09/09/2015 12:25 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

What A Controversial Sri Narayana Guru Tableaux Tells Us About Kerala Politics

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During South Africa's coming-of-age event, the FIFA World Cup in 2010, unveiling of an artwork in a Johannesburg mall whipped up nationwide fury. The artist, Yiull Damaso, parodied a Rembrandt masterpiece and depicted Nelson Mandela lying on an autopsy table, watched by many of his famous contemporaries, including the president Jacob Zuma. Mandela was then 92, weak and withdrawn. The artist braved the storm of protests, sticking to his freedom to express and iterating his message that there is life after Madiba.

In an equally moribund incident, some comrades of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala's Kannur district put up a float, a tableau of crucifixion of a man who is inarguably Kerala's greatest social reformer--Sri Narayana Guru (1854 -1924). Up on the cross, the Guru lookalike was calm and stoic as was the original ever; the goon-like Roman soldiers on each side, one wearing yellow cloth and the other, the saffron of the Hindutva forces, were menacingly raising hammer, ready to nail. It was not in the best of taste, but the metaphor was easily decipherable.

"He was the principal change agent of the era for the downtrodden."

During the nineteenth century and the early part of twentieth century, almost all Hindu castes in Kerala went through turbulence, rebelling against the existing order that was perhaps the most rigid in India. Together, these social movements came to be known as Navothanam (Renaissance) in Malayalam. Sri Narayana Guru, who was born in the numerically strong Ezhava caste, through practical vision and spiritual leadership, transformed the social outlook of his community. But his impact went beyond the community. He was the principal change agent of the era for the downtrodden.

To spread his message, Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yoga was founded by the Guru and other community leaders. In typical fashion, he resigned from the SNDP, in a way similar to how Gandhiji left the Congress.

Communism that came to Kerala in the 1930s, almost a decade later than its arrival elsewhere in India, was popular among Ezhavas. They reaped a rich harvest from the ground prepared by the Guru. In the caste calculus, the community is seen as the mainstay of the CPM.

The SNDP leaders from the 1960s had nursed political ambitions. But electorally nothing bore fruit. Bulk of Ezhavas continued to vote for the CPM. The SNDP thrived by driving hard bargains with the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), which alternated in forming governments.

All these changed when Vellappali Natesan became the head of the SNDP. Other than having made lots of money in the liquor business, little was initially known about this short, balding man, always found in gleaming gold-coloured silk kurtas. Once he ensured that his grip was vice-like over the organisation, Vellappalli started rolling the political dice.

"Nothing could have negated Guru's thoughts more than his deification."

He went beyond the UDF-LDF binary of Kerala. The rise of Modi in the national horizon also helped. Soon he and his son Tushar paid a visit to Amit Shah. The VHP leader Praveen Togadia was hosted by him. On the occasion of Guru's birth anniversary, Vellappali declared that Guru is the god of Ezhavas.

Nothing could have negated Guru's thoughts more than his deification. The irony is that Guru rejected saffron and chose yellow as the colour of robes for ascetics of his order because the former was the colour of Hindu ascetics, into whose ranks the lowly ezhavas were not allowed. The tableau, crucifixion of Sri Narayana Guru, macabre it may be, did not miss reality in symbolism.

Predictably, Vellappalli and the SNDP were outraged. In double quick time, CPM apologised. There was no staking of claims to freedom of expression. It looked like panic reaction--loss of Ezhava votes would have spelt the end for the party. The party did not pause to think that politically Ezhavas, by and large, never listened to the SNDP. And about probable resentment among them about Vellappalli abrogating Guru's teaching.

This particular tableau was a part of Krishna Jayanthi celebrations of the CPM. A communist party and Krishna Jayanthi? It was conceived by the CPM to counter the BJP's high visibility on that particular day in parts of Kerala. But the party could not escape ridicule. Many were heard quoting Marx, about religion being the "opium of the masses".

Social media, in spite of the CPM having good presence, mercilessly pounded the party with sarcasm. Largely anti-CPM mainstream media amplified Facebook comments. In a gawky manoeuvre, the CPM rechristened the day as End of Onam Celebration. There is no such day in Malayalam calendar. The Onam celebrations end with the Fourth Day of Onam. That day is worth celebrating; it is also the birthday of Sri Narayana Guru. That is an orphaned legacy, waiting to be reclaimed.

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