Till January 2002, this one-and-a-half kilometre long, 500 metre wide sandy strip in Beypore panchayat of Kerala's Kozhikode district was just another of those fishing villages dotting the State's northern coastline. The sun set and rose on its many little canoe prows, and the men spent their time off talking politics, movies and fishing, or stretching out under the coconut palms. Religion remained indoors. Knives were confined to kitchens.

Rehablitated family being forced out

But today, Marad is Kerala's worst communal tinderbox, almost waiting only for the next spark. Fanaticism stalks its long beaches, treachery is becoming a fine art, and murder a fact of life. You may not find those men who never thought of the religion of those they rubbed shoulders with in their small canoes, battling the waves. The `kadal sathyam’ (the strict tradition of fairness that the sea demands) that was never violated in their community living, is now memory. Their children are no more just children. They are Hindus and Muslims, first and last!

Let’s rewind a little to get the clear picture. On January 3-4, 2002, five people (three belonging to the Hindu community and two Muslims) were killed on the Marad beach as the continuation of a war of words that erupted at the New Year celebrations of a local club between two youths belonging to these communities. Of these, the last person killed named Aboobacker was chopped down when he was trying to bury the deceased, in front of the police. The government on its part booked cases, patrolling was strengthened and police were posted round-the-clock in the area and the place was immediately recognized as a communal volcano which required little spur to erupt.

It’s possible that if Marad-2 hadn't happened, the chargesheets for Marad-1 might not have come about. But besides everything else, Marad-2 itself is an intelligence failure. The police had no clue about it.

- Old justice for new problems?

On May 2, 2003 between 6.30 p.m. and 6.45 p.m., communalism was to show itself again. In a carefully planned operation, eight Hindu fishermen were killed in the twilight and the perpetrators, believed to be hired, made an easy exit. The police swiftly came and took charge of the mosque which had sheltered the culprits and also harboured weapons. Fearing retaliation, the Muslim families left the place in no time. On June 25, two families came back to their homes, only to be sent back by irate Hindu women. The rehabilitation process has been suspended for the time being.

Trials have not begun for the Jan 2002 event itself, let alone the May 2003 incident. Sentencing seems far away. According to City Police Commissioner TK Vinod Kumar, about 800 are accused in the Jan 2002 case, but around 300 are chargesheeted. The chargesheet was given only recently, after the May 2003 incident. The police had completed investigation in 84 days after Jan 4, 2002, but the State’s Home department has taken its own time. It’s possible that if Marad-2 hadn't happened, the chargesheets for Marad-1 might not have come about. But besides everything else, Marad-2 is an intelligence failure. The police had no clue about it. There was no trained, efficient official to man this sensitive area and no spies were planted to gather the inside information.

For the May 2003 incident, Bijli, son of Aboobacker (who was hacked to death while trying to bury the killed in Jan 2002), is the main suspect. But most of the assassins are, according to official sources, hired. The arrests are still continuing and nothing more seems to have been established. So far 126 people have been arrested, including three youths below 18 years. The investigation is being done by the Crime Branch. But the BJP-influenced Araya Samajam is demanding a CBI enquiry.

The Marad incident is a also a pointer to two dangerous developments that can alter the image of the state as communalism-free – One: It shows the increasing polarisation among members of the two communities. Secondly, and more alarmingly, it shows the destructive role that the women in communally volatile areas are evolving into.

In Marad, everyone is a fisherman. You either catch fish or sell fish. The job is risky and lives and livelihood depend a lot on the vagaries of weather and the mercies of the big sea. So they are extremely god-fearing, and largely superstitious. And interestingly, Marad had its own time-tested societal buffers. Disputes and altercations on the high seas were frowned upon and all settlements were made on land. The Arayasamajam (association of members of the Hindu fisherfolk) and Mahal committee (comprising Muslim men) functioned as the unquestioned arbiters. Heads of these two organisations assumed a remarkable legitimacy to oversee even financial deals among their members.

Every week the `kurikalyanam’ (chit) was held where everyone helped the needy with as much money as he could spare. The two heads maintained a record of these transactions. Festivals were celebration time for all, and the entire village plunged enthusiastically into recreational activities. But all that is passé now. ``After the first Marad incident, no kurikalyanam has been held,’’ says Suresh, secretary of the Arayasamajam.. Children now play only with children of their own community.

Marad was home to 191 Muslim families. A road divides the hamlet into two portions – The left side is inhabited mostly by Hindu families (known as Arayas) and to the right are the houses of the Muslim families. But there are a few families of the other community in both areas. Now, women and children of 98 Muslim families have been put up in relief camps, and others are staying with their relatives elsewhere. Their houses back home have been looted. And there is always the fear of retaliation, if they went back. The Muslim men have not opened shops, since. Worse, no one knows where they are.

“What have we done?’’ asks Jameela, who had to flee from the place along with her aged mother and children, when the attack occurred. “If I knew of the plans, why would I stay there with my 90-year-old mother?’’ she wonders. When Jameela went back home to collect her things, despite police presence, the Araya women gathered around her, abusing, and she had to return empty. “Even now, when we go to collect rations, people get provoked and abuse us,’’ she says. “It is better that our men remain in hiding, for if they show up they will be caught for `conspiracy’,’’ laments Gulsu, another woman who had to run for life with her pregnant sister. “May-June is the peak period for fishing. God alone can help us,’’ cries Aleema who had her entire house ransacked by irate people.

But the Araya women have a different view point. “We have been living together for ages without much tension. Even after the attack in 2002, we had come to almost normal relationship. But this attack was pure treachery," says Uma of Kelappantakath. According to her, the Muslim families which stayed in the Hindu-dominated area had left the place by noon on May 2. This is acknowledged by the district administration too. All the Muslim families staying in the Hindu-dominated area had left by noon on that day. “Why should everyone leave together, all of a sudden, if they were not informed of what was to happen?" she asks.

“The Arayasamajam and the Mahal committee have moral authority over its members. There were elderly people overseeing the activities. Whenever there were scuffles among the youth, these people worked for an amicable settlement. But now on the Mahal committee, elderly people have been replaced by youngsters who get provoked easily,’’ says VKC Mammad Koya, Beypore MLA. Thus the Marad Juma Masjid became a shelter for the fundamentalists. “When the first carnage happened in 2002, separate relief camps were organised. This, in fact, alienated the communities further,’’ he says.

A disturbing factor noticeable in the area is the unaccounted flow of money, says Suresh. “Muslim youth who work much less than us have mobile phones and the latest two wheelers. But their parents can hardly afford three square meals a day,’’ he points out. A fact corroborated by the District Collector PO Sooraj. “An NDF hand is clearly evident in this attack,’’ he says. The arrival of mechanised boats, of late, gave more leisure time to the fishermen. The BJP and the NDF used this opportunity to create their cadres. Even religious discourses have an anti-opponent ring here. The reasons for the communal polarisation are two-fold, the Collector says – one caused by blind religious faith and the other, national agenda for communalism. How else would you explain 466 families (275 Hindu families and 191 Muslim families), who lived together for decades finding themselves cut-throat enemies in just over one year?

Alarmingly, women who are the worst affected in calamities are the most vehement protectors of crime here. On May 2 when the Hindu fishermen were hacked to death, the culprits immediately ran into the mosque before they made their way. Here the Muslim women formed a cordon keeping the police off from entering the mosque. Says T K Vinod Kumar, the city police commissioner: “The Muslim women were not part of planning or execution, but they played a social role. Soon after the attack, the women formed a ring around the mosque, abusing the police. We had no other choice, but enter the mosque. If we hadn’t done that the Hindu fishermen who had gathered by then would have burnt it down, killing scores of people.’’ The Collector says even in peace panel meetings women were not positive.

The Muslim women on the other hand do not feel they have done anything wrong by trying to prevent the police from entering the mosque. They were simply told by their men that the police might enter the mosque and that they had to prevent it at any cost. Jameela, who is also on the peace panel formed after Marad-1, says they wanted to protect their men who were praying (The incident took place on a Friday between 6.30 and 6.45 in the evening). She still insists that those arrested from the mosque were praying. Moideen Koya, one of the arrested in the Marad-2 incident, was recently honoured for his efforts to bring normalcy to the place as a peace panel member. He is also a member of the panchayat. While, the police say he was aware that weapons were stored in the mosque, the women believe he was praying when arrested.

The city police commissioner is emphatic that the Muslim women were not part of planning or execution of the incident. “They were obstructing the police, at the same time appealing to them to go back. No case has been registered against these women as they didn't instigate murder,’’ says Vinod Kumar (This is a major complaint of the BJP). The district collector T.O. Sooraj says women were kept away from the planning stage as it was feared that they might not be able to keep the plan to themselves. K Ajitha, an activist and head of Anweshi, a woman’s organisation, says the Muslim activists made use of the faith of their women. The rich coastal areas of the State make it necessary for vested interests (read political parties), to keep fishermen divided, she feels.

If Muslim women protected the criminals, the Hindu women are emphatic that the Muslims do not come back to live in their homes. “We can never go back to the cordial days because they cheated us,’’ they chorus. On June 25, the two Muslim families which came back to Marad, were greeted with abuse by their Hindu counterparts. The women stood outside these two houses till late night shouting at them to go back. The cordoning was so strong and fierce that the women were not even allowed to go to the toilets, built just outside the houses. The police were helpless spectators. This continued the next day too, forcing the authorities to suspend the move. These two families have gone back now. The Hindu women are reportedly encouraging their men to avenge the deaths. “If women ask their husbands and sons to embrace weapons, no policing can rule out a retaliation,’’ says one official.

The Fisheries LP school is almost empty now. Out of the 106 children enrolled here, 72 were Muslim children. Now only 17 children come here. And no Muslim child goes to this school any more. The Hindu women visited the school and threatened the Muslim children of dire consequences if they dared attend classes. Hence the frightened mothers have withdrawn the children from the school.

The balance sheet: A state which had boasted of no communal violence (Kerala didn’t have a single incident of violence even when the Babri masjid was demolished) now has its coastal areas on fire. Generations lived here in amity, but now you can’t trust your neighbour. Political interests are playing with the lives of a set of people who need trust and co-operation to do the only job they know – fishing. Worse, by corrupting the minds of women, these interests are increasing the changes that generations may continue to be virulent. Before it’s too late, resolution of justice and sentencing must be done and seen to have been done. (Quest Features and Footage)