Lal Salam, Comrade Toddy Tapper!

(Toddy tapper in India’s coconut country) 

If the Kerala state leadership of the BJP has its way, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should return to Gujarat and resume his trademark vocation as tea vendor. That is the bizarre logic that a senior BJP leader in Kerala has applied, while making the call last week that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan should leave his post and return to his caste profession as toddy topper. The BJP’s official newspaper also featured a cartoon to that effect. The party is peeved over Pinarayi’s firm but tactful handling of its Sabarimala agitation.

By invoking Pinarayi’s caste origin and imputing that Ezahvas and Thiyyas are only fit to be toddy tappers, the BJP has worn on its sleeve its caste prejudices and exposed itself as the party of upper castes. It is a stark reminder to Ezhavas and Thiyyas. They ought to sit up and realize the historic blunder they will be committing by even remotely associating with a political party that is so deeply rooted in the archaic notions and social prejudices of Chatur Varnyam.

This must be one of the biggest bloomers that the morons who lead the BJP in Kerala would have committed in living memory – humiliating publicly an entire caste that accounts for an estimated 28 percent of Kerala’s population. To be sure, there is going to be a price to pay for this arrogance. The Nair leadership of the BJP in the state has tied itself up in knots.

In the above backdrop, Modi’s remarks on the Sabarimala agitation in a TV interview on Tuesday become classic doublespeak. As the Prime Minister who is entitled to receive all the inputs that the Intelligence Bureau gives him on everything under the sun, Modi has no reason to be a confused mind apropos the happenings in Kerala. (Reports say he’s planning to visit Kerala twice in January.) Yet, he thinks Sabarimala issue is a metaphysical struggle over “beliefs”.

Let me reproduce excerpts from a report in the Indian Express: “The PM, in his interview to ANI, indicated that he backed the BJP’s official stand that women should not be allowed entry into the Sabarimala shrine… Modi said: “In India, we respect all religions. Every temple has its own customs and traditions, there are some temples in India where men cannot enter. The judgment by the woman judge (in the Supreme Court) should be read carefully. No need to attribute this to any political party, she has given that order looking at the issue as a woman. There has to be a debate on that also.”

Plainly put, Modi has been evasive. And, being the custodian of constitutional rule, when the prime minister is evasive on a profound national issue of the state versus religion, he is either being cowardly or is indulging in sophistry. In this case it is really difficult to choose, because this is how the prominent Dalit leader and parliamentarian belonging to Modi’s own party, Udit Raj puts in perspective the BJP’s Sabarimala agitation:

“Why should women be banned to enter the Sabarimala temple? Both genders are equal before God, God does not reside in one particular place. He is omnipresent and women are everywhere. Then is it not impossible for God to stay away from them?” Raj added: “Men also have come from women. Then if women are impure, how can men be pure?”

When asked about Modi’s stance, Raj said: “Traditions, if they are bad, are to be broken. Did we not oppose and end child marriage, Sati and the tax on covering breast for women in Kerala? Traditions, if they are redundant, have to end.” Raj said that as chairman of All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, he would oppose attempts against the implementation of the apex court order. “Majority of SCs, STs and Ambedkarites are supporting the court order. They have welcomed it.”

“When all men are equal before God, how can you have discrimination in the name of gender and caste?” said Raj. “Such bans are results of Brahminical dominance.”

Of course, Raj has an erudite mind and he belongs to the 21st century. He is clear-headed and has no ulterior motive to be evasive. He isn’t a creation of the Hindutva, nor is he mentored by Hindu fundamentalists. Therefore, without any blinkers, he is at liberty to size up the Sabarimala agitation for what it is – a barely disguised campaign by the upper castes of the Hindu faith, who comprise the BJP leadership in Kerala, to roll back Kerala’s social reform movement and ‘Sanskrtise’ the society all over again.

Now, Raj is not an exception. This is what a Dalit minister in Modi’s cabinet, Ram Vilas Paswan said in New Delhi yesterday: “Women travel even to space. So, how come they cannot enter a temple?” Paswan spoke approvingly of two women finally succeeding in entering the Sabarimala temple on Wednesday.

Most certainly, Modi’s prevarication on the Sabarimala issue diminishes his political stature. For whatever reason – fear or political expediency or plain indifference – when a prime minister shies away from leading the country, it becomes a poor reflection on him personally.

Pinarayi himself has calmly responded to the urging by Modi’s partymen that he should quit as chief minister and return to his caste’s traditional vocation. To quote from Pinarayi’s poignant remarks:

“They keep reminding me of my caste origin. There was a time when Chatur Varnyam prevailed and people belonging to certain castes were forced to practice certain vocations only. My father was indeed a toddy tapper. I have said this many a time. My brothers too had to do toddy tapping for livelihood. ‘If so, why not Vijayan too’ – that seems to be the mindset of these (BJP) people.”

“One of them (BJP leadership) said that my father and grandfather and great grandfather combined still cannot counter the Sabarimala agitation. In any case, how could they have, since when they were alive, in those distant times, they lived a life full of hardships and they weren’t involved in public life. But times have changed. Haven’t times changed?”

“I am not a chief minister who is trying to smash up beliefs. I am for fully safeguarding beliefs. I am not in the least bothered by the allegation of the NSS general secretary that I am seeking a break-up of beliefs.” [Unofficial translation]

(This blog has appeared in Newsclick.)