The inaugural Sangamam turned out to be a political Hindutva function than a gathering on the Hindu religion, observes N Sathiya Moorthy.
As was to be expected under the circumstances, the month-long Tamil Sangamam, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narenda Modi in Varanasi, has triggered avoidable additional controversy, centred on his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's attitude towards the Tamil language, culture and Tamil Nadu as a state.
The reasons are obvious. Though the celebrations were aimed at re-telling the age-old linkages between Varanasi, or Benares, or better still Kasi, and Tamil Nadu, it had politico-administrative representation only from Uttar Pradesh.
BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was present alongside Modi, and state Governor Anandiben Patel.
But no such representation was there from Tamil Nadu.
While Governor Ravindra Narayana Ravi stopped with penning newspaper articles and delivering public speeches within the state, and also flagged off a special train for the Sangamam at southern temple-town of Rameswaram, he did not participate.
The Union education ministry has since denied a DMK spokesperson's charge that the state government was not invited.
An official letter had been sent a month ago, but there was no response, media reports have since quoted the ministry as saying.
It looks as if there would be no rebuttal from the state lest it should trigger a debate that has not come down to Tamil Nadu from Varanasi, given the way the entire show was organised.
The DMK does not want to give that extra mileage to the BJP, which has already faltered on this course.
Indications are that the Union education ministry sought the state government's cooperation only for facilitating the travel of intended participants to Varanasi, and not for direct participation by the state government.
Anyway, if serious, the ministry would have approached the state government at a more personal and appropriate levels, depending on the kind of participation it expected from Tamil Nadu.
It seems, however, that there was no invitation of any kind for Chief Minister Stalin to participate.
The question would have then arisen if the Dravidian leader would have attended the inaugural, where he would have been the odd man out for more than one reason.
First, the stage was packed with BJP leaders from Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, whatever be the Constitutional position the latter class held.
Two, the focus was mostly on Hinduism, from which Stalin has distanced himself personally, even while his wife Durga Stalin and his government have held a different view.
There is no denying the fact that the inaugural, and possibly the month-long Sangamam, have turned out to be a political Hindutva function than even a gathering on the Hindu religion, to which again, non-religious, irreligious Tamil personalities have taken exception.
Three Saivite seers from the state has since announced in Varanasi that the BJP (alone) stood to defend Hindu interests, giving an avoidable political colour to a government function, where religious identify rather than the religion-centric Tamil linguistic and cultural causes were believed to be the highlights.
If someone complained that the Varanasi Sangamam was all about Saivism whereas Vaishnavism also promoted Tamil language and the Hindu revivalist Bhakti movement a thousand years ago, it did not seem to have dawned on the organisers.
Yet, the Dravidian polity cannot complain that it was not as secular as it should have been.
All four international conferences organised under their governments over the past 55 years kept out Hindu savant-poets who propagated Tamil literature along with religion, but gave a pride of place for counterparts from Christianity and Islam -- the former, mostly European missionaries who took Tamil names and adapted local attire and lifestyle, too.
Inaugurating what otherwise should have been a uniquely refreshing idea, the Tamil Sangamam in his Lok Sabha constituency, Modi said 'we have failed to honour Tamil fully'.
'If we ignore Tamil, it will be a great disservice to the nation', he declared.
In the same vein, he added, 'It is the responsibility of 130 crore Indians to preserve the legacy of Tamil and enrich it.'
In his speech, the PM highlighted the Shiva-Shakti linkages of both Varanasi, also known as Benares, and Tamil Nadu, and how those born in Tamil Nadu like former President Sarvepalli Radhakrishan -- incidentally a Telugu from what was then Madras Presidency -- had worked on Hindu religion, Sanskrit literature and Indian culture, in distant temple-town, the single-most important for the Saivite sect across the country.
Modi also praised poet and freedom-fighter Subramania Bharati who, he pointed out, had spent some years learning in Kasi.
Though the prime minister shared a photo-op with heads of some Saivite monasteries/mutts from Tamil Nadu, and the month-long festivities are going to present a Tamil cultural bonanza for a north Indian audience, there are doubts if the Sangamam would serve its purpose, if any, at least in this maiden edition.
That is because there was less of Tamil and more of politics -- a trait that the ruling BJP at the Centre has possibly copied from 'Dravidian' Tamil Nadu.
It is seldom understood in the rest of the country that 'Hindu revivalism' in the fourth quarter of the first millennium in these parts was the work of Tamil saints and savants, uninfluenced by Sanskritised poetry and culture, as elsewhere in the country.
Both Saivite Nayanmars and Vaishnavite Alwars traversed across the Tamil-speaking world, including neighbouring Sri Lanka, to propagate the religion through their rich poetry, often on local deities.
In the centuries that followed, Tamil poets added Lord Murugan to the pantheon along with Siva and Vishnu, after whom Saivism and Vaishnavism flourished.
If Saivities and Vaishnavites did have wordy duels on the relative supremacy of their faith once they had vanquished Jainism and Buddhism a thousand years ago, periodic debates have continued to the present-day, if Saivism was a part of Hinduism or had a stand-alone identity.
All this have kept the Tamil masses highly religious, independent of the socio-political perceptions elsewhere in the country through the past hundred-plus years of what is commonly referred to as 'Dravidian ideology' attributed to Periyar E V Ramaswami Naicker, EVR, with his anti-Hindu, anti-god, anti-Brahmin agenda.
However, most founders of the Justice Party progenitors of the 'Dravidian movement', were all practising Hindus and strong believers to boot.
That Periyar's ideology did not have many takers became known when the 'secular' Congress party contested the pre-Independence Madras Presidency council polls for the first time in 1937, and routed the dominant Justice Party.
Periyar took over the truncated Justice Party's leadership and later merged it in his own Dravidar Kazhagam (1943), from which was born the breakaway DMK in 1949.
When the Congress lost the elections in 1967, never to return to power thus far, it did not owe to god and religion, but to traditional anti-incumbency of the time.
The expansion of caste-based reservations scheme of the Justice Party government since the twenties, under the new Dravidian rulers since 1967, also helped ensure that they stayed put -- but real-life governance issues like corruption and lawlessness were the deciders.
It is for this reason that the BJP-RSS's hopes to reap electoral benefits from a non-existent 'god-centric' vote-bank, has never worked in the state.
That was also why their introducing street-corner annual Ganesh festivals since the eighties triggered political controversies without benefiting them electorally.
A stage came when the repulsive Tamil mood, combined with judicial directives and strict police enforcement ensured that those festivities became a pale substitute of themselves.
However, the BJP state unit under former chief L Murugan, now a Union minister, seemed to have comprehended the lacuna in perception, and began giving a non-Brahmin, Tamil tinge to political Hindutva as against the earlier Sanskritised packaging.
However, elections 2019 showed that his Vel Yathirai to various pilgrim centres of Lord Murugan, defying Covid norms, did not help.
Nor did the high-voltage BJP protests against poet-lyricist Vairamuthu for allegedly defaming Sri Andal, the only woman among the 12 Vaishnavite Alwars of yore.
The message was clear. That the 'Dravidian' Tamil voter, while being highly religious, it was purely personal to him, nothing political about it.
Now, the Varanasi Sangamam has also failed to connect with the Tamil masses in the state.
Even the 2,000-odd participants from Tamil Nadu, who have been travelling by special trains to Kasi for the month-long celebrations, are mostly RSS-BJP cadres.
That way, music maestro Illayaraja, who was criticised for accepting a nominated MP's post from the Modi government, was the only non-BJP person on the inaugural dais, whether from Tamil Nadu or elsewhere.
And that is saying a lot!
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com