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The spread Of Hindutwa In The South

By S. Viswanathan, R. Krishnakumar, Parvathi Menon

30 March, 2004

TAMIL NADU A multi-pronged approach

"Tamil Nadu today is under the spiritual rule of Jayalalithaa." This is a pious declaration made by P.C. Ramasami, Minister for Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments in the Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in the State, at Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district on March 6 after a ritual "holy dip" to mark the Mahamaham festival. About 10 lakh devotees are estimated to have taken a dip in the tank of the Kumbeshwara temple, along with "priests carrying trishuls". The Sankaracharya of the Kanchi mutt, Jayendra Saraswati, inaugurated the festival, which is described as the "Kumbh Mela of the South" and is held once in 12 years. Numerous Saivite and Vaishnavite mutt heads participated in the festival.

Ramasami told mediapersons that under the Jayalalithaa regime 2,822 temples had been renovated. The Minister's observations are indicative of not only the government's priorities, but also the congenial atmosphere in the State for the Sangh Parivar to exploit the religiosity of the faithful to advance its communal and political agenda.

The Hindutva forces were helped by the fact that they had the Bharatiya Janata Party in power at the Centre and two successive friendly governments in the State, the first headed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), an ally of the BJP until recently, and the second by the AIADMK, an erstwhile ally of the BJP which is keen to build bridges with the Sangh Parivar. The Sangh Parivar has been largely successful in its attempt to make the best of the situation because of the competitive political lines taken by the DMK and the AIADMK in support of the Hindutva forces in order to make electoral gain. Political observers criticised the Dravidian parties' tactical line as a significant deviation from rationalism and self-respect, the cornerstones of the Dravidian movement founded by `Periyar' E.V. Ramasami. The Dravidian parties' competitive political support to the Sangh Parivar gave legitimacy to the actions of the Hindutva forces and contributed to their growth. Jayalalithaa's AIADMK has been the more enthusiastic of the two in supporting the Hindutva cause. While in power the DMK extended only passive support to the Parivar, without concealing its reservations on issues such as a common civil code and the construction of a temple in Ayodhya. The AIADMK government has had no qualms in not only supporting many of its causes but also wresting the initiative from the Hindutva forces by launching certain legislative measures that even BJP-led governments in other States did not resort to.

When, in 2002, the Jayalalithaa government brought in an Ordinance, later made into a law with legislative approval, banning "forcible" religious conversions through "financial allurement" or otherwise, the move drew protests from many parties, including the DMK, then an ally of the BJP at the Centre. The anti-conversion law was seen as one more of the many pro-Hindutva measures taken by the Jayalalithaa government since it came to power in 2001. These included the provision of substantial financial assistance to renovate temples, grant of pension to poojaris, and the `Annadhanam' scheme to feed poor Hindus in temples. The government also introduced a scheme to conduct spiritual classes in over 150 Hindu temples. Jayalalithaa also arranged for a mass wedding ceremony for a hundred Hindu couples.

Even during her first term as Chief Minister, in 1991-96, she took several measures that pleased the Hindutva forces. Apart from renovating temples, she started Vedic colleges to benefit the priestly class. She brought in an Ordinance to facilitate government interference in minorities-run educational institutions, but had to withdraw it amid protests. Her support to the kar seva at Ayodhya, expressed at a meeting of the National Integration Council in November 1992, a fortnight before the demolition of the Babri Masjid is only too well known.

Another controversial move by her government was the directive to the administration to enforce strictly the law against animal sacrifice in temples, which had been in cold storage for five decades (Frontline, October 10, 2003). The Hindu orthodoxy had for long been demanding a ban on such sacrifices on the grounds that the practice "polluted" places of worship, most of which were even denied the status of temples. The government's move to enforce the Act met with stiff resistance, particularly from the oppressed people such as Dalits. They claimed that it violated their constitutional right to worship and sought to interfere with the form of worship of the disadvantaged sections. The government order was also challenged in the Madras High Court. The government, however, kept on justifying its action with the support of the heads of religious mutts and State BJP leaders. Ultimately, Jayalalithaa was forced to bow to the people's wish and even annul the Tamil Nadu Animals and Birds Sacrifices Prohibition Act, 1950.

The State government's willing cooperation in implementing some of the priority issues on the Hindutva agenda has helped the Sangh Parivar in the task of consolidation in the past five years. For instance, Vinayaka Chaturthi processions organised in Chennai by the Hindutva forces, which had in the first few years led to violent confrontations with religious minorities, have spread to other places in the State. Even the activists of the two principal Dravidian parties are now seen in the Chaturthi processions with their own Vinayaka idols decorated with party flags. Although their potential to cause violence has shown a significant fall in recent years, the processions still cause tension.

Another major step taken by the Hindu Munnani and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was to organise non-Brahmin poojaris of village temples and secure governmental assistance for them. This was done in pursuance of their plan to wrest control of thousands of village temples, meddle with the existing forms of worship and ensure the loyalty of lakhs of people in rural areas. According to A. Sivasubramaniam, a researcher, the idea is to Brahminise these temples by robbing Dalits and other backward communities of their natural rights over these places of worship built by their ancestors mostly in honour of slain heroes.

The VHP claims that it has built 120 temples in Dalit areas of Tamil Nadu, where "persons from all communities can worship". It further claims that because of this action untouchability has been "reduced to a great extent in these areas". In fact, what Dalits in Tamil Nadu and other States are demanding is not separate temples, but a reassurance that their constitutional right to enter the mainstream temples will be honoured. Dalits in many parts of the State have launched struggles to assert their right to temple entry, but on no occasion has the VHP or its allies thought it necessary to intervene on behalf of these helpless people. In many parts of the State, the Parivar's workers are not sympathetic to Dalits' struggles against casteist oppression; they often depend upon leaders of the oppressive castes to carry out their activities.

Education is another area in which Hindutva forces have made substantial headway in recent years. In Tamil Nadu about 150 schools are functioning under the guidance of the Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, a Sangh Parivar organisation that aims at, among other things, evolving "an integrated system of education in conformity with the aims of Indian culture and its ideals of life". Of these schools, 24 are Hindu Vidyalayas run by the VHP. Other schools are under the control of many organisations, including the Vivekananda Educational Society and the Vivekananda Educational Trust, both based in Chennai. There has been a substantial increase in the number of schools run by these institutions during the past five years. For instance, schools under the Vivekananda Educational Society increased from 10 in 1998 to 16 in 2003. Last year, the Society added a residential school run on the "gurukula" model.

Most of these schools, located in the suburbs of Chennai, cater to middle-class families. Over 17,000 students of the schools run by the Vivekananda Educational Society are trained in music, dance, yoga, physical exercise and so on. Besides Hindi, Tamil and English, they are taught Sanskrit as a compulsory fourth language. In the name of moral instruction they are taught Hindu epics and the Puranas.

An interesting practice in these schools is that the applications of the students writing public examinations are taken to a temple nearby and placed "at the feet" of the deities, invoking their blessings. All students, irrespective of their religion, are compelled to participate in this ritual. Teachers and students are expected to attend camps in the name of "refresher courses" or "in-house training". At a certain stage, students are taken to the Vivekananda Kendra in Kanyakumari for a 21-day camp run on the lines of a `shakha' of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). This camp is believed to serve the purpose of recruiting cadets for the RSS. All schools have a prayer hall displaying pictures of Hindu deities. One significant development with regard to the Vidya Bharati schools in recent years is that they have been increasingly using textbooks prepared by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), unlike in the past when they used them only for the 10th and 12th standards. This may be because NCERT books have now been doctored to suit the needs of saffronised education. These schools, with the assistance of a trained RSS worker, organise thiruvilakku poojas for women in temples and lend space for holding RSS camps.

In university education, too, attempts are being made to introduce subjects such as Vedic Astrology and Vedic Mathematics. However, these face stiff resistance at university bodies such as the Academic Council, the Senate and the Syndicate. For instance, when the University Grants Commission's suggestion to start courses in Vedic Astrology and Vedic Mathematics came up for implementation, representatives of the Madurai University Teachers Association in the various university bodies protested against the move and stopped it. In the University of Madras, an M.A. degree course in Natya (Dance and Theatre) was sought to be introduced with the blessings of Sangh experts. At a meeting of the Academic Council, the proposal was opposed on the grounds that the project had no scientific basis and contained retrograde features in the name of "incorporating the learning advantages of the centuries-old guru-sishya parampara along with research and training methodologies of modern education". The Vice-Chancellor had to shelve the proposal pending detailed discussion.

There is no doubt that the increased activities of the Sangh Parivar in recent years portend dangerous consequences for the communal harmony in the State. However, these efforts do not seem to have enabled the BJP to expand its political space in a big way. Its influence does not appear to have spread to areas other than its traditional strongholds, Kanyakumari and Coimbatore districts.

KERALA - A switch in strategy

The supreme confidence, if not the menace, in the statements was unmistakable, as the leader of the Marad Arayasamajam, the Sangh Parivar's fishermen's organisation in the communally volatile Marad village in coastal Kozhikode, introduced himself to Frontline in his office in October 2003: "I was born here. I was brought up here. I am a fisherman and have been a member of the Arayasamajam from the mid-1970s. I have held all the important positions in the Samajam, except that of the president. I rose through the Rashtiya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). When my work proved a hindrance for everyday RSS `shakha' activity, I joined the Bharatiya Janata Party, a party in which I have held several important local responsibilities. Now I am the secretary of the Arayasamajam. I have no hesitation in saying that all members of the Arayasamajam (the entire fishing community at Marad) are RSS supporters. Nobody sings a different tune here. Our activities are fully supported by our leadership."

For months on end, after nine fishermen, eight of them Hindus, were brutally done to death in a frenzy of communal revenge killings at Marad in May last year (Frontline, November 7, 2003), T. Suresh, the leader of the small Hindu fishing community in the village, literally became the face of the Sangh Parivar in Kerala, making demands, posing threats, rejecting proposals and keeping the State government machinery on tenterhooks before agreeing to proposals that eventually launched a peace initiative in the Muslim-majority village in north Kerala. The Muslim families that fled the village fearing reprisals have since returned and the tenuous peace holds. The Arayasamajam office in the village is a veritable fortress secured by Sangh cadre. During the strife it was the virtual government in the village, where political parties feared to tread.

The Arayasamajam leader and the men who surround him perhaps symbolise what the Hindutva combine is up to in Kerala.

The violence at Marad in May was a clear indication that the intervention of a large number of majority as well as minority communal organisations had started showing its ugly results in Kerala. The leader of the Hindu fishermen in Marad was a symbol of a growing body of men and women in Kerala who "bore the same vision and the same dream and moved forward as one" in their belief that a "Hindu Kerala is not a myth", that each one of them has to "take such a glorious vision to heart" to bring to reality a Kerala that will become a "laboratory for the Hindu way of life and vision, if not immediately, soon, in future".

Recently, the Sangh Parivar announced an ambitious target for such men and women: of spreading the activities of the Parivar to all regions in the State by 2006, the birth centenary year of RSS leader Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. The focus of its recent activities has been on extending its influence among all sections of Hindus, especially Dalits, fisherfolk and Adivasis, and gaining acceptance in the State through persistent socio-cultural interventions (Frontline, December 2, 2002 and February 28, 2003).

In Kerala, the RSS-led growth of the Sangh Parivar has overshadowed the activities of its political arm, the BJP, especially in the years since the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The number of RSS `shakhas' has increased from 4,300 in 2001 to 4,800. Its organisers claim that the `Sangh' is active in all the 14 districts of the State, the weakest links being the Christian belt of the high-range Idukki and Wayanad districts and the predominantly Muslim areas of north Kerala. According to RSS activists, over 10,000 locations have been "identified" for active work and in 1,329 of them daily drills and discussions take place for an hour each in the morning, evening and night.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), too, has established its organisational network in all parts of the State, resorting to emotive actions such as the distribution of tridents and the controversial construction of a temple within the Idukki dam area. More important, a myriad RSS-backed socio-cultural organisations promoting communal ideas in the field of education, literature, theatre, science and arts and actively involved in the renovation and protection of temples have made a visible presence in the State within a short period.

The Kshetra Samrakshana Samiti, a Parivar unit with the declared aim of "building a temple-based organised society" and a "temple-based way of life", actively promotes the renovation of small family temples dotting the State and has gained control of the management of the day-to-day affairs and conduct of festivals of a number of big ones. `Balagokulam', a mass organisation for children with over 1,300 units in the State, organises the high-visibility "Srikrishna Jayanti rally and celebrations" in various cities and towns every year. Thousands of children participate in the event. In addition, it runs Balasamskara Kendras (children's cultural centres) at five centres; `Sowrakshika', an organisation for the protection of children's rights; Mayilpeeli, a magazine; and `Amrita Bharati Vidya Peetom', a centre for the promotion of Sanskrit and Hindu culture.

Balagokulam claims a membership of over 26,000 children, who attend weekly catch-them-young classes. The aim is to groom them as leadership material for other Hindutva activities. As part of its 30th anniversary, Balagokulam has announced the establishment of an `International Sri Krishna Centre' in Kerala, to be developed as a Sri Krishna pilgrimage centre in the State.

The Bharatiya Vichara Kendra, an intellectual forum for debate with political opponents, was established in Kerala in 1982 after a sudden spurt in RSS activity following frequent clashes between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and RSS activists in north Kerala. It has more than 30 units in the State and brings out a magazine. Among other activities, it conducts Gita, Yoga and Sanskrit classes.

Perhaps the most prominent and effective Sangh Parivar organisation is the one that is involved in education, the Bharatiya Vidya Niketan. It runs about 375 schools in all the districts with no government support and purely on the initiative of the local Parivar cadre. Fifteen schools, the majority of them in districts that have a sizable Muslim or Christian population, follow the syllabi of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), with English as the medium of instruction. The rest follow the State syllabus. Teachers are required to undergo special training under a five-point programme, which includes physical education, Sanskrit, yoga, value education and art and culture, all meant to acquaint them, and eventually their pupils, "with the Hindu way of life". Key organisers in such schools are from the RSS, even though the organisation does not have any direct involvement in its running.

In addition to Janmabhoomi, a daily newspaper, and Kesari, a weekly, the Parivar has 10 regular publications in the State. The Swadesi Science Movement, which has as its declared objective the development of an "Indian approach to science" (it recently organised an international conference on Ayurveda), and `Tapasya', an organisation promoting art and culture, are also prominent Sangh Parivar "recruitment agencies".

In the past few years, the Hindutva combine's voluntary activity has had a new focus: the tribal and coastal areas of Kerala. Providing free medical aid and education and running informal, single-teacher schools for tribal children are some of the activities it undertakes there. A 33-bed hospital at Kalpetta in the predominantly tribal Wayanad district, for example, offers free food, medicines, in-patient facitlity and diagnostic services to the tribal people. The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has established its units in 52 tribal areas of the State and is now engaged in meeting the "challenge" of Christian missionary activity in those areas, offering competitive healthcare and educational facilities.

Early last year, the attack on an American missionary, Joseph William Cooper, in Thiruvananthapuram, almost coincided with the two-day `Vanavasi Sangamom' organised by the Sangh Parivar at Mananthavadi in Wayanad district, to promote the all-India game plan of "Hinduising" tribal people. The high-profile conference, attended by top Sangh Parivar leaders, was itself preceded by events orchestrated by the VHP and other Hindutva organisations to "celebrate the reconversion of (a few) Adivasis to Hinduism". The Matsya Pravartaka Sanghom, another RSS family unit, recently started a mobilisation initiative, organising `Sagara poojas' (worshipping the sea) and Hindu maha sammelans at select centres in the coastal areas and near freshwater lakes.

This is but an example of the vast infrastructure the RSS-led Hindutva organisations have established in Kerala, which it considers a sunrise region for interventions tailored to bring about a fundamentalist shift in the thinking of Hindus. But the Hindu community, whose loyalties are divided among various political parties and coalitions, castes and caste-based political groups, has so far given no indications of helping the Parivar realise its dream.

For three days from January 24, the RSS held a "Pranteeya Karyakarthru Sibiram" in Kollam, its first in 25 years in Kerala, where the Hindutva vision and dreams were reiterated. Nearly 16,000 delegates, ranging from leaders of 4,800 shakhas in Kerala to the top leadership including Sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan, participated in it. The address to the delegates of the conference by P. Parameswaran, director of the Bharatiya Vichara Kendra, was a clear exposition of the Sangh Parivar's vision of the challenges it faced in Kerala and its long-term prospects in the State. The following are certain significant excerpts from his speech:

1.Compared to other States, Kerala has a "substantial population of Muslims, organised Christian missionary activity and support for deep-rooted, `anti-national' Communist way of thinking". The State's Hindu population came down in a decade from 57 per cent to 55 per cent, while the Muslim and Christian populations increased to 23.34 per cent and 19.32 per cent. "Even while we take pride in the fact that Hindus form 55 per cent of the population, we should not forget that the `other side' is 45 per cent. Even though Hindus are described as the majority, they should remember that they are neither organised nor strong. That is why they do not have influence or participation in any sector in the State."

2.The formation of united Kerala (from the erstwhile Malabar, Cochin and Travancore regions) "had also created an imbalance in terms of population", along with changes in the structure of government and politics of the State. (From then on) Hindu society lost the position and influence it had before. It lost its predominant position in the economy, politics and the educational sector in the State. "Other sections" came to prominence. "Minority community organisations transformed themselves into political parties. An organisation that was once described as a "dead horse" (the Muslim League) increased its number of seats, its position and influence. It gained the strength to shake Kerala to the core. It threw ordinary laws to the winds. The result was that along with their pre-eminence in the politics of the State, they gained in the fields of education, industries as well as economically. Land came under their control. The state of Hindus became pathetic. They did not get even the benefits due to 55 per cent of the peopulation."

3.Though the RSS has grown in strength in Kerala with its extremely complex social climate, it is unable yet to put the stamp of Hindutva in all walks of life, even though "anti-Hindu, anti-national" forces remain strong but divided among themselves. It is unable yet to spread the message of Hindutva among such forces that continue to fight among themselves.

4.The intention of the Sangh Parivar is not to create a Hindu organisation, but the strengthening of Hindu society... to have its influence in all fields of life, including the economy and education. Its aim is to bring about a social transformation by organising Hindus in all walks of society and grow as an organisation of Hindu society.

5.The Parivar finds it encouraging that the Hindu revivalism taking place all over India "is finding its echo in Kerala too"; that "people who once sabotaged such efforts were seeing them with respect now"; that "a new spiritual climate" is developing in the State; that the number of `spiritual gurus' is growing in Kerala ; that the number of believers too is growing; and that "the various religious and cultural activities it organised in the hundreds of temples in the State are being widely welcomed. It believes in cooperating with the spiritual revival efforts controlled by organisations that have no link with the Parivar. "Ours is not an isolated stream, but a huge Ganga that accepts all such efforts."

6.The Sangh Parivar believes that the present climate is ideal for its growth in Kerala. It believed that the people are waiting eagerly to accept the Hindutva message. Critics have disappeared and the sound of criticism has vanished. "Kerala today has two political coalitions which are bereft of ideas and are ideologically in a state of vacuum and need not be a hindrance for the Sangh Parivar's activities."

Parameswaran's statements are the clearest exposition yet of the concerns, goals and strategies of the RSS in relation to Kerala from its own leaders. Clearly, it is because its political goal often seemed so elusive in Kerala that the Hindutva combine had, ever since the 1990s, subtly shifted its fight onto a new battlefield - that of winning the hearts and minds of Hindus through non-political, religious and socio-cultural mediation, using a vast network of organisations. It is a platform where it finds itself left to its own winning deeds by secular formations, including the Left parties and the Congress(I).


KARNATAKA -Mutts as political players

What will be the likely role of the mutts in Karnataka in determining the outcome of the elections in the State? Though defined legally as a religious establishment headed by a pontiff, the mutt plays a role that extends well beyond the purely religious. The mutts in Karnataka are sharply divided along caste and sectarian lines. They have emerged as major and not-to-be-ignored political players in the present milieu, offering direct or indirect support to political parties and candidates.

The Madhwa mutts in the coastal belt have been vehicles for the spread of Hindutva, both as an ideology and as an electoral force. There are eight Madhwa mutts, which are the joint custodians of the Krishna temple in Udupi - the Palimar, Adamar, Krishnapur, Puttige, Shirur, Sode, Kaniyur and Pejavar mutts. The reigning pontiffs of the mutts conduct worship at the Udupi temple by a system of rotation. The two most prominent mutts that have long been the standard-bearers of the Hindutva cause are the Pejavar and Adamar mutts. The pontiff of the Pejavar mutt, Sri Vishwesa Tirtha Swamiji, is a founder-member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and has been associated with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement from its inception. He was present in Ayodhya when the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992 and is a prominent figure on all Sangh Parivar platforms both in Karnataka and elsewhere in the country.

Speaking to Frontline from Udupi, the octogenarian head of the Pejavar mutt said he actively propagated the message of Hindutva and spread the aims of the Ayodhya movement by addressing meetings, rallies and samaveshas (mass meetings). "I speak about it and answer questions. If there is any wrong writing on these issues in newspapers, I reply immediately. I know from the reactions at my meetings that the message has spread very well in Karnataka." As a margadarshi for the VHP, he had ensured that his mutt worked with the VHP on many activities, he said, although the mutt also worked through its own organisations, particularly in providing education and healthcare in tribal areas and inaccessible hilly regions.

The Pejavar mutt, in particular, has given active patronage to the samavesha, which has, in recent months, become the most popular method of Hindu mass mobilisation in the coastal belt. Following the Gujarat riots, the samavesha has become a frequent event, spreading now from the cities to small towns and villages of Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts. "The town or village is first covered with plastic saffron flags of the VHP. The meeting is usually held near a minority-dominated area. Leaders of the VHP, like Pravin Togadia, spit fire and venom in their speeches, which threaten the minorities and exhort Hindus to build a Hindu Rashtra," said H. Pattabhirama Somayaji, Professor of English at University College, Mangalore. "Mutt leaders like the Pejavar Swamiji are frequent speakers at these meetings. In fact, in the last 10 years the mutts have become the standard bearers of Hindutva rather than formal political parties. Political leaders depend more and more upon the Swamijis to get their message across."

With the emergence of the mutts as the rallying points for Hindutva in this region, the distinction between the religious and the political as different spheres of public activity has all but disappeared. "Most religious functions have been saffronised," said Somayaji. Take paryaya, a ceremony held every two years to mark the passing on of the authority to conduct worship in the Krishna temple amongst the pontiffs of the eight Madhwa mutts. From a ceremony confined to a sect of Madhwa Brahmins in Karnataka, paryaya has virtually become a State-level function for all Hindus and a major expression of the power and prestige of the mutt concerned. This year's paryaya ceremony was attended by a galaxy of persons prominent in public life in the State. Even the myriad `little traditions' of Hinduism, like the Bhootakulas - a popular form of spirit worship practised in the villages of Dakshina Kannada district by members of the lower castes - have been permeated by the colour, sound, speech and symbolism of Hindutva, said Somayaji.

"I have lived here for the past 50 years and was saddened to see the Udupi Krishna temple founded 7,000 years ago by the great Madhwacharya, flying the flag of the VHP," said G. Rajashekhar, an employee of the Life Insurance Corporation of India and an active member of the Souharda Vedike, an organisation that has been fighting communalism. According to him, the Pejavar Swamiji welcomed and blessed Pravin Togadia at a mammoth samajotsava held recently in Udupi. The banners at the rally glorified Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and Togadia and hailed Dara Singh, the murderer of the Australian missionary Graham Stains and his two sons, as the "saviour of Hinduism". "We protested to the District Commissioner, after which Dara Singh's name was removed from the banners," said Rajashekhar. "The Pejavar Swamiji says he condemns the violence in Gujarat. Why does he then continue to patronise Hindutva outfits that supported it?"

The Pejavar Swamiji told Frontline that though he might share a platform with Modi or Togadia, he did not hesitate to disagree with them publicly on some issues. "I argue with them and oppose them whether it is the Gujarat violence or the issue of war with Pakistan which Togadia supports and I oppose, or with Giriraj Kishore Acharya who recently said that the life of a cow was more precious than the life of a Dalit. I opposed them on all these issues," he said.

Although until very recently each Madhwa mutt had its own location of caste influence, in recent years the mutts have tried to propagate Hindutva across the caste divide. Mahatma Gandhi refused to enter the Krishna temple on a visit to Udupi in the 1930s because untouchability was practised there. Today, however, the mutts realise that for Hindutva to have any relevance for the lower-caste segments of the population, it has necessarily to be given political articulation and distanced, at least in its rhetoric, from Brahminism. The mutts realise that they cannot do this on their own and must associate themselves with the political outfits of the Sangh Parivar, which use the samaveshas as fora to make the call for the unification of Hindu society.

One of Hinduism's attributes was its sanction for a plurality of forms of religious practice. This non-threatening and accommodative element of Hinduism is being erased systematically by the votaries of Hindutva. Today, economically vulnerable castes like fisherfolk, weavers, carpenters, barbers, cobblers and potters are being drawn into the ambit of a militant Hindutva worldview. "It is clear from the attendance at their rallies that the appeal of the Hindutva parties is no longer to elitist Hindus but to Hindu society at large," says Rajashekhar. Here too it is the Pejavar mutt that has shown the way. Its pontiff has considerable influence with leaders both at the Centre and in the State.

An influence far greater than that of the Brahmin mutts is exerted by the Veerashaiva or Lingayat mutts on social and political life in Karnataka. Veerashaivism grew out of a revolutionary 12th century reform movement started by Basava against the stranglehold of Brahminism on religion and society. Lingayats, or the followers of Basava, are converts from various castes, and all castes have their Lingayat converts.

The mutt became the functional nucleus of Basava's philosophy where religion met its social purpose of providing free education and food to all sections of the social order regardless of caste. Veerashaiva mutts, which spread and consolidated themselves in the last decades of the 19th century and in early 20th century, grew with state patronage after Independence. Today, many Veerashaiva mutts are powerful commercial entities that run hundreds of educational institutions. They also control bulk votes and are therefore sought after by political parties.

"The Veerashaiva mutts have, by and large, resisted the growth of Hindutva in Karnataka as their founding philosophy is anti-Brahminical," said K. Marulasiddappa, a well-known Kannada writer and literary critic. On the other hand, the need for state patronage and cordial relations with the party in power exerts a contrary pull on them, which is why some Veerashaiva pontiffs have been less outspoken than others against the politics of the Sangh Parivar. Some of the major Veerashaiva mutts, like the Tumkur Siddaganga mutt, the Mysore Suttur mutt, the Chitradurga Sirigere mutt, the Sanehalli mutt and the Nidumamidi mutts and Belimath in Bangalore, the Gadag mutt and the Muragha mutt in Chitradurga, have not endorsed the politics of Hindutva. Some of the pontiffs of these mutts have actively opposed it. "However, the hard fact is that it is caste, and not politics, that eventually determines which party or candidate a particular mutt supports," said Marulasiddappa.

"Political Hindutva is the new face of Brahminism, which the vaidika mutts are spreading," Sri Veerabhadra Chennamalla Swamiji of the Nidumamidi mutt told Frontline. "While on the one hand they say that Hindu society is one, they embrace casteism, patriarchy and untouchability. They are using Dalits and Sudras for vote bank purposes."

Scoffing at the samaveshas organised by the Sangh Parivar, where "ready-made crowds comprising VHP, RSS and Sangh Parivar activists" are ferried, the Swamiji, who is a frequent speaker on anti-communal platforms, believes that a majority in all religions are peace-loving and will defeat the designs of the communal forces.

"Lingayats believe in casteless, classless, secular principles," the pontiff of the Gadag mutt, Sri Jagadguru Tontada Siddalinga Mahaswamiji, told Frontline. The Swamiji was a recipient of Communal Harmony Award 2001, instituted by the Government of India. "Lingayatism differs radically from Hinduism. We are naturally against the Hindutva concept and oppose its onslaught against the people at large. On the other hand, the Vedic mutts, which are Hindu mutts, support the Sangh Parivar and indirectly the BJP," he said.

Several leading Veerashaiva mutt heads were associated with the founding of the VHP at its first Dharma Sansad in 1984, according to Sri Shivarudra Mahaswamy, the pontiff of the Belimath Maha Sansthana in Bangalore. "At that time, the VHP focussed on social reform within Hinduism, which we supported. It was only after the Ram Janmabhoomi movement started that these swamijis became disenchanted and left," he told Frontline. The Swamiji himself stayed on in the VHP. He was present in Ayodhya during the destruction of the Babri Masjid ("none of us knew this would happen," he claims) and slowly began distancing himself from the Sangh Parivar after that. "The final break with the VHP for me came with Gujarat. I was the only Lingayat swamiji who participated in all their functions, but after Gujarat I left out of conviction. They think they are building a Hindu society - they are only building hell," he said. Although wary of the BJP, the Veerashaiva mutts are likely to support Lingayat candidates if they are fielded by the party. The electoral outcome, particularly in north Karnataka, will be influenced strongly by the way Lingayats vote.

The only religious caste leader of the Vokkaligas is the Swamiji of the Adichunchungiri mutt, a powerful establishment with assets running into crores of rupees. The Swamiji is as much of a political figure as a religious one and is known to be close to the ruling Congress(I), although he also accepts invitations to speak on Sangh Parivar platforms. At a recent samavesha in Bangalore, the Swamiji is reported to have said that just as Muslims and Christians have their own countries, Hindus need theirs. He later retracted the statement, claiming that he had been misquoted.

With his sizable wealth and vote base, the swamiji is much-sought-after by political parties. Except on the coast, where the BJP will have the backing of a sizable section of the mutts, in the rest of the State the major non-Brahmin mutts appear to be tilting towards either the Congress(I) or the Janata Dal(S). This will certainly have an impact on the electoral chances of the BJP in this region.