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After DMK MP’s outburst, an old Dravidian divide over religion comes to fore

S Senthilkumar objected to ‘bhumi puja’ at a govt event. But senior party leader decries ‘social media spectacle’, says MP should have spoken in common people’s language ‘while advocating for secularism’.

Senthilkumar, a professional radiologist, lashed out at the executive engineer present at the ceremony and asked why a Hindu ritual was being conducted at a government ceremony. (File photo: Twitter/@DrSenthil_MDRD)

His was one of the most celebrated victories in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu. On Saturday, DMK’s Dharmapuri MP S Senthilkumar, who is one of the party’s new-generation leaders and is extremely social-media savvy, created a stir when he lambasted a senior government official for organising a “bhumi pooja” ceremony during the inauguration of a road project in Dharmapuri district.

Senthilkumar, a professional radiologist, lashed out at the executive engineer present at the ceremony and asked why a Hindu ritual was being conducted at a government ceremony. “Do you know that you are not allowed to do such things for a government programme? Then? What about other faiths? Christians, Muslims, Dravida Kazhagams (DK), or those without a religion? Call them all, call the father from the church, the imam from the masjid,” the visibly angry MP said before ordering officials to “clear it all”. He added, “Never contact me for such events … This is the Dravidian model of governance. Include all faiths if you are going to do such rituals.”

Some political observers saw in Senthilkumar’s outburst a calculated attempt to propagate and uphold the DMK’s rational-secular mix of politics, while others said the young MP, who defeated former Union minister Anbumani Ramadoss in the 2019 election, had displayed political naivety.

Weighing in on the debate, a senior DMK leader told The Indian Express that Senthilkumar’s method “seemed to be deliberate and staged”. The senior functionary said, “In theory, no government programme should coincide with a religious event. People can have a religion but governments do not have a religion. So I agree with his position. But the way he did it, especially as a Member of Parliament, turned it into a social media spectacle. It wasn’t clever politics, I would say.”

The DMK leader went on to add, “The personal value systems and beliefs of individuals sustain the Dravidian ideals practised in Tamil Nadu… no party can claim responsibility for the Dravidian customs of the locals. People who oppose Hindutva politics and the BJP are also devout followers who do pujas and visit temples. Therefore, it is crucial for an MP to speak their language while advocating secularism.”

A similar contradiction had arisen in the Dravidar Kazhagam too, leading to the birth of the DMK in 1949 as CN Annadurai broke away from the parent outfit. While Annadurai can be best described as a moderate reformist, his mentor and Dravidar Kazhagam leader Periyar was a social reformer, iconoclast, and firm atheist who started the Self-Respect Movement to promote non-ritualistic weddings, property rights for women, and removing caste suffixes from names. In contrast, Annadurai was a man of the masses who recognised the value of electoral democracy. He deployed cinema as a tool to spread the ideals of the Dravidian movement and established himself as Periyar’s successor. The DMK continues to trace its origins to the Dravidian movement, swearing by its ideals and political vision.

The Dharmapuri MP’s outburst drew criticism from the Opposition. “Totally unwarranted outburst,” tweeted Congress leader Karti Chidambaram. “Tell me one wedding/housewarming/oath taking ceremony of members of your party which has occurred without reference to auspicious times/ceremony? Dravidian extremes erroneously think that because people vote for them they negate all forms of rituals.”

BJP state secretary SG Suryah said on Twitter that Senthilkumar’s outburst was “overboard and anti-Hindu”. He pointed out that in 2012 the Madras High Court had deliberated on the matter and ruled that Ayudha Puja in government offices “does not affect the fabric of secularism”.

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The plea before the court had sought a ban on religious celebrations such as Saraswati Puja and Ayudha Puja in government buildings since they are not secular activities. The court ruled that respecting one’s workplace and one’s work-related tools would not hurt the sensibilities of others in any way or have an impact on secularism. “Ayudha Puja in its real terms transcends all religion,” the court ruled.

Speaking of the contradictions in the DMK, former Madras High Court judge K Chandru recalled how in the 1970s there were controversies over a DMK MP putting “kumkum” on his forehead. “To oppose the BJP, the DMK administration has made hitherto unheard-of contributions and projects for temple-related projects. If you subscribe to CN Annadurai’s philosophy of Ondre Kulam, Oruvane Devan (One Community, One God), then why is the DMK MP asking for Christians and Muslims to participate in the ‘bhumi puja’, when the entire road project was completed by engineers?”

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The former judge said, “Unlike the West, our society is largely a faithful one. In the past 100 years of Madras High Court, just four judges, including me, have taken the oath without invoking god’s name — that shows us the nature of society. So, when you don’t live in a theocratic state or one with blasphemy laws, such responses (like the MP’s) are inappropriate, you need a better language to debate such issues.”

First published on: 18-07-2022 at 04:53:52 pm
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