RSS twisting Onam festival to further Hindutva agenda in Kerala?

BJP president Amit Shah has opened a fresh controversy this Onam. But his gesture actually opens up serious debates over the larger cultural politics beyond Onam festival, as both RSS and CPM are engaged in a deadly battle for ownership of the disputed cultural space in Kerala.

RSS twisting Onam festival to further Hindutva agenda in Kerala?

BJP president Amit Shah courted controversy on this Onam when he posted a picture of a joyful Vamana putting one foot on the head of legendary Kerala king Mahabali, who looked subservient to the Brahmin priest, with folded hands and bowed head.

For millions of Malayalees, who reacted sharply to Shah, this image represented a dark past in which their ancestors have lived for centuries, under oppressive caste regime of Nampoodiri's notorious for practising
and theendal (pollution by touching and seeing).

Amit Shah's gesture reminded them of that dark phase of Kerala, where some of the castes (Nayadi, tribals) were not just untouchable but even unseeable too.

Swami Vivekananda (an upper caste Hindu reformer) when denied entry to Kodungallur temple, had described Kerala 'bhranthalayam', (a mad house) in the early decades of 20th century.

Political battle over Onam 


Responding to Shah’s post, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan asked him to apologise to the people of Kerala.

“Disgracing Mahabali is tantamount to disgracing the concept of an egalitarian society and all Malayalis who cherish that ideal,” he said.

Shah soon came with another post :“Wishing you all a happy Onam.” “My heartfelt wishes to Malayali friends.”

BJP defended Shah and its Kerala general secretary Shobha Surendran, reiterated that Onam is an important Hindu festival. “Even as Onam is celebrated by all religious groups, it is only the Hindu devotees who observes it in its true sense,” she affirmed.

But, the damage has been done, as his gesture was viewed similar to Modi's comments during his campaign trail in the Lok Sabha election, when he compared Kerala to Somalia.

Modi's speech cost the BJP dearly as the saffron party lost the initial advantages of its campaigns spearheaded by Modi himself. Though the party this time tied up with SNDP (Ezhava community organisation) and a number of Dalit and tribal groups, the massive Hindu polarisation BJP had hoped to achieve failed miserably, leaving the saffron front to satisfy with just one seat in Assembly.

VT Balram, Congress MLA and youth leader says; “From the earlier attempts such as making Mahabali wear poonool and the current issue of projecting a Brahmin over Mahabali with regards to Onam, all substantiate the Sangh Parivar’s interests.”

Kancha Iliah, writer and Bahujan thinker says, “Kerala Onam is the resurrection of Mahabali. That is the vision of the people.”

RSS mouth organ ‘Kesari’ insisted on worshiping Vamana, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, instead of King Mahabali.

One Hindu Aikya Vedi leader even described Vamana as a ‘freedom fighter who freed Kerala from an imperialistic force (Mahabali).

Kerala's tryst with caste and fight for equality

A state that witnessed one of the gravest practice of untouchability, became popular for its 'Kerala Model' development later in the 1960's and 1970's by achieving development indices enjoyed until then by the first world citizens.
The credit for this goes to a number of reformist leaders like Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyan Kali, an education system ushered by Christian missionaries and an accessible and people-friendly health care system in Kerala.


[caption id="attachment_311987" align="alignnone" width="384"]CPM rally on Krishna Jayanti in Kannur CPM rally on Krishna Jayanti in Kannur[/caption]

Ahead of this Onam season, both ruling CPM and RSS fought hard to wrest the the cultural space over celebrating Krishna Jayanti. The festival has been celebrated across Kerala by RSS over last two decades as Lord Krishna enjoys a unique place in Malayalee's imagination. RSS has successfully made inroads into even secular sections of Hindu's through the festival, especially among the youth.

This time, concerned over erosion of its support base in the Malabar region, CPM officially organised massive cultural rallies by its youth wing, Balasangham, parallel to RSS run Krishna-Gopika rallies. CPM claims it was a grand sucess, party due to the diktat of elders in 'party villages' of Kannur district.

While, CPM maintains a view that, it is honouring reformist leaders like Narayana Guru, Ayyan Kali and Chattambi Swamikal along with Che Guevera, AKG, EMS, among others, it shows that the party is indeed facing a serious ideological crisis in present times. While, the minority communities still maintain a distance from CPM, it is alarmed by its waning influence among powerful Ezhava community and Dalits, who stood by the Left, due to the Communists' fight for equality and zeal for a casteless society.

Now, BJP plans to make inroads into the Hindu community, divided over caste by projecting a 'Hindu Unity', albeit based on a ritualistic and Vedantic way that affirms Brahmin supremacy. RSS has largest number of shakhas in Kerala and its top leadership aims at a Hindutva resurgence in Leftist Kerala. BJP claims it now enjoys a clear patronage among the Nairs and Ezhavas who make up the most of the Hindu population.

Onam: A secular festival?

[caption id="attachment_311988" align="alignnone" width="355"]Pulikkali Pulikkali[/caption]

Onam, a harvest festival with its own nuances of caste elements, is considered by Malalalees as part of their Dravidan identity and they consider Vamana as an Aryan invader who robbed them off their 'egalitarian, socialist' paradise during Asura king Mahabali's rule.

The festival also evolved as 'secular' festival and was accepted other communities as well over time.
It has been celebrated in educational institutes and workplaces by all, and helped to bridge communities, despite becoming a consumerist event.
Muslim politicians too emphasise on the need to uphold the secular nature of Onam and save it from being hijacked by Hindutva forces.

“Onam is never considered a religious festival in Kerala,”  says ET Muhammad Basheer, former education minister of Kerala and senior leader of Muslim League.

[caption id="attachment_311989" align="alignnone" width="369"]A banner near a Mosque, appealing believers to participate in Onam A banner near a Mosque, appealing believers to participate in Onam[/caption]
“In the earlier days we had several public spaces. But now, as the public space is shrinking, festivals such as Onam remains the only occasions where people from all walks of life can come together," he adds.