Dhaka, Bangladesh
Sabarimala politics

Off the track

Sabarimala politics

How a religious incantation has been transformed by the BJP into a political slogan in Kerala A new political slogan has come up since mobs took to the streets of Kerala opposing the Supreme Court verdict that allows women of all ages to offer prayers at the Sabarimala temple: “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa.” This metamorphosis of a religious incantation of devotees on the arduous trek to the hill shrine hints at the Hindu Right’s game plan to build a movement in Kerala akin to the one seeking a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Perhaps they hope it will spread across south India ahead of the Lok Sabha election. Sections of the Sangh Parivar believe that if the Ram Janmabhoomi movement helped the BJP gain a foothold in the Hindi heartland, the Ayyappa temple agitation will increase their influence in the south. The party’s Kerala unit president, P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, has already stated that the BJP is hopeful of increasing its tally in the Assembly “from one to 71” — the number of seats required for a majority. The strategy could have been devised considering the popularity of Ayyappa across southern States. The transformation of the Ayyappa incantation is strikingly similar to how the traditional, yet non-communal, greeting of “Ram Ram” in north India became the rabble rousing “Jai Shri Ram.” As historian K.N. Panikkar writes in Before the Night Falls: The Forebodings of Fascism in India, the “image of an angry Ram was implanted in the popular mind” through sustained ideological propaganda. “In contrast to his traditional tranquil, compassionate and benevolent image, Ram was depicted in posters and books circulated by the Sangh Parivar as riding a rath and pulling his bow string, the arrow poised to annihilate. In some pictures, he was carrying a trishul, a sword, and an axe.” The implication is that Ram is out for a fight to recover his place of birth. Similarly, the image of Ayyappa, popular in the devotees’ minds either as a brahmachari reposed in yogamudra or as a composed youth riding a tiger, holding a bow and with arrows slung over his shoulder, has been changed into one of an angry youth galloping on a tiger out to question the alleged “breach of customs” at his abode. Similar to how BJP leader L.K. Advani undertook a Rath Yatra, Mr. Pillai launched one from Maddur on the Kerala-Karnataka border up north to Pathanamthitta, the entry point to Sabarimala. According to observers of national politics, the BJP is not expecting a repeat of the 2014 performance in northern States in the 2019 elections. So, the plan could be to try to compensate for this loss from the south. Mr. Pillai has already made it clear that “the agitation will be expanded to other States.”

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