When Kerala's northern coast saw a series of violent clashes between Muslim and Hindu fisherfolk in the Communist-dominated village of Marad in Kozhikode, the State Government could find no effective strategy to counter the spread of virulent forms of communalism, except using the increasingly ineffective measures of policing the entire region. When the first of these clashes took place three years ago, there were three deaths and when the counter violence took place exactly one year later, there were as many as nine deaths in the course of one night of an orgy of violence between the two communities. There were other flash points in the entire coastal region, like Vizhinjam in the deep south district of Thiruvananthapuram, Thaikkal in Alapuzha in the middle of the state besides Marad in the north, and many minor incidents in other areas.

"It is a worrying situation because these coastal regions are now being converted to communal hot-spots while till some years ago there were no such incidents of communal division among the fisher people," says V K Prabhakaran, a social activist who hails from Chombala, a fishermen village in North Kerala where recent years have witnessed deep divisions on religious lines among the people.

"It is important to remember that the traditional methods applied by the State to protect the innocent people, like policing, are proving to be failures as the ideology of communalism is spreading," says a scholar at the Calicut University's history department who has conducted a thorough study of the development of communal politics in the North Kerala coastal region. The helplessness of the State was evident when A K Antony, then chief minister of Kerala, had to plead with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leadership in Marad for permission to visit the village in the aftermath of the nine killings there in the course of one night. In Marad, where the entire Muslim population had to leave the village for safety, and spent months together in relief camps, the Government was reduced to the role of a helpless onlooker while it was the communal elements of both sides who took control of the situation.

The developments in Marad, Thaikkal and Vizhinjam also point to another serious turn of events along the Kerala coasts: While most of these villages were traditionally under Communist domination, they are now fast becoming communal hot-spots with divisive communalist ideologies replacing the left-wing politics. It is a classic case of secular politics giving way to communal frenzy. During elections the fisher folk often vote for the Left and when communal divisions rage they take up the knives on behalf of Hindu, Muslim or Christian communal forces.

Marad, for example, is a village that falls in the Beypore panchayat in Kozhikode, traditionally a Communist stronghold. Its fishing population consists mainly of Hindu Arayas and Muslims, both involved in deep-sea fishing for many generations. The Hindus vote mainly for Communists while the Muslim vote is split between the Muslim League or the Communist Party. The gram panchayat is controlled by the CPM, the local member of the Legislative Assembly is a businessman who was elected on the CPM ticket and the Member of Parliament representing the region is also a CPM leader who defeated the Muslim League candidate in the predominantly Muslim seat of Manjeri in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Still, when the two series of of clashes took place in the span of a few months, there were no traces of the Communists defending the secular domain because most of them had been fighting on behalf of either of two communal groups or had fled to safety.

During elections the fisher folk often vote for the Left and when communal divisions rage they take up the knives on behalf of Hindu, Muslim or Christian communal forces.

 •  Marad can be retrieved

State Government officials have said that of the hundreds of persons arrested and charge-sheeted in these cases, a large number belonged to the CPM and many others had either Muslim League or Congress backgrounds showing the infiltration of communal ideology into the mainstream political parties holding power in the state. A K Antony, who had to leave office as chief minister following criticism of his mishandling of the communal situation, accused the Left parties of protecting and encouraging communal elements. Pinarayi Vijajan, CPM State secretary, has denied the charges that his party members were involved in the communal incidents. But a Calicut University study of the history of communal politics in Marad indicates otherwise. Intriguingly, the defence team for those accused in the Marad case is led by a well-known CPM leader who happens to be a famous criminal lawyer in Kerala. Others point out, however, that Antony's own party is no better, having won elections with the support of the Muslim League and also enlisted RSS support in elections.

The increasing criminalisation and communalisation of mainstream politics has led to a search for a new, grassroots-level, people-oriented solution to the tragedy. "It is necessary for us to reinvent the strong elements in our tradition and culture which helped us survive for centuries as one society remarkably peaceful and homogeneous", asserts Civic Chandran, poet and social activist who organized a major conclave of national-level activists in Kozhikode recently to discuss alternative methods to fight such evils. The conclave was attended, among others, by well-known activists like Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, and C K Janu, tribal leader.

One suggestion that arose during discussions among activists and social scientists was the need to revive traditional systems of disputes redress and grassroots level democracy like the sea courts, said Tommy Mathew, who was instrumental in organizing another conclave in Delhi as a follow up. These two conclaves concluded that the traditional systems of participatory democracy that thrived in the coastal regions of South India helped the region to continue and flourish as a peaceful haven with people of all faiths cohabiting for centuries without friction.

"It is important to remember that for centuries it was the coastal region which remained the points of external contacts in these areas as the outsiders came - whether they were Arabs, Romans or Europeans like the Dutch, French and the English - through the sea," points out a historian who had done extensive research on Kerala's maritime life. Civic Chandran pointed out that among the institutions of tradition which helped social cohesion, was the system of sea courts known as kadalkotis in the local language, which did a marvellous job of settling disputes among the people for generations. This was, according to him, the most vibrant form of grassroots democracy, with its own methods of hearing complaints, arbitrations, penalties and appeals helping the people to settle their disputes among themselves.

"These courts were so effective that even the British authorities in Malabar had accepted their verdicts as legitimate in maritime disputes," says V K Prabhakaran, who had witnessed the proceedings of such courts in his village many years ago. He recalls that they were very effective, as they consisted of representatives of all boat-owners in the region and had elected office-bearers who belonged to various communities and their verdicts were accepted by all those who belonged to the area of its jurisdiction. If anyone refused to abide by a sea court's ruling, they could not operate in the region because of social boycotts, as the courts held great moral authority owing to their roots in tradition. But they allowed complainants and defendants to appeal their verdicts, and there were cases that had gone up to as many as four appeal courts in recent memory. These appeal courts were formed, as the need arose, enlisting the immediate neighbouring sea courts to the north and south of the one that had heard the original case.

But post-Independence, sea courts went into decline as the civil and police authorities failed to recognise their important role, says Prabhakaran. In fact, in his own village the sea court decided to discontinue its operations back in the seventies following the interference of police authorities who thought they were encroaching upon their territory. The sea court decided to disband itself in protest, eventually leaving the space of social intervention to political parties, trade unions, commission agents and communal organizations. But now, with the civil authorities groping in the dark for a lasting solution to the communalisation of the region, activists are seeking to re-establish these traditional institutions that held diverse communities in peace for centuries.