Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Temple Trail

The last time I went to a temple to pray was several years ago. That must have been when I was in primary school when I used to go to a small temple in the Railway Colony in Erode. I remember the way that temple came up after a devoted railway worker declared that he had a dream where he was ``informed’’ of a vinayaka idol lying in the Cauvery bed. He carried the idol to install it at an open ground near the Railway station. A small canopy came up soon and that was where I used to pray every day. I do not remember as to what I prayed for!

And over the years, more idols came up around the vinayaka there. And the number of devotees too increased. I recall going there, early in the morning, day after day during the Tamizh month of Marghazhi. And carry home the delicious panchamirtham (fruit punch) and pongal. Families in the colony would take turns among themselves, each day, to arrange the prasadam during that month.The quantum of ghee in the pongal was indicative of whose day it was. Medical Officer, Dr. Parthasarathy’s was perhaps the best.

Those were times when he was the most affluent man in the Erode Railway colony! His son was my class-mate too. And I recall instances when we would walk up to his house to enjoy refrigerated water. A fridge was indeed a luxury then. And the family would have wanted to maintain their status by ensuring that the pongal was the best with lots of ghee!

It was perhaps around the same time that I was beginning to turn into an atheist inflienced by my father. An active trade unionist and a rationalist in his own way, he would, however, take us (my mother, sister and me) to various temples in and outside Tamil Nadu. I recall visits to Srirangam, Thiruvanaikovil, Tanjore, Rameswaram, Tirupathi, Somnath, Dwarka and even to Pasupathinath in Katmandu. These are just a few of the temples we had been to and I can say with conviction that I did not pray in any of these temples. My mother did pray.

Well. Let me come to the provocation to this post. Last week, I was at Trichy with my wife, son and his friend Gompo. And the visit was planned. Early in the morning on Tuesday, October 16, 2007, we were there, waiting in the queue, at the Rangatha temple at Srirangam. And after a darshan, went over to the vinayaka temple atop the hill (the Rock Fort temple) and thereafter to Tanjore; the drive down the cauvery banks, stopping over at Kallanai (a dam built in the Eighth Century AD) and then at the Thyagaraja temple at Thiruvaiyaru was simply great. And I did feel music and the divinity there at the Thyagaraja temple.

We resolved to be there in January 2008 for the aradhana. The very thought of listening to maestros for several hours sitting on the banks of cauvery excites me.

The hundreds of acres of lush green paddy fields that we saw during this drive explained to me the socio-politico-economy of the region. The temples hold several hundred acres of fertile land and the elite who control the temple administration lord over the land and the landless workers on these fields. I now know what it means to the politicos in this region to remain believers. It helps them control the land and the produce from there!

The Brahadeeswara temple at Tanjore is a magnificient structure. And so is the bull there. I explained to my son that a bull blocking the sight of the deity is an integral part of all Siva temples. And also narrated the story of nandanar (though related to the Chidambaram temple), to my son, Chinku, in brief. Our next stopover was at Kumbakonam. An early morning darshan at Swamimalai (one of Muruga’s six castles), Thiruvalanchuzhi (the vinayaka idol there is not bathed because the legend is that it was made out of the froth that came during the churning of the sea) and the priest there was patent enough to explain the legend to us. We were the only visitors at that time.

Patteeswaram was another temple where the architecture impressed us. And Darasuram, now under renovation by the UNESCO will also offer us lessons on the socio-economy of the early Chola kingdom. Building such huge temples protected like a fortress by compound walls and the moats around them must have been possible only when a large number of men were released from agricultural labour to construction. And that must have increased the pressure on agriculture in a big way. Well, this must have caused the fall of the Empire too!

In a sense, I could feel the social history of the times and also the spiritual-temporal nexus of the Empire through the temples. I recalled my early lessons on Marxist historiography; D.D.Kosambi, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar and Shireen Ratnagar.

The Thirunellar temple with Saturn as the deity was another experience. There were devotees from all over India. And despite the boards that clarify that heavens won’t fall if pilgrims carry the offerings home, I found everyone insisting on leaving the packets of gingely oils sachets and the flowers from there (after the archana) with beggars hanging around the temple. Well. The devout would mind carrying them but the poor could not afford to reject the packets!

The dargah at Nagoor, my next stopover was a different experience. We were led into the premises and blessings came in exchange for cash offerings. Velankanni was just pomp and the well lit pathway and the large parking space and the several hotels were all evidence of the cash flow into the shrine from India and outside.

The day after, we were at Uppiliappan Koil, considered as important by the devout as Tirupathi. And thereafter at a temple for Raghu in the vicinity; partaking some curd rice was mandatory there. It was delicious. The temple too was huge. Our next destination was Poompuhar, where Cauvery meets the sea; the city, we are told by Ilango’s Silapadikaram, was a mighty centre for trade; mightier than the capital cities of the Tamil kings. It is now a pale shadow of what it was supposed to have been. It is now deserted, except for the fishing community and the school children who are brought there as tourists.

We then went to the Vaidyanathaswamy temple a few miles from Poompuhar. The Siva deity there, according to legend, is the healer. And there we found a whole lot of astrologers. The temple was massive again. And the pond there, according to the legend, does not host frogs.

And then we reached Chidambaram; a massive temple with fortress like walls. And unlike all the other temples we visited, this one is controlled by the Dikshitars. The other temples are controlled by the Hindu Religious and Endowments Department of the State Government. There are 370 priests in all and together they control the temple, its properties and its administration. The Nandanar story is related to this shrine. And in Chidambaram, we find Siva and Vishnu in the same place. And this is perhaps one of the exceptions where Siva is found with his consort Parvathy in the same shrine.

And adjacent to the shrine is a dark corner blocked by a black screen. The priest pulls the screen aside to show you the Chidambara Ragasyam. It is a lesson in theology. The golden leaves (of vilvam) are hung around and you get to see an image of god there … the message that god is formless. Was it a culmination of a long debate that devastated Tamil society (very much Dravidian) between the Saivaites and the Vashnavaites? Or was it something larger?

Well Chidambaram marked a grand finale of our temple trail last week. I will narrate the Nandanar story to my son sometimes later. May be when he comes home for his next vacation.

I think I must add one last line. I remain a non-believer.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Criminalisation of politics

THE death sentence awarded to Anand Mohan Singh and two other politicians from Bihar by the Additional District and Sessions Judge Ramshreshta Rai for the murder of IAS officer, G Krishnaiah must bring some relief to those who were losing hope in the judicial processes in the country. It now remains to be seen if this Bihar politician, who so far has been a law unto himself, manages to frustrate the due process of law in the higher judiciary. There are many reasons for this. Already, Anand Mohan Singh is being presented as a victim of conspiracy. By visiting the condemned prisoner, George Fernandes seems to have decided to take up this cause rather than be bold and say that the conviction is a step ahead in ensuring a democratic and egalitarian India that Ram Manohar Lohias dreamt of. Some of the other reasons relate to the socio-political scene in Bihar. The ability of the litigant, the accused in this instance, to engage the best of the lawyers is a factor in influencing the judicial process. The prosecution, meanwhile, depends on law officers appointed by the Government of the day. Many such appointments are based on partisan political considerations rather than legal acumen. There have been instances when the accused have been found trying to influence the law officer of the prosecution to ensure that he presents a bad case in the court. The BMW case involving the Nandas was one such instance where a vigilant media successfully frustrated the conspiracy. Presumably, for every such reported instance, there could well be several others which have not have been reported. And the judge cannot be blamed when the prosecution fails to present a sustainable case.Though the media is now far more vigilant than in the past such vigilance is restricted to cases that involve the urban upper middle classes and very rarely is the media professional seen to have taken up the cause of the poor and the marginalised. This feature of the eighties, when the Bhagalpur blinding, the sale of girl children for prostitution or the condition of prisoners were taken up by the media, is no longer prominent.Anand Mohan and his wife Lovely Anand (who has been awarded a life imprisonment) are powerful individuals. Both have been MPs and their record is evidence of the scant regard for the principles of law as well as morality in public life. To expect them to change is unrealistic.Their political affiliation is to the Janata Dal (United), the party in power in Bihar. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, will now have to ensure that the law officers of the Bihar Government, who are there in that position only because they belong to the Janata Dal (United) or the BJP (a partner in the coalition Government) do everything to ensure that two of the ruling party luminaries are punished for murder. This may well be too much to expect from a party that has not deemed it necessary to even expel them.Others found guilty in this case include Munna Shukla, a JD-U legislator from Lalganj, Shashi Shekhar Thakur and Harendra Kumar, who lost the last Lok Sabha election as a JD-U candidates in May 2004. Considering that these are such political heavyweights, it will be a miracle if the party ensures that the law takes its course.Moreover, all those convicted in this case are known to have several criminal cases against them. Munna Shukla, for instance, is a history-sheeter. They were all admitted into the party knowing very well that they believed in violent ways to ensure their status in their villages and towns across the State. In fact, it could be argued that the JD (U) took them in only because they had a criminal antecedent and this was useful or even necessary for the party to establish itself in Bihar. The JD(U) alone is not guilty of this. Lalu Prasad has his Mohammed Shahabuddin and Pappu Yadav, and Ram Vilas Paswan has Surajbhan Singh in his party. To say therefore that the criminal-politician nexus is entrenched in Bihar would be to state the obvious.There is another aspect to the Anand Mohan Singh story, the socio-political scene in Bihar. The Bihar People’s Party, in fact, was founded in 1994, to represent the upper castes in the State against the rise of backward caste assertion that marked the arrival of Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar. This upper caste consolidation was aimed at restoring the feudal order over the OBCs and the Dalits. The objective constituted a conspiracy against the Constitution and the various provisions in it.The party nominee, Lovely Anand, won the Vaishali Lok Sabha seat in a byelection in 1994 and Anand Mohan emerged as the representative of the upper castes across Bihar at a time when the Ranvir Sena, a mercenary force consisting of the poor among the Rajputs financed by the rich Rajputs and equipped with sophisticated weapons, went about killing Dalits across Bihar. The links between the BPP and the Ranvir Sena were historical if not organisational. The IAS officer Krishnaiah, whom the mob incited by Anand Mohan had lynched to death in 1994, was a Dalit. Incidentally, the Janata Dal (United)-BJP Government in Bihar, elected to power in May 2005, represents the forces against the backward caste assertion and in that sense belong to the same legacy as that of the Bihar People’s Party. Nitish Kumar may have been a participant in the various struggles for the empowerment of the OBCs and the rights of the Dalits in the past. But that is history. In May 2005, Nitish Kumar, led a socio-political alliance that was based on the consolidation of the anti-Lalu forces. And this consolidation happened because the castes remain inimical to the idea of equality of all the citizens irrespective of caste.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Endorsing a subversive act (this was published in Economic Times, Oct. 6, 2007)

Chief Minister M Karunanidhi is reputed to be a man blessed with the gift of the gab. And this has helped him impress the DMK faithful over the years. He could use this to carry his partymen, a majority of whom are in the party because it serves their end by way of party posts and nominations to Parliament, the state assembly, corporations, panchayats and such other institutions from where they manage to establish themselves as power centres in the democratic edifice. In that way, the DMK chief had been able to carry the party’s rank and file to support the BJP, notwithstanding the repeated assertions by that party’s leaders that they were committed to the idea of cultural nationalism, an anti-thesis of the DMK’s creed. The DMK’s genesis lay in the political assertion of the sub-national identity based on language and culture against the spurious and dangerous notion of an Indian identity based essentially on Brahmanical Hindu religious identity. The party’s alliance with the BJP and its participation in the NDA government between September 1999 and December 2003 was indeed evidence of the fact that such ideological issues are not an issue for its rank and file. Karunanidhi’s intemperate remarks over the Ram Sethu, hence, need not be taken as an effort on his part to assert the DMK’s commitment to rationalism. This, however, is not to say that the Adam’s Bridge is unnatural. That is an issue that must be left to the professional bodies such as the Geological Survey of India and the Archaeological Survey of India. The two bodies have stated the truth as it is and it is sad that the political leadership is now desperate to gag the professionals in this regard. Be that as it may, the bandh on October 1 sponsored by the ruling party and its allies and the Supreme Court’s intervention against bandhs has exposed the DMK chief to some ridicule. It is necessary to clarify, at this stage, that the right to protest is an inherent right of the citizens in a democracy. And a bandh, even if it is an act of subversion, need not be termed morally illegitimate. The IPC as well as the CrPC are replete with provisions to deal with acts of violence, even when the protests are non-violent. There are penal provisions empowering the state to detain (without charges) and prosecute those who disrupt the normal life of the people. That prosecution under the provisions of the criminal law is left to the executive arm of the state is to say that the police and the civil administration are responsible for ensuring the rights of the citizens are not infringed. And the state is empowered, by the Constitution and the criminal law to act against those violating the citizen’s right. This clearly means that the state government (vested with the powers to maintain law and order) is bound to act against anyone, even if they happen to be from the party in power, where they are found indulging in acts that deny the right of the citizen. And by this logic, it is so clearly incongruous for a party that controls the government in a state to orchestrate an agitation against a government policy.
In the case of the Sethusamudram project, the incongruity is far too pronounced because the DMK is as much a part of the Union Cabinet as Manmohan Singh and Ambika Soni are. And for the party to have found it appropriate to paralyse life across the state from dawn to dusk on October 1 is clearly an instance of the party’s contempt for the concept of collective responsibility which is an integral aspect of parliamentary democracy. It was strange that Karunanidhi, despite his scholarship on affairs of the state, apart from language and literature, called for the bandh in the first place. As CM, he is bound by the responsibilities imposed on him by the Constitution and in this case it was to ensure that the citizens were allowed to go to their work place last Monday in the way they did on other days. It was his duty to ensure that the public transport was normal and shops remained open. He has the powers to order the police and the civil administration to ensure all that. In other words, the CM was guilty of endorsing a subversive act by his partymen. And for him to argue that he got the certified copy of the SC’s September 30 order against the bandh too late in the night and hence could not enforce it is simply ridiculous. The party’s faithful lot may see this as further evidence of his political skills. And if what he said was true, then it is certainly a cause for concern. If a CM cannot convey to his officers that life is not to be paralysed and that buses ply as usual, when it was told to do that by the court more than six hours before the bandh was to commence, it makes one wonder as to whether the government exists or not. The point is while the right to protest is an inherent right of the citizens in a democracy, common sense has it that the citizens protest against the government. Bandh is just an act of subversion against the government. But for a government to participate in an act of subversion of itself is simply ridiculous. More so when the Union minister for shipping, road transport and shipping, T R Baalu joined the protest against himself.