A spectre is haunting the corridors of power in Kerala these days. The phenomenon has been noticed ever since the new Left Front government has taken control of the state over three months ago. The CPM, which is leading the Front, has been seeing this apparition in the environs of the many temples across the state. State Minister for Temple Affairs, Kadakampally Surendran, has identified the spirit as that of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and is taking immediate measures to exorcise it. Late last week, the government took a formal decision to ban armed, physical training in temple compounds coming under the Kerala Devaswom (Property of God) Board. However, a final announcement will be made after the Cabinet approves the note sent by the legal department. There are four devaswoms in the state—Guruvayur, Travancore, Malabar and Cochin—that together manage about 3,000 temples. There are also innumerable temples owned by private individuals and families.

In the build-up to such a move, the ruling Front has made a conscious effort. First there was an open spat between Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the president of the Travancore Devaswom Board, which controls the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala, over certain issues of governance there. The incident was given a political colour, with the CPM saying that board president Prayar Gopalakrishnan is a Congress nominee. Then it was the turn of CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan saying that it is high time Sabarimala admitted women, a highly sensitive issue among hardcore believers. Devaswoms and venerable priests at the temple saw it as an effort by the CPM to meddle in the affairs of Hindu religious bodies. Before this could die down, a minister lashed out against the convention of lighting lamps and singing devotional songs at government functions as patronising a certain majority religion. So the die was almost cast when Devaswom Minister Surendran at a press conference charged the RSS of converting temples into armouries and operating its traditional shakhas on the temple premises. “The government has got several complaints about illegal operation of RSS shakhas at temples. The government will take strong action against the conduct of such shakhas,” he said. There are about 5,000 RSS shakhas in the state and the entire lot could not be using temple premises for physical training. The minister too has not so far provided any statistics on how many temples are being used by swayamsevaks. Nor does he seem to have any clue as to how they could store arms and ammunition inside temples which are open to the general public all day. Interestingly, Prayar Gopalakrishnan of the Travancore Devaswom Board, under which many money-churning temples including Sabarimala come, has said that no such questionable activities have been brought to his notice. State BJP president Kummanom Rajasekharan too said, “The Devaswom Minister who says that arms training should not be allowed in shrines also should reveal in which shrines arms training is being imparted.”

That the catch lies somewhere else became evident when Kodiyeri Balakrishnan too advocated imposition of a ban on RSS activities inside temple compounds. But as is his wont, Balakrishnan went one step further by saying that if the RSS continues with arms training in temples, CPM’s red volunteers will also be conducting their training in the same places. Kodiyeri should know, for he had once threatened to turn each and every police station in the state into bomb making units of the party.

That the CPM has been feeling insecure over the advent of Hindutva ideology in its own stronghold of Kannur has been becoming clear over the past few years or so.

Some tried to brush it aside as more rhetoric aimed to whip up party sentiments by the state secretary who had controversially asked his cadre to settle scores with the RSS then and there, meaning murder for murder. But there are not many takers for CPM’s sudden concern to cleanse temples of RSS men and open its doors for “true believers of Hindu faith” as Balakrishnan would want the Kerala public to believe. “The objective of the move is to make temple complexes a venue for CPM party workers’ activities. It is part of an attempt by CPM to silence all those who oppose the violent activities of the communists,” BJP’s Rajasekharan said.

That the CPM has been feeling politically insecure over the advent of Hindutva ideology in its own stronghold of Kannur has been becoming clear over the past few years or so. For years it was confined only to mutual annihilation, with an equal number of RSS and CPM men proclaiming their own “martyrs”. The number is spiralling by the day, as one political commentator put it recently, even competing with the number of dog bite victims or a football score. But with BJP vis-a-vis NDA and its alliance with the newly created Ezhava dominated political outfit Bharat Dharma Jana Sena making inroads into the Hindu vote bank, the Marxists started to realise how much they love Hindu mythology, gods and goddesses and, of course, Lord Krishna. Other than getting into temple festival committees and conducting yoga classes and Bhagavad Gita discourses, they also as recently as a month ago on Janmashtami day brought out processions in the name of communal harmony. Even as the party claimed only it can stop the growing threat of “Hindu fanaticism”, observers have dismissed it as a mere political gimmick. Pointing out that this is not going to help the Left prevent an erosion in its support base, noted political analyst N.N. Pearson told the Firstpost, “How can a party that has diluted its own ideology for the sake of power lead a renaissance campaign? The politically enlightened people of Kerala can see through the game.”

The RSS holding its shakhas on lands adjacent to temples is nothing new. It dates back to the 1920s, when the Sangh was formally formed in the state. No one has seen them wielding anything other than their trademark lathis. In fact in the old days, regulars at the shakha used to be the butt of jokes even among those who attended the sessions off and on. Most youngsters viewed it as a part of growing up, especially the physical aspect of it. There was no effort to brainwash any participant, at least those days that we know of. Perhaps there were many in the motley crowd with leanings towards the ideology of Hindu Mahasabha and later the RSS. Rajasekharan was right to point out that there is already a law banning arms training inside temple compounds. “We are not doing anything in violation of temple tradition and custom inside temple complexes,” he said.

Temple grounds were not purely the domain of RSS. They were wide open to members of all socio-religious communities. Even today the temple ground at the famous Mahadevar temple at Kottayam in central Kerala, Thirunakkara, is open to all political parties to hold their rallies. One will have to wait and see how the Left Front government is going to define and demarcate who can use the grounds and who should not. As for storing of arms inside temples, there is a law and order set up in the state to see to it that no such violations take place. You don’t need a political party to oversee that.

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