The Communist Party of India (Marxist) found itself in a peculiar quandary in Kerala. Its minister for temple affairs, Kadakampally Surendran, took active part in a celebration of Lord Krishna at the Guruvayur temple that left senior party members fuming.
For Communists, who practice atheism and eschew all forms of religious rituals, the minister's ardent Ashtami Rohini celebrations have understandably not gone down well. The party, in its Rectification Document of 2010, clearly stated that "members themselves must abjure caste and social prejudices and obscurantist practices and rituals".
Under 'Guidelines for Rectification', the document states: "Educate the Party members to conform to communist norms and to eschew all social, caste and religious practices which are alien to them."
The CPM in Kerala is embarrassed that Surendran spent an entire day at the temple during the 12 September celebrations, took off his shirt, prayed in the sanctum sanctorum, offered pushpanjali and donated money for anna danam (feeding the poor), reported The Telegraph.
State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said an explanation would be sought from the erring minister and the state BJP obviously lost no chance in getting digs in at the party. BJP state secretary MT Ramesh told the paper it was a clear reflection that the communist philosophy, which was always against religion, rituals and places of worship, is not working to the extent they wanted."
Surendran's action, though in direct conflict with the ideologies of his party, is not in isolation of the cross-cultural, pluralistic realities of India. Families with sharply-divided religious beliefs exist in perfect harmony in a nation whose the Constitution guarantees them that right.
So when Surendran says his "family members are believers" and "I never tried to stop them," he represents the peculiar ideology clashes that exist among families, without polarising them. This daily conflict is akin to many such in other religions — atheists who live with orthodox Christian spouses. Author Cecily Kellogg writes in a commentary on HuffPost: "Ultimately, being married to an atheist as a believer is just like being married to someone that loves football when you can't stand the sport; you tolerate the differences because that is what couples do."
Surendran's case is not the first either. In Bengal, which had been under the governance of the Left for 32 years, Marxists leaders were perfectly attuned to the vote banks that observed religious festivals.
Former transport minister Subhas Chakraborty, a self-confessed devotee of goddess Kali, kicked up a huge cloud of controversy in 2006 by performing a puja at the Tarapith temple. He had chanted "jai Tara" and offered Rs 501, two red hibiscus flowers and a sari to the deity.
Curiously, the colourful transport minister had also visited a local bar and restaurant and announced to all that he is a Hindu and a Brahmin first — meaning that his religion and caste precedes his politics.
At that time, then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee allegedly forced Chakraborty to apologise for his comments and reaffirm his Marxist beliefs in public. "I see everything on the basis of dialectical materialism. I do not have any faith either on religious practices or on casteism," he said at a presser.
Two Marxist politicians in the same year took oath as Kerala Assembly legislators "in the name of God". Constitutionally, legislators are either allowed to take oath of office "in the name of God" or "by solemn affirmation". Aisha Potti, a Hindu from Kollam district, and MM Monayi, a Christian from Ernakulam, chose the first option.
"We've been committed to communism and the party. But we'd never given up on our faith while being active in the revolutionary movement," Potti was quoted as saying. As the CPI(M) included members from the minorities in their ranks, they began to shift their expectations about accommodating their religious beliefs, too, Prof Ninan Koshy, a former director of the World Council of Churches, told the paper.
Whether Surendran will face fire remains to be seen, but the the Left, looking for a comeback, would do well in the present climate to keep its expectations grounded in realities.
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