After having successfully raised the political temperature in the cow belt, the VHP is now eyeing the South. After Bhojshala in MP, it is trying again to disrupt peace at Budangiri, one of the oldest Sufi shrines in South India, 270 km north of Bangalore. Last fortnight, VHP's latest mascot Praveen Togadia tested his vocal chords on the people of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. At a Hindu Youth Conference in Tiruchi, not many followed Togadia's linguistic acrobatics, nor did they seem to know much about the Somnath temple he was referring to—but there were 40,000 people listening for 12 hours to a phalanx of saffronites.
Togadia's next stops were Mangalore and Belgaum in Karnataka. A ban on his entry was obtained from the district courts after the ruling Congress slapped cases on him and six others for "fomenting enmity between two communities". However, the VHP moved the high court and got the ban lifted, ahead of Togadia's February 13 'Hindu Samajotsava' meeting in Mangalore. About 80,000 people participated and 16 seers from various maths attended the the VHP, RSS and Hindu Yuva Sena show.
In Tamil Nadu, the political climate has perceptibly changed in favour of the VHP's brand of politics. The aiadmk government's Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act has enthused the Sangh parivar. Togadia and VHP supremo Ashok Singhal have been frequenting Tamil Nadu since October 2002. VHP's Tamil Nadu general secretary R.S. Narayanaswami concedes that "Jayalalitha is definitely pro-Hindu". Now they are demanding a ban on cow slaughter and also that the management of all temples in the state be handed over to Hindus. "Only in the four southern states are temples managed by the state. In Tamil Nadu there are 36,000 temples under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department. It is only fair that Hindus control these temples," says Narayanaswami.
If the VHP could manage a massive crowd for its Tiruchi youth meeting, it is because the outfit, in tandem with the Hindu Munnani, has been actively taking up the cause of assertive Brahminism at the village level where they focus on temple maintenance and rituals. Says R.R. Gopal, state VHP youth wing president: "There's no youth movement in the state. The youth are unemployed and directionless. We tell the village youngsters to start with the temples. The temple tank must be desilted. Each temple must have a vrindavan (garden). Regular puja must be ensured. To raise consciousness on such issues, the VHP has 5,000 full-time cadre working in the villages."
To activate this strategy, the Grama Koil Pujari Peravai, a front for village temple priests, was formed in 1995. With 20,000 priests on the rolls, the VHP has organised 23 fortnightly camps and has trained over 3,000 pujaris till date.
The VHP concedes there are 12 different types of village deities with variations in rituals and forms of worship; their effort is to sanskritise this plurality. VHP zonal secretary R.B.V.S. Manian issued a puja and rituals manual in 1994—'A Manual for Simple Agama Puja'—which has had three reprints.
The 172-page manual abounds in rituals such as shuklambaradaram, Gayatri mantra and practices like pranayama. Says Tho Paramasivan, head of the Tamil department at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli: "While village deities have been traditionally worshipped during specific seasons, the VHP is forcing daily worship in these little temples. This amounts to Brahminical proselytisation."
To instil professional zeal among village priests, the VHP has also lobbied for a monthly pension. In 1995, it managed to ensure Rs 500 per month to 1,800 priests. In 2001, M. Karunanidhi increased the number of pensioners to 2,500. Recently, chief minister J. Jayalalitha bolstered it to 4,000.
In Karnataka, Togadia made a controversial visit in December 2002 to the Datta Jayanti celebrations in Chikmagalur. The VHP, cashing in on a legal dispute over the shrine (Baba Budangiri/Dattatreya peetha) between the state waqf board and the commissioner of Religious and Charitable Endowments since the '60s, projects Budangiri as "the Ayodhya of Karnataka". Togadia's demand: "The Datta peetha belongs to the Hindus and puja should be on Hindu lines."
This is in stark contrast to the pluralist ethos of the shrine, which has evolved through centuries of blending of the Dattatreya cult and Dada Hayat Qalandar, a Sufi dervish who wandered into Budangiri about 1,200 years ago. Togadia wants to undo all that. He said at Belgaum: "Osama bin Laden is ready to sacrifice his life for Islam. Why can't a Hindu youth do it for his religion?"
Says sociologist Yoginder Sikand: "Ironically, for the VHP, the early Dattatreya cult, which predated the Sufi intervention, was part of the anti-Brahminical avadhoot tradition upholding a formless god and condemning caste and the sacrificial religious system of the Brahmin priests."
The Sangh is experimenting with its one-dimensional strategy and hope that with a headstart on a communal plank, and the VHP as vanguard, the Congress and the hopelessly divided Janata Dal won't be in a position to hold their own in Karnataka. Before Budangiri, the parivar tried to create unrest in Hubli over the Idgah Maidan.
Says former VHP state chief Aerya Lakshminarayan Alva and an organiser of the Mangalore rally: "The rally was meant to unite all the Hindu sects. Some pro-Congress educationists also participated, and a large number of rural people turned up too."
While Karnataka, at least, tried to stop Togadia's inflammatory campaign, in Tamil Nadu, resistance against the Hindutva hardliners is almost non-existent. Karunanidhi, in a function to commemorate 90 years of the Dravidian movement, said in a rare moment of self-introspection: "If people like Togadia can issue such statements on Tamil soil, it reflects the bad shape the Dravidian parties are in today." But the same Karunanidhi as chief minister had inaugurated the Grama Koil Pujari Peravai's convention in March 2001.
Says academic A. Marx: "The leftists and secular forces aren't going to the masses whereas Hindutva forces are directly appealing to the popular consciousness. Issues which must be dealt with at the mass level are being addressed through petitions to the EC and the courts." Says M.H. Jawahirullah, president of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, who wants Singhal and Togadia booked under POTA: "The Tamil society has had a secular backbone. The values bequeathed by the Sangam tradition will help resist forces like the VHP."
Paramasivan feels the VHP's sectarian politics won't work in the long run. "For instance, in western Tamil Nadu, the backward castes will never step into a Madurai Veeran temple of the Dalits. At some stage, caste, an institution older than religion, will come in the way of this Hindu unity."
As of now, the VHP is trying to accommodate all castes. At the Tiruchi meeting, Brahmin pontiffs like Kanchi's Jayendra Saraswati and Srirangam's Andavan Rangaramanuja Mahadesigan shared the dais with math heads of various castes and cults—Vadalur Ooran Adigal of the Vanniyars, Swami Raghavananda of Tirunelveli representing the Dalits and Swami Ambicananda of the Ramakrishna Math, Thanjavur.
It's not clear whether Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are ready for high-voltage Hindutva. But Togadia, despite the language barrier, isn't going to give up in a hurry.
S. Anand And B.R. Srikanth
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