The dust has not quite settled on the Kollam fire tragedy that took the lives of over 100 people, but Kerala is all set to celebrate Thrissur Pooram that is scheduled to take place from 17 April. Thrissur Pooram is an annual festival held at the 1,300-year-old Vadakkunathan temple in Thrissur, also known as the cultural capital of Kerala. There were uncertainties in the wake of the Kollam tragedy whether the Pooram would indeed be held this year. But a series of deft manoeuvres by the state government and the efforts of pressure groups ensured that the government went ahead with its plans to have a gala Thrissur Pooram.
(Musical ensemble accompanying procession of gods and goddesses during Thrissur Pooram.)
How plans for Thrissur Pooram 2016 were almost put on a backburner
On 11 April, a day after the Kollam tragedy, Justice V Chidambaresh of the Kerala High Court had written to the Chief Justice to press for a ban on high decibel firecrackers. It was converted into a Public interest litigation (PIL) and was heard on 12 April. This resulted in the High Court passing an interim order banning high-decibel firework displays 'between sunset and sunrise', thereby putting the upcoming Thrissur Pooram festival in a jeopardy.
Compounding matters further, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden of Kerala issued a circular the next day (13 April) putting strict guidelines in place, including one a restriction on parading elephants from 10 am to 5 pm.
Other instructions comprised maintaining a belly-to-belly distance of three metres when the pachyderms are lined up for "Kudamattom" (changing of parasols), one of the main attractions of the Pooram. A joint committee of Devaswoms (a body of government-nominated officials tasked with running the temple) met the same night and passed a resolution to cancel the processions. They even decided on a low-key event comprising one elephant.
The temple committees of the 10 temples that make up the Paramekkavu and Thiruvambady sides, the principle participants of the spectacle, too expressed their solidarity. The same day, the Arch Bishop of Thrissur issued a statement and came out in support for the Pooram and calling it a part of Thrissur's identity.
A banner saying, "Don't come asking for votes, if you can't hold the Pooram," was also installed.
The next day, on 14 April, a protest meeting was held in Thrissur along with a single day fast to put pressure on the state government. It was inaugurated by the Arch Bishop himself with politicians and politicians from of all parties in attendance.
A banner that was installed there read, "Don't come asking for votes, if you can't hold the Pooram."
The Kerala unit of the BJP and its President Kummanam Rajasekharan also started floating conspiracy theories alleging that the Congress-led UDF government was trying to put an end to the famous Thrissur Pooram by enforcing various restrictions on the annual celebrations.
A Political Vishu
April 14 was also the day of Vishu, a festival marking the Malayalam New Year. But it was a hectic day of politics. By mid-morning, Forest Minister Thiruvanchoor Ramakrishnan announced that the circular issued by his department officials a day earlier stands withdrawn. An all-party meeting was scheduled at 2pm, originally to bring reach a consensus on the issue of banning fireworks. However, the matter of the Thrissur Pooram took centrestage during the High Court hearing.
HC has passed an order to allow the Pooram festival to be held with fireworks not exceeding 125 decibels and without the use of any banned chemicals.
The High Court heard all the sides on the issue of holding the Pooram and hinted at what the outcome could be like when the judge said that the Pooram was integral to the culture of Thrissur.
Soon after, the High Court division bench of Justice Thottathil B Ramakrishnan and Anu Shivaraman passed an order that allowed the Pooram festival to be organised as usual. The bench also allowed fireworks as long as they didn't exceed a limit of 125 decibels, as specified by a 2007 Supreme Court order. The fireworks used had to be in consonance with the 2008 Explosives rules, which prohibited the use of banned chemicals. The High Court also accepted the state's plea to allow the Crime Branch, CID to carry on with the Kollam probe under the supervision of the court than handing the case over to the CBI. By now, all the roadblocks to holding the Pooram had been lifted.
Politicisation of the Kollam tragedy
Even as these events unfolded, the politicisation of the Kollam tragedy was on. The CPM General Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan demanded the resignation of Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala citing the failure of his department. LDF's Chief Ministerial Candidate Pinarayi Vijayan echoed his sentiments, given its poll season in Kerala. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy immediately ruled it out and demanded to know why Balakrishnan had not resigned in the wake of the Thekkady boat tragedy in 2009 when he was the Home Minister.
Blame games: IAS vs IPS in Kerala
There were rumours that the state government was unhappy with Kollam Collector A. Shainamol for going public with her accusations against the police over the Kollam tragedy. On the morning of April 14, Home Secretary Nalini Netto submitted a report to the home minister of Kerala, recommending action against the Kollam City Police Commissioner, P.Prakash, the Assistant Commissioner Chathannor, Chandrakumar and SI Justin John of the Paravur Police station.
Chandrakumar had written a letter to the Commissioner recommending that permission to hold fireworks display in Kollam be granted two days after the Police had recommended against it.
A. Shainamol also reportedly gave a clean chit to the Kollam District Collector and the ADM.
The same day, Home Minister Chennithala sought another report from the DGP of Police, TP Senkumar on the issue. The report submitted by the DGP puts the blame on the district administration squarely for not preventing the tragedy.
The reasons he has cited include the ADM coming up with his order only a day prior to the event and not publicizing it enough through the media to prevent people from coming in such large numbers in Kollam.
This has led to the home secretary complaining to the Chief Minister about the Home Minister bypassing her and seeking an order from the DGP. She had reportedly submitted her report after consulting with the DGP and the ADGP, Intelligence.
This has also led to allegations that the government is trying to protect the police officers who appear to be at fault.
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