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Monday, May 16, 2011

Beemapalli Police Firing: Kerala’s Own Cultural Amnesia
Ashraf K & Jenny Rowena
Two years ago on the 17th of May the Kerala police entered the Muslim residential area of Beemapalli, a small seaside town in Thiruvanathapuram, and shot down 5 men and injured 52 other men. They also killed a sixteen year old boy by attacking him with the bayonet of a gun. This was one of the biggest police firings that had ever happened in the history of modern Kerala. The police claimed that it was done to control the “communally inspired mob” of Beemapalli that was trying to attack the neighboring Latin Catholic community and Church. However the fact finding reports by the PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) and the NCHRO (National Confederation of Human Rights Organization) tell us a different story. According to the findings of these organizations, there were no communal conflicts at that point in Beemapalli, which caused the Police to fire at the crowd.
What is most shocking is that this incident was almost completely ignored in the public sphere of Kerala. There were no political protests against this firing other than a small and partial hartal called by a few Muslim organizations. More importantly, there was very little coverage about the firing in the print and visual media. Whatever news that did come out reported the police story faithfully without conducting any sort of investigation into what had happened.
The silence over the Beemapalli continues to this day. Though only two years have passed, even in the present legislative assembly elections that happened in April this year, this issue was not mentioned by any of the political parties involved.
It is commonly perceived that what happened in Beemapalli was a result of the “communal tensions” existing in the locality. Such a perception surely works to “erase the memory” (as Gyanendra Pandey rightly puts it in his study on the Bhagalpur riots of 1989) of this incident, which is seen as nothing but a momentary lapse in the secular structure of Kerala. However, recent enquiries into religion, secularism and violence tell us that communalism does not stand outside the purview of secularism, but is the very substance that defines the contours of the secular. In fact it is Kerala’s modern, secular emphasis that helps construct a communal discourse around Beemapalli which is then used to suppress the larger issue of police violence and render it invisible – an invisibility that mar(k)s the progressive claims of Kerala. This invisibility was indeed challenged by some Muslim organizations and community-based Newspapers like Madhyamam, Tejas, and the fact finding committee reports of various human right organizations. All of them wrote and spoke against the police version within a few days after the firing. But their voices were not properly ‘heard’ in the secular public sphere of Kerala.
Revisiting the Police Firing
Beemapalli is the name of a Masjid in the seaside town of Beemapalli around which about 28,000 Mulims live, most of whom are lower-caste converts (especially from the Nadar community) who make a living by fishing. Beemapalli is famous for its “informal economy” based on the selling of “illegal” foreign goods. It is especially famous for the huge ‘black’ market for DVDs and CDs of both Indian and foreign films. Beemapalli lies near Cheriyathura which is dominated by Latin Catholics who are classified as OBCs among Christians. Both these communities have lived in this area for quite a long time and there have been certain incidents of conflict between them. However, the incidents that led to the Police firing were not connected to any of this.
According to the Beemapalli residents everything started on 8th of May when a local ‘goon’ named Kombu Shibu from the Cheriyathura area came to their area and started a fight with them regarding the Uroos ceremony of the Beemapalli Dargah, which he threatened to stop. This went on till May 16, Saturday evening, when Kombu Shibu and friends stopped the buses to Beemapalli filled with the devotees who were on their way to the Uroos ceremony. Though it is well known that the Uroos ceremony is central to the life of the Beemapalli residents, the police did not take any action against Kombu Shibu. This led to clashes between some of the Beemapalli residents and Kombu Shibu and his accomplices. With the police refusing to intervene, the tension increased and led to more clashes. On May 17, Sunday, around 2.30 in the afternoon, the police suddenly entered the scene and moved hundred meters into Beemapally and started firing at the Beemapalli residents who were engaged in various activities on the beach.
However, the police put forward a totally different picture of what happened in Beemapalli. According to them, the “violent mob’ of Beemapalli entered Cheriyathura area with “explosives from Nagpur,” and tried to attack the Church and the small Latin Catholic community of Cheriyathura. Once the media reports legitimized the police story, the Latin Catholic Church authorities also started claiming that they were attacked by the Beemapalli residents. By propagating such a story the police was able to successfully frame the whole incident as ‘communal violence’ instigated by the Beemapalli Muslims. This framing was quite calculated and done with the intention of creating a particular public opinion about the firing. For instance, look at the way in which the incident was referred to in the print and visual media as the ‘Cheriyathura firing’. This takes away the attention from Beemapalli to Cheriyathura and re-asserts the police version that it was the Muslim fishermen of Beemapalli who attacked Cheriyathura, at which point they had to fire at them. Once the media thus collaborated with the police to bring this incident under the purview of “communal violence,” the police could easily use the same to cover up their attack on Beemapalli.
There are two other aspects to the unpardonable attack on Beemapalli. One is that it points to an ongoing struggle between the State and the Beemapalli residents around the issue of the flourishing Beemapalli black market and the conduct of the Uroos Ceremony. The police constantly seek to control these but they often slide out of their hands because of the alternative community structure and consciousness in Beemapalli. In Beemapalli the Mahallu Jamaat (which is a kind of autonomous Islamic body that looks after the affairs of many Muslim communities) is quiet strong and even gives out an identity card to all the residents, which is used for various welfare measures. This social structure gives a certain kind of autonomy to the Beemapalli residents and do not give much space for the police to intervene. The second important aspect of this attack is the fact that Beemapalli as a lowerclass Muslim seaside ghetto stands highly marginalized in Kerala.
Inhabited by fisher men and others engaged in the illegal market, the ghettoized Muslim location of Beemapalli has come to be marked as a deviant space that stands away from the mainstream of the capital city of Thiruvanathapuram, which is seen as a chaste (Hindu) space inhabited by well-settled government officials. The festivals, rituals and social life of Beemapalli is viewed with suspicion and stereotyped in popular media and discourses. Even some Salafi orators (the inheritors of the 20th century Islahi (Reformist) Movement among Muslims), constantly refer to the Beemapalli Muslims as ‘Kafirs’ and ‘terrorists’. Thus Beemapalli is distanced even from the mainstream of the Muslim location.
It is clear that Beemapalli and its lower class Muslim inhabitants are already marked out as “violent” or as falling outside the purview and privilege of the reasonable, secular public sphere in Kerala. Such a process works to justify and overlook any sort of violence done to them and makes them an easy prey to the excesses of the State. On the occasion of its second anniversary, it is important to remember the Beemapalli firing and think carefully about the silence and amnesia regarding it. In fact, it is time we realize that to remember Beemapalli is to remember the political contours of contemporary Kerala.


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