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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2006 > December 09, 2006 > Kerala : Soft Hindutva

Volume XLIV, No.51

Kerala : Soft Hindutva

by A.V. Sakthidharan

Tuesday 24 April 2007


Secular souls went gaga over the miserable showing of the BJP in the Assembly elections in Kerala last May. Not only did the Hindutva party fail to win a single seat, a number of its stalwarts fared miserably. O. Rajagopal, who was a Minister in the A.B. Vajpayee Government and is reportedly popular in the State, could only finish third in Palakkad where the outfit boasts of sizeable pockets of influence. History thus repeated itself for the Kerala BJP, which has drawn a blank in every Assembly and Lok Sabha election in the past. However, the poor poll performance of its political arm is no proof that the Sangh Parivar has failed to sell its pernicious ideology in Kerala just as the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front’s victory does not indicate that the State is nearer to a socialist revolution. Bread and butter issues—the closure of countless small units and massive loss of jobs consequent to the neo-liberal policies, among other things—played a decisive role in the election. The BJP’s debacle was also due to the unending sparring between Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) loyalists and other leaders, factional fights and, not for the first time, a last-minute decision, in constituencies where the Left and the Congress are evenly balanced, to ‘transfer’ the party’s votes to the latter. While in power the Congress has rewarded the Sangh Parivar for such ‘friendly’ gestures—many Congress Ministers, including Chief Minister A.K. Antony, have displayed a soft corner for the RSS. Nor did K. Karunakaran, Antony’s predecessor, have any ideological opposition to the Parivar. In other words, the Hindu Right’s presence in Kerala politics is more than what is visible to poll analysts. In any case, for the Parivar, election victory is only a means to attain the main objective—integration of Hindus into a united social and political bloc—which unfortunately is being achieved.

It was in 1942 that the Sangh Parivar made the first moves to fan out to the far south. Three full-time non-Keralite pracharaks, including Dattopant Thengdi, who later founded the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, were sent to work in what is now Kerala. They must have found their task quite formidable. For one thing, Christians and Muslims together constituted around 40 per cent of the population and the Hindus were, and are, heir to a culture that is hardly Brahminic. (Onam, the most important festival of the Malayalis, is in honour of Maha Bali, an Asura king of yore whose regime was marked by prosperity and equality. The great peasant king, it is believed, lost his kingdom to the devious Devas. Maratha anti-caste crusader Jyotiba Phule found in Bali a hero of the subaltern tradition.) Jainism and Buddhism also influenced the people. Again, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the region threw up a host of great radicals like Ayyankali, Narayana Guru and V.T. Bhattathiripad who led movements that challenged the socio-economic status quo, giving birth to a cultural renaissance. The Congress Socialists, who later founded the Communist Party of India, picked up the thread where the foot- soldiers of the anti-caste and anti-feudal struggles had left off. There was no room then for reactionary ideologies on working class and petty bourgeois consciousness.

New Climate

Those days are long past. Today even a cursory glance at the cultural scenario here will show that the Hindu Right has under its spell vast sections who may not always vote for the BJP. Take a look at the religiosity that it has managed to spawn as part of its Hindu-isation drive. “A new spiritual climate” is developing in Kerala, gushed P. Parameswaran, who heads the Thiruvanantha-puram-based Parivar think-tank, Bharatiya Vichar Kendra, a couple of years ago.1 Speaking at a mammoth gathering in Kollam in which RSS supremo K.S. Sudarshan was present, an ecstatic Parameswaran claimed that the various religious and cultural activities being organised in hundreds of temples in the state are being widely welcomed; people who once ‘sabotaged’ such efforts are viewing them with respect now. Much of the credit for this development goes to Parivar fronts like the Balagokulam, which takes out colourful marches on Krishna’s birthday and tries to ‘catch ’em young’, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Kshetra Samrakshana Samiti (temple protection committee). The Samiti, which aims at “building a temple-based organised society” and a “temple-based way of life”, now has a say in the management of numerous shrines. Bluntly put, the Parivar has succeeded in transforming what was a matter of private faith into a public symbol—of Hindu assertion. The countless educational institutions run by the Parivar play a key role in selling Hindutva to the people. Small wonder that the RSS shakhas have proliferated. Though cases of anti-minority violence are not unknown, it is generally soft Hindutva that is at work in Kerala.

Now some caveats. First, it is nobody’s case that the current religious frenzy is an exclusively Kerala phenomenon. But then, here is a State that has a long tradition of anti-caste movements and revolutionary people’s culture. The current wave ill-fits this progressive tradition. Secondly, other religious communities too have, admittedly, their share of spiritualism. Pentecostal churches have mushroomed, while at the numerous ‘charismatic meditation’ centres priests administer doses of faith to the sick and the depressed and tele-vangelists do roaring business. The Catholic Church first frowned on such unconventional forms of worship but later gave in. The marches on occasions like Krishna’s birthday are a reaction to the exhibitionism seen at the Christian meditation centres. Nor do the Muslims want to be left behind in the spirituality race. Since the demolition of the Babri mosque, Muslim girls have taken to the purdah with renewed enthusiasm. And more and more parents send their children to madrasas.
Finally, the wave of spirituality is not to be confused with faith, in the best sense of the word, which can be emancipatory and can have a proactive potential. It is a crippled society that needs cultural crutches. A genuine believer need not be a temple-hopper—remember Mahatma Gandhi, an unapologetic Hindu and believer, came to Vaikkom in southern Kerala in the 1920s to participate in the lower castes’ satyagraha demanding the right to use the road adjacent to the Shiva temple, but found no need to pray in the shrine. Writer-cartoonist E.P. Unny once quoted a devotee who had just thrown away the bottle as saying: “Why spend on drinks? I get the same kick out of prayer.” 2 The tragedy is that when the consumer does not get the genuine stuff, he or she goes for the fake.

Underdeveloped Capitalism

A close look at the economic scenario may be in order. In the underdeveloped capitalism obtaining in Kerala, industrialists who operate under the shadow of the national bourgeoisie, which itself was incapable of leading a capitalist industrial revolution, constitute a weak, mercantile class not interested in promoting a populace with a modern mind. (For example, there is the powerful kleptocracy including abkari contractors who operate in alliance with corrupt bureaucrats, police mandarins and career politicians.) So the State is long used to exporting its rich raw materials, including employable young men and women, and importing consumer items. As for agriculture, the much-trumpeted agrarian reforms did not ensure land to the poor Dalits and adivasis who ploughed the land. The main beneficiaries were the rich peasants for whom land was an item of speculation rather than a means of production. The culture of the State’s ruling classes is consumerist, non-productive and philistine and helped the Parivar in selling its ideology. Consumerism and spirituality constitute an elaborate system of power that enslaves people. While there is an appalling dearth of investment in the industrial sector, crores are squandered in the building and re-building of swanky ashrams, temples, churches and mosques. The man-hours—literally, as women are not permitted to participate in the rituals—wasted in socially and economically unproductive rituals are legion. This in a State which has to rely on other States for practically every item of daily consumption.

In the seventies the economic crisis intensified, with schools and colleges mass-producing educated youth who could not, however, find white-collar jobs. The Gulf boom brought much affluence to the State, but it also spawned personal insecurity and existential anxieties among the middle and upper middle classes. Religion—pseudo-religion, rather—served as the much-needed opiate as much for the ambitious youths slaving away in alien desert lands as also for their kith and kin who had to suffer the pangs of separation for long. ‘Spiritual life’ was a way of escaping from the boredom and emptiness of daily life. A good part of the money that flowed into Kerala ended up in the coffers of places of worship. Again, the parliamentary Left was fast losing its sheen as people’s struggles were on the wane and even its leaders were internalising the values of consumer capitalism. The Marxist-Leninist and Maoist factions too got splintered. Consequently, the working class and peasants sacrificed whatever cultural capital they had acquired in the course of their struggles. Old-style democratic politics was yielding place to politics based on religious or cultural identity. As Margit Koves and Shaswati Mazumdar put it, “the rise of identity politics has an insidious relationship with fascism in the age of global capitalism”.3 Religiosity divides people into Hindus, Christians and Muslims and the Hindus into caste groups. This subculture has de-politicised the people and is bringing back the hegemony of the Brahmin male that had been put to rest over half a century ago. Thus the foundation of sectarian politics and communalism gets stronger.

Over three decades ago N. Gopinathan Nair, a veteran Delhi journalist who is sadly no more, had warned through a perceptive article in Mainstream about “the cancerous growth of religious revivalism, superstition and intense communalism that is eating into the vitals of this so-called enlightened and Left-oriented State”.4 Nair regretted that even the Communists were seeing this phenomenon as a temporary aberration. Came globalisation, the situation has turned far more disquieting, with the World Bank choosing to work in cahoots with religious and spiritual institutions at the grassroots. Like education, religion has become a field for market forces to operate. Astrology has gone hi-tech and, like sorcery, witchcraft and other namby-pamby, has come to enjoy a new respectability. In the Asianet television channel Attukal Radhakrishnan logs in to his laptop every week and answers queries from viewers about their job prospects, success in examinations et al. Places of worship have PR networks and websites—you enter the website, pay through credit card and wait for the prasad which the courier would bring. Small places of worship maintained by some ancient families and dilapidated temples are rebuilt and given a glitzy look. The gold fetish thrives in all its obscene glut—in many a shrine parts of the sanctum sanctorum, centres of Brahminic power, rather, have been, or are being, gold-plated. Cassettes in which devotional songs are recorded have a flourishing market.

Politics of Rituals

The Sangh Parivar hand could not be missed behind the somayagnas and atiratras which hark back to a now-forgotten era. Those performing these extravagant yagnas are again male Brahmins. The commercialisation of the rituals lasting several days started in 1975 in Paanjal near Thrissur where the patron was an American national, F. Stall. Kerala has also seen putrakameshti, conducted for the benefit of childless couples. (Rama and his three brothers were born as a result of a putrakameshti performed by King Dasaratha on the advice of a Brahmin guru aeons ago.) Some Dalit and Left organisations staged protests when the first putrakameshti of the twentieth century was performed in Ernakulam in 1992. There was no evidence of the effectiveness of the yajna, organised by a certain Centre for Astrological Research and Development, still many childless couples did attend a similar ritual last April, in Cherukol-puzha near Kozhencheri, sponsored by an organisation styling itself as the Society for Tantric and Astrological Research and Studies. Adi Sankaracharya, it is believed, had looked down upon yajnas. No wonder.

Functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons argues that religion provides a means of coming to terms with stressful situations through rituals that act as a “tonic to self-confidence”. In a milieu of growing consumerism, of nuclear families and atomised individuals, rituals—shallow, un-democratic and fundamentalist—are being sold to de-politicised and jaded minds including well-heeled politicians, bureaucrats and upper-caste professionals. A devotee who wants the udayasthamana puja performed in the Krishna temple in Guruvayur has to wait for well over 40 years—so long is the queue of aspirants. There are particular temples where devotees throng, cutting across religious barriers, to propitiate the deities for fulfilment of particular wishes—for being blessed with a child, for matching boys for grown-up daughters, etc. A ritual much in demand is sathru samhara puja or puja for the elimination of the enemy. So how spiritual is the new spirituality?

Tour operators make a fast buck by taking devotees to the temple of Ram (in Triprayar in Thrissur district) and of his three brothers, Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrughna. Such a trip is assumed to be good for all-round welfare. Brahmin youth swarm places of worship in search of material gains rather than for spiritual solace or out of devotion. Many of the famous temples are hotspots of sleaze and greed. The Parivar has succeeded in selling Ganesh puja and Raksha Bandhan to the Keralites who were strangers to these North Indian festivals and rituals till some years ago. The chanting of Sanskrit mantras without understanding the meanings, much less appreciating the beauty and depth of the profound thoughts—Aano bhadra kratavoyantu viswata (Let noble thoughts come to us from every side), Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti (There is only on Truth; the wise call it by many names)—stifles the questioning spirit, turning the participants into cultural zombies.

Patriarchal Brahminism

Putrakameshti is performed for the birth of sons. Why not daughters? The reply is eloquent silence. The number of pilgrims to Sabarimala has multiplied, but still women devotees in the reproductive age-group are not allowed entry. This is generally dismissed as a custom that should not be meddled with. What about some other customs that have been diluted? The long trek to the shrine through the dense forests after 41 days of penance, when the pilgrim was not allowed to touch non-vegetarian food and had to observe celibacy, has been reduced to a short pleasure trip. But then these are the days of religious tourism. At most rituals non-Brahmins are kept at a distance. A few years ago the government-controlled Travancore Dewaswam Board arranged a gala archana ritual lasting over a month in a Kali temple in Malayalappuzha in Pathanamthitta. There were muted protests against the exclusion of the lower castes.

Sangh Parivar ideologue Parameswaran, quoted above, noted with glee that the number of ‘spiritual gurus’ is growing in Kerala. It is their fears and sense of personal insecurity that drive vast masses to high-profile god-persons like Mata Amritananda Mayi and gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shanker, both of whom enjoy the Parivar patronage. The Mata heads a sprawling financial empire, with business schools and professional colleges run in corporate style, rather than a spiritual centre. The Amritananda Mayi Math, which receives crores from abroad, has recently launched a popular TV channel. A highlight of the Mata’s fiftieth birthday celebrations in 2003 was a conclave of businessmen. The Parivar has taken its Hindu-ising mission to the tribal and coastal areas. Adivasi gods, many of them believed to be martyrs who fell fighting Aryan tyranny, are Sanskritised. A kavu of the tribals in Panayam in Kollam is now a Shiva shrine. The kavu-turned-temple is a cultural statement—your religion, gods, way of life; everything about you is primitive. Accept the savarna way of life, religion and gods. In the coastal areas the Parivar organises sagar pujas (sea worship) as part of its drive to mobilise Hindu fishermen.

The media’s culpability cannot be overlooked. The popularity of the gurus and god-persons is mainly due to coverage in the visual and print media. Also, Sangh Parivar publications, like the weekly Kesari and daily Janmabhoomi, play a key role in selling Hindutva to the people. Even the secular newspapers, including the Leftist ones, overplay news relating to temples, churches and mosques, which is lapped up by tens of thousands of readers. Meanwhile, a policy paper prepared by the Bharatiya Vichar Kendra recently has alleged that there is a threat to Hinduism in Kerala. The outrageous ‘Hinduism in danger’ thesis shows once again that fascist forces thrive on xenophobia. Is the Sangh Parivar bracing up for another phase of its theo-fascist campaign? Will the progressive forces rise against communal fascism on the cultural and ideological plane rather than using muscular power against the BJP as the CPI-M comrades have often done?


1. R. Krishnakumar, ‘Kerala: A Switch in Strategy’, Frontline, March 26, 2004.
2. E.P. Unny, ‘Spiritual Kerala’, The Express Magazine, November 29, 1998.
3. Margit Koves and Shaswati Mazumdar (editors), Resistible Rise: A Fascism Reader, Leftword, p. 37.
4. N. Gopinathan Nair, ‘Kerala: Rise of a New Subculture’, Mainstream Annual, 1975.

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