, matted hair on his head. Buried in such appalling gore, the man's eyes more or less lost their meaning. All the life had gone out of them.
The hacked-to-pieces face belonged to T. P. Chandrasekharan, a former member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has been a hugely strong element in Kerala's politics over the past 60 years, including several stints as part of a ruling coalition, and remains a strong, many-limbed beast. Chandrasekharan had reportedly grown frustrated with CPI(M)'s tactics and split off to form his own Communist faction, so a gang of goondas was sent to do the needful. As he returned from a wedding, they drove up beside him and rained bombs down upon him. They then took to his particularly his face, with sharp blades.
These events took place on 4 May 2012, and the murder of T. P. Chandrasekharan has dominated Kerala's news media since. It led to recriminatory violence in the surrounding areas of north Kerala and a special police force has been established to root out the elements of the CPI(M) allegedly responsible for the act. Somehow, despite my ties to Kerala, Chandrasekharan's murder had completely passed me by – until that photo appeared in my News Feed.
There is a debate to be had over whether such things should be shared on a Facebook timeline rather than linked with a strong warning. I wouldn't do it myself, but my friend told me he shared it because he wanted people to know what the CPI(M) is capable of and has been doing for years. He certainly isn't a partisan fellow – when conversation has turned political I've heard him say, on more than one occasion, “I hate politics so much” – but he felt moved to share it for the sake of awareness, especially as some of his friends support the CPI(M).
But now I have seen the photo, as has my friend, as have all his friends on Facebook. No doubt thousands of others will have shared the photo too: it's the biggest story of the last few months for a state of over 30 million people and the shock value of the image is difficult to overstate, even in an age in which we are inundated with unspeakable images out of war zones like Syria.
So, now that I have seen it, there is a more important question than 'should I have seen it?', which is past and therefore moot. Instead, as Chandrasekharan's mutilated face stays burned into my retinas, the question becomes: what do I do with this knowledge?
First, I feel moved to defend Kerala against those who would condemn it. The Times of India recently reported that Kerala is the most crime-prone state in India, citing data collected and released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2010. The NCRB has since released data for 2011, which appear to continue the trend and put Kerala at or near the top of a variety of unfortunate per-capita rankings. It remains the most crime-prone state by almost double, contains by far the most crime-prone city (Kochi), and sits a close third among the most unsafe states for women.
I found these rankings hard to believe. Kerala isn't the safest place in the world, sure, but the most crime-ridden state in India? More than the regularly rioting Uttar Pradesh, more than the 'rape capital' Delhi? There is a problem with these dry data, though: they do not (and cannot) give any indication of how crime is reported from state to state. Residents of a state like Bihar, for example, which has a low literacy rate and retains a strongly patriarchal society (as indicated by a sex ratio of 916 girls per 1000 boys), are probably less likely to report crime to the police than in Kerala, which has a very high literacy rate and is generally more egalitarian. The Kerala police force also has a better reputation for carrying out justice than in many other states, and the state's citizens are therefore more likely to go to the police when a crime is committed. The fact that a special task force was set up to bring Chandrasekharan's murderers to justice, and appears to actually be doing so, is a good example of this.
The NCRB's statistics, then, indicate that Malayalis report more crimes than the rest of India, though they do not necessarily commit more crimes. As the economist Rupa Subramanya wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, it's wise to look behind the headlines – and even behind the statistics.
That said, violence in Kerala is ongoing and very real. T. P. Chandrasekharan's murder is the flashpoint to bring decades of belligerent CPI(M) tactics to a head, as discussed in this Indian Express article and this post on Kerala's notorious 'quotation gangs' by our own Tysonice. I would sometimes hear tales of vigilante justice from my friends in Thiruvananthapuram district, a traditionally bureaucratic region far from the CPI(M) badlands of the north; one such anecdote involved a man getting hanged in his own front yard for pursuing another man's wife.
Meanwhile, my friend shared the Chandrasekharan photo because he wanted “everyone to know what [CPI(M)] have been doing all along and what they are capable of”. So, while it's important to recognise the limitations in crime rate statistics, it's equally important to recognise all is not well along the Malabar coast.
In his piece about quotation gangs, Tysonice expressed frustration at the hire-a-bigger-goonda culture in Kerala and his lack of a solution by which to get rid of the most unpleasant elements of his homeland. Much as I would like to wave a magic wand over the state I hold most dear in India, I can't offer any solution either.
However, the fact that crimes are getting reported in Kerala is a positive thing, as is the fact that Chandrasekharan's killers appear likely to be brought to justice. The CPI(M) may even be transformed as its most despicable members are rooted out. My hope is that wronged Malayalis continue to take advantage of the legal channels of justice available to them, and that the police force continue to follow up complaints with the appropriate duty of care with which they are charged. There will be always be unpleasant elements in society, and an effective system of law and order is necessary for that society to grow.
For many, the challenge will not be in sticking up for themselves by going to the police when a crime is committed against them; it will be when they witness injustice done to another who is less able to appeal to the law, be they poorer, older, younger or weaker. A society that doesn't turn its head when another one of its members is wronged is a very healthy one indeed, and a society in which bureaucrats exercise necessary effort in bringing wrongdoers to justice is healthier still.
I am therefore trying not to turn away from the disfigured face of T. P. Chandrasekharan. It shocked me, and I told my friend as much. I am not glad that I saw it, and in the course of writing this article, I have not returned to it for a second look. I'm sorry that he died, and in such a terrible way. However, I remain convinced that with or without the motivation of such horrific images, Kerala is on the right track to building a stronger society through an effective system of law and order and a populace that speaks up when necessary. I really hope I'm right.