The BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit is frantic to grab visibility, further alienating the party from the state’s politics.

Tamil Nadu BJP President L Murugan atop a car with a Vel in his hand during the planned Vel Yatra, that was stopped by the police
Voices Opinion Thursday, November 12, 2020 - 16:32

The BJP’s grand design to stir Hindutva ideologies for a political harvest through its Vel Yatra in the Dravidian land of Tamil Nadu has turned out to be a damp squib. Besides people’s response being lukewarm, the Madras High Court rapped the party and expressed its strong disapproval, while the ruling AIADMK government in the state too told the court that there was nothing ‘spiritual’ about the yatra.

The apprehension of the state and its institutions that it might create communal disturbances in an otherwise peaceful land was not unfounded given the precedence of the rath yatra undertaken by BJP leader LK Advani to reclaim the Ram Janmabhoomi at Ayodhya in 1992 and the subsequent violence in many northern states in which thousands were killed.

The Vel Yatra aimed to cover the six abodes of Lord Murugan in the state, called the arupadai veedu in Tamil, and it has been planned to culminate on December 6, the Babri Masjid demolition anniversary, in Tiruchendur, which boasts a sea-shore temple for the deity. On the first day of the yatra, BJP State President L Murugan and a few cadres were taken into preventive custody for defying the government’s COVID-19 restrictions in Tiruttani where the yatra began. Upon release in the evening, they recommenced the yatra two days later from a different place. They were detained again and released later only to return the next day.

In fact, the BJP, unlike the devout Murugan devotees of Tamil Nadu, has not set out on a pilgrim’s progress. Lakhs of Tamil devotees take a vow and embark on a long and tedious journey by walk, barefooted, from their native places to different Murugan temples in the Tamil month of Thai every year. But this ‘yatra’ by the BJP, ostentatiously organised for a ‘political-spiritual renaissance’, has no traces of such piety and devotion. It has only become another addition to the party’s burgeoning list of flop shows held to gain a foothold in the state where the seven-decade-old Periyarist self-respect movement is deeply entrenched in the socio-cultural-political ethos of the Tamil society.

In fact, well before the BJP could think of the Vel Yatra, DMK leader M Karunanidhi took out a similar yatra during MGR’s reign in 1982, but by foot – ‘Long March to Tiruchendur’ – from Madurai seeking justice regarding the mysterious death of a temple officer and the alleged missing diamond spear of Lord Muruga.

After the ‘Kanda Sashti Kavasam’, a devotional rendering on Lord Muruga, was mocked at by a YouTuber group called Karuppar Koottam (Black Group), the Hindutva forces saw in it an opportunity and shifted the blame on the DMK. The DMK had denied it, saying it was a party with Hindus as the majority. The AIADMK government was forced to take action against the group, even arresting a few of the YouTubers and detaining them under the draconian Goondas Act.

Vel, ‘spear’ in English, is considered the main weapon of Lord Muruga, symbolising the destruction of evil. The Murugan cult has long been associated with Tamils, just as Ram worship is with north Indians. Even during the recent Ayodhya temple foundation stone laying function, there was no palpable celebration across Tamil Nadu as in the north where Ram politics is the main staple for the BJP. And when the entire north was in flames after the demolition of Babri Masjid, Tamil Nadu remained totally quiet and peaceful.

Since the ‘Jai Ram’ politics could not create any vibration across Tamil Nadu, a visibly upset BJP seems to have decided to adopt Lord Muruga, who is fervently worshipped in non-Brahmin Hindu households. Among the Brahmins, it is the Iyers, the Saivaite Brahmins, who mainly worship Lord Murugan as the Aryanised Lord Subramanian or Karthikeyan, while the Iyengars, the Vaishnavite Brahmins, hardly worship him.

To gain an understanding about the BJP’s politics behind the Vel Yatra and Lord Muruga, one needs to understand who he is and how he influences Tamils culturally and religiously. According to Tamil literature and mythologies, Lord Muruga is basically a hero warrior worshipped by the people of ‘Kurinchi’ (mountainous region) landscape, which later emerged as a separate cult.

Murugan worship has long been associated with Tamil language and its culture. Sangam literature, dated back to 300 BC, describes Murugan as the Tamil god who presided over one of the three Sangams, an ancient seat claimed to have been established by poets and kings for the development of Tamil and its literature. Tholkappiam, an ancient Tamil work of Sangam era, refers to Murugan as Tamils’ god. His benevolence has been sung in Thirumurugatrupadai and Paripaadal. Many other literary works carry references of Murugan worship.

It is culturally integrated into Tamils’ lives and as popular as Ram and Krishna worship in the north. Here his devotees visit his six celestial abodes, all located inside Tamil Nadu, every year. Hence, it’s no wonder that the BJP, when the Ram Janmabhoomi temple ceremony failed to create any flutter in Tamil Nadu, decided to appropriate the Murugan worship of Tamils mainly to woo the OBC and Dalit Tamils.

Though the Tamil warrior god has been ‘Aryanised’ for long, he remains to be the most revered among the gods today by the Tamil population. But what Hindutva forces are yet to realise is that Tamils have a unique trait – they do pray to their gods while embracing Periyarist ideologies.

Battling it out in Dravidian land

The BJP unfortunately remains a washout in Tamil Nadu despite its political manoeuvres. The party, especially its Tamil Nadu unit, is frantic to grab visibility in the state. In haste, it has been performing fragile acts, such as Vel pooja and Vel yatra, as part of its larger agenda to dislodge the Dravidian majors – the DMK and the AIADMK – which have been in power since 1967 after ousting the Congress.

With no matured political approach to counter the complex Dravidian politics, the BJP is drawing enormous force from the unbridled power at the Centre and is desperately resorting to many unsavoury political backroom manoeuvres. These blatantly visible acts of desperation and despondency have alienated them further in the politics in the state, though it could have scripted success tales elsewhere, mainly on the concoction of bully and hate politics, dismantling and neutralising strong regional parties and silencing its leaders.

The BJP has, however, realised that Tamil Nadu is not a safe turf for its game. Though it has corroded into the ruling dispensation, the AIADMK, thus exploiting its leadership vacuum after the demise of its leader Jayalalithaa, who neither left a will to her properties nor a heir to her politics, and holding many of its ministers and functionaries to ransom under the ruse of various charges with the support of the Union government’s investigation agencies, the party is still facing a stumbling block in its progress and a formidable foe in the DMK which leads a secular alliance in the state.

Politics in Tamil Nadu requires that the political aspirant understands the complexity of Dravidian politics and the nuanced effect it has left on the psyche of an adult Tamil today. The founder leader of the AIADMK, MG Ramachandran, and his protégé Jayalalithaa did it with aplomb. “You need to master the art of inclusive politics of social justice here. And you cannot separate social justice from Periyar. If you don’t like Periyar, keep away from him,” said a senior DMK leader.

Any outfit that wishes to do politics outside the purview of social justice will be presumed an ‘alien’ here. Realising this, the two Dravidian parties have judiciously mixed social justice with development in their electoral politics. This visionary approach has propelled the state to numero uno position in many fields of development, which is why the BJP’s flaunting of its developmental policies in states like Gujarat could not take off in Tamil Nadu. Having exhausted all strategies, the BJP has unfortunately resorted to its archaic Hindutva agenda through Vel poojas and Vel yatras.

The BJP’s immediate agenda is to dismantle the AIADMK – organisationally. The party stalwarts think that it is strategically important to weaken and neutralise the AIADMK sans powerful leader as it is a risk to take on two Dravidian majors at a time. The BJP considers the time ripe “to initiate proactive politics to free Tamil Nadu from the Dravidian hold” since the AIADMK is convulsing from internecine activities and splits, besides a leadership vacuum. It believes that it is now or never and even dismisses any political significance attached to the presumed arrival of Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s close aide, who is in a Bengaluru prison now.

But its primary objective is to eradicate the DMK that stands between its grand ‘One Nation; One Culture’ design. Hence a campaign that the DMK is anti-Hindu has been unleashed in social media by Sangh Parivar and its vloggers and bots. But political observers view it as yet another strategic flaw of the BJP in Tamil Nadu. “Who will trust them when they call the DMK, which has 90% Hindus on its rolls, as ‘anti-Hindu’? Besides it links any outfit that propagates atheism, Dravidian ideologies and Periyarism to the DMK, to launch a smear campaign of canards and vilifications in social media. Such negative politics will not sell here. They need to be reminded now that the DMK won all but one constituency in the 2019 Parliamentary polls,” a DMK functionary said.

When Murugan, a Dalit, took over the mantle of the state BJP unit, he attempted to adopt a safe strategy of diluting the hate rhetoric of the Tamil Nadu BJP against Periyar, which has all along been propagated by a few Brahmin functionaries like H Raja, who was stripped of the national secretary post recently, and comedian S Ve Shekar among others. Murugan has made it clear that he respected Periyar for his social progressiveness but not for his atheism. He even went to the extent of saying that those who desecrated the statues of Periyar would not be tolerated.

In fact, the BJP, to counter Dravidian politics, would prefer to have any non-Brahmin as its head. Though Murugan was appointed state president, which a few Dalit writers had hailed as ‘Dalit empowerment’, it is quite apparent that he could not function independently. Former president Tamilisai Soundararajan, also a non-Brahmin, and now Telangana Governor, too, faced the same predicament, claimed reports then. 

AR Meyyammai, a journalist with two decades of experience, has worked for The Hindu, The New Indian Express and Deccan Chronicle.

Views expressed are the author’s own.