Bengaluru: Kerala’s ruling communist party is rethinking religion, admitting that the ‘opium of the masses’ may have its uses.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM-led government on Wednesday introduced a 10% reservation for economically backward upper-caste Hindus on the boards of five public-run bodies or Devaswom boards, which together administer about 3,000 Hindu temples.
It also increased the quota for members of Other Backward Castes (OBC) and Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe (SC-ST) communities—to 17% from 14% and to 12% from 10%, respectively.
The move came shortly after the government forced temple boards to strictly adhere to quota norms for the SC-ST community, leading to the appointment of 36 Dalits as temple priests last month —a first in Kerala.
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has often spoken about such actions to illustrate his continued support for affirmative action, something he promised in his election manifesto. However, politics may be an additional consideration—the need to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its pro-Hindu mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on its own turf.
“We have decided to do a lot of things on religion. We have noticed that the BJP and the RSS have increasingly occupied themselves on the religious and cultural front, while we refused to engage with these spaces for some years in the past because of ideological reasons,” a minister and senior CPM leader from Kerala, requesting not to be named, said.
Within the rank and file, it is encouraging active engagement with religious beliefs and customs, having held massive public rallies on Janmashtami, the Hindu festival. For the last few years, the party has been holding rallies with tableaux of Hindu gods—borrowing a leaf from saffron organizations, but mixing it with European communist icons Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin.
Another such instance is the support it lends for the performances of Theyyam, a ritual widely performed across North Kerala where mostly Dalit dancing-godmen are worshipped before upper-castes for exorcizing evil spirits.
In the ongoing season, Theyyam performances are decked with red flags and CPM banners, newspaper The New Indian Express reported on 14 November.
“We don’t do it for any political mileage. Theyyams resonate the voice of the suppressed people who attained martyrdom fighting injustice and feudalism,” M. Prakashan, a senior CPM leader of the northern Kerala’s Kannur district told the paper.
Nevertheless, all religious activities are categorically banned for CPM members, because of which it censured temple affairs minister Kadakampally Surendran for participating in prayers and rituals at Guruvayur Parthasarathy temple while on an official visit last month.
The BJP and RSS have been campaigning against the Communist government for allegedly targeting temples and appropriating devotee funds—earlier this month, their activists tried to block officials who were trying to take over Guruvayur Parthasarathy temple, a famous shrine that draws thousands of devotees everyday. The government takeover was based on a court order following corruption complaints against the temple administration.
“The communists have been toying with this reservation idea in all government jobs since the time of E. M. S. Namboodiripad (first Kerala chief minister and CPM idealogue). They basically think of this as an affirmative action, but it could also be very well that the CPM wants to prevent the upper-castes from leaving them and joining the BJP.” said B.R.P. Bhaskar, a political commentator and veteran journalist.
Bhaskar said the CPM may not be trying as hard to attract non-Hindu religions to its side because of two reasons. “The CPM always had a serious problem with attracting the minorities in Kerala. The minority religions have long been consolidated behind the Congress and the Muslim League in Kerala because they see CPM as an anti-religious movement. This apart, in the process of attracting minorities, the CPM itself did not want to alienate its Hindu cadre, which forms almost 80% of the party,” he said.