20080627

Kerala Godmen and Godwomen


Devil's Work In God's Name


A crackdown on godmen in Kerala reveals the dark side of the multi-crore faith industry, reports KA SHAJI


MALAPPURAM IN north Kerala is the land of the Thangals, upper-class Muslims known for their belief in black magic and obscurantist healing techniques. That they flourish in Kerala, a state synonymous with a high literacy rate and rich rationalist tradition, is no contradiction, for tantriks and godmen of all faiths are as at home here as the die-hard stalwarts of the CPM. The Thangals were propelled into acrimonious limelight last month when a Congress leader, film producer Aryadan Shoukath, demanded an investigation into their practices, thus running afoul of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). The IUML is simultaneously the Congress’ biggest ally in Kerala and its toughest rival for Muslim votes. It is also headed by high-profile healing practitioner Panakkad Mohammed Ali Shihab Thangal; Shoukath’s demand was seen as a direct challenge to his authority. Tempers flared on either side and Sonia Gandhi had to send an emissary from Delhi for damage control.

With the IUML warning the Left against any investigations into the Thangals, the issue is likely to die down. A probe, however, could yield startling, if not ugly, results. Only last month, a bemused Kerala watched the arrest of Santhosh Madhavan aka Amruta Chaitanya Viswachaitanya, the Kochi-based godman with three underage rape complaints against him and an Interpol red-corner notice for fraud. Then there was Himaval Maheswara Bhadranandaji, who made the news for predicting future of many and massing wealth through illegal means. According to police data, there are over 350 ‘spiritual leaders’ in the state with criminal records. At least a dozen of these persons are said to be engaged in illegal hawala transactions in the Gulf countries. Other crimes range from the benami purchase of land for VIPs, the making and distribution of pornographic films and the rape of minor girls.

To these people, spirituality is just a cover to engage in unlawful activities,” observes Jacob Punnoose, Additional Director General of the Kerala police. “They cash in on people’s insecurities and get rich overnight.”

But the police in Kerala are also the target of public ridicule for themselves patronising godmen. A senior police officer was suspended for his involvement in Madhavan’s illegal dealings; a woman IPS officer is also among Madhavan’s devotees. Bhadranandaji’s arrest created a flutter when he threatened to shoot himself with a pistol at a police station — a circle inspector and six of his immediate subordinates were suspended for allowing him to attempt suicide on the station premises. “The regular clients of these godmen with criminal backgrounds include politicians, film stars, bureaucrats and business men,” says writer P. Surendran. He also says that these nobody dares to touch the fraudsters as they are well-connected with even the administration and the police sanctioning privileges for them that are normally reserved only for VIPs.

The crimes are not restricted to the godmen alone. Matha Prasanna, from Kollam district in south Kerala, was arrested recently in connection with a visa fraud. She had taken money from several persons by promising them work visas in Gulf countries. In the course of the raid conducted at her house and prayer home, the police uncovered bank passbooks and documents of land transactions.

Another prominent woman ‘oracle’ now under arrest is Swamini Divya Joshi of the Rudrath Vishnumaya Ashramam in Thrissur. According to police sources, 36-year-old Divya had often provided semi-nude ‘darshan’ to devotees, including males. The police found incriminating documents pertaining to unaccounted money during a raid conducted at her ashram following a complaint from a woman. The complainant in her petition had alleged that Divya Joshi had promised to cure her by performing poojas. Accordingly, the woman had paid Divya Joshi Rs 44,700 for the conduct of the poojas in December last year. But, unsurprisingly, she continued to suffer from her disease despite the poojas.

Several other godmen, including a Christian, are in the police list. Among them are Pastor Sam Kuzhikala, who is facing a nonbailable warrant for issuing fake cheques; Siddhan Kattachira, who cheated his devotees; and Swami Sunil Das, who amassed crores by using his access to VVIPs. All of them are under police watch. “Kerala is now besieged by godmen and women who are widely patronised by political leaders, which gives legitimacy to the superstitions surrounding them,” says historian KN Panikkar. He feels that the crisis-ridden middle class is drawn to spiritual retreat so as to escape the pressures of a ‘globalised’ life. “The resulting social hegemony of religious discourse legitimises religious social division. Consequently, Hindus, Muslims and Christians have emerged as separate entities, not only in their personal and domestic lives, but also in social existence,” observes Panikkar.

According to psychiatrist PM Mathew of Vellore, insecurity is the driving force that forces people into the hands of godmen. “The craze for easy money and the fear of losing illegally amassed money are forcing many to look for superstitions,” says Mathew.

The official drive against godmen, hitherto restricted to Hindu swamis, is now providing sleepless nights to certain self-appointed evangelists as well. A high-profile evangelist in Thiruvalla in south Kerala is currently under pressure to explain an “unaccounted” amount of Rs 900 crore his trust received from the US. Bishop KP Yohannan has been under the watch of police for having received funds from the Texas-based Gospel for Asia for the past 12 years. The police claim that a trust closely held by Yohannan and his relatives had received Rs 1,044 crore for charity from a Texas body since 1995, but spent only Rs 144 crore on such purposes.

“I am not against spiritual leaders. But I cannot accept a situation where only the small fish are caught and the big sharks are allowed to roam free. There should be an inquiry into the backgrounds of these leaders and their sources of income,” says writer-activist Dr Sukumar Azhikode.

AZHIKODE DEMANDS a thorough probe even into the assets of Kerala’s popular “hugging saint”, Mata Amritanandamayi. According to him, the government drive against godmen will have no meaning if it fails to include the Mata and Shihab Thangal. Azhikode’s open demand has irked the Mata’s devotees, and he is now receiving abusive phone calls and threats to his life. A group of progressive writers in Kerala recently launched a forum to counter the attacks against Azhikode from Mata’s followers.

TN Jayachandran, former additional chief secretary of Kerala, feels that fake swamis surface due to the degeneration of society in general. “Godmen make their presence felt because those who have power and money search for temporary peace through them,” says Jayachandran. The godmen, he says, in turn exploit these high-profile people to expand their base and fame.

E. Joy, a Thiruvananthapuram-based doctor, said he was pained to see literate Kerala succumbing to the godmen phenomenon. “These godmen will not have any significance if people don’t go after instant peace and comfort,” noted Joy. He also observed that in a fastmoving world, where money occupies the highest place, many think that there are shortcuts to achieving peace and comfort, and that was the secret of the godmen’s success. •

20080621

State Of Denial

Kerala's new untouchables


Across Kerala’s schools, HIV-positive children face a tough time in their quest for education.

KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram and Kottayam

BENCY AND BENSON came into the media spotlight five years ago when their quest for an education became a national question mark. Born to HIV-positive parents in Kerala’s Kollam district, the two children, ages 7 and 5 respectively, were in the care of their maternal grandparents after their parents died. When five schools refused them admission because they, too, were HIV-positive, their grandfather joined them in a day-long fast outside then Kerala Chief Minister AK Antony’s office. Antony intervened and got them admitted to a school on the outskirts of Kollam town. However, parents of other students protested, and stopped sending their wards to school. Finally, then President APJ Abdul Kalam intervened and on his direction the Kerala education department appointed teachers to conduct classes for Bency and Benson at their home at government expense.

In Kerala, Bency and Benson’s story is typical in everything but its ending. With its claim of 100 percent literacy, Kerala has no room in its schools for children with HIV. AIDS orphans as many of them are, disowned and ostracised by their families and the community at large, these children are becoming the state’s new untouchables.

Nine-year-old Sathyasai Jyothi was born with the virus. Ashakiran, a Kottayam-based home for women and children with HIV, took her in after she was orphaned. With her fourth standard examinations behind her, she gained admission this year to Class V in a government high school at Pampady near Kottayam. The school’s parent-teacher association reacted with a “unanimous resolution” against her admission and threats to withdraw their wards. When the headmistress refused to relent, protest marches and dharnas followed. Irked, the Ashakiran authorities decided not to send Jyothi to the school, which, ironically, was built in memory of the revolutionary writer, Ponkunam Varkey, a man who devoted his life to fighting prejudice.

This is not the first time Jyothi’s HIV-positive status has put her in the glare of cruel controversy. Ashakiran has three other HIVpositive children, all of them younger than Jyothi and studying at the Mar Dionysius Lower Primary School (MDLPS) in Pampady. After a World AIDS Day story on the children in a local newspaper, parents clustered at the school, demanding they be expelled. The state government and the state AIDS Control Society stepped in with an awareness campaign that roped in state Health Minister PK Sreemathy and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. The parents remained adamant. Finally, it took family-by-family interventions by Education Minister MA Baby and social activist Sukumar Azhikode for the children to stay in school.

But after they finish Class IV, they will also have to face the same discrimination Jyothi has. Indeed, it is likely they already do. “The teachers tell the other children not to play with me. I sit all alone at school in a separate classroom,” one said, under promise of secrecy.

HIV/AIDS volunteers here can recount any number of instances where HIVpositive students have had trouble at their schools. “The sad plight of these children is perhaps symptomatic of the new forms of exclusion in Kerala society, one which has fought many battles to rid itself of social evils such as untouchability,” opines J. Devika of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram. “Today, beyond the immediate concerns of the political discourse, HIV-positive persons and their children are victims of an emerging social disorder.” She says that attempts at reintegration have at best been cosmetic, and when local social and political pressures are activated, as happened at Pampady, the outcome may be disconcerting.

Benson and Bency’s circumstances, meanwhile, are truly difficult now. Their grandfather died two years ago, and the family has no source of income apart from their grandmother’s pension. Bency was admitted to Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital two months ago. Someone told local television channels that she had died. Nearly all of them ran with the story straight away, and Bency got to watch her death’s “breaking news” on a television set in her ward. In a life shattered by loss,a hairline crack more. •


20080614

In Hate Country


In communist-ruled Kerala, a district continues to pay in blood for decades of communal strain


KA SHAJI
Kasargod


ON APRIL 14 this year, Kasargod, like the rest of Kerala, was given over to a day of festivities for Vishu, the Malayalam New Year. At sundown, however, began a nightmare that this region, which borders Karnataka’s communally volatile Dakshina Kannada district, is yet to fully recover from. A car full of festival revellers was passing through Kasargod town when one of them chose to get down near the main bus stand to urinate. The bus stand is not far from a mosque; all those in the car were BJP supporters. When a passerby objected to the man’s urinating so near a place of worship, an altercation resulted. A crowd gathered and after the BJP men left, five people followed them and stabbed one. Sandeep Kumar, the 24-year-old victim, died on the way to hospital.

Though the police arrested three of the five attackers within the hour and promised to nab the remaining two by the next evening, the BJP called a district-wide strike the following day. The hartal saw organised violence against Muslim households and establishments and brutal attacks on Muslim youths in Karanthakad on the outskirts of Kasargod town. The reprisal followed soon enough: two BJP workers were severely stabbed in Mogral some distance away.

The violence continued on the third day as well — a high school student named Mohammed Sinan was stabbed to death in Anebagilu village, apparently in retaliation for the death of B. Suhas, the district vice-president of the BJP-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh. The killing spree culminated with the brutal murder of 53-year-old Mohammed Haji, president of a local masjid committee.

Although the initial strike had only been called for a day, it took over 72 hours for normalcy to even begin to return. Prohibitory orders and a total ban on two-wheelers continued for over a fortnight. Though nearly two months have passed, Kasargod is still under tight police watch.

In a district where a strong RSS-BJP presence is bent on pitting itself against a sizable Muslim population, every local skirmish is now steeped in communal colours. The Vishu clashes came just as the town and sensitive outskirts such as Uppala, Mancheswaram, Badhiadukka and Mogral Puthur were beginning to recover from bloody exchanges between CPM and Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) activists. Beginning with trivial local spats, the CPM-IUML standoff escalated into a trail of communally provocative actions.

That the CPM-IUML conflict does not go too deep, however, is indicated by Yuva Morcha state president K. Surendran, who scoffs at talk of secularism and democracy. “Look at Manjeshwaram Assembly constituency, where the BJP has the largest vote share,” he says. “The CPM is very weak there but it is adamant on not allowing a BJP candidate to enter the Kerala Assembly. So the CPM is transferring its votes to the communal IUML to defeat us.” The CPM district leadership readily confirms the allegation. They consider the BJP more dangerous than the IUML. So their votes go to the lesser evil each time.

Political equations in Kasargod are, in fact, practically unique in Kerala. The IUML is the ruling party in the municipality with the Congress as junior partner and the BJP as Opposition — the mighty CPM was able to win only a single seat. With Kasargod’s near-complete communal polarisation, secular politics is at best weak here, even outside the municipality.

The origins of Kasargod’s sharp communal divisions lie in the period just before Independence. There was a strong movement here for a merger with Pakistan, and during the time of the formation of states, the communal divide became clearer still. Hindu groups wanted a merger with Karnataka, as most of their members were Kannada speakers; Muslims wanted to be part of Kerala. Even now, Hindutva groups are eager to merge Kasargod with Karnataka.

The RSS and other ultra-Hindutva groups started gaining ground in the region during the 1950s and 60s with financial support from beedi companies located in the Mangalore region. Known for their low wages and anti-employee stands, the beedi manufacturers were wary of the growth of the Communist movement in Kasargod and adjoining Kannur districts. Communalism, they found, was the best remedy against Communism infecting their workforce.

According to police records, the annihilation of rivals for even the most minor of reasons was a trend that set in here in the 90s. Further, since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the district has continued to witness sporadic incidents of communal violence.

Police sources additionally confirm that communal flames are now actively stoked by mafias involved in the circulation of fake currencies, sandalwood smuggling, hawala transactions, the illegal gold trade and the production and retailing of country arrack, which is banned in Kerala. “Cracking down on these mafias is a must if you are serious about warding off a massive outbreak of communal riots in Kasargod,” says scholar MA Rahman

But despite all evidence of Kasargod’s fast becoming a communal time bomb, the situation is still salvageable, as Rahman points out. A salient feature of violence in the district has been the fact that there has never been a single seizure of bombs and swords in any of the raids conducted here, he says. “Contrary to similar outbreaks of communal hatred elsewhere, normal domestic weapons have been used in most of the murders, which means that the police and the political leadership can permanently stop the violence if they will.”

Human, All Too Human


In a stunning revelation, the Sabarimala temple authorities admit that the miraculous fire is a work of human hands


KA SHAJI
Sabarimala


FOR DECADES, devotees have thronged in their lakhs to Sabarimala, South India’s foremost place of pilgrimage, to bear witness to an annual miracle. Each year, on the last day of the mid-January Makaravilakku festival, the mysterious fire that gives the festival its name flashes thrice in the forests of the Ponnambalamedu hill, across from the ancient Ayyappa temple. Religious scholars, temple authorities and devotees have unanimously ascribed a divine source to the phenomenon, much to the annoyance of rationalists who have repeatedly attempted to expose its real cause. Successive governments, regardless of political persuasion, have put their weight behind foiling such efforts, however, and have ensured that police and forest department barricades around the area kept the secret protected.

But the rationalists, it seems, have finally carried the day as none other than Sabarimala’s high priest, Tantri Kantararu Maheswararu, has divested the Makaravilakku of divinity, stating in no uncertain terms that it is the work of human hands. Backing him are CK Guptan, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the temple, and former board president G. Raman Nair. Confirmation has also been issued by Kerala’s Temple Affairs minister, G. Sudhakaran.

“It is very significant,” exults Dhanuvachapuram Sukumaran, a leading atheist who has led several fact-finding teams to Ponnambalamedu. “This is the first time the government has come clean on what the rationalists have said all along — that the Makaravilakku is no miracle but a fire made by burning camphor.

The catalyst for the temple’s unexpected statement came two weeks ago when CPM fellow traveller and Kerala Tourism Development Board chairman Cherian Philip urged the Left Front government to “disclose all truths” related to the Makaravilakku and dissociate itself from promoting religious falsehoods.

His demand was made in the context of the government’s launching a massive drive, across all religions, against so-called godmen and faith healers. Philip’s rejoinder: “It will be difficult to view the government’s move against godmen as sincere if it continues to support superstitions such as Makaravilakku.”

Philip’s provocative remarks caused apprehensions of a possible Hindutva backlash, but, to the astonishment of all, the Sabarimala clergy have practically endorsed his views. Talking to TEHELKA, Maheswararu’s grandson Rahul Easwar, the public face of the Tantri family, denied the temple authorities had ever claimed divine status for the Makaravilakku. “‘It was a misunderstanding in the minds of misinformed people,” he said, adding that the Makaravilakku is often confused with the Makarajyothi, a star seen on the horizon at the conclusion of the festival and believed to be the celestial manifestation of Lord Ayyappa. “The Makaravilakku is only a symbolic lighting of a lamp on the Ponnambalamedu, where there was a temple once,” he says. Avers P. Ravi Varma of the Pandalam royal family, considered custodians of Sabarimala, “The celestial theory appears to have originated about half a century ago. To us, the temple declaration brings nothing new. During my childhood, I have heard elders in my family giving instructions to ensure that the light is lit and flashed three times.”

Easwar claims he is not sure who lights the lamp today, but those who have campaigned against attributing divinity to Makaravilakku say this could not be so. While Sabarimala myth has it that the Ponnambalamedu lamp was first lit by Lord Parasuram, it became a tradition continued by local tribespeople for centuries. At some point after Independence, forest and power department employees, who work in the hills, took the ritual over. “The Ponnambalamedu hill is in the control of the state forest department,” states prominent atheist, MP Sadasivan. “The area also has some Kerala electricity board officials present because of its proximity to a few hydel power projects. The officials assemble at Ponnambalamedu on the last day of the festival, perform a ritual and light the camphor-fire as soon as they get a message from the temple at around 6.30pm. This is happening at the behest of the temple body and the government.” Neither the state tourism minister nor the temple authorities are countering this allegation.

Calling Maheswararu’s declaration “a very welcome development in the battle against superstition,” U. Kalanathan, president of the Kerala Yukhtivadi Sanghom, an atheists’ association, also speaks of the dubious role the State has played over the Makaravilakku in the past. “We have tried for years to expose the fraud, but whoever tried to approach the area ran the risk of being arrested, or even of being killed. The authorities have done everything to perpetuate the belief that the appearance of the flame is indeed a miracle. Now, what we have always been certain of has become public knowledge.”

That Kalanathan is not exaggerating is evident from previous governmental efforts to silence questions around the Makaravilakku. In 1973, 24 people from Kollam in South Kerala managed to scale the Ponnambalamedu hill and burst firecrackers. They were later arrested for “disrupting the sanctity” of the place. Since they had not actually committed any crime, as per the Indian Penal Code, they were later released. In 1980, a group of rationalists from Thrissur also visited Ponnambalamedu and reported that the stories around it were fake. A year later, however, another such team was severely beaten up and driven back by the police, on the orders of the then CPM-led government. The clinching testimony, however, comes from Raman Nair, who headed the Devaswom board during the previous Congress government, and who claimed “it was the police and officials of the Travancore Devaswom Board who would jointly light the fire at Ponnambalamedu on the orders of the state government”

It is estimated that about 30 million devotees attend the Makaravilakku festival every year, flocking to the Periyar Tiger Reserve to turn the forest abode of the hermit god into a sea of worshipping humanity. Lasting 41 days, the festival culminates in a frenzy of joy when the Makarajyothi appears — in 1999, this resulted in a stampede in which 53 pilgrims were killed.

THE SABARIMALA temple has been at the thick of quite a few controversies for several years now. One of the most famous was over the ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 entering the temple, to preserve its sanctity for Ayyappa, a bachelor. Last year, however, Kannada actress Jayamala made headlines claiming she had visited the sanctum sanctorum and offered prayers when she was in her 20s. Another storm was created after one of the senior- most priests was caught at the house of a high profile, Kochi-based sex worker; he has subsequently been barred from performing rites. The Kerala State Human Rights Commission has also had to intervene to ask the Travancore Devaswom Board to allow male employees at the temple to wear underwear while counting the temple donations. Earlier, staff entering the counting chamber had to strip themselves of all clothing, except their dhotis, after the authorities found that money was being smuggled out, concealed in their undergarments.

However, for a temple as anciently revered as Sabarimala, such issues leave no mark on its worshippers. While the latest controversy has undoubtedly come as a shock to millions, rationalists and devotees alike may delight that a pointless fraud has been put to rest.