Ganpati Chaturthi: Festival of Hinduism or Hindu nationalism?

Whenever the topic of Vinayakar Chaturthi comes up in Tamil Nadu, it is blamed for not being secular like other Hindu celebrations.

Tamil nationalistic, Dravidian rhetoric around Vinayaka Chaturthi goes like this; ‘pilgrimage to visit Lord Ayappan in Sabarimala is peaceful. So is the case with Lord Murugan, whose devotees come up with processions every year to visit the six major temples around Tamilnadu. But when the Vinayakar Chaturthi procession is conducted, it turns into a frenzy against Non-Hindus, especially towards Muslims. So it is not a festival of secularism.’

This rhetoric has been put in several stages and is very easily understood by the common secular Hindus. The common people, addressed here, practice Hinduism as a religion, but vote for Dravidian parties.

DK tradition in Tamil Nadu over the years

Historically, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) had ties with Dravidar Kazhagam (DK). Founded by Periyar and bricked with the `Self Respect Movement’, DK crusaded against blind religious beliefs and advocated for rationality. Therefore, the Dravidian parties, especially the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) are often targeted and termed ‘Anti Hindu’ by the Hindutva groups in Tamilnadu.

Although DMK has travelled much farther from Periyar’s staunch atheist principles, DMK’s former supremo M.Karunanidhi was a follower of Periyar. During his rule, he has made strong comments on Hindu religion, whenever Hindutva outfits try to communalise any given issue.

A few weeks earlier, Karunanidhi’s son and the current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M.K.Stalin, who himself is a proclaimed atheist, announced the ban on Vinayakar Chaturthi processions in the state, citing the Covid -19 restrictions. His announcement was opposed by the BJP, Hindu Munnani and other Hindutva fringe outfits. Ex IPS turned Tamil Nadu BJP president Annamalai was the first person to condemn this announcement.

In addition to condemning the C.M for banning the annual Vinayakar Chaturthi procession, Annamalai also asked Hindus statewide to send post cards to the C.M, urging him to release greetings in favour of people celebrating Vinayakar Chaturthi.

Hailing from Dravidian movement and as proclaimed atheists, DMK leaders have always refrained themselves away from Hindu festivals, but they have always greeted for Eid, Christmas, Milad e Nabi, Muharram and Easter Sundays every year, as a gesture of showing their support and presence to the Bahujan minority communities.

During the early nineties in Tamil Nadu, Vinakayar Chaturthi, also called Ganpati Chaturthi in North India, has been infamous for its riots against the Muslim communities.

Although the festival has been celebrated with public displays of the Vinayaka idol in the past, as Pillaiyar Chaturthi earlier, the current form of Vinayakar Chaturthi originated in the late eighties. The long processions of Vinayakar idols end after the idols are immersed in water bodies every year.

During these processions, the Hindutva mob raises slogans such as Bharat Mata ki Jai and sometimes derogatory remarks on Muslims likeThulukkana vettu, Thulukkachiya kattu.’ (Kill the Muslim male; Marry the Muslim female – Thulukkan being an offensive term to denote Muslims). Vinayakar Chaturthi is comparatively a much newer festival and it is only 127 years old. The first Vinayakar Chaturthi festival, in its current form, was celebrated in 1894 by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Bombay Presidency during British rule.

Hindu Nationalists have been using three major holy’ properties to consolidate various castes under the guise of Hinduism – Cow, Ram and Ganesha. The usage of these holy’ properties differ from place to place.

In 2020, Tamilnadu BJP and other Hindutva elements took Lord Murugan, being called the Tamil God, to be ‘saved’ from the Dravidian atheists. There was a ‘Vel Yatra’ with a slogan praising Lord Murugan, calling for Hindu consolidation, which said ‘Vettri Vel! Veera Vel!’. Vel, being the weapon of Lord Murugan, was considered to be the symbol of this protest. Even DMK leader MK Stalin, who was the opposition leader of Tamil Nadu Assembly, at that time was presented with aVel’ in an event.

Despite all of BJP’s hardships, this ‘Vel’ movement never saw masses turning towards them. M.K.Stalin, during his swearing-in ceremony, saidI, Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin’ in which he emphasized his grandfather’s name `Muthuvel’, thereby putting an end to the Hindutva’s politics of cornering Dravidian parties as Lord Murugan’s enemies.

Ganpathi Chathurthi – Consolidations and Communalism

Tilak, being a Chitpavan Brahmin, converted the private worship model of Ganpati Chaturthi into a public one against the festival of Muharram. Tilak utilized Ganpati as a tool of consolidating Hindus, across various caste lines, into one against the common enemies – The British and the Muslims.

After a communal riot between Hindu and Muslim communities in July 1893, Tilak laid the founding stone for Ganpati processions in September 1893. This founding stone, which consolidated various castes into the Hindu fold, has its roots in the early nineteenth century.

After losing to the British in the Bhima Koregaon battle, the power of Chitpavan Brahmins, who were working under the Peshwas, was reduced much. The then Bombay Governor Elphinstone announced `Dakshinas’ for the livelihood of Chitpavan Brahmins, in the form of providing western education to the children of the community. After graduating, these children grew up to be clerks and officers in the British administration.

Like Chitpavan Brahmins, Gujarati Banias were in huge numbers in the Bombay Presidency. Initially, they used to be the financiers for the British East India Company. After the entire power was vested with the British in course of time, the Gujarati Banias had no place in power. This lead them to compete in market, along with the Muslim Memons and Jain communities.

After the rebellion of 1857, the British decided to avoid hiring from one particular community in India. Simultaneously, Jyotiba Phule began the Non-Brahmin Bahujan movement in Maharashtra. Phule’s long works for the upliftment of the Non-Brahmin communities extended from setting up schools, running newspapers, building labour unions and later went on to demand the British Government to provide reservations in education and employment for the Non-Brahmin Bahujans.

While all these activities were happening, the Memon, Bohra and Khoja Muslims communities ran their own schools to provide education to Muslim children. Working-class Muslim youth denounced working under the business communities of Muslim elite and took Phule’s path, seeking jobs and education from the British Government.

When a few educated Brahmin youth gave voice against the regressive practices of Sati and Child marriage within the Hindu religion, another Brahmin sect under Tilak and V.K.Chiplunkar joined hands to form schools to instill nationalistic’ values to children. In 1885, the Bombay Education department took initiatives to provide 5% reservation to children belonging to Non-Brahmin Maratha castes. While Jyotiba Phule’sDin Bandhu’ embraced this initiative with joy, `Kesari’ run by Tilak protested this decision. Like every Hindu Nationalist, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and his Brahmin companions viewed these reservations as an attempt to create a rift between the Hindu society.

To consolidate the Hindu society divided along caste lines, the cow protection movement by Dayanand Saraswathi in Northern India was imported into the Bombay Presidency. Predecessors to the Gau Rakshas in present India, this cow protection movement named Gau Rakshak Mandali was used to promote communalization among the religious communities.

Small incidents of hate speeches and distributions of pamphlets with hate messages rolled into one large riot between the communities on 11th August, 1893. This riot empowered Tilak to conduct annual Ganpati Chaturthis, clashing with the Muslim festival of Muharram, which itself also had a ritual of a procession. Tilak organized Ganpati Chaturthi in an attempt to announce his Hindu nationalist fervour to consolidate all’ Hindus against theinvader’ Muslims and Christian Britishers. The non-muslim Bahujans, who attended in Muharram processions, were named traitors.

A few years later, Lala Lajpat Rai of Punjab and Bipin Chander Pal of Bengal took Ganpati Chaturti to their homelands, as a Hindu nationalist festival. This festival, under the disguise of having a spiritual undertone, weighs heavy upon its nationalist fervour. Ganpati Chaturthi began as a festival to consolidate Hindu castes under the shade of Hindu nationalism and Hindu revivalism. Although Hindu nationalists claim Tilak used Vinakayar Chaturthi against British rule, it was not the pluralistic Indian nationalism he was suggesting. Instead, it was the Hindu nationalism he advocated.

On August 24, 2020, Udhayanidhi Stalin, the son of M.K.Stalin and considered to be DMK’s next successor, posted an image on Twitter in which a decorated Ganpati statue was held by a young girl. After being bashed by Dravidian supporters, Udhayanidhi issued a statement in which he clarified he was still an atheist and it was his daughter’s wish to post that picture on Twitter. If Ganpati was just considered a Hindu God, worshipping and conducting processions would have been uncomplicated. But it has been imposed as an icon of Hindu Nationalism, which decides the `We’ and `Them’ of the Hindu nation.

Ilyas R Muhammed is a Chennai based journalist.