N Sukumar and Shailaja Menon
One of Kerala’s enlightened souls, Sree Narayana Guru, had proclaimed, “One Caste, One Religion and One God” for mankind, thus ushering in a radical transformation of society. The state also witnessed momentous struggles to liberate society from the shackles of caste and untouchability. The Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924-25, a historic struggle for Dalits’ right to use the public road close to the Vaikom Mahadeva temple, which paved the way for the Temple Entry Proclamation1 of the Travancore government, symbolised a movement for justice and equality across the country during the freedom struggle.
However, the contemporary society in Kerala is a mirage, far removed from any egalitarian ethos. Whenever, the mention of the state of Kerala comes up, people have all kinds of popular epithets. “It’s so beautiful”, (referring to the tourism catch line – God’s Own Country), “People are literate”, “very progressive and enlightened” etc. One only has to scratch beneath the surface and the mirror shows evidence of being cracked. Despite decades of social reforms, progressive radical left intelligentsia, a vibrant people’s consciousness has proved to be a chimera. In an ‘open-minded’ and ‘tolerant’ society, temples follow a strict dress code and banners proclaim, ‘Entry only for Hindus’. One ponders as to how foreign tourists can freely enter such temples- is it because of economic profit for the Devaswom Boards (Temple Authorities)? Male devotees have to bare their upper torso to worship: is it a device to verify whether one is wearing the sacred thread? All these practices are endorsed in the name of purity. Perhaps, the Guru would be turning in his grave.
The latest evidence of such warped minds is the banning of a Dalit musician2 at the famous Guruvayoor temple in Trichur. “If a Dalit is offering a lamp to the temple, the priests have no qualms. If a Dalit is offering money, the temple does not throw it away on the ground that the amount was from the unctouchable caste. If they can accept Dalit money, why not allow a Dalit to perform elathalam?”3 A taxi driver by profession, Kalloor Babu has been part of the panchavadyam4 troupe for the past fifteen years. This was his debut within the temple premises as all his previous performances were outside the sacred sphere.
One is reminded of Dr. Ambedkar’s comments. “Not very long ago there used to be boards on club doors and other social resorts maintained by Europeans in India, which said “Dogs and Indians” are not allowed. The temples of Hindus carry similar boards today; the only difference is that the boards on the Hindu temples practically say: “All Hindus and all animals including dogs are admitted; only Untouchables are not admitted”. The situation in both cases is of purity. But Hindus never begged for admission in those places from which the Europeans in their arrogance had excluded them. Why should an Untouchable beg for admission in a place from which he has been excluded by the arrogance of the Hindus? This is the reason of the Depressed Class man who is interested in material welfare. He is prepared to say to the Hindus, “to open or not to open your temples is a question for you to consider and not for me to agitate. If you think, it is bad manners not to respect the sacredness of human personality, open your temple and be a gentleman. If you rather be a Hindu than a gentleman, then shut the doors and damn yourself for I don’t care to come.”5
Once, Swami Vivekananda famously compared Kerala society to a lunatic asylum. It is indeed a shame that a state which boasts of radical movements of every hue under the sun is getting rapidly saffronised. The political colour is gradually turning from ‘red’ to ‘saffron’. One can witness this shift from the fluttering flags which many houses proudly sport, the NSS6 flags which proclaim their caste/cultural/religious identity. A month back, while travelling from Thrissur to Coimbatore, an informal discussion with the taxi driver was a lesson in political sagacity. He traced the grammar of saffron culture and possibilities of Aam Aadmi Party battling it out.
The political parties vie with one another to control the administration of various temples since they are endowed with huge resources. No wonder that they are more interested in maintaining the social and cultural status-quo. What is indeed astonishing is the silence of the progressive groups’ active in the arena of liberative and transformative politics! There have been some petitions to the authorities concerned but it has failed to trigger any large scale debate, protests in a state where hartals and bandhs are a part of everyday life even if the issue were to occur in other parts of the globe. The state comes to a total standstill but the violation of human rights within the precincts of the one of the holiest of shrines (for the average Malayali) fails to evoke any response.
Decades of temple entry agitations have proved unsuccessful in cleansing the bramhinical mindsets. The state which boasts of complete literacy has failed to transcend caste prejudices. The larger social question is to create an environment of consciousness transformation with meaningful education, which critically challenges entrenched bigotry and intolerance. One is forced to concur with Dr. Ambedkar that there have been many Mahatmas in India whose sole object was to remove Untouchability and to elevate and absorb the depressed classes, but everyone has failed in their mission. Mahatmas have come, Mahatmas have gone but the Untouchables have remained as Untouchables7.
. The Temple Entry Proclamation issued by Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma and his Dewan Sir C. P. Ramaswami Iyer in 1936 abolished the ban on low-caste people from entering Hindu temples in the state of Travancore.
. The Indian Express, “Dalit Musician Banned at Guruvayoor Temple”, January 17, 2014, Delhi.
. An orchestra of five musical instruments, a local art form evolved in Kerala and played during ceremonial occasions.
. Dr. Ambedkar’s Statement, 14 February, 1933, http://ambedkarquotes.wordpress.com/tag/temple-entry/, Accessed on 17/01/2014, 11.45 pm.
. Nair Service Society: The proclaimed aim of the Nair Service Society is the unification of all Hindus along with the active coordination of the Nair community so as to ensure harmony of all communities and thereby progress in all walks of life. This aim is in consonance with the famous gospel of the Hindu culture “Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu” (Let the whole world be happy for ever). http://www.nairs.in/nairorg, Accessed on 17/01/2014, 11.50 pm.
. http://www.ambedkarinternationalcenter.org/BQuotations.html, Accessed on 18/1/2014, 1 am.
N Sukumar teaches Political Science in Delhi University.
Shailaja Menon teaches History at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.