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November 2, 1998


Rama, Ravana battle again in TN

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N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

First, it was Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi's defence of 'demon king' Ravana. Later came the decision of minister in-charge of temples Thamizhkudimagan that the state needed only a god who was tuned in to Tamil.

Coming in quick succession, these two things made it seem that the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was trying to use social, cultural and religious issues again in politics.

Karunanidhi was releasing a collection of poems by Vairamuthu, better known for his poetic film lyrics, when he citing Jawaharlal Nehru and other experts, saying Ravana was a Tamil king of Dravidian stock who fought Aryan invaders.

"Don't hurt me by projecting him as a bad ruler," the chief minister said, obviously referring to Vairamuthu's allegorical lines, portraying bloodshed when 'Rama', standing for good, joined forces with `Ravana', or evil.

Thamizhkudimagan, minister for Hindu religious and charitable endowments, made his comment at a Salem function, after being apparently riled by the Hindu Temples Protection Committee moving the Madras High Court against alleged government interference in the administration of the state's temples.

This is not the first time that 'Tamil prayers' and temple administrations are finding themselves in the limelight. But this is the first time in years that the issue of Ravana's antecedents was issue has been brought up by a political leader of some standing, though a controversy erupted a few years ago when the government ordered Tamil archanas in temples.

It was overlooked in the euphoria of the AIADMK's poll defeat in 1996, but last year things were stirred up a bit when lines in praise of Karunanidhi and Thamizhkudimagan found a place in the Tamil archana at the famed Kapaleeswarar temple in Madras. The government was forced to initiate action against the person who wrote them.

Right now, a 'social worker', known to be close to the DMK, has joined issue in the high court case, seeking that all non-Tamil rites in the state's temples be banned. He has cited ancient Tamil agamas to bolster his demand. To ensure a fair hearing to his arguments, he wants only judges who know Tamil to hear the petition filed by the Temples Protection Committee.

The Dravidian parties have often used religion as a plant when all else fails. Though leaders of the Justice Party, the forerunner of the DMK, and other Dravidian political organisations had religious moorings, they equated temple administration with 'Brahmin patronage'. Which was why the HR and CE department was set up during the Justice Party's rule of the Madras Presidency in the 1920's.

As successive Dravidian political parties won elections, the 'religious plank' receded into the background. But Karunanidhi has this habit of doing something unexpected from time to time.

Last year, he dubbed the walking of fire by devout Hindus 'uncivilised'. That came after one of his ministers performed the act at the Pannari Amman temple in the Periyar district. The minister, 'Andhiyur' Selvaraj, had vowed to walk on coals should the DMK return to power.

Religious Hindus were hurt by the chief minister's comment, and quasi-political organisations like the Hindu Front joined issue with him then.

His reference to Ravana has invited similar reactions as well. Both the Hindu Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party have criticised the chief minister for reopening a non-issue and hurting religious sentiments.

Of course, the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Hindu Front claim abut the Dravidian being anti-god, anti-Brahmin, anti-North is no more relevant. Even now, Jayalalitha, a Brahmin who is not even a Tamilian, heads the All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. She is a Kannadiga by birth.

Even Karunanidhi has been charged with being more religious these days. He has denied that his trademark yellow shawl has any religious significance, but that hasn't convinced many.

His daughter-in-law Durga, wife of Madras Mayor and DMK youth leader M K Stalin, often holds a private puja. Even Karunanidhi and second wife Rajathi attended a temple wedding recently, where they too exchanged garlands. Of course, it was all in jest, the couple claimed.

But since he is believed to be getting more god-fearing now, it may not be clear why he should attack religious people, who are growing in number in his own party. The state is already reeling under caste clashes that don't seem to end, and the DMK could reopen one more wound.

The DMK line is seen as a reaction to attempts by the BJP to revive communal tensions by impositions like the recent 'Saraswati vandana'. This has brought back the spectre of Brahminical and northern influences that Tamil groups had thought a matter of the past. The DMK seeks to assure these groups that its government was sensitive to their feelings.

Of course, the DMK has fewer chances of a political arrangement with the BJP despite early positive signals from both sides. The BJP-AIADMK truce and the BJP's tie-up with the Pattali Makkal Katchi and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has them worried.

With the Dalit-Muslim vote bank pitted against the backward classes, identified with the AIADMK and the BJP, the DMK won't mind shaking things up a bit. Even G K Moopanar, leader of the DMK's Tamil Maanila Congress ally, has vaguely supported the Tamil archana cause and cautioned the people against 'communal forces', an euphemism for the BJP.

In other respects, however, Moopanar does not hide his religious preferences.

Even the DMK has reneged on its hardline stand for Tamil archanas, to allow the Sanskrit option again. But the instructions have only come in an oral form, say sources in government-run temples. But devout Hindus don't like government interference, preferring the 'atheist DMK' leave the temples alone. Or, instead, also bring churches and mosques under its purview.

Likewise, arguments continue on the 'Ravana row'. How could Ravana be a Brahmin if he was a Dravidian.

Dravidar Kazhagam General Secretary K Veeramani, also a nephew of the late 'Periyar' E V Ramaswami Naicker, leader of the Dravida movement, goes to the extent of stating that Rama could be charged with offences under various sections of the Indian Penal Code.

In this context, he refers to Bali's killing and Sita's agni pravesh, among other examples. There are others who claim that since Rama was divine, and Ravana, a demon, humans are ill-equipped to question and judge their actions.

But the last word seems to have been said by someone else, altogether. Appearing in a popular talk-show hosted by Tamil film-maker Visu on Sun TV some time ago, a college girl from the districts had this to say of 'Ram rajya' and 'Ravan rajya' : "In 'Ravan rajya', there is no security for another man's wife. And in 'Ram rajya', there is no security for your own wife."

A reflection, perhaps, on contemporary thinking ?

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