Kochi: The decision of the Left Front government in Kerala to reopen religious places has triggered a political row, with Hindu groups accusing the government of not consulting them and ignoring the sensitivities of the faithful.
The Hindu organisations are asking questions about what they call a unilateral decision by the state’s Left Democratic Front (LDF) government through various Devaswom boards (temple boards) it controls. Kerala has allowed reopening of religious places from 8 June.
The issue, simmering for a few days, was brought to a boil with two Monday evening tweets from Union Minister of State V. Muraleedharan.
“Kerala Government’s decision to reopen temples despite opposition from devotees smell foul. Neither the devotees nor the temple committees are for opening of temples. What is the haste? Is this an attempt by the atheist @vijayanpinarayi Govt to denigrate devotees? Govt must heed to the voice of the devotees and withdraw its decision,” he tweeted, tagging the CM’s office, the state BJP, party’s national president J.P. Nadda, Home Minister Amit Shah, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP.
The Kerala government’s decision to reopen temples despite opposition from devotees smell foul. Neither the devotees nor the temple committees demanded the opening of temples. @CMOKerala @vijayanpinarayi @BJP4Keralam @JPNadda @AmitShah @narendramodi @BJP4India
— V Muraleedharan (@VMBJP) June 8, 2020
On Tuesday, Kadakampalli Surendran, Kerala’s Minister for Devaswom, hit back, ridiculing Muraleedharan for not being on the same page as his party leadership.
“Clearly, the BJP was looking for an opportunity to repeat the Sabarimala imbroglio. But we are following the lockdown reopening guidelines laid down by the central government,” he told the media in Thiruvananthapuram. “We have been following all central guidelines so far. That is why we banged the plates and lit lamps when asked.”
He added, “By criticising the state government, the union minister of state is ridiculing his own party leaders and Cabinet colleagues. If he wants this decision revisited, he should take it up with the Prime Minister and Home Minister. I have only pity for him.”
Govt did not hold deliberations with us: Hindu groups
The main grouse of many Hindu organisations is that the state government found it fit to hold deliberations, regarding the reopening plan, with leaders of Muslim and Christian faiths but limited the Hindu participation to only two factions — the Nair Service Society (NSS), representing the Nair community, and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) that caters to the Ezhava community.
This has been viewed by various Hindu organisations as a ploy by the CPM-led LDF government not to yield any political ground to the BJP on this count.
“Our stand not to open any of our temples was precisely to avoid another Sabarimala-style standoff between the faithful and the government,” NSS general secretary Sukumaran Nair told ThePrint.
“We agree the Covid protocol should be followed in its entirety. (But) We also believe temples should not be opened without offering the full complement of the religious experience. This cannot be done without offering prasadam and nivedyam just as the devotee should not be compelled to use disinfectant before reaching Sannidhanam,” he added. “How can it be accepted that food from hotels is okay but holy offerings are not? Therefore, it does not make sense to reopen temples in a truncated manner. We’d rather wait for the day when such controls are no longer there. I don’t think there will be many takers among devotees for darshan at the Devaswom-controlled temples either.”
A bulk of the temples come under the control of the Devaswom boards — Travancore, Cochin and Malabar — as they come directly under the sway of the state government.
“The state government is not forcing anyone to go to temples or other places of worship. As the custodian of temples, the Devaswom board is only offering to keep it open for any devotee who wishes to pray,” said M.B. Rajesh, CPM state committee member and former MP.
“Here, we are merely following what the central government has said in its guidelines to come out of lockdown. Independent temple trusts are free to do as they wish,” Rajesh added. “How could the state government say it would not open temples under its control? As these Hindu organisations have no issues with big temples in BJP-ruled states opening, the plan was to recreate another Sabarimala — but that is not happening,”
‘State also not worried about Covid spread’
But it is not so much about political one-upmanship as it is about the state government dabbling in religious rituals, mindless of the consequences one Covid positive case could lead to, said S.J.R. Kumar, national general secretary, All India Sabarimala Action Council.
“The basic issue here is there has been no due representation to devotees or thantris in the deliberations that led to some groups like NSS opting out of an early unlocking of the temple doors to devotees,” Kumar said. “There is no way temples can function, especially Sabarimala, and still maintain all the parameters spelt out by the central government and later by the state government.”
“Take the Sabarimala temple. What are the chances of keeping out asymptomatic devotees, especially those coming from other states? There are two spots on the way to the Sannidhanam where touching of surfaces can be totally avoided — the Pathinettam Padi and Sopanam,” he added. “In one case, the climb is too steep and in the other the space is too confined. It will be as damaging as the proscribed touching the idol.”
Kumar further said the state government was only allowing temple rituals that brought in revenue.
“From the ritualistic perspective, what’s the point in going to Sabarimala if the devotee cannot offer neyyabhishekam? Also, Sabarimala is allowed to offer aravana, purely with an eye on the revenue,” he said. “I wish the state government had sought guidance from some of the Hindu organisations familiar with the customs and rituals mandatory for the faithful. By turning the sole stakeholder for all Devaswom temples to the exclusion of those who would have guided them, a grave error has been committed. Even one Covid positive case could lead to the closure of the temple.”
Mosques, churches likely to remain shut
Meanwhile, the managing committees of many mosques across the state seem to be paying heed to Palayam Juma Masjid Imam V.P. Suhaib Moulavi’s advice of circumspection while reopening places of worship. Advocating a wait-and-watch approach, he said unlike in villages it will be difficult to limit the entry of strangers coming for prayer in city mosques.
The stance of Christian denominations is likely to be no different as, barring a few, most Church heads may opt not to reopen their churches to believers as this comes with many riders. While some have already decided to go easy with the reopening, others are expected to reach a decision over the next couple of days. From the spiritual perspective, there can be no meaningful church without the Holy Communion.
At the practical level, there can be no church without the active participation of laity above 65 years of age, who form the backbone of most denominations and, importantly, are the major source of revenue. Young couples with children below 10 would nor be keen to participate, either. Therefore, most have decided to continue with online services on Sundays as has been the practice for almost three months now.
As the Covid spread shifts gear and the number of positive cases starts climbing at an alarming level, most of Kerala seem to keep the prayers going. From home, that is.