Though a recent phenomenon, organised Vinayaka Chathurthi celebrations have become a part of the Hindu religious calendar across Tamil Nadu, especially in Chennai. What used to be largely a festival conducted in homes, today many neighbourhoods have big Ganeshas with pujas taking place regularly and the idols being immersed in a procession.
The organized celebrations are, for the most part, spearheaded by Hindu outfits such as Hindu Munnani and Hindu Makkal Katchi, say sources in the police department that makes elaborate arrangements to ensure that violence, not a rare feature of the celebrations, doesn’t break out.
Critics and leaders of Muslim and Christian organisations say that the violence occurs due to planned provocation during the immersion procession by Hindu organisations belonging to the RSS family. They say that other Hindu festivals on a mass scale are a part of life in Tamil Nadu but don’t lead to violence. Local Muslim and Christian communities have negotiated social contracts with Hindus to keep the peace during those festivals whereas the Vinayaka Chathurthi is an exception.
Arjun Sampath, leader of Hindu Makkal Katchi, responds to this by saying that in the other festivals the level of mass mobilisation for a purpose such as immersion is not done in an organised way. And such mobilisation riles some members of the minority communities who are unable to digest it.
Though the Hindu outfits have seemingly succeeded in their goal of creating religious fervor and a degree of mass participation in the pandals, there seems to be no direct political fallout yet in favour of Hindutva organizations or even the BJP. Arjun Sampath says young people from many political parties participate in the festival though they may not associate with his organization beyond Vinayaka Chathurthi.
Planned and organised
Every year Arjun Sampath comes up from Coimbatore, where he lives, to Chennai at this time of the year and camps in the city. He visits many neighbourhoods and sets up groups that conduct the festival. The groups, comprising largely of youth, are trained to obtain police permission, choose a vantage point in the neighbourhood, arrange for the idol and pujas, and eventually organise the immersion.
Arjun Sampath tours the city every day supervising the pandals and ensuring that things are carried out as per plan. “Last year, we had celebrations at 700 locations. This year 2,500 Ganesh idols have been kept for worship,” he says.
Arjun Sampath sees this growth as a testament to increasing spirituality among the people of Tamil Nadu and proof of the waning influence of Dravidian ideology. Conversions to Islam in Mannadi and Triplicane, as well as the scorn that Dravidian ideology pours on Hindu gods have led to the surging interest, he says. “The typical devotee now wants to do Vinayaka Chathurthi in a grand manner, publicly,” he adds. “Credit for bringing the Hindu to the streets goes to those who oppose the religion,” he says with not a little sarcasm.
Arjun Sampath, however, says not all the local organisers are members of Hindu organisations. They coordinate with organisations such as his only during the festival, he says.
At Arumbakkam, on the Friday before immersion, he has a talk with Senthil Kumar, who he says is not from the Hindu Makkal Katchi. Senthil Kumar assures him that the pujas are being conducted regularly. The youth at this pandal in Arumbakkam seem to regard Arjun Sampath with respect.
In Koyambedu, Arjun Sampath noted that the pujas were not being conducted properly and the pandal was in disarray. He called Murugan, the organiser there, took out a wad of currency notes and gave them to Murugan, telling him to set things right.
At Trust Puram in Kodambakkam, Arjun Sampath was told that there was no police bandobust for a pandal. He went to the nearby police station and asked that security be provided immediately. The police officers readily agreed.
At his house, he seems to know visitors by name and where they come from. He calls them and inquires about how the festival is being conducted in their areas.
Arjun Sampath says Vinayaka is very much a Tamil god, citing legendary poet Avvai. “This is a people’s festival but is being given a political taint,” he adds.
Many Muslims seem to view the Vinayaka Chathurthi celebrations differently. They cite the frequent troubles that erupt when the procession passes through the streets of Triplicane as instances when their fears come true.
Abdul Harim, a Triplicane resident who handles media relations at the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), says residents of Triplicane live in communal harmony by and large. They participate in each other’s festivals and are secular, just as most Indians are.
Salim, another resident, says the festival is like any Hindu festival, but only in the last seven-eight years Triplicane has become a hotspot. “Hindu religious fanatics have used the Vinayaka Chathurthi processions to create unrest,” says Harim.
Across Tamil Nadu, Hindu religious festivals are celebrated in a grand manner. Temple kumbabhishekams happen, he adds. “In none of those occasions do any complaints about Muslims disrespecting Hindu gods or creating trouble arises,” he says.
Ganesh temples are everywhere in Triplicane too. People worship in those temples that are often next to mosques and churches in Triplicane, Harim says. “Only during the Ganesh processions, anti-Muslim slogans are raised. They insist on taking the routes that the government has forbidden, fearing trouble,” says Harim.
Harim says in Tamil Nadu, very often Hindu religious leaders consult with Jamaat leaders and involve them in Hindu festivals. Jamaat leaders are taken into confidence and they are given respect. And Muslims wholeheartedly help to conduct the festivals. “The Vinayaka Chathurthi processions are not indigenous to Tamil Nadu but are orchestrated to create trouble,” he adds.
“Sometimes we see Hindu Munnani flags being raised during the processions. When asked, we are told that such flags help to keep in check the police who can be unruly. But such attempts to gain political mileage have not succeeded in the State,” says Harim. “Tamil Nadu has matured under the leadership of Periyar and Anna. We Muslims feel such forces cannot gain ground in the state,” adds Harim.
Devotion by the sea
Religious fervour is there among the fishermen of Chennai — a community that Hindu groups take care to include in their religious events. Traditional fishermen kuppams such as Nalla Thanneer Odai Kuppam, Thiruchinankuppam, Thiruvottiyur kuppam as well as Kasimedu have big Ganeshas lining their streets.
Fishermen leader Dayalan emphasizes that Hindu fishermen are as Hindu as anybody else. He laughs at the Tamil cinema fisherman stereotype — a Christian on whose chest a bold metallic cross shines — and the fishing village stereotype that has a big church on the seashore. Christianity is the dominant religion in the south, but not in the northern Tamil Nadu coast.
Dayalan discounts the literary stereotype too — that of an irreligious community that worships the sea as mother goddess. But he does say that the big Ganeshas are a more recent phenomenon while, at the same breath, proudly talking of how fishermen are the ones who go far out into the sea to immerse the massive idols.
As he walks on the streets of Kasimedu, an Inmathi reporter accompanying saw that almost every house had a Ganesh idol. “In Kasimedu, the community itself celebrates Vinayaka Chathurthi. Hindu outfits don’t play a significant role. But we don’t have any problems with having them, neither do they create problems for us,” he says, adding that the name Pattinathar Kuppam, referring to an ancient Hindu saint, shows the Hindu associations of fishermen in Chennai. “We celebrate all Hindu festivals including Pongal and Deepavali with equal fervour,” he adds.