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Is The Secular Fabric Of Kerala Slowly Unravelling?

The winds of change are slowly but surely blowing in Kerala and if you smell the air, it feels ominous. 

12/09/2016 4:25 PM IST | Updated 12/09/2016 5:46 PM IST
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A dancer performs during festivities marking the start of annual harvest festival of Onam in the southern Indian city of Kochi August 14, 2010.

Onam is usually time to celebrate, engage in retail therapy, spend time with family and friends, indulge oneself. Indulgence is usually in the form of Mohanlal, Mammootty or Bacchus. The fun element means flower carpets, the sumptuous Onam feasts and finding the best pot-bellied Mahabali.

But the ten days of Onam, that have coincided with Ganesh Chaturthi and Bakrid this year, are witnessing a churning of the kind Kerala is not used to. With a 45 per cent combined Muslim and Christian population, Kerala has been God's own communally harmonious country, largely.

But incidents in September indicate an attempt to create fissures. Despite Onam celebrated as a secular and a Kerala state festival, with the non-Hindu communities taking part as well, the RSS this year has attempted to alter the narrative by talking of Onam as an occasion to celebrate Vamana, in its party organ, Kesari.

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Woman making rangoli during Onam Festival, Kerala, India.

Now the mythology goes that Vamana, the fifth avatar of Lord Vishnu, was sent to trick King Mahabali who aspired to rule over all the worlds by banishing him into the netherworld. He was allowed to visit his subjects once in a year and that is the day celebrated as Onam. On the 10th day of the Onam festival, his former 'subjects' deck up Kerala to receive him. The RSS attempt is to make Vamana, the diminutive Brahmin, the centrepiece of the Onam celebration instead of Mahabali, a demon king.

That this goes against another mythological story is not worrying the RSS. Kerala is believed to have been formed as a result of Parashuram, the sixth avatar of Vishnu throwing his axe into the ocean and the land that was formed as a result, is Kerala. The question arises if there was no Kerala before Parashuram, where did the Onam stories of Mahabali and Vamana come from.

With the RSS making its intent to make Vamana the main lead, Dalit voices have rallied behind Mahabali, who they say fought against social hierarchy and the caste system. From Mahabali and their point of view, therefore, Vamana - even if he is considered by upper caste Hindus as God - is a murderer.

The RSS attempt is seen as a ploy to impose the Chaturvarna chart flow. Where Vamana, the Brahmin is on top. And the logic that follows is that the demon has to be the bad man, not someone who is celebrated for ten days in a state. The Onam story is, in a not so subtle manner, being altered.

But the Hindus are not the only ones fretting over Onam. An Imam of a Salafi mosque in Kozhikode district asked the community not to celebrate Onam. Fortunately, his call spread through videos that went viral, was met with open resistance.

But the Hindus are not the only ones fretting over Onam. An Imam of a Salafi mosque in Kozhikode district asked the community not to celebrate Onam. Fortunately, his call spread through videos that went viral, was met with open resistance. Writer Fayiz Umer distributed 'payasam' (kheer or rice pudding) in Kuttiady town in Kozhikode besides a banner that read, 'My smiling Onam greetings. I declare openly that if my religion would vanish by celebrating festivals, let it go'. Around 200 people landed up to enjoy the delicacy, proving that taste buds know no religion.

Muslims in Kozhikode saw red when senior Muslim League leader and former minister MK Muneer took part in a Ganesh festival organised by the Shiv Sena. Muneer rebuffed the online criticism saying those who organised the festival were his voters and he wrote on his Facebook page, "I was sharing the love of the devotees in my constituency. I am convinced it was my duty.''

Muneer, a doctor by profession and a politician who is seen to steer clear of communal politics in Kerala, denied that taking part in the event dented his secular credentials. "My faith won't die by participating in Ganesh festival,'' he said.

Muneer's stance is in contrast to the stand taken by Kerala's Public Works minister G Sudhakaran's who objected to lighting of the lamp and singing of religious hymns at government programmes and events. Sudhakaran's position was under a secular constitution, patriotic songs should be sung at such functions instead of pandering to symbolic gestures of one religion or caste.

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A child, his body painted in the likeness of a tiger, looks at the body art of an adult before performing the annual 'Pulikali' or Tiger Dance in Thrissur.

But while the utterances around Onam are not directly related to the LDF government's utterances, there is a political context as well. Kerala Devaswom minister Kadakampally Surendran accused the Sangh of "turning temples into centres for storing arms'' in the name of running shakhas. With some 5000 shakhas, the RSS has the one of the highest number of shakhas in the country, in Kerala.

Surendran claimed in a Facebook post that he had received complaints about "unauthorised'' activities by RSS in temples under the different Devaswom Boards. He warned that the Pinarayi Vijayan government won't allow the temples in Kerala to be transformed into centres of anti-social activities that vitiate the secular character and peaceful atmosphere of the state.

The RSS vs CPM battlefield, ever since the LDF came to power in May this year, has spread out of its 40-year-old political battlefield of Kannur to other parts of Kerala. With Surendran labelling the RSS as non-secular, violent and criminal, this is seen as a prelude to using the might of the police to raid RSS camps.

The winds of change are slowly but surely blowing in Kerala and if you smell the air, it does feel ominous.

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