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Why PM Modi’s unveiling of a statue of former Congress CM led to furore in Kerala

R Sankar was the first Congress chief minister of Kerala since the state’s formation in 1956.

Written by Amrith Lal |
Updated: December 22, 2015 8:15:02 am
modi-kerala-759 Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Riding on its improved performance in the 2014 general election, the BJP has been in the process of expanding its political influence in Kerala. The party has proposed a third front as an alternative to the Congress-led UDF and the CPM-led LDF and invited various caste and community outfits to be a part of it. In recent months, the party has reached out to Vellappalli Natesan, a vocal leader of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), a platform of the numerically strong Ezhava community. Natesan has since announced a new party, which is expected to join hands with the BJP. But the BJP’s attempt to get Prime Minister Narendra Modi to unveil a statue of R Sankar, a former Congress chief minister and SNDP leader, and thus claim him as one of their own ended in a major controversy. Sankar was in limelight, more than four decades after he had passed away.

Who is R Sankar?
Sankar was the first Congress chief minister of Kerala since the state’s formation in 1956. He was president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee when the Congress, with the support of the Christian church and the Nair Service Society, launched the infamous Liberation Struggle against the CPI government which led to its dismissal. Sankar became the deputy chief minister when an alliance government of the Praja Socialist Party (PSP) and the Congress came to power after the 1960 Assembly election. When Pattom Thanu Pillai of the PSP resigned in 1962, Sankar was sworn in as the CM. Two years later, the ministry lost majority and Sankar resigned. He retired from electoral politics in the 1960s.

Sankar, however, is remembered more for his work as the secretary of SNDP and SN Trust. He was secretary of the SNDP for a decade from 1944. He became secretary of the SN Trust when it was set up in 1952. Under his leadership, the SN Trust established numerous schools, colleges and the SN Medical Mission Hospital in Kollam.

Born in April 30, 1909, in a village near Kollam in Travancore (a princely state which constituted the southern part of Kerala) in an influential Ezhava family, Sankar worked as a school headmaster before joining politics in the 1930s. The 1930s were a period of social and political ferment in Travancore. Sree Narayana Guru had established the SNDP and his radical interpretation of the advaita had energised the society, leading to the temple entry proclamation in Travancore in 1936. The abstentation movement in the 1930s for better representation of the backward castes in government jobs too democratised the social space in Travancore. The Travancore State Congress, modelled on the Indian National Congress, was established in 1938. Sankar associated with the state Congress and emerged as one of its popular, young leaders. The Travancore State Congress transformed itself into the Congress after Independence.

Why did the Sankar statue function become controversial?
PM Modi was to unveil a statue of Sankar in Kollam, where the SNDP is headquartered, on December 15. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy was invited to chair the function. Close to the event, Chandy said he was asked by the organisers not to attend. Natesan, the SNDP leader and the main organiser, said it was not necessary for the CM to be present (because the PM was attending) since it was a private function. Natesan said the organisers reserved the right to recall the invite. Both the UDF and the opposition LDF leaders boycotted the function.

Did Sankar encourage a Hindu political agenda?
PM Modi and BJP leaders claimed Sankar was close to the Sangh Parivar. Modi said Sankar had invited Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee to attend a meeting of the Hindu Maha Mandalam, which he had formed with NSS leader Mannathu Padmanabhan. The Hindu Mandalam was established in the late 1940s. Mookerjee was a member of the Nehru Cabinet till 1950 and he formed the BJS in 1951. The Hindu Maha Mandalam was a platform that united the Nairs and the Ezhavas, the two communities that formed the bulk of the Hindu population. P Sudha, in his biography of Sankar, writes that Mannam and Sankar attempted the bridge the two-decade long rivalry between the Nair and the Ezhava community that started in the 1930s. The dominance of leaders from Christian denominations in the Congress led to a rift within the party. Mannam and Sankar were nominated to the Dewaswom Board, the state body set up to manage the temples. The board was dismissed before its tenure and in 1949, Mannam and Sankar were eased out of the Congress. They set up the Democratic Congress, a rebel platform which very soon returned to the Congress fold. Sudha writes that relations between the two leaders cooled off after Sankar’s defeat in the 1952 Assembly elections.

Why is the BJP interested in Sankar?
In a way, the BJP wants to reinvent the Nair-Ezhava alliance that Hindu Maha Mandalam of Mannam and Sankar sought as a political alliance to further the Hindutva agenda. The invocation of Sankar of the Hindu Maha Mandalam at the expense of Sankar the Congress leader, reflects the BJP’s immediate political agenda.

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