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Is Faith Above Science?

August 09, 2023 17:56 IST

Against the backdrop of Kerala's appetite for commonsense, it was assumed that this controversy would pass.
Respect for rationalism and scientific outlook is strong in the state despite political forces gnawing at it for their own goals, observes Shyam G Menon.

IMAGE: A Shiv Sena worker with a Lord Ganesha idol protests outside the Kerala secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, August 2, 2023, demanding an apology from Kerala Speaker A N Shamseer. Photograph: ANI Photo

"Didn't you break coconuts today?" my friend asked.

It was August 2, 2023. I was back in Thiruvananthapuram after a break and hadn't kept abreast of local news. My friend brought me up to speed.

Earlier in July, addressing a gathering at a school in Ernakulam, the speaker of the Kerala assembly, A N Shamseer, had alluded to Hindutva forces trading science for mythology.

An instance he cited of the Hindutva brigade positioning the Hindu deity Ganapathy as proof of plastic surgery known that far back in India, kicked up a controversy.

Another example cited in this context, that of the pushpaka vimanam representing human flight, also irked the faithful.

By the beginning of August, the Bharatiya Janata Party's state unit was demanding the speaker's apology.

Although the BJP wishes otherwise, in Kerala, the political preference of the Hindus has never been consolidated under one party.

With plenty of Hindus voting for the Communist parties and the Congress, what the BJP is used to calling the 'majority vote' is split between these parties and the BJP.

The political Right currently has no elected representative from the state in the assembly or the Lok Sabha. It speaks of its following.

True to its number-crunching approach to political domination, some time ago the BJP made overtures to the largest caste within the Hindu community in Kerala.

Electoral benefits from that move, are yet to manifest.

Same time, the second biggest caste from Kerala's Hindu community -- the Nairs -- had treaded carefully, avoiding explicit alignment with the BJP.

The Nair Service Society (NSS) has a presence in the field of education in Kerala.

The measured approach of the NSS to politics, is a widely noted trait; one that fetched it respect even among its critics.

Following the speaker's remarks, the NSS too expressed unhappiness triggering speculation that political undercurrents of the Right-Wing sort, were afoot.

Between the controversial remarks and the NSS articulating its stance, there was a time-gap.

Some say, this was because the NSS response was compelled by disapproval for the speaker's remarks building up gradually in its rank and file.

IMAGE: Kerala Speaker A N Shamseer, right, and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan await Governor Arif Mohammad Khan's arrival at the assembly in Thiruvananthapuram, January 23, 2023, on the first day of the Budget session. Photograph: Shrikant Singh/ANI Photo

On August 2, quoted G Sukumaran Nair, general secretary of the NSS, as saying, 'Shamseer is not entitled to continue in his current position after his remarks. He should withdraw the comments that hurt the sentiments of believers and apologise. Faith comes above science.'

That day, an NSS prayer march was taken out in Thiruvananthapuram as protest against the speaker's remarks.

The police booked more than 1,000 people who took part in it reportedly on grounds of unlawful assembly.

The following evening, there was news of senior functionaries of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad meeting Sukumaran Nair at the NSS headquarters in Perunna.

Among the styles of protest recommended against the speaker's remarks, was that NSS workers visit Ganapathy temples.

My friend's reference to breaking coconuts stemmed from the widespread ritual of breaking coconuts as an offering to Ganapathy, something he and I had done on several occasions when growing up in Thiruvananthapuram.

He knew and I knew, that back then, it was Ganapathy who counted, not any communal or political posturing.

Things have been changing since the BJP launched its pursuit of political clout in the state.

Ahead of the 2019 general elections, there had been the issue of women of all ages being permitted on the pilgrimage to Shabarimala.

The opposition to it from the faithful and the controversy the issue caused was expected to have an indirect impact on the BJP's growth.

In Kerala, small swings can decide victory or failure in elections.

The BJP garnered a vote share of 15 per cent in Kerala in the 2019 elections (source: Wikipedia) but it didn't win a single Lok Sabha seat.

The question now asked (as indeed after any such controversy) is whether the disapproval for the speaker's remarks, may hold political mileage.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist, to which the Kerala speaker belongs, ruled out the need for an apology. One can't spare the Communists a close inspection.

IMAGE: Kerala Kshetra Samrakshana Samithi supporters march to the Kerala secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, July 26, 2023, demanding state Assembly Speaker A N Shamseer's resignation for his controversial comment on Hindu gods. Photograph: ANI Photo

More than one person I spoke to felt that the relevance of rationalism and scientific temperament in education may be established without highlighting and disapproving in public, regressive, stances adopted by others.

Besides, do you mention the unscientific views propagated by a brand of insular (often violent) politics before an audience that includes school students?

Not to mention -- for no fault of theirs -- some from the audience and those seeing the proceedings later on media, may belong to the same community, from which a section indulged the cited unscientific attitude.

They have nothing to do with those directly responsible for perpetuating the unscientific spin but the embarrassment hits all.

Expectedly, the speaker's statement provoked a larger number of people within the community concerned and in turn, the speaker became viewed through the prism of his own faith and community.

Such backlash is natural in our frustrating season of whataboutism. It could have been avoided.

Plus, unlike what the Left Democratic Front may think of itself, its style of politics and functioning as showcased by the second Pinarayi Vijayan government, has been losing fans in Kerala. Allegations of insensitivity therefore tend to stick.

Like it or not, through those remarks at the school in Ernakulam, the CPI-M gifted an issue on a platter to the BJP.

Against the backdrop of Kerala's appetite for commonsense, it was assumed that this controversy would hopefully pass.

Some believed that given science is not a pushover in the state, it would be incorrect to assume that all Nairs would support Sukumaran Nair's view of faith being above science.

Respect for rationalism and scientific outlook is strong in the state despite political forces gnawing at it for their own goals.

On August 3, The Hindu reported the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad stating, educated sections would have no doubts that Shamseer's views were objective, scientific and in tune with Constitutional provisions.

On August 6, Press Trust of India informed that the NSS had decided to seek legal remedy over the speaker's remarks. It also moved the Kerala high court seeking to quash the case filed against its members who participated in the August 2 protest march in Thiruvananthapuram.

K B Ganesh Kumar, a former minister and an MLA from the Kerala Congress (B), who attended the NSS board meeting that took the above decision, lauded the outcome as a dignified one.

The Kerala Congress (B) is an ally of the CPI-M. Meanwhile, the CPI-M had been doing its share of correcting remarks. M V Govindan, the state secretary of the CPI-M, was originally reported referring to the deity as a myth but later said he hadn't done so.

On August 5, The Times of India reported that Govindan's new stance had been welcomed by the Congress; its state chief, V D Satheesan said the party had stayed quiet on the controversy to avoid escalation.

The question in times of the BJP trying to improve its position in Kerala by hook or crook is -- just how much more does each controversy of this sort add to the party's acceptance or subtract from it?

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/