April 04, 2020
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Nihilipilified On The Hill: Sabarimala, Congress And The Pilgrim’s Regress

In its ‘Hindu Lite’ avatar, Congress has abdicated on one of the biggest issues of our times when it could have been of genuine use.

Nihilipilified On The Hill: Sabarimala, Congress And The Pilgrim’s Regress
Photograph by PTI
Nihilipilified On The Hill: Sabarimala, Congress And The Pilgrim’s Regress

Just the other week, Outlook had put up a museum wall or two of ‘TurnQuotes’. A light-hearted, illustrated gallery of people from politics and other fields (luminaries or otherwise) who had distinguished themselves by saying the exact opposite of what they had once said. Around the same time, we were blessed enough to be witnessing a spectacular mid-air pirouette by two political entities, neither of whom executed it with much balletic grace. It could have occasioned more mirth, had it not been a live issue that seems to be defining who we are as a people.

As a coda, our piece had Gandhi’s sage words on the virtues of changing one’s opinion if one see the truth to be contrary to it. The RSS-BJP had plenty occasion to turn around and quote Gandhi to justify its awe-inducing, yet not surprising, U-turn on Sabarimala. RSS ideologues like P. Parameswaran (and Sanjay ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi at the national level) were early votaries of women’s entry, its Malayalam mouthpiece Janmabhumi welcomed the Supreme Court verdict, as did the BJP’s central leaders.

But you could have bet your bottom demonetised rupee on what would happen next. Once the hullabaloo started, as a ‘Hindu’ party with one eye on the main chance, the BJP could scarcely be expected not to make a meal of a ‘Hindu issue’ falling plum on its platter. It needs no more rationalisation than to say, “We are Right and, ipso facto, whatever we do is right.”

The more spectacular and abject U-turn came from the Congress. In Delhi, Rahul Gandhi equivocated, citing the need to respect ‘local opinion’ in inner-party democracy. That’s a cute line, but it strains credulity and we must behold it critically. As he pursues an exhibitionist ‘Hinduism’ in national politics, seeking to be exonerated merely on the basis of his personal views on gender parity seems an evasive act of bad faith. Yet, given the history of racist/communal jibes he has endured, his discomfiture in this zone is understandable. He is more at ease talking about farmers and Rafale.

Who else, then? Overlook the local satraps with no visible trace on them of Kerala’s great century of the mind. (Their sole concern is to wrestle with each other for leverage in the stale confines of the state unit, within the larger frame of the party trying to battle off charges of minorityism.)

We are left with  ̶  you guessed right  ̶  the infinitely loquacious Shashi Tharoor. A man who’s never been accused of reticence, who pulled the fastest PhD out of his holster out West, still pulls 56-inch Etonian neologisms from his hat, and shoots the breeze with elan on everything from Empire to Hinduism, he went stunningly M.I.A. as one of modern Kerala’s biggest controversies raged around him.

As a cosmopolitan man of the world, with a connect to his good, god-fearing, savarna voters, he was perhaps uniquely placed to intercede here. Indeed, the world was watching too  ̶  the quaintly Oriental spectacle of male devotees disobeying a court order and barricading a deity against women had made headlines everywhere. And beyond media cliches, it was a true inflection point in Kerala’s own social history. But presented with a big stage, he fluffed his lines. Was it the thinness of those Stephanian debating skills showing through? Perhaps worse.

It was left to Pinarayi Vijayan to hold the burning torch. Now, even by the gradation of hues available in the Communist palette, Pinarayi would be an unlovely grey. Almost Soviet (if you could take that as an aesthetic quality), albeit one with an IMF advisor and an amusement park. More dour-faced commissar than a people’s man like VS; an area committee bossman, not an ideator for progressivism. Yet his by-now-famous speech was unimpeachable, referencing the evolution of religious beliefs and practices in Kerala.

Why was he able to do it? The vital difference, perhaps, is that he’s Bahujan. That allows him direct, lived access to a whole lineage of Hindu reformist thought in Kerala. A Tharoor could just as well quote Sree Narayana Guru, and with conviction, but it would be in terms of an abstract, humanist ideal grounded within Hinduism. His inbred elitism more or less ensures it would be open to charges of tokenism or caste guilt.

A Pinarayi, on the other hand, is a legatee whose lifeworld was touched positively by the remarkable opening up of Kerala’s caste-accursed social grid. That makes him fundamentally capable of speaking to a rainbow of communities whose historical memory of enforced (and often the most abject) deprivation is still alive. He thus partly surmounts the Communists’ theoretical aversion to caste as a category and their atheistic bias. Especially since temple entry was the precise point on which savarnas were ranged against a long line of social revolutionaries, ending with the Vaikom satyagraha.

But if you abstract the ‘devout Hindu’ as an ahistorical, casteless mass marked only by faith, Pinarayi is still vulnerable to being tainted as an ‘outsider’ in the eyes of the bhakt. And the core ideator of casteless Hinduism now is not a spiritual/social seer like Sree Narayana Guru but the savarna brains trust of Nagpur, which covets that ideal only so as to harvest those souls politically.

That’s why the Congress could have better filled that vacuum, of providing a thoughtful, progressive leadership to a people in dilemma, not alienating anyone, not talking abrasively, not talking at people, but initiating a conversation. 

A genuine engagement with the people  ̶  Hindus as well as those across confessional lines, who have no dearth of regressive elements. Looking hard, without pity, also at the savarna elitism written into the genetic code of so much of traditional Indian politics. If it had to be ‘Hindu’, that would have been the way to be it, while being simultaneously everything else.

The test of political intellect and leadership lay there. If one striking thing about the BJP’s Hindutva is its intellectual-spiritual poverty and its shallow tokenism (besides its capacity for violence), the way to counter it would have been to produce an alternative. Not to reproduce it. Tharoor the Sophist floccinaucinihilipilified spectacularly. And the party abdicated at the exact juncture when it could have genuinely been of use, when it could have spoken to the people and to its own history of ‘big tent’ politics, a space for conversation and negotiation, where Ayyankali and Ayyappa could have cohabited.

Instead, it participates in a politics based on turning women into the new avarnas.

Why references to caste in a dispute over gender? Because the resonances are unmistakable. That’s the underlying grammar of interchange in Indian social life. The inadmissibility of the mlechha. The logic comes into force not just across varna divisions, but across religious ones (Muslims are also mlechha)…and now gender. Look only at the video of a protester kicking down a hapless middle-aged woman who got caught in a jatha.


In an ideal world, it would have been one thing to behold a temple with its own specific, albeit complex and contrary, web of myth and say it’s a speciality. But the signs of popular anger stemming from a larger wave of reactionary misogynistic violence that seems to be sweeping modern Kerala are there for all to see.

Could a political intervention have worked? That’s the wrong question to ask. Doubtless, it would be difficult. But that is the primary onus on political leaders. To think through, and to find an honourable way beyond, the social tensions inevitably created by epochal changes such as brought by modernity.

Would anyone have listened? Well, there are always sane, rational people out there, those who live in the zone of overlaps, cooled by many shades. In Kerala too, such a social gene was created by a shared literacy and cultural commons. People capable of being alive to the history of Hinduism or Christianity or Islam, their complexities and cruelties, without losing their worshipful aspect. Or people who abstain from religion and yet are mindful of its place in the social imaginary, who can partake of the beauty it often creates and engage in a scholarly aware way with it.

The necessary ground for a persuasive politics is always there. Despite its recent regression  ̶  the eruption of a new kind of naked patriarchal violence is a sign of that  ̶  that constituency is not absent in Kerala.

That constituency is to be fostered, not left orphaned.

A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print

(The writer is managing editor, Outlook)

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