Why we did a TNM series on the southern echoes of the Ayodhya movement

Are south Indians really less casteist, sectarian, or patriarchal? There is no easy way to answer this question, not the least because social attitudes are hard to measure. But it becomes important to ask these questions when the entire nation appears to be in the thrall of such ideologies, writes Sudipto Mondal.
Ram temple in Ayodhya
Ram temple in AyodhyaNikhil Sekhar
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There is a complacent narrative about south India that we are somehow better than our compatriots in the north. We are no doubt ahead in material terms: education, healthcare, infrastructure, industrial performance, employment and such. But it would be dishonest to attribute this imbalance to any inherent gap in intellect, ability or culture between north Indians and south Indians. 

There are many historical and geographical coincidences that are responsible for this lopsided growth. Yet, the politics of the land and social policies are thought to be the only reasons for our progress. Some would say we are more prosperous because we are more socially progressive.

Are we really less casteist, sectarian, or patriarchal? Is southern Tamil Nadu any safer for Dalits than western Uttar Pradesh? Is coastal Karnataka safer for Muslims than Gujarat? Are Adivasis in Attapadi in Kerala doing better than their compadres in Dandakaranya? Are the men in south Indian cinema less predatory towards women? Is there a material difference between the feudal tendencies of Thakurs, Rajputs, Patels, Jats or Yadavs and Vokkaligas, Reddys, Kammas, Nairs or Thevars?

There is no easy way to answer these questions, not the least because social attitudes are hard to measure. But it becomes important to ask these questions when the entire nation appears to be in the throes of a casteist, sectarian, patriarchal ideology. As in the north, Hindutva activists are going door-to-door in every district of the five southern states, reminding people to celebrate the inauguration of the temple in Ayodhya and the man doing the inauguration.

Where does that leave a group of journalists like us who are in love with the Dravida homeland? I suppose it pushes us to be more demanding of that which we love.

The News Minute is a political outlet in the sense that we report on the political economy. But for those who follow our reporters and editors closely, we are a political outlet in the sense that each of us is a political person who is transparent about their ideological inspirations. 

Our Monday morning meetings are a mad gabble of debates between Marxists, feminists, gender non-conformists, Ambedkarites, Periyarists and more. These humanist perspectives sharpen our gaze on issues of public importance. Far from turning us into horses with blinders, our idealism leaves us demanding more from those who claim to represent the ‘isms’ we care about. 

It’s with this sentiment that we commissioned a seven-part series of stories to remind our readers of the historical factors that have today emboldened saffron-clad activists to boldly walk up to our doorstep and demand our loyalty to their cause. 

The seven reporters travelled back to the 1980s and early 1990s to find that, much like today, no part of the peninsula was untouched by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Karnataka was as enthusiastic then as it is now about militant Hindutva. But the other states in the region weren't entirely immune to the flames of hate. 

These stories should challenge whatever complacencies we might entertain about southern exceptionalism. They focus not just on the excesses of right-wing extremists but also on the failure of the so-called secular parties to walk their talk.

Lakshmi Priya’s visit to Pudupalli Theruvu in Kerala’s Palakkad forces us to relive one of the most heartbreaking episodes of that turbulent period. She exhumes details from the cold-blooded killing of an 11-year-old Muslim girl by the Kerala police, who tried to justify the atrocity by accusing the child of leading a violent mob. The story shakes our confidence in avowedly secular parties given how governments led by both the Congress and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) protected the errant police officers and covered up the killing. The second Kerala story by Cris reminds us that while the state was relatively peaceful compared to the rest of the south, the tumult of those days gave the Sangh Parivar its first opportunity to mobilise sympathisers at the grassroots level.

The third story by Binu Karunakaran traverses the difficult space between Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism. His piece features a Muslim archaeologist who faced the ire of his community as well as the left for stating that Muslims should give up their claim in the Ayodhya dispute. The archaeologist seeks to separate the science from the politics in the matter.

Akchayaa Rajkumar’s story from Tamil Nadu makes us see the casteist insecurities of those who want all Hindus to unite under one ideology, one party and one supreme leader. She traces the origin of today’s surge to 1981. That’s when 1,500 Dalits converted to Islam in Meenakshipuram to break out of the Hindu caste system, which had a vice-like grip on them in the land of Periyar. The mass conversion provided the first spark that ignited the Ayodhya movement across the country.

Balakrishna Ganeshan writes about the contribution of undivided Andhra Pradesh in the mayhem of the 90s by recalling that at least 23,000 kar sevaks from the state travelled to Ayodhya for the demolition of the Babri mosque. Of them, a group from Karimnagar, the constituency of the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, was handpicked by LK Advani to lead the kar seva. His piece speaks not only about the ineptitude of Narasimha Rao but also introduces readers from this generation to the most visceral of the Telugu-speaking hate-mongers of that era: a man named ‘Tiger’ Narendra.

In the second story from Telugu land, Jahnavi Bathala provides an insight into the fascinating life of a world-famous sweet maker, business tycoon, and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement’s money man. While most of us who report on the excesses of Hindutva focus on its political and ideological aspects, her story is a rare attempt to understand how the movement is sustained financially. It helps us see the role of money in not just the mobilisation of Hindutva militants but also in keeping them out of legal tangles.

In a journalistic quest to uncover the foundation of Hindutva’s rise in the 1990s, Karnataka would require its own separate series. It’s after all the state that witnessed the most bloodshed at the time after Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Shivani Kava’s story tugs at the most prominent strain in this complex braid: a soft-spoken seer from Udupi who became the national face of the Ayodhya disturbances. The piece is also an important reminder of the double standards of Rajiv Gandhi, who unceremoniously sacked Karnataka’s Lingayat Chief Minister, Veerendra Patil, over his failure to contain communal violence. Shivani’s story is also helpful in understanding the exodus of the powerful Lingayat community from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the rise of BS Yediyurappa. 

Through our reportage and commentary, TNM’s journalists strive to hold south India’s political leaders to the highest standards. It is both a professional commitment and a labour of love to protect all that we cherish about the place we call home. In this time, when millions are being poured into the politics of autocracy and hate, the few thousands you spend on us is an investment in the politics of democracy and love. For that, we are eternally grateful.

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