20071223

Guruvayur Orthodoxy

Old Folds And A Wrap-Around


Astrologers in Kerala insist Lord Krishna is miffed at devotees for not wearing saris. This has kicked off an uproar that includes many icons and Supreme Court intervention


KA SHAJI
Guruvayur

ORTHODOXY SEEMS to be gaining the upper hand over the rights of women devotees at the Sri Krishna Temple at Guruvayur, perhaps the most well-frequented temple in Kerala, more popular even than the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. The recent astrological “finding” that the presiding deity was angry at the relaxation in the dress code for women has led to a sharp drop in churidarclad women entering the temple. This is despite a historic decision by the temple administrative body, which includes representatives of the ruling Left Democratic Front government, to permit women in churidar and salwar-kameez to offer prayers at the temple. The decision was also endorsed by the Supreme Court.
More and more women are seen in saris at the Guruvayur temple these days, after the astrological exercise — the devaprasnam— held earlier this month found that the dress code relaxation did not go down well with the deity. According to the men, who inherit the right to manage the temple’s spiritual matters, women have voluntarily reverted to saris or the traditional half-sari while visiting the temple. Independent sources also confirm this even though the churidar, perceived to be a North Indian dress, is gaining popularity in Kerala.
The Guruvayur temple, whose main idol is believed to be over 5,000 years old, is known for its rigid traditions which include a stern rule requiring men to enter the temple barechested and clad only in a mundu (dhoti). The decision to allow the churidar was the only minor concession that those in favour of change were able to wrest from the temple authorities in decades.
However, women devotees chose not to celebrate the minor concession ever since the eight-day-long devaprasnam found that the Lord preferred women to come to the temple in traditional attire. Those who have visited the temple after the devaprasnam say there has been a drastic reduction in the number of churidar-clad women coming to the temple, though the temple board has not reversed its decision on the issue. A senior temple official said the wide media coverage the devaprasnam received could be the reason for women switching back to traditional dress.
“Despite the social reform movements of the last several decades, Guruvayur continues to remain obstreperously and obstinately orthodox in its ritualistic religiosity,’’ points out noted Malayalam writer P. Surendran. “If a non- Hindu gets a darshan of the Krishna here, the temple will be polluted and Krishna will need to take several baths. Of course, no Kerala temple permits entry for non-Hindus, despite the modernity, education and revolution Malayalis babble about.”
IT WAS not long ago that the thanthri (head priest) at Guruvayur conducted a punyaham or cleansing ritual after Union minister and prominent Congress leader Vayalar Ravi’s son’s marriage was conducted here. Ravi is an Ezhava, in official terms an OBC Hindu, belonging to the great tradition of the reformer Sri Narayana Guru. His wife Mercy, also a Congress worker and a former MLA, was born a Christian. Their children have been brought up as Hindus. But, for the thanthri, that was not pure enough. Guruvayur, so used to caving in to VIP bhakts, did not dare say no to the wedding and to the presence of Mercy, but did the next best thing: clean up after the act.
Kerala’s famous playback singer KJ Jesudas, born Christian, has still not been allowed to enter the temple even though he is a self-proclaimed devotee of Guruvayurappan. A recent statement by Devaswom Minister G. Sudhakaran that Jesudas should be allowed inside the shrine sparked a controversy that subsided only after Jesudas himself made it clear that he was not interested in worshipping at the temple if it hurt devotee sentiments.
These days one can hardly find a woman in a churidar in the temple. This seems a voluntary change and no one can alter the centuriesold temple rules,” says a close aide of the thanthri. This is happening despite almost all women’s groups in the state dubbing the devaprasnam as an attempt to revive conservative traditions.
Even Devaswom Minister Sudhakaran has come out in support of the women’s groups. “These astrologers create problems for their own selfish ends,” he says. Agrees noted poet and activist Sugathakumary, “There was no devaprasnam to ratify the decision of the then Travancore dynasty to open Guravayur for all Hindus irrespective of caste. We require changes in accordance with the times.’’
It was very recently that the Supreme Court dismissed a petition challenging a Kerala High Court order that upheld the decision to allow churidar and salwar in Guruvayur. Manoj V. George, counsel for devotee K. Mohandas, argued in the apex court that the Guruvayur Devaswom Managing Committee had no right to interfere in spiritual matters. Rejecting the argument that tradition should be preserved, Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan asked the counsel, “Do you know that women were not allowed to cover the upper part of their body? It was only after a revolution that they were allowed to cover the upper part of their body, so should we go back to that practice?”
Commentators feel the dress code in Guruvayur has no meaning at all. “The images we have of the goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati are different from those of the temple goddesses. They are actually based on the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, which became familiar to us through calendars” points out veteran journalist BRP Bhaskar. “Ravi Varma stayed in Pune so the goddesses are dressed like the Marathi women of his time. Orthodox elements castigated him for dressing them up in the sari. If he had stayed in Kerala and painted Lakshmi and Saraswati, they might have been wearing the mulakkachcha (the breast cloth”, then worn by the aristocratic women of Travancore). Theatre, cinema and television serials have shaped the images of Krishna and Rama which we now cherish.”
However, prominent women in Kerala are in favour of a ban on the churidar in temples. Athlete PT Usha, movie star Navya Nair and poet OV Usha are among them.

Issac Communism

It's The Economy, Comrade


With CPM neo-liberals led by Finance Minister Thomas Isaac gaining ascendancy in the state, party old-timers and allies claim they are being denied funds. KA SHAJI reports


KERALA FINANCE Minister TM Thomas Isaac’s attempts at emerging as some kind of “super chief minister” has once again brought the factionalism within the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala to the fore. The CPM’s coalition partners say the Finance Ministry is denying funds for several projects while at the same time pushing for loans from international agencies a la Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Isaac is known to be close to CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan.And therefore anathema to Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan.
Agriculture Minister and CPI leader Mullakkara Ratnakaran is peeved by the fact that the Finance Department is not sanctioning funds sought for a prestigious crop insurance programme (Kisansree). The minister demanded that the programme be implemented throughout the state and the premium be paid in full by the government. Funds for that had been budgeted. However, Isaac maintained that the programme could be carried out only on a pilot basis. The premium rates were high and coverage was not properly targeted, he argued. Isaac’s public criticisms of Ratnakaran angered CPI heavyweight Veliyam Bhargavan and RSP leader T. Chandrachoodan.
Other departments, especially the Public Works Department under the Kerala Congress, are also miffed at the Finance Department’s withholding of funds. Kerala Congress leader PJ Joseph voiced this criticism in the open. The Transport Department under Janata Dal (MP Veerendra Kumar faction) wants the government to shoulder the pension obligations of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation but Isaac is not willing to commit funds.
CPI minister C. Divakaran was irked that allocations for the Civil Supplies Corporation were not sufficient. Power tariffs in the state have gone up because the Finance Minister is not willing to extend subsidy. There are restrictions on spending by local self-government bodies. The promise of “one-rank one-pension” for government employees is also in limbo. The Finance Department points out that the amount at its disposal is limited.
“We must have a deep introspection. There would have been no power tariff hike if the LDF had been in the opposition, as it would have resisted any such effort using tooth and nail. But who can we now blame for the poor condition of roads?’’ asked Veerendra Kumar in a recent party meeting. According to RSP All-India General secretary K. Pankajakshan, the Finance Department has been a big failure in revenue collection.
In the latest run-in with the so-called hardliners in the state, Isaac fell out with CPM ideologue and Kerala’s Planning Board vicechairman Prabhat Patnaik. The Marxist economist stayed away from an international conference — “Kerala People’s Plan Revisited”— organised at the behest of Isaac in Thiruvananthapuram on December 14-15. The absence assumes significance as the “people’s plan” is being trumpeted as the biggest achievement of Isaac and his CPM friends Education Minister MA Baby and Pinarayi Vijayan. According to CPM sources, it were ideological differences that kept Patnaik away from the seminar. The conference, attended by “liberal” party members including Minister Paloli Mohammedkutty and Planning Board member CP Narayanan, was boycotted by Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan too.
“We had invited the chief minister to inaugurate the conference. But he said he wouldn’t be in the city as party conferences were going on,” explained an organiser. But Achuthanandan was in Thiruvananthapuram on December 14 when former Planning Board vice-chairman V. Ramachandran inaugurated the seminar. An invite to the conference was also extended to Prabhat Patnaik. “But Patnaik said he would be away in New Delhi conducting exams for JNU students,” the organiser said. In fact, Patnaik was also in Thiruvananthapuram on the inaugural day, delivering a lecture organised by the Kerala University Union very close to the seminar venue. Planning Board member and liberal JNU economist Prof Abhijit Sen, widely seen as Patnaik’s rival, was the chief guest on the opening day of the conference.
This is not the first time Isaac and Patnaik are at loggerheads. While Patnaik is a Keynesian advocate of State spending and is close to Achuthanandan, Isaac’s worldview is closer to the neo-liberal CPM lobby in West Bengal headed by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya.
ISAAC COURTED controversy soon after becoming the Finance Minister by pushing forward a proposal by the earlier Congress government to avail a Rs 1,200 crore loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for the controversial Kerala Sustainable Urban Development Project (KSUDP). The CPM had opposed the loan when it was in the opposition saying the loan came with anti-people clauses. Isaac won the nod for going ahead with the loan from the CPM Politburo even as Achuthanandan and Patnaik expressed strong reservations. Isaac had the last laugh when the government was forced to accept the loan.
However, now it seems that the urban development project has failed to take off as established contractors have refused to respond to tenders for construction work. While there was no response to the tender notices issued by the Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam and Kochi municipal corporations to upgrade and repair city roads, just one contractor submitted the tender for the work in the Thrissur and Kozhikode corporations. The same fate befell the tender notice for implementing solid waste management projects in Kollam, Thrissur and Kozhikode. The notification was issued in October and the deadline was the third week of November.
“The criteria were fixed as per ADB guidelines, according to which the applicant should have a turnover of 80 percent of the estimate of the project in the three years prior to the year of application,” said a top KSUDP official.
At a CPM meeting recently, Patnaik said the idea that development should be above politics was an imperialist concept being promoted to destroy political activities. Development activities should benefit the people, he said. The statement was seen as a counter to Isaac’s “apolitical development” theory. Patnaik, who took charge of the state planning commission soon after the LDF came to power, fell out with Isaac as soon as he insisted that the focus of the annual plan must be on the agricultural sector than on infrastructural development.
Achuthanandan has also expressed reservations on Isaac’s mode of functioning. “An excessive loading of local self government institutions (LSGIs) with responsibilities and resources may well lead to their outsourcing the decision-making processes to private consultants, which defeats the very objective of democratic decentralisation,” he warned at a recent international seminar on federalism.
“Squeezing the state governments from both ends, from the Centre on the one side, and the LSGIs on the other, will bode ill for our federal structure,” he added. However, Isaac continues to grow powerful within the party through his proximity to Vijayan, despite having earned the wrath of almost all LDF constituents. As the ongoing organisational polls in the CPM point to an easy victory for the Pinarayi faction, Isaac’s hold on decision making would be further strengthened. He is also trying his luck to enter the party Politburo with the support of the Bengal lobby.

20071215

Now, CPM Grabs Land In Kerala

Chinnakanal Communism


CPM cadre ‘liberate’ villages from agitating landless tribals by burning down their shelters. The reason? The tourism lobby wants the land

KA SHAJI
Chinnakanal

BUDDHADEB BHATTACHARYA may be a happy man now. The West Bengal chief minister’s Nandigram version of Marxian socialism is gaining ground even in the remote villages of Kerala’s Idukki district, where CPM State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan’s comrades are engaged in a battle to protect the land mafia and the illegitimate interests of tourism entrepreneurs. Facing the assault are poor tribals, who are being kicked out of land they’ve occupied for centuries.
While the CPM’s new-found acquisitiveness vis-à-vis tribal land has been exposed in Chinnakanal and Anayirankal villages, located close to the hill station of Munnar, the party’s neoliberal leaders Pinarayi Vijayan, TM Thomas Issac and MA Baby have unleashed their local hooligans in an all-out bid to capture the Idukki unit. Idukki was until recently a citadel of Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, who had initiated stern measures to evict big land encroachers. But the encroachers proved to be powerful enough to win over both the CPI and the CPM in the area, and Achuthanandan has lost his grip over his stronghold as a result.
A thousand-strong CPM brigade virtually invaded 53 acres of government land in Chinnakanal in end-November and forcibly removed about 160 families of landless tribals who had set up their huts there some months ago, following a government assurance that they would get land in the area. Their huts were reduced to ashes and red party flags were hoisted over the remains, signalling the “liberation” of the land. As the hapless Adivasis took shelter under a huge rock nearby, the CPM men completed the “anti-encroachment” drive by building their own sheds on the property.
Though the eviction of the Adivasis was limited only to Anayirangal and Pappathichola villages on the first day, the next day the CPM lumpens took control of almost all the revenue land under the Chinnakkanal village panchayat by hoisting red flags. The exercise on the second day was carried out by about 2,000 cadre. The Adivasis are now in a difficult situation as they have nowhere to go after losing their newly-constructed huts to the Communist onslaught. The CPM men are still guarding their “liberated territory” even as the police and district administration turn a blind eye.
The tribal families, who had pitched tents on 1,500 acres allotted to Hindustan Newsprint Limited years ago for a eucalyptus plantation at Chinnakkanal, were caught unawares as the CPM cadre staged their takeover operation. The newsprint company was not using the land anymore and the entire stretch had, in fact, originally belonged to the tribals.
The tribals had earned the CPM’s wrath ever since they threatened to recover the land and not leave until the government honoured its promise to distribute the land to lanless Adivasi families. Tribal families had occupied the land under the banner of the Adivasi Punaradhivasa Samrakshana Samithy (the Tribal Rehabilitation Protection Committee).

“It is a Nandigram in the making. Who empowered these CPM men to evict Adivasis from land earmarked to be distributed to them? Why are they not allowing the judiciary and their own government to implement the rule of the land? It is a clear case of the party using muscle power to encroach on public land and prepare it for transfer to the land mafia,’’ says noted tribal leader CK Janu.
Though CPI leader and state Revenue Minister KP Rajendran responded soon after the CPM action in Chinnakanal, saying all encroachers would be expelled immediately irrespective of party affiliations and that orders to this effect had been issued to the district administration, no action against the CPM land-grabbers has been taken so far. KM Ramanandan, head of the special task force for evicting the land-grabbers in Munnar, held an all-party meeting on the issue but this too produced no results.
ACCORDING TO agitating tribals and social workers in the region, the CPM is determined not to allow transfer of the land in Chinnakanal to the Adivasis. “This can lead to a Muthanga-like situation if the authorities do not take stern action immediately,” says Ponnambalam, a landless Adivasi who is spearheading the resistance against the CPM in Chinnakanal. Muthanga
had seen the worst-ever police action against Adivasis in the history of Kerala when Adivasis in the northern Wayanad district had put up huts in the forest after the AK Antony-led UDF government failed to distribute land to them as promised. An Adivasi and a policeman were killed in the police action in February 2003, and several tribals injured. Those Adivasis are
yet to get their promised land.

“The aim of the Marxists is to prove that the Adivasis are not entitled to the land. As they are in power, they can easily provide false papers to support their claim and use force to expel us from our land. Once this is done, they can freeze distribution of this land and hand it over to the land mafia,” Ponnambalam says.

The revenue minister told TEHELKA that all the agitating Adivasis would be given land and that all encroachers would be expelled irrespective of the colour of the hoisted flags (the Marxists allege that even Congressmen have hoisted flags there). But this would not be easy in the prevailing circumstances in Chinnakkanal panchayat. Observers say that even if a temporary withdrawal of the CPM cadre takes place, awarding of land to Adivasis will not be smooth. “The CPM has already put forward the argument that only 21 of the 120 Adivasis who put up sheds are entitled to the land. It will be easy for the CPM to call for a review of the offer letters issued to the Adivasis, which in turn would ensure a delay sufficient for carrying out the party agenda,” says TC Rajesh, a journalist from the region.
The tribals had been provoked to put up shelters on the land because of a deal struck between the Chief Minister AK Antony and tribal leader CK Janu some years ago. At a grand function, Antony had distributed title-deeds to 798 tribal families but only 540 of them got the land in Chinnakanal. The rest found the land allotted to them under occupation of big land sharks.

“These poor people had waited for more than five years for their land. The government has forced them to resort to direct action,” says tribal solidarity leader CP Shaji.
Local CPM leaders allege that the Congress and the CPI have instigated the tribals to occupy the land so they could grab it themselves once the dust settles.
However, the district collector has already sent a report to the government saying that most of the government land in Chinnakanal is under the illegal possession of CPM leaders. The collector has also confirmed that a lobby of tourism resort promoters, which has on its side a former district collector, is behind the push to usurp tribal land.

“The village is a prime tourism spot which shares its border with the Mathikettan national park and the hill station of Munnar. The land in dispute is also close to the picturesque Anayirankal dam. The real estate mafia feels it can be developed to fetch
large profits,” says Rajesh.


20071212

DEAD DRUNK

KERALA'S ALCOHOLISM



K A Shaji
Thiruvananthapuram


``WHAT ARE you going to do this evening?” asks Malayalam cinema’s superstar Mohanlal on hoardings and in television advertisements. A glassful of ice cubes in hand and the logo of a liquor brand in the background,the actor exhorts his fellow Malayalis to make their evenings merry and heady.

It may be ironical that Keralites accepted Mohanlal’s incarnation as the brand ambassador of a liquor brand when they forced another superstar (Mammooty) to withdraw from being the Coca-Cola brand ambassador. And this is happening amidst a growing clamour by conservative groups demanding prohibition as the remedy to all ills plaguing the state. But neither the church nor the Jamat-e-Islami voiced any concern when Mohanlal’s huge hoardings sprouted everywhere.

When contacted, Mohanlal defended his appearing in the surrogate ad. “I am not the first actor to do such a commercial. I am surprised that those who have come out against the advertisement have not spoken a word on the endorsements I have done for AIDS prevention, Southern Railways and on social issues. Have they ever complimented me for that? I have done inebriated scenes in films and have received compliments for them. Many fail to realise that liquor in Kerala is the biggest revenue earner for the government. Will the government stop the sale of liquor to curb alcoholism?”

Mohanlal’s reaction demonstrates that the state’s soft spot for liquor has not been affected even after then CM AK Antony banned the manufacture and sale of arrack and imposed a 200 percent tax on Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) a decade ago. Successive governments have stuck to the status quo fearing loss of women’s votes and wrath of fundamentalist groups. As a result, liquor is still expensive.

However, the growing addiction to liquor is not really a rosy picture. Data from the State Beverages Corporation indicate that liquor consumption is expected to touch an all-time record of Rs 3,700 crore this year. According to the Kerala Economic Review 2006, 72 percent of the 42,365 road accidents — which claimed 3,203 lives and injured 51,127 — can be attributed to drunken driving. There is a suicide every hour, half of them linked to alcoholism. Also, Kerala’s suicide rate is 28 persons per lakh population, more than double the national average of 11. But such warnings and anti-alcohol campaigns seem to be landing on deaf ears.

Three people died after drinking hooch during Onam festivities this year. The sale of IMFL during Onam touched an all-time high of Rs 144.48 crore as against Rs 126.75 crore during the same period last year. Traditionally, drinking was never an integral part of this harvest festival, but of late rum and whisky have become a common feature like payasam.

An especially alarming aspect has been the number of teenagers taking to alcohol. According to the Kerala Economic Review, the average age of those beginning to drink in 1986 was 19 — by 1990 it dropped to 17 and by 1994 the age was 14. The 21-40 age group is also the one that accounts for the maximum number of suicides in the state.

HIGH LEVELS of consumption mean added revenue for the exchequer. Which is why successive state governments have not addressed the problem. No other public sector undertaking has been a success quite like the Kerala Beverages Corporation. In 1984, when it was formed, the corporation’s annual sales were of Rs 55.46 crore. Last year, they were Rs 3,143 crore. Of this, Rs 2,424 crore went as excise and other taxes. The cheapest IMFL brand costs Rs 300 for a 750 ml bottle.

Social scientists discern more factors behind the Malayali’s obsession with the bottle. Though unemployment levels are high, even those who are not working have access to disposable income.

Remittances from abroad are often squandered back home. If one asks those who storm the cheaper bars as soon as they open, they will typically say that they have nothing else to do.

But it’s not the unemployed alone who hit the bottle with a vengeance.

Health activists say drinking has become a way of life, spurred on by images in advertisements and Malayalam cinema. Adinad Sasi, theatre person and a founder-member of the Kerala Alcohol Consumers Welfare Forum, says an alcoholic is a major taxpayer and the government must take care of his family’s welfare if he dies drinking.