The Paravur fireworks tragedy has triggered a very lively debate in Kerala on the need for continuing the tradition of fireworks and display of elephants in religious festivals. These practices are not limited to Hindu temples only.
Understandably, our political leaders are circumspect in demanding a total ban on these but most of the community leaders like NSS general secretary, Sivagiri Mutt chief and several bishops have supported such a demand and questioned the argument that these are integral ingredients of religious celebrations.
In Christian communities, these are seen as a proud declaration of their Hindu ancestry in line with the use of mangalyasutram and mantrakodi in Syrian Christian weddings but nobody claims that fireworks and elephants are needed to please God. Yet, the previous attempts by some progressive bishops to discourage these practices were met with derision and defiance in local communities.
On the other hand, many conservative Hindus tend to believe that these are an essential part of temple rituals and, therefore, sacred. The shockwaves of the Paravur tragedy have forced this segment of the population to go into silent mode for the time being. Many of them are perhaps still unconvinced about the propriety of giving up fireworks altogether at temple festivals just as their ancestors were shocked by the sacrilege of the Temple Entry Proclamation issued by the Maharajah of Travancore.
The processions organized by religious organisations, political parties, trade unions, social organisations, etc., on public roads and the high-decibel broadcast of prayers from places of worship using powerful loudspeakers have also become a great public nuisance, causing annoyance to the common man. The silent majority of Keralites will be extremely happy if all such activities are totally banned.
The fireworks issue is just one symptom of the rot that has set in. Lack of respect for the rule of law and inflated notions about the democratic rights of individuals and political organisations have become the hallmark of today's Kerala society. Newspapers every day carry stories of road accidents that have caused multiple deaths. Yet, hardly any concrete action is taken to check this. We see road safety campaigns from time to time but these are not sustained. Nor is there any real determination to stamp out this life-threatening lawlessness.
The way people drive on the roads would suggest that they own the roads and can do whatsoever they like. Drunken driving and driving by unlicensed juvenile drivers are quite common. Occasionally, one or two people would be detained for these offences because they have no godfathers and do not have enough money to grease palms. Is the government so helpless to stop this carnage on the roads?
Ours indeed is a strange democracy that finds it difficult even to implement court directions. When the Kerala high court banned public meetings on the roadside that affect free movement of traffic, an important political leader called the judges “idiots”. It is pointless to criticize one particular leader as lawless. His attitude towards political activities causing inconvenience to the public actually reflects the general approach of our political class that has come to consider itself a privileged class.
Politicians feel that their right to organize meetings even blocking traffic on a road should take precedence over the right of the public to free movement. Any criticism of trade union activities disrupting the lives of people is seen as an encroachment on workers’ rights. In other words, people who do not belong to any political party or trade union are second-class citizens, the modern day sudras, and they have no rights.
The attitude of religious leaders is no different. They too behave as though they are a class apart and they are beyond the law which is applicable to ordinary mortals. Religious leaders and religious institutions exist in a parallel world similar to that of political leaders and political parties. Black money is the currency in these parallel worlds but investigating agencies are not allowed to touch them and they cannot be asked to furnish information under the RTI Act. Why is it that churches, temples and Muslim organisations do not publish their accounts and make these available for public scrutiny? They seem to be unaware of the fact that there are laws in this country governing financial transactions. Everything, including breach of law, is allowed in practice under the garb of politics and religion. Bucket collections and election donations received by political parties and offertory or “kanikka” collections received by religious organisations are shrouded in mystery.
Competitive ego satisfaction is the basic principle governing the world of religious organisations in Kerala. The thought process of those who control these religious organisations is, “We must have institutions comparable to those of other communities; we must build grand structures as places of worship to project our strength; we can indulge in corruption and make black money because it funds our religious activities.”
There is a discrete understanding between the superior beings inhabiting these two parallel worlds: religious leaders deliver votes and political leaders look the other way when illegal activities go on in religious institutions. The earlier we break this unholy alliance and force transparency on them, the better it will be for our society. I do not expect the forthcoming elections to bring about any changes because there is nothing to choose between the competing fronts in this matter. Maybe a groundswell of grass-root opinion in favour of change will force the hands of our political leaders in the years to come.