Identity vs class: Tamil Nadu CPI(M)’s temple fest bid marks ideological shift, sparks debate

The Tamil Nadu CPI(M)’s decision to take active part in temple festivals in the state to counter the Sangh Parivar, has created a stir in political circles. This was declared last Wednesday by CPI(M) state secretary K Balakrishnan while addressing a press conference ahead of the party state conference to be held in Madurai next week. The move raised many eyebrows in the Left circles as it was widely perceived as a major shift from the CPI(M)’s core ideology, which may trigger conflict and confusion among the party’s card-holding members, who keep their political life insulated from issues related to religion and its symbols.

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A leader hailing from the Cauvery Delta’s agrarian belt, Balakrishnan said the move was aimed at building a “solid resistance” to the Sangh Parivar’s dominance in temples. Even though it is required to be endorsed formally by the state CPI(M)’s upcoming 23rd party conference, he said the decision is about taking up cultural aspects of temple festivals which involve masses.

The Communist parties in India, including the CPI(M), have always fought shy of identity politics and focused on class politics, even as common people across the country continue to have various deeply-held identities including religious faith.

The Tamil Nadu CPI(M)’s move is clearly aimed at expanding the party base while seeking to play a more significant role in electoral politics, even as virtually all Dravidian parties, including the DMK, have now been refraining from projecting their rationalist politics. In the 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly polls, the CPI(M) has contested as part of the DMK-Congress alliance and won two seats.

In his speeches during his Assembly campaign, DMK president M K Stalin, the Chief Minister, used to also list his party’s work over the decades for protection of the Hindu temples. The Dravidian and Left parties had then seemed shaken up by a BJP’s outreach to believers through a campaign centred around Lord Murugan, the most popular Hindu god in Tamil households.

“The move by the CPI(M)’s Tamil Nadu unit is a highly opportunistic and hypocritical move. They should have started engaging with the faithful at least 50 years back. You should have had that dialectical approach to engage with religion and spirituality,” said Ramu Manivannan, the former head of political sciences at the University of Madras. “They denied caste and all identities to promote the class politics, and failed farmers and the oppressed. They didn’t think of religion when they were an ally of the UPA government (at the Centre). Now they are entering the faith regime for the vote bank politics, after seeing BJP effectively using religion,” he charged.

It is another matter that the CPI(M) in Kerala, which is currently the ruling party in that state, has had made similar moves over the years. It has formed its connections with several prominent temple committees besides participating in the celebration of the Hindu festivals with an aim to curb the influence of the BJP and the RSS there.

A prominent writer, poet and ex-Naxalite, Civic Chandran, who had been associated with the Left armed groups in South India in the 1970s and 80s, welcomed the Tamil Communists’ bid to acknowledge the existence of faith in people’s lives. “But it should not be that typical utilitarian tactic of the Communists to hijack something, but an effort to gain a language to engage with the faithful. Communists should internalise the values of the faithful if they want to keep them away from communalists. The Communists should realise that they can become spiritual without being religious or without going to temples,” he said.

The “problem of Communist movements,” Chandran charged, was that “they denied everything except class”. “They denied all identities. If you are a lone urban Naxal, you can believe in a single-dimensional class war. But when you are a mass movement, you have to engage with families, talk to the most ordinary people, who are all faithful…Let them (Communists) realise that spiritualisation of politics is also possible,” he said.

On whether the Communists and rationalists could be simultaneously materialist and spiritualist, the prominent Tamil writer Cho Dharman said, “It looks like they can.” He claimed the Communists never knew the difference between blind beliefs and the local culture. “Even the British knew that, they never touched the faith. But Periyar and Communists denied faith, they ridiculed gods. What have they gained? I am happy if they have realised now the nuances of faith, that the mere stone being worshipped was not a blind belief but an icon of memories and our own history,” he said.

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