• violence;
  • community;
  • culpability;
  • India;
  • Hindu Right;
  • Kerala


  1. Top of page
  6. NOTES

For more than four decades, local-level workers of the Marxist Left and Hindu Right in the southern Indian state of Kerala have been involved in a grievous political conflict. Drawing on my ethnography among members of the two groups, I describe how responsibility for this violence has been elided and effaced especially among members of the Hindu nationalist group, Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh (RSS). Crucial to this elision has been the workers’ close-knit community of friends and supporters that they forge by extending everyday assistance, care, and mobilizing support in small neighborhoods, towns, and villages of the region. Modes of sociality and concepts of relatedness so generated not only mitigate individualizing experiences of suffering but also subsume individual responsibility for acts of violence within the whole. This article is about such dissolution of culpabilities, and the affects, emotive concepts and conditions of collective life that make it possible.

According to court records, on the night of January 25, 1994, eight men “armed with axes, swordsticks, and choppers” burst into the small house where 29-year-old Sudheesh lived with his parents (Purushothaman and others v State of Kerala, Sessions Case [SC] 125 of 1997:5) in Kannur District of Kerala, South India. The men attacked Sudheesh, a student leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist [CPI (M)]); inflicted with 33 wounds, he died later that night. The alleged assailants, all eight of them, were local-level workers of the Hindu nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh (National Volunteers Association), better known as the RSS or the Sangh. When the case came to trial, the trial court judge acquitted five of the accused but convicted the other three and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The convicted RSS workers launched appeals, but the Supreme Court of India rejected these appeals and confirmed their life sentences in June 2003.

The Sudheesh murder case was one of nearly 500 cases of political violence that have been tried in the Kannur District Court of Kerala since the late 1970s. Approximately 4,000 workers of various political parties have been charged with crimes that range from murder and attempted murder to criminal intimidation of workers of other political parties.1 Local-level workers of the Marxist Left and the Hindu Right (and its electoral affiliate, the Bharatiya Janata Party [Indian People's Party], or BJP) have been the key protagonists. However, 80 percent of these alleged agents of violence have been acquitted in cases adjudicated from 1978 to 2003. Sudheesh's murder trial was one of the few that ended in convictions, even on successive appeals.2

As in the Sudheesh case, outcomes in a large number of these cases have hinged on testimonies of supporters and sympathizers of the two political groups. Underlying their testimonies have not only been strategic maneuvers designed to defeat the opposing group in court but also webs of affective relationships that members of the two groups share with their respective supporters. These communities of workers and sympathizers of the Marxist Left and the Hindu Right have thus influenced many cases of political violence inside the courts. Outside the courts, Hindu right-wing communities in particular have played another role affecting the afterlife of violence. I argue that outside, in intersubjective spaces where Hindu right-wing workers talk about their violence, they approximate the units of a single corporate body. Here subjectivities are enmeshed with one another, individualities obliterated, and each person is believed to be a substitute for the other. No one can be reproached or held culpable for an act of violence; violence is said to “somehow” happen and can be disclaimed.

In this article, I draw on my ethnographic research among Hindu right-wing workers, especially of the RSS, to describe the conditions of this elision of responsibility.3 I examine modes of sociality that make sublation of culpability possible, the ways in which such relations are gradually generated, and how local-level RSS workers come to live, experience, and perpetuate them.4 Over 18 months—in 2000–01, 2002–03, and in the summers of 2008 and 2009—I conducted research amongst members of the Marxist Left and the Hindu Right, interacting with them and their supporters in party offices, training camps, and their homes. As a “native” and “non-native” anthropologist (Narayan 1993), seen as an outsider but also accepted enough to be allowed in, I heard admissions and disavowals of violence from both the workers of the Marxist Left and the Hindu Right. However, as I will explain, it is among workers of the Hindu Right that conditions of collectivization and thereby elisions of culpability are substantively realized.

Anthropologists and historians have been interested in collectivities and communities as agents of sociopolitical action for a long time (Anderson 1983; Davis 1975; Durkheim 1984; Thompson 1971; Turner 1968). The doyen of the Subaltern Studies Collective, Ranajit Guha (1999), emphasized their importance in his work on peasant insurgencies in colonial India. Like Natalie Davis, E. P. Thompson, and Victor Turner, Guha emphasized the symbolic logic prevalent in different groups—their customs and rituals, their terms of self-identification, and their definitions of us and them—as variables that constitute communities as purposive political actors. Their purpose and mode of action were relayed through real or fictive kinship ties and networks, which account for the rapid spread of peasant movements and their unschooled militancy and call to arms. What they achieved, notes Partha Chatterjee in his commentary on Guha's work, was the spread of a consciousness that was born not from the conjoining of separate, individual interests but from individual identities that were themselves derived from participation in collective action and membership in a community (2000:14). The community was, writes Chatterjee, “what bound together the structure of peasant consciousness” (2000:15).

Popular and party politics in postcolonial India have been similarly marked by identifications with various collectives. A number of scholars have noted the emergence of political actors who define themselves not as individuals but as constituents of closely knit communities with shared concerns and goals (Chatterjee 2004; Hansen 1999, 2001; Kaviraj 1998). This is not to say, however, that such communities are “preconscious entities” (Hansen 1996:66) whose members are tied together by always already present emotional bonds. On the contrary, the generation of communities is hard work. In contemporary India, various political groups have sought to forge such communities at the local level as part of their project to generate a “we,” a collective or a “people” in whose name they might be able to rule legitimately. The Marxist Left and the Hindu Right are two such important entities.

The Communist Party has enjoyed considerable popular and electoral support in Kerala since the late 1940s (Menon 1994; Nossiter 1982).5 Since the 1970s, the RSS and its electoral affiliates (the Jan Sangh and then the BJP) have been assigning their workers to the towns and villages of the region. Here, too, as in other parts of India, local-level political workers have become participants in the care and management of the everyday lives of people. They can be found at party offices casually or excitedly discussing local and national issues of the day, at public meetings and demonstrations, or on street corners and in village squares engaging with the residents’ daily concerns and thereby making their presence felt. Workers of the two political groups have thus sought committed supporters and also tried to transform them into loyal electoral backers. In this pursuit, they have mobilized ties of friendship, real or imagined kinship, and definitions of us and them. Intense competition over votes and supporters has ensued, resulting in violent conflict between local workers of the Marxist Left and Hindu Right.

As in other regions of India, in Kannur district and other parts of North Kerala too, violence has become the public face and means of enhancing influence and power among potential supporters. Violence has occurred during confrontations between workers of the two groups and in orchestrated attacks involving everything from fists, sticks, and homemade bombs to swords, daggers, and iron rods. Some instances, like Sudheesh's murder, have culminated in terrible and spectacular instances of violence that have been memorialized, lingering in the memories of residents for decades. I draw especially on workers’ narratives and their reflections on culpability in the wake of such violence.

Thomas B. Hansen (2008) has also analyzed the problem of culpability and collective violence in India. He describes how such instances of violence are depicted as “pure events” or examples of “spontaneous combustion” and spilling of “spontaneous rage” (Hansen 2008:1) in the Indian legal and public sphere. Marked by a force and impetus of their own, dense and driven crowds are said to “devour” (Hansen 2008:31) all they can. In such crowds, individuals are believed to lose their singularity to merge and become one (Hansen 2008:33). The crowd's agency is not attributed to anybody but is known only through the destruction it brings in its wake (Hansen 2008:46).

Although some elements of collective violence have been present in the actions of members of the Marxist Left and Hindu Right in Kerala, members have not gathered into enormous crowds to “devour all they can.” Neither have they sought to eliminate entire communities as Hindu nationalists did in Gujarat and Mumbai in recent times (Sundar 2002; Padgaonkar 1993). Workers of the Left and Right in Kerala have instead fought each other as social near equals and in smaller numbers. On average, small groups of individuals have clashed with groups of the same size or targeted a single member of the opposing group. Consequently, popular and judicial representations have rarely elided individual responsibility. On the contrary, police and the courts have identified, seized, prosecuted, and convicted the persons apparently liable—subjecting many to long, arduous trials. At the same time, individual responsibility for violence in Kannur has been disavowed and dissolved in the communities that the workers form among themselves.

Central to the dissipation of culpability in Hindu right-wing communities are notions of being one with the whole. This sense of consubstantiality is different however from the fleeting effect of numbers and density of a crowd that Hansen describes. Instead, such consubstantiality is gradually obtained through discursive and other everyday practices of exchange. Everyday interaction, exchange, emphasis on familial feelings, and the discourse of “love” make and bind members of the RSS community to one another. Their selves and subjectivities are articulated in narratives that emphasize the “spirit” of the community and the love that animates it.

In these narratives, especially when workers talk about their violence, individual selves are subsumed in the whole, and agency becomes “transindividual” and depersonalized (Feldman 1991:53). When an individual subject speaks through the “we,” his particularity is belied and expunged. Violence becomes nameless—not necessarily without an addressee, but without an addressor—enacted by particular individuals whose specific identities have been dissolved in the communities they form with one another. That is the form that blamelessness and impunity take here. This article examines the forms of sociality and the repertoire of representational strategies shared by workers of the Hindu Right that serve as paradigmatic conditions for the creation of such a nameless and blameless community of perpetrators.


  1. Top of page
  6. NOTES

The Conflict and Field Research

The RSS was founded in 1925 as an educational body for Hindu men in the state of Maharashtra. Since then, it has become the largest and most influential organization in India committed to Hindu nationalist revival (Andersen and Damle 1987; Jaffrelot 1998). Its electoral affiliate, the BJP led the central government from 1998 to 2004. In 1977, following a period of national emergency, a more spirited, public, and explicitly political phase of the RSS began, and it started making inroads into North Kerala.6 North Kerala has been a Communist Party stronghold for more than three decades. With the entry of the Hindu Right into the area, the two groups began competing for support among members of various unions and residents of different neighborhoods. Attacks and counterattacks followed, interspersed with murders of party personnel. Following violent rioting between members of the Hindu Right, Muslim League, and the Marxist Left in 1971, CPI (M) members also began positing themselves as secular defendants of the substantial Muslim population of the region against the Hindu Right.

It is important to note that a majority of CPI (M) and RSS-BJP workers who have been charged with and suffered different forms of violence over the years share similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Most are not just Hindus but belong to the same so-called low-caste community of Tiyyas.7 Many make their living through blue-collar occupations such as masonry and carpentry or as daily wage laborers in the construction industry. A number are also unemployed or partially employed. When workers of the two groups have been charged for committing violent crimes, lawyers sponsored by their different groups have been deputed to defend them. In this way, the CPI (M) and RSS-BJP workers’ biographies and violent actions have not only been closely entwined with party politics in the democratic Indian state but the workers have also acquiesced to being judged by the state's laws.

During my field research, I first became familiar with the lawyers and local leaders of the two groups, which led me to the local CPI (M) and RSS offices and then the homes of local political workers. There I heard about the workers’ political biographies and the acts of violence they had endured and been accused of. In a few days, the workers, my research assistant, and I began addressing each other with fictive kinship terms used for siblings.8 The political workers and I talked at length about our shared experience of many nationwide events and contexts. At the same time, I am not from Kerala but an altogether different part of the country. Indeed, workers often told me that I could be trusted more easily precisely because I was an “outsider,” a non-Malayali, with no obvious stakes in the local scoreboards of political violence. In this complex ethnographic space, I listened to the workers’ narratives and understandings of their violence.

In other words, I became privy to what Allen Feldman calls “self-reflexive, interpretive framings of power” (1991:1). Such framings draw on histories and accounts shared by the group to supply individual violence with an authorizing and legitimating telos. In this way, workers of both parties constitute themselves as political agents, thereby explaining and justifying their own violence. What these explanations especially enable workers of the Hindu Right to do is elide responsibility for their violence. In the course of my research, I heard Hindu Right workers abjure their individual violence in various contexts, always emphasizing their unity with the whole. Even when an individual agent of violence was alluded to, he was subsumed within the collective and its transcendent agency. Thus, RSS-BJP workers came to inhabit the words and “structure of feelings” (Williams 1977) that helped them sublate responsibility for their violence. Life within the community, its everyday practices of exchange, and daily interaction in the neighborhood shakhas, or organizational cells, made those habits and feelings possible.

Making the RSS Community: Of “Service Activities” and “Love”

Neighborhood shakhas, or cells, are the key organizational units of the RSS (Andersen and Damle 1987). According to Sangh organizational principles, a shakha is meant to be the place where, led by the shakha instructor, swayamsewaks (volunteers or local-level workers) gather daily in the early hours of the morning and evening for their ideological and political education. They follow a regimen of physical and ideological training consisting of drills, games, and debates about national and local sociopolitical questions. RSS workers at the shakha pledge to remain lifelong members of the Sangh, to work for it without hesitation, and to keep its defects in confidence (Jaffrelot 1998:37).

Although the number of RSS shakhas in Kerala wavered during the conflict between the two groups, on the whole their number increased as the public and aggressively political phase of the RSS continued from the late 1970s.9 What also became widespread was the RSS’s typical Maussian mode of mobilization: namely, giving gifts and services to incite the obligation to reciprocate with loyalty and support. To gather such loyalty, RSS workers in Kerala, as in other parts of the country, have sought to position themselves between the state and the larger populace. They have tried not only to help people secure access to state services but also to institute those services themselves. Since the late 1970s and 1980s, RSS workers have been managing schools and orphanages and assisting the self-employed in obtaining bank loans. The RSS also runs a small fleet of ambulances to carry patients to hospitals and organize medical and blood examination camps. In 2008–09, Sangh workers reportedly organized 98 blood donation camps and 28 medical assistance units in Kannur. They also distributed school textbooks in 29 towns and villages in the district, and enlarged services in their two schools cum hostels. Workers also claim that they initiated 177 self-help groups and several microfinancing schemes. As of 2009 the RSS has initiated four projects that will enable fishermen to buy boats.10

These “service activities,” as RSS workers call them, are integral to the program of forging close-knit communities and generating “love,” affection, and familial feelings among members.11 As senior RSS workers note, the generation of familial feelings comes before ideological and political mobilization, and even before that come the tasks of facilitating access to schools, employment, and various welfare entitlements. In the course of my research, a young RSS leader, Sadanand Master, made one of the most comprehensive statements about these means of generating support, love, and affection in the RSS community, calling it a “psychological approach.”“We don't seek to make them [future supporters] understand the Sangh ideology directly. Instead, [we] seek to gain their trust. That is what it is!” He noted:

Three or four of us go over to a house, engage with their [family members’] day-to-day concerns, such as the education of their kids. If there is anyone unwell in the house and there is a problem getting medicines, we do whatever we can. They are ordinary people; our “line” is to gain their trust and not just propagate ideology.

Sadanand Master then described the final stage and the principle underlying this approach:

When we win over their confidence, it becomes possible for us to draw them in. That is the Sangh's strategy. In shakhas, the swayamsewaks sing of the principle of rising [gaining popular support] by offering personal sneha bandham (bonds of love). To convert personal relations into ideological relations … the Sangh adapts this mode of working in every village.

With these words, the RSS local leader invoked a concept summoned by many in Kerala in their everyday lives: the idea of sneham coupled with bandham. Sneham may be understood as “attachment, fondness, friendship, tenderness, or love” and bandham as the ties that are produced by these feelings (Osella and Osella 1996:37). But sneham has to be enacted to exist (Osella and Osella 1996:38). Sharing food and giving gifts, which are metonyms of oneself, are central to this enactment. The unrestricted flow of sneham within and between persons (incl. persons divided by strong hierarchies) is regarded as a condition of their health and well-being. Wholeness and fullness are engendered as one finds in oneself what is also present in or given by another (Osella and Osella 1996).

Sneham thus tries to order a range of affects, apprehensions of affinity and friendliness into stronger, kinlike bonds. As various theorists and anthropologists have argued, affects circulate among and within us as palpable, if fleeting and inarticulable, sensations (Massumi 2002; Stewart 2007). Sometimes they move so quickly that they can't even be comprehended. With the weight of time and use behind them, terms such as sneham congeal and stabilize these affects, placing them in an established circuit of meanings. That is the work sneham does, especially for workers such as Sadanand Master.

Like many of his colleagues, the schoolmaster draws on the intensities and “habits of relating” (Stewart 2007:2) with which sneham is associated to vivify, through the vernacular, the RSS vision of collective life. This vision and the Hindu nationalist project, as a number of scholars have shown (Andersen and Damle 1987; Jaffrelot 1998), are anchored in filial, fraternal, and friendly but hierarchical relationships of reciprocity that emphasize oneness and similitude.12 Such feelings of connection and communion become a key part of RSS workers’ and sympathizers’ lives. Every now and then, RSS supporters allude to these feelings in dramatic emotional terms.

I am reminded here of Veena, a 30-year-old Tiyya woman who lives with her mother in their rundown ancestral home in the Kadirur area of Kannur district.13 While her mother raises goats to make ends meet, Veena tailors clothes to contribute to the household income. One afternoon, in the course of a conversation about the conflict between the CPI (M) and the RSS, Veena forthrightly said, “Whatever it is [referring to RSS ideology], it is in our blood.” It was clear from other conversations that Veena and her mother were not well versed in RSS history or the Hindu nationalist ideology. Nevertheless, their trust in and loyalty toward RSS stalwarts of their neighborhood had become a substantive part of themselves—like affects flowing in their blood.

There were many reasons for this: RSS workers had recently helped Veena and her mother put together their application for a loan to repair their house. Local RSS workers also supervised the house's renovation. If money ran short, as it threatened to, RSS workers had promised to pool resources and assist the women. Over the years, Veena and her mother had come to feel that they could turn to the workers in an hour of need; the workers’ presence seemed extremely enabling for the women who had few other sources of support. For her part, Veena's mother had appeared in court to depose against members of the CPI (M), and on more than one occasion, their house had been used as a safe haven for RSS workers on the run.14

Similar accounts about bonds that RSS sympathizers come to share with each other can be found across the region. People like Veena and her mother, who are at the receiving end of local leaders’ attention, live and acknowledge these relationships; in return, they give their loyalty and support. Among young local-level workers, such relationships born of mutual assistance and everyday interactions become bases of friendship. To paraphrase a shakha coordinator, it is important to “make a circle through friendship” to do the Sangh's work.

Like local RSS leaders and supporters, CPI (M) workers also evoke the tropes of friendship, camaraderie, and love in their conversations about one another and their party. Emphasis on shared biographies and the impulses and attachments of close relationships circulate among them too. At the same time, the process of sympathetically integrating agents and perpetrators of violence into the community network remains tenuous and fragmented among CPI (M) workers. To draw on Jacques Derrida's reflections on the “politics of friendship,” the figure of the friend does not get staged with all the features of the brother among Communist Party workers (1997:viii). Although both the CPI (M) and the RSS work hard to engender networks of support, RSS workers realize the “romance of self-repetition, similarity, resemblance and order of the same” (Gandhi 2006:28) much more effectively.15 Practices that are meant to create a sense of unity, a discursive repertoire that emphasizes “love,” and the presence of Communist antagonists all contribute toward producing such an order. This became clear during the Sudheesh murder trial, with which I began this article and to which I now return.


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  6. NOTES

The Courts, the Community, and the Injured Body

When I began the main phase of my field research in 2002, the High Court of Kerala had recently confirmed the conviction of the three RSS workers accused of Sudheesh's murder; all three men were sentenced to life imprisonment, and their conviction and life sentences were being challenged at the Supreme Court in Delhi. Sudheesh was the Kannur district youth-wing leader of the Marxist Left. According to the first information report filed at the local police station on the day of the murder, Sudheesh had gone to a nearby town for “party work.” He returned in the evening and went to bed around 10. The report noted the following course of events:

Sudheesh and his parents were fast asleep when around 1:15 am someone called out for Sudheesh from the verandah. Sudheesh and his father woke up, opened the window, and Sudheesh inquired who it was and what did he want.

The person outside replied that a fight had taken place at Uruvachal, and the CPI (M) area secretary had sent for Sudheesh. Sudheesh responded that the man outside could go ahead, and he would follow in a little while. Soon after, the front door was crashed open, and a group of armed persons rushed into the house. [Purushothaman and others v State of Kerala, SC 125 of 1997:4]

The fight at Uruvachal had taken place almost five hours earlier. The district judge who tried Sudheesh's assailants noted in his judgment that the details of that incident were also harrowing: “What had happened was that on the main road in Uruvachal, a young RSS leader and schoolteacher, Sadanand Master, was attacked brutally allegedly by CPI (M) workers. The assailants amputated his feet and he has been crippled for life” (Purushothaman and others v State of Kerala, SC 125 of 1997:4).

The attack on Sudheesh was thus seen as revenge for the attack on Master earlier that night. This was the same Sadanand Master who had spoken to me about sneham and the Sangh's “psychological approach” of generating support. He was a charismatic, well-regarded figure among local RSS workers. Now three RSS workers were facing life imprisonment for avenging the assault on him. Rajesh, one of the main local RSS functionaries, was deputed to assist the defense lawyers in this case. He and his colleagues were working hard to obtain acquittals for the accused RSS workers, but they were extremely concerned about the outcome of the appeal in the Supreme Court.

Rajesh has been assisting lawyers and looking after “legal matters” on behalf of the Sangh for nearly 20 years. He has dealt with many cases in which Sangh workers have been accused of committing violence against CPI (M) and other party workers. He was, however, particularly bothered by the Sudheesh case. The courts had chosen to believe the word of recently bereaved parents over the evidence that the defense lawyers presented. On the night of the murder, Sudheesh's parents had said that they could only identify some of the assailants (as the others had their faces covered). However, the next day, they named nearly all the alleged assailants, including some well-known RSS workers of the area. The defense lawyers argued that Sudheesh's parents had accused the RSS workers of their son's murder at the instantiation of CPI (M) local leaders. But the courts chose not to believe this contention.

Speaking about the case one evening at the RSS Tellicherry office, the usually reticent Rajesh animatedly said: “According to my knowledge, not even a single episode in history (of CPI [M] and RSS-BJP violence) has been such that a witness would say what he saw. These are political cases. We teach them; on both sides we teach the case to the witnesses. … Really, Sudheesh's case was worthy of acquittal.” Rajesh claimed that two of the three convicted were innocent and knew nothing about the incident. However the courts upheld Sudheesh's parents’ statements against the accused. According to Rajesh, his parents testified as CPI (M) leaders directed them to. But judges failed to recognize the web of close ties among members and sympathizers of a political party, which might motivate even the parents of a murdered man to give false evidence about his assailants.

Sudheesh and his parents’ lives were embedded in the CPI (M) community, and their ties to the community had resulted in the RSS workers’ conviction. Similarly, testimonies have also been made to obtain acquittals for friends, colleagues, and political associates. Such is the nature of political communities in North Kerala: even recently bereaved parents closely affiliated to a party would be ready to aid its cause. Angry and regretful about the case's outcome, Rajesh emphasized the relationship between the CPI (M)'s quest for dominance and the close relationships forged by its workers and sympathizers. Soon he began to discuss the contexts, affects, and motivations that mark his own life and the lives of his colleagues in the RSS. Speaking again about Sudheesh's murder, Rajesh said, “It was a counterattack born of anger. Even Sudheesh did not know that something like this would happen. Somehow it happened.”

Here, “somehow” and “counterattack born of anger” suggest many possibilities about the chain of events and the degrees of consultation, planning, and spontaneity that might have preceded Sudheesh's murder. Although Rajesh could not be persuaded to say more, he continued to discuss other events and acts of violence. Then two more RSS workers joined us: Sasi, who had been recently acquitted of the murder of another CPI (M) sympathizer, and Achuthan, who, like Rajesh, was an experienced member of the Sangh. Sasi spoke about his own and others’ experience in the Sangh:

It's hard to say what kind of people they are—the ones who commit murders. At the same time, their willpower inspires to do so. At that moment, such courage and power comes. It happens unknowingly. It's a “spirit.” Through the evening shakha and the balshakha[children's shakha], when twenty to twenty-five people get together, stand around, and discuss different things, a “team spirit” enters all of them. To sit around the shelter, just talk about anything, that's all there is to it.16

Echoing Sasi's words, Achuthan added: “The killing and murder is 100 percent against the Sangh's activities. For us who have sneham for the Sangh, it has to be done. So, we have to do it.” Some minutes later, Achuthan recounted the murder of Mamman Vasu, a notorious CPI (M) worker who had been charged in many murders and attempted murder cases. He was murdered not just to settle scores, but as a question of strategy and self-preservation. In Achuthan's words, “Mamman Vasu was [involved] in fourteen murder cases. In fourteen years, we tried seven times to have him killed. After fourteen years, we found such people who could. Once Mamman Vasu was killed, the Sangh's work in the area was done.”17

Thus, in each event there were different moments to be delineated. Achuthan and Rajesh understood that a certain “balance of forces” (Gramsci 1972:172) that tilted one way or another with each attack and murder existed between the CPI (M) and them. It was the practices associated with the creation of this ever-new balance of forces that the workers associated with the political. At the same time, underlying this political contest were, according to the workers, strains of willpower, provoked by anger and an aggrieved team spirit. Somehow, knowingly or unknowingly, yet with the thought of making the Sangh victorious, the bearer of this spirit attacked, murdered, or attempted to murder an opponent. In their minds, such acts of violence also signified the “love” (sneham) that the workers felt for each other and for the RSS community. At other times, victims of violence such as the Sadanand Master became the media through which sentiments of sneham were vivified.

If RSS workers such as Sasi and Achuthan invoked love and sneham to talk about their enactment of violence, victims such as Sadanand Master employed these terms when talking about the violence they had suffered. Sadanand Master was the local RSS leader who was attacked a few hours before Sudheesh was murdered. Sadanand Master regarded his life after the attack as a testimony to the “personal relations” that persist among members of the RSS. As he recounted, Sangh workers were the first to arrive at the hospital where he was treated, and it was their love and attention that, in his words, helped him recover and made him “complete.”

Tropes of love, attention, and completeness are also evident in Sadanand Master's account of the incident that I reproduce below. It evokes that consciousness of unity with another, of finding oneself through and in another, that is called sneham or love. It is also an account in which the harrowing features of political violence in North Kerala come to the fore.18 Although I don't dwell on them, it is important to recall the terrible amputations he suffered to understand the schoolmaster and his colleagues’ narratives about the attack.

Describing the attack on him that took place at night in a market square that most people fled with the arrival of the assailants, Sadanand Master said,

They held me from behind and laid me on the road. … It was very dark. [I] could not even understand what they were doing. My head was pressed hard on the road. … Being hacked or being beaten, it was not really clear. [I] was tugging away to escape. … Then I felt that everyone had left.

In a low voice Master continued:

[I] tried to get up and saw this: at that very spot my legs were in a state that both the feet had been cut off. … Blood was flowing just like that.

There was no one around, not even one person. … Then after 15 minutes, the police came and took me to the hospital.

The schoolmaster's work for the Sangh had entailed walking and building close personal relations, and that was now impeded. He spoke about occasionally feeling a deep anger against his assailants. At the same time, his coworkers and junior colleagues stepped in to recompense him for the disabilities he suffered. His colleagues and friends in the Sangh gave blood, looked after him in the hospital, and made and fitted artificial limbs; a Sangh sympathizer ran the health center where the limbs were fitted. All this enabled him to recover. Sadanand Master thus described the contribution of the Sangh to his recovery, which became a site for close affective bonds to be forged between Sangh workers and him.

Communion at the Camp, Unifying Life Force, and Elisions of Culpability

Such relationships were also evident at the Officers Training Camp (OTC) where I first met Sadanand Master. At the camp there were, as he described, “many workers with a large, open heart willing to do anything for me: to wash my clothes, if I have to go anywhere they provide vehicle, take me there, just to fetch something there is someone here.” Sadanand Master marveled at the ready and unflinching manner in which the Sangh workers assisted him. There were others at the OTC who had been injured in the political violence of North Kerala, but Sadanand Master was one of the best known. He was also a camp administrator and one of the main instructors in political theory. Others in the camp echoed Sadanand's sentiments about the Sangh and lived these relationships in their own ways.

The camp was one of two OTCs that were conducted in 2003 in Kerala, and 400 men were instructed there. The OTC—held at a high school closed for summer vacation—was housed in a building that faced a playing field. It became the site of the camp's closing day functions, where 800 to 1,000 people gathered. Instead of flying the national flag, the flagpole in the field carried the saffron Sangh flag.

At the end of one long day, my research assistant, Pradeep, and I were sitting in the playing field under some trees, drinking tea and bantering with some young, local RSS workers. In fact, we had moved to these neutral topics after hearing what we regarded as one workers’ cautious admission to a recent murder of a CPI (M) member. Soon after, other workers joined us, and the atmosphere lightened.

From a distance we saw an older, silver-haired worker, Kesavan, walk out of the school building. Years before, he too had suffered nearly fatal injuries in an attack allegedly committed by CPI (M) members. He now managed an RSS-run home for underprivileged children. Some men spoke of their surprise at the attack on Kesavan, who was not wellknown when he was attacked at a time when, furthermore, there had been no “atmosphere of attacks.” To the workers, Kesavan and Sadanand Master's disabilities were indices of the violence they had suffered. The men who discussed them interpreted them in their own fashion; their words highlighted the semiotic process under way. They talked of the pain that surely accompanied these injuries. Signs of violence experienced by Master and Kesavan took on a sensual aspect for their colleagues and friends, who came to realize their meaning “in” themselves (Peirce and Hoopes 1991:41). Although these meanings were not always clearly classified or sharply articulated, many people felt them as palpable affects—as the bhayankar (tremendous and dreadful) feeling that overcame them when they heard about the attack on Master.

As talk of dreadful attacks gradually passed, the men began to reflect on the schoolmaster's recovery and how it had come about through the generosity and efforts of Sangh workers. These RSS workers spoke of their deep respect for Sadanand and how they sought to assist him. In this way, members of the Sangh continued to commune with, and be constituted by, each other. The schoolmaster and Kesavan's injured bodies became the locus around which new forms of community emerged.

At the same time, renewed sociality around injured and slain bodies was not was just one important feature of the RSS camp. As noted, several Sangh workers at the OTC had been accused in cases of violence against the CPI (M). In the workers’ narratives, their love for each other and their community impelled their violence. These expressions also found a special resonance at the camp when workers talked about another aspect of their collective life, namely, the notion of an ideal community that they upheld. They discussed forms of sociability guided by dharma, or an internalized sense of duty toward each other and the group as a whole, and chaitanya, or the life force that unifies all living beings.19

Central to RSS's organicist conception of society, the workers accept and interpret such ideals in their own ways. Dharma assures complementarities between different individuals and their roles in society, and the idea of a unifying life force emphasizes community and communion with one another. As one worker, Ajayan, explained, once you start recognizing the life force in all other beings as the one that resides in you, you feel akin to them and would not do anything to them that you would not want done to you. The ability to see oneself not through a lens of what sets one apart but what makes one similar to others is, according to Ajayan and others, central to their vocation as RSS workers. This sense of similarity, substitutability, and community also provides ways to speak about acts of violence, while eliding and effacing responsibility for them.

This process is especially illuminated when we consider Ajayan, his biography, and his words. Ajayan had risen through the Sangh ranks. Over time, my research assistant Pradeep and I also got to know him fairly well. Both of us addressed him as “Ajayan ettan,” or older brother Ajayan. We addressed many other people in this fashion but had grown particularly fond of and respectful toward him. For many different reasons, he too seemed to be fond of us. Ajayan was in fact the same person who had stood near the playing field at the RSS Officer's Training Camp (OTC) and apparently, cautiously, admitted to a murder. He had been out on bail for some time, but now the trial for that murder was about to start.

Ajayan had been appointed as an officer of the OTC. When Pradeep and I visited the camp, Ajayan met us at the gate and showed us around with pride. On some occasions, he spent an entire day with us. He familiarized us with the OTC's many activities and introduced us to many people there—the cooks, the cleaners, the physical and intellectual instructors, the officials, and many local-level RSS workers from different parts of Kerala. In this genial atmosphere, Ajayan disclosed his apparent participation in a terrible murder.

The dead man was a metal welder who was killed in his workshop three years ago. Ajayan's account came after a long and tiring day of meetings as we sat sipping tea under the trees. Ajayan told his story simply and quietly. The horrific details of the events seemed muted by Ajayan's relaying of them. Ajayan had been instrumental in recruiting a young orphan boy, about 12 years old, into the local shakha. One morning, when he was distributing some Sangh flyers, CPI (M) workers accosted and beat him up. The murder of the metal welder was retaliatory. In his retelling of the story—an account in which he never used the first person to discuss the actual enactment—Ajayan said, “I had just got ready to step out in the morning when I heard about it [the boy's beating]. There are many RSS pockets nearby. It happened.” He then recalled going to the workshop, the metal welder being held down, and being “cut up.”20

Ajayan spoke so quietly that Pradeep and I had to strain to hear him. There was just the slightest note of regret in Ajayan's voice; he dropped the first person I as he spoke. Soon, Ajayan's close colleagues and friends joined us. Exchange of friendly banter and news commenced. They shared a team spirit of their own. Ajayan's story had created a “mood” (Daniel 1996) of shock and apprehension in us that slowly passed. In its place, conviviality spiraled around us—a realm in which solidarities are experienced, personalities effaced, and a sense of being part of the whole gained.

Ajayan, Pradeep, and I talked about the events of the murder on two more occasions. On one occasion, Ajayan—very unexpectedly—drove us past the welder's workshop and, slowing down, let us soak in the place albeit from afar. But each subsequent time he spoke of the incident, Ajayan's narrative conformed to his line of defense in the upcoming trial. The place of the missing I was now taken by someone who was enmeshed in a complicated tale of alibis and absences from the site of the murder. Friends and supporters serving as defense witnesses were ready to back Ajayan's alibi. A singular knowing and acting subject could no longer be abstracted from this community. “It” happened, but Ajayan no longer knew about it.


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This story brings me back to the courts, where supporters of the RSS and the CPI (M) testify to seek acquittals for their own and convictions for members of the opposing group. As noted, RSS members supported Ajayan's alibi in court. Outside, the “spirit” of the group served to mitigate his culpability just as it mitigates other RSS workers’ responsibility for their violence. This is not to say that there are no glitches in such alibis. Arrests, individualizing court procedures, long-running trials, and the pervasive awareness of people injured and killed threaten to disrupt the transindividual group agency that subsumes identities of culpable individuals I(s). At the same time, the collective life of the community and the ways in which its members assert and celebrate it help the workers overcome this dissonance. Team spirit is animated in shakhas, camps, and other places where RSS workers get together. The discursive force and affective surge of this spirit allow the glitches in the alibis to be covered over.

Kathleen Stewart reminds us, “The politics of any surge depends on where it might go. What happens. How it plays itself out and in whose hands” (2007:15). As we have seen, in communities such as those of the Hindu right, everyday practices of exchange, forms of sociality, and notions of sameness and unity enable local-level workers to be subsumed within their collective. Although Hindu right-wing communities often provide optimal conditions for this dissolution and resulting disavowal of individual culpability, similar forms of relatedness and feelings of unity with a whole can come alive in other contexts too. Where are the attendant affective surges and representations going? And what are they sublating? These are, I believe, important questions that anthropologists of violence have to answer as they study enactments and the afterlife of violence. That afterlife may lead to accountability or produce a politics of blamelessness and impunity. Those who evade responsibility do not have to be above the law, act in large groups, or use instruments of aggression such as fire that remove all traces of responsibility. They can, like Hindu right-wing workers in Kerala, just be absorbed in their community and therefore be difficult to separate from the whole thereby achieving impunity for themselves and their group.


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Acknowledgments I initially presented this article as a paper at the Five-Colleges Inter-Asian Political Cultures Workshop and the Friday Colloquium, Department of Sociology, University of Delhi. I would like to thank Paula Chakravartty, Kavita Datla, and Deepak Mehta for inviting me, and all the participants for their comments and questions. Francis Cody, Gerald Creed, Valentine Daniel, Yukiko Koga, and Karin Zitzewitz read early drafts and gave critical feedback and suggestions. Comments from the anonymous reviewers of Cultural Anthropology and the editor Ann Alison were insightful and encouraging. Suren Pillay graciously helped me improve the final version. I sincerely thank all of them. The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation supported research and writing for this article.

1. My computations are based on records of trial court judgments archived at Kannur District Court, Tellicherry. There are no officially published statistics available; however, one report compiled by the then District Superintendent of Police lists 352 cases of political violence including 69 attempts to murder and 28 murders that occurred in the region from 1978–1981 during a particularly intense phase of the violence (Alexander 1989:890–1091). According to the report, nearly all these cases ended in acquittals. Media accounts speak of 2000 “clashes” through the 1980s and 1990s (Mary 1999). According to The Hindu, 127 political murders took place in Kannur in those two decades (Tampi 1999); the Mathrubhumi lists 142 political murders from 1980–2000 (Sasindaran 2000).

2. Out of a sample of 240 judgments in murder and attempted murder cases that I studied, the judge cleared all the accused in nearly 200 cases. These judgments were mostly delivered between 1978 and 2003. In this article, I have changed most names and altered some circumstances of events to preserve anonymity except when I draw on court records to describe these events and persons.

3. As described below, my research involved workers of the CPI (M) as well. However, disavowal and elision of culpability took on much more elaborate and strong forms among members of the Hindu Right than the left-wing workers.

4. Much has been written about the relationship between the RSS, the “mother organization” of the Hindu Right, and its various wings such as the BJP (Andersen and Damle 1987; Puri 1980). The RSS has repeatedly sought to position itself as merely a “cultural organization” interested in instilling cultural nationalism. Indeed, until the 1950s, its leaders expressed an aversion to party politics However, it soon recognized the importance of acquiring state power—just before the first general elections in independent India, when leaders of the RSS paired with members of the Hindu Mahasabha to form the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Together, they fought the general elections with RSS-trained members holding key positions in the party. In 1980, the Jan Sangh was reinvented as the BJP. Especially in the context of the violent conflict with the local level CPI (M) workers, membership in RSS and BJP has become seamless. A number of workers I spoke with cite the RSS as their primary affiliation, even if they work for other wings of the Hindu Right.

5. The Communist Party of India (CPI) was formally founded in 1925, in the middle of one of the most eventful decades of the anticolonial movement in India. These were years of widespread strikes and food riots. At the time of India's independence in 1947, the CPI stated revolutionary upsurge as its primary goal and consequently repudiated parliamentary democracy. But failing to generate such an upsurge across India, it joined the electoral fray. In the first general elections, the CPI emerged as the biggest opposition party at the center and in state power in Kerala. In 1962, the CPI split into two constituents: the CPI and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M). Since then, the CPI (M) has been the dominant partner in the Left coalition and has been at the helm of several state governments in West Bengal and Kerala.

6. Kerala and Karnataka have been cited as two states that saw a substantial rise in the ranks of RSS workers during the emergency and postemergency years. Jaffrelot points out that across the country, the number of shakhas had grown to 13,000 in 1979. The expansion also included affiliates such as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which grew from 1.2 to 1.8 million adherents between 1977 and 1980, while the RSS student organization Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad's strength grew from 170,000 to 250,000 between 1977 and 1982 (Jaffrelot 1998:203).

7. Tiyyas are the largest subgroup of Hindus in North Kerala. Since the 1940s, they have been able to transcend their low-caste status through educational and occupational achievements, caste reform movements, and through participation in political movements (Menon 1994). Some Tiyyas, however, have continued to engage in blue-collar occupations, and they make up the lower echelons of both the Marxist Left and Hindu Right. Although members of both the groups espouse principles of caste equality in their own fashion, I argue that it is competition over communities of potential supporters—Pulayas, members of the fishing community, mill workers, and so on—which impels the conflict between CPI (M) and RSS-BJP workers, and not their own or their potential supporters’ caste or religious affiliations per se.

8. My assistant, Pradeep, a 23-year-old anthropology student at Kannur University, contributed greatly to my research. His easy and trustworthy demeanor, and the fact that he was a serious young man from the district, helped to mitigate the sense of self-consciousness that some male workers felt in the early days of my research while walking, traveling with, and talking to me, a young urban female researcher.

9. In May 2003, the Times of India reported that according to the RSS national spokesperson there were 3000 RSS shakhas in Kerala, the highest amongst all the states in the country.

11. A number of authors have written about the social welfare strategy central to Hindu nationalist groups (Deshpande 1998; Gupta 1982). For a short summary see Jaffrelot's edited volume (2005:197–224).

12. In a frequently cited speech, K. B. Hedgewar, founder of the RSS, speaks of it as a “family” and a “fraternity” (see Jaffrelot 2005:64).

13. Names and locations of several interlocutors have been changed except when they are drawn from court records.

14. Appearing in court becomes an overt way to show support. In some instances, such actions also become ways of testing loyalties to the group. Future assistance from local-level Hindu right-wing workers becomes contingent on passing such tests. It is in such small ways one might say that the Hindu right-wing community is also managed and policed.

15. Elsewhere I have described how Communist Party workers’ narratives about their violence differ from those of Hindu nationalists. Although tropes of friendship and even love occur in the Communist Party's workers’ statements, they are articulated much more tentatively. I argue that the discourse of class struggle and people's democracy that Communist Party workers absorb does not anchor or help evolve affects associated with friendship, love, and so on. I would like to thank Jinee Lokaneeta for her insights on this question.

16. Words such as spirit, team spirit, and action were English words that workers of both the CPI (M) and the RSS employed in their conversations about violent events. Other such words employed during conversations in the vernacular were fighters or fighter club to refer to members of these groups more inclined to violence.

17. Mamman Vasu was killed on December 12, 1995. Five RSS workers were tried at the Kannur District Court and sentenced to rigorous life imprisonment for his murder. See SC 22 of 1999.

18. Like most other Malayalam speakers (Jayaseelan 1999:24), Sadanand Master dropped the subject pronouns when he spoke. I have added them in parentheses to make his statement easier to read in English. It is also important to note that the “utterance context” and gestures personalize “syntactically impersonal constructions” (Wilce 1998:86).

19. Notions of dharma and chaitanya are key elements of the RSS canon. They find a special place in the writings of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, one of the founders and most important ideologues of the RSS. See Golwalkar (1966), and Andersen and Damle (1987:71–83) for a short summary.

20. “Vetti murichchu (“cut up”) or “Avane vetti murichchu” (cut him up) were words often used to describe violent attacks between members of the Marxist Left and Hindu Right in North Kerala. They connote not just the nature of injuries, but also the instruments such as sickles and swords that were used to inflict the injuries.

Editors’ Note: Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on political conflict in India. See, for example, Anand Pandian's“Pastoral Power in the Postcolony: On the Biopolitics of the Criminal Animal in South India” (2008), Ananthakrishnan Aiyer's“The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India” (2007), Aradhana Sharma's“Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India” (2006), and Ritty Lukose's“Empty Citizenship: Protesting Politics in the Era of Globalization” (2005).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles on nationalism and violence, including Arafaat A. Valiani's“Physical Training, Ethical Discipline, and Creative Violence: Zones of Self-Mastery in the Hindu Nationalist Movement” (2010), Lori Allen's“Getting by the Occupation: How Violence Became Normal during the Second Palestinian Intifada” (2008), and Charles Briggs's“Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations between Narrative and Violence” (2007).


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