When the CPI(M) state leadership in 1980 directed eminent Malayalam playwright KT Muhammed and his sister KT Sainabha to engage in aggressive campaigning for the then Kerala labour and forests minister Aryadan Muhammad in the byelection to the Nilambur Assembly constituency, many felt it was political absurdity at its best.
Sainabha’s husband K Kunhali was a legendary Communist leader of Nilambur, located on the eastern borders of the North Kerala district Malappuram.
Kunhali represented the constituency in the state Assembly twice. In the elections held in 1965 and 1967, he ensured a humiliating defeat to Aryadan Muhammed, then a local strongman of the Congress.
Known trade-union leaders of the plantation sector of Nilambur, Aryadan and Kunhali were at loggerheads for a long time.
The firing that became a murder
During the midnight of 26 July, 1969, an altercation broke out between plantation workers in the presence of both leaders — over their allegiance to CPI(M) and Congress — at a locality named Chulliyod.
Kunhali was shot during the melee, and shifted to several hospitals in adjacent Malappuram and Kozhikode for expert treatment.
Despite best efforts by doctors, Kunhali breathed his last at the medical college hospital in Kozhikode on 28 June. The police soon arrested Aryadan and 28 other Congress workers in connection with the murder.
Based on Kunhali’s dying declaration given to head constable K Kunju Nair, the police named Aryadan as the prime accused in the FIR. At that time, he was the Congress’ committee president in the newly carved out Malappuram district.
It took nine months of incarceration and a protracted legal war for Aryadan to escape punishment using the benefit of the doubt.
The court approved his argument that he reached the altercation spot without a gun or any other weapon.
A doctor who treated Kunhali gave a statement challenging the authenticity of the dying declaration as several sedatives were given to the injured CPI(M) man to minimise the pain. The court approved that aspect as well.
Putting the case behind him, Aryadan fought and won the constituency in 1977 on a Congress ticket. But soon, he left the Congress along with his mentor and former Union defence minister AK Antony.
Their breakaway faction became a constituent of the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).
When the elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assembly were held together in 1980, Aryadan preferred the Lok Sabha from the Ponanni constituency, feeling that CPI(M) cadres in Nilambur had not yet reached the point where they could forgive and forget.
But in the Lok Sabha election, he lost the race to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML)’s candidate.
When EK Nayanar of CPI(M) became Kerala chief minister following a stunning performance by the LDF in the Assembly election, the Antony faction of the Congress appointed Aryadan as one among its ministers in the Cabinet, and he got the portfolios of labour and forest.
As Aryadan was not a member of the Assembly, it became the responsibility of his followers to find a solution.
As per the direction of Antony, Nilambur’s newly elected MLA C Haridas resigned from the post, facilitating a quick byelection. (Haridas was MLA for hardly 10 days, and to this day holds the record for being an MLA for the shortest term in Kerala.)
The elderly in Nilambur recall that Aryadan facilitated a hectic campaign in Nilambur, but the CPI(M) local organisational machinery failed to function to the expected levels.
For the ordinary CPI(M) workers of Nilambur, Aryadan was the killer of their charismatic leader Kunhali. Or that was what the party taught them and Kunhali’s family over the years.
They never expected Aryadan would break his loyalty to Indira Gandhi and K Karunakaran to join the LDF along with the Antony faction.
For the CPI(M), the byelection outcome in Nilambur became a matter of prestige. So, the party it compelled Kunhali’s wife and brother-in-law to campaign for Aryan.
As disciplined party cadres, they obeyed, and Sainaba addressed party public meetings saying Aryadan had no role in the murder of her husband.
Aryadan won the election with over 32,000 votes and continued in power. But his faction left the LDF and rejoined the Congress in another two years.
Till 2016, when CPI(M)-backed independent candidate PV Anawar wrested Nilambur, the constituency remained an Aryadan stronghold, with Left parties losing their influence on the masses considerably.
Many attribute it to the strange stand the CPI(M) adopted over the Kunhali murder case.
Aryadan, the man
When Aryadan breathed his last at the age of 87 on Sunday, 25 September, at a private hospital in Kozhikode, many recalled the most sensational political murder Kerala had witnessed since its formation.
Social media was agog with debates and clashes over the continuing mystery of the killing of Kunhali.
Sainaba and Muhammad died years ago, leaving many of the questions unanswered.
But Aryadan, who later evolved as a towering Congress leader with high secular credentials, explained during the last part of his life that it was not he but party sympathiser P Gopalan who killed Kunhali in a fit of rage. He said he was unaware that Gopalan possessed a gun.
A plantation worker, Gopalan was hacked to death in February 1971 by a group of CPI(M) activists. Aryadan claimed rivals killed Gopalan only after finding out that he was responsible for the murder.
“They knew I was innocent. Otherwise, they might have killed me ruthlessly despite the court forgiving me,” he said.
“My innocence in the case helped me mend fences with the CPI(M) and evolve much ahead in Kerala politics,” said Aryadan, who proved to be an able administrator and authority on legal matters despite ending formal education at the school final level.
He was an erudite reader and scholar on politics, religion, and cultural affairs for the whole state.
He remained a reformist force within the Muslim community of North Kerala.
Born on 15 May 1935, as the second among nine children of Aryadan Unni and Kadiyumma, Aryadan was a powerful orator who evolved from the grassroots.
In 1959, he started public life as president of the Wandoor Farka Congress Committee.
In 1962, Aryadan became a member of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC). When the Malappuram district was formed in 1969, he became its first DCC president.
A long-time MLA from Nilambur, Aryadan became a minister in the state Cabinets of Antony and Oommen Chandy in the last two decades.
While being labour minister in the Nayanar government of 1980, he won national attention by introducing the facilities for issuing unemployment wages and agricultural labour pensions.
In 2005, as power minister, he set up a model to implement the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana by ensuring electrification in all remote hilly areas of the state. It helped Kerala eventually become the first fully electrified state in the country.
In 2011, he implemented schemes to solve the issue of voltage inadequacy in the Malabar region, especially Malappuram. He also took the initiative to provide power to tribal colonies situated in forests.
A distinguished legislator, Aryadan always fought religious orthodoxy and extremist elements.
He was a corrective force within and outside Congress and always stressed the need for a multi-polar social set-up where plurality and inclusiveness matter.