//The 'Vinayaka Chaturthi' Festival and Hindutva in Tamil Nadu

The 'Vinayaka Chaturthi' Festival and Hindutva in Tamil Nadu

C J Fullerr, Economic and Political Weekly, May 12, 2001

Hindu god, Ganesh(a): Pillaiyar (Tamil), Vinayakar (Telegu).

Hindu Munnani March, Ganesh(a): Pillaiyar (Tamil), Vinayakar (Telegu).

The principal annual festival of ‘Vinayaka’ or ‘Ganesha’ falls on the fourth day of the bright fortnight of ‘Bhadrapada’ (August-September). In Tamil Nadu, ‘Vinayaka Chaturthi’ (as it is known) is very widely celebrated with special rituals in people’s homes, as well as at Vinayaka’s temples and shrines. Until the 1980s, though, there were no large-scale public ceremonies and processions at the festival, as there have been at Ganesha Chaturthi in Maharashtra since the late 19th century.

In Chennai (Madras) on Chaturthi day in 1983, a little group of Hindu activists belonging to the Hindu Munnani (‘Hindu Front’), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) installed an image – or ‘idol’ – of Vinayaka in a public place near a temple in West Mambalam, a suburb in the south-west of the city. A few days later, they took their image in a procession for immersion in a temple tank. One year later, images were set up in several other localities, including Triplicane in the centre of the city, and from this tiny beginning, the scale of public Vinayaka Chaturthi celebrations expanded fairly rapidly in Chennai. In 1990, for the first but not the last time, a procession of many tall images accompanied by thousands of Hindus led to a bloody riot with Muslims near the Ice House mosque in Triplicane [Geetha and Rajadurai 1990; Pandian 1992]. Vinayaka Chaturthi remains a major public festival in Chennai, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s its celebration spread across Tamil Nadu, to both urban and rural areas. Before the 1995 festival, the Hindu Munnani’s president plausibly claimed that immersion processions would take place in every panchayat district in Tamil Nadu (The Hindu, June 28, 1995).

In almost every locality, the festival’s principal initiators have been activists belonging to the Hindu Munnani, RSS, BJP and other allied organisations in the Sangh parivar. The Hindu Munnani was founded in the early 1980s and rose to prominence later in the decade. Accurate information about the structure of the Munnani, and the caste and class composition of its membership, is sparse, but it certainly draws support from across the whole social spectrum [Fuller 1996:24-28, Pandian 1990].1 Alongside the RSS, the Munnani has become the main militant Hindu nationalist or communalist organisation in Tamil Nadu, closely linked to the BJP and playing a politico-religious role similar to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in north India, although the VHP itself also has a presence in the state. In 1995-96, the Hindu Munnani split internally, which led to the emergence of a rival organisation, the ‘Hindu Makkal Katchi’ (‘Hindu People’s Party’). Since then, in various places including Chennai, there have been two separate public festivals ending with processions on different days, but its smaller rival has done little serious damage to the Munnani’s strength.

Between 1991 and 1996, when the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) headed by Jayalalitha was in power, the Munnani broadly supported her government and its promotion of brahmanical Hinduism, which virtually amounted to a Tamil version of Hindutva [Fuller 1996: 22 and Geetha and Jayanthi 1995: 261]. When the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) under Karunanidhi returned to power in 1996, the de facto alliance between the government and the Munnani ended, and in that year, after violence at the festival in 1995, the government infuriated the Munnani by diverting the processional route away from the Ice House mosque in Triplicane. Yet the DMK is no longer the party of militant anti-brahmanism which existed in the 1970s [Fuller 1999: 36-37 and Pandian 1994], and ideological differences have not impeded an alliance with the BJP – and hence indirectly with the Munnani – in place since before the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. In 1999, Vinayaka Chaturthi actually occurred during these elections, so that its political implications were always prominent, although this was almost equally true in 2000, because all politicians were then looking ahead to the state assembly elections due in 2001.

Because the BJP itself has never won very many votes in Tamil Nadu, some commentators suppose that Hindu nationalism has had little impact there. But they are wrong.2 The BJP is well-organised and firmly entrenched in many areas of Tamil Nadu, and more or less openly it has been allied with the state’s ruling party for much of the last decade. Moreover and more importantly, popular acceptance of Hindutva as an ideology or discourse, or more loosely as a set of ideas and assumptions, cannot be directly measured by voting figures, because the fortunes of political parties rise and fall for reasons that are partly independent of longer-term, underlying shifts in people’s attitudes. The public Vinayaka festival in Tamil Nadu was copied from its counterpart in Maharashtra by the Hindu Munnani and it is another successful example of the Sangh parivar’s ‘appropriation of traditional Hindu rituals’ in a dual process that aims to ‘nationalise’ Hinduism and ‘Hinduise’ the nation [Basu et al 1993: 39-40].3 Thus Vinayaka Chaturthi has become a vehicle to disseminate Hindutva ideology; it has played a significant part in moving Hindu nationalism ‘from the margins of Indian society to its centre stage’ [Hansen 1999: 4] so as to ‘normalise’ it within Tamil Nadu’s religious-cum-political domain, and Geetha and Jayanthi’s fear that ‘Hindutva ideas may percolate into the common sense of the people of Tamil Nadu’ (1995: 265) has been at least partly realised.

Making and Installing the Images

The primary data reported in this article were collected across Tamil Nadu during the festivals in 1999 and 2000 by a team of researchers who all had good local knowledge, although practical limitations meant that the investigation had to be a short-term one.4

The celebration of Vinayaka Chaturthi obviously depends in the first place on the manufacture and supply of images of the god. Small images, usually no more than one foot high, as used for the traditional domestic festival, are made of painted clay and are mass-produced for sale throughout the state. Some of the larger images needed for the public festival are also made of clay, but the majority are made of papier mache finished with plaster of Paris, which makes them light and easy to transport. Almost all manufacture is in the hands of men belonging to communities of traditional potters and idol- and statue-makers. Most of the larger images are three or four feet high, but taller ones of six, 10 or 15 feet are not unusual, especially in urban areas. Very tall images are often made on site so that they do not have to be transported, and in Chennai in particular, some images have been more than 30 feet tall. For many years, the maximum height was deliberately increased as a provocative sign of the festival’s success. In the late 1990s, the government tried to restrict the height to 18 feet, although more effective in practice have been the limits imposed by new railway and flyover bridges across Chennai’s main thoroughfares.

All the images are brightly painted, sometimes intricately and beautifully, sometimes quickly a
nd crudely. Although many images are made for retail sale, a large proportion are ordered in advance to specified designs. Many images are ordinary representations of Vinayaka sitting or standing, often on a lotus flower with a small rat, the god’s traditional vehicle, depicted at the base. The rat, however, has become rather unpopular and a lot of images have Vinayaka on a large swan or a lion instead. Unconventional innovations are particularly common in Chennai, where novelty is at a premium. Among the more striking examples in 1999 and 2000 were Vinayaka represented as another god – such as Venkateswara, Narasimha or half-Vinayaka and half-Hanuman – or even as the Maratha king Shivaji, Shirdi Sai Baba, Atal Behari Vajpayee or Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (complete with spectacles). In 1999, the images attracting the most attention were the ‘Kargil Vinayakas’, depicting the god on a field gun or tank in commemoration of India’s recent victory over Pakistan on the Kargil heights. The Kargil Vinayakas clearly reflected the nationalistic militarism prominent in BJP policy and ideology, but it should not be thought that everyone either approved of them or took them too seriously. Thus when I went to Kosapet, the main manufacturing centre in Chennai, I found plenty of people who disliked all novel representations of the god. The Kargil Vinayakas also caused particular hilarity among the craftsmen; Kargil, it seemed, was the fashion for 1999 and more people appeared to find Vinayaka with a gun funny, rather than patriotic or sinister.

In both urban and rural areas, only a small minority of images are actually installed by Hindu Munnani or RSS units. Instead, most images are set up by groups of local residents, shopkeepers or businessmen, devotees of a Vinayaka temple, or members of a voluntary association, political party branch, or local caste organisation. Many of these groups are made up of Munnani and Sangh parivar activists and supporters, but not all of them are, as we shall see below. Sometimes a group is represented by a festival committee, which collects donations to pay for the image and cover the festival’s costs; allegations that some ‘donors’ (including non-Hindus) are forced to hand over cash are often made and equally often denied. Well-organised groups, especially if they are not Munnani supporters, tend to order their images in advance from the makers, but many others obtain theirs from the sizeable stocks commissioned by the Munnani itself. In Madurai in 1999, for example, the Munnani had images made in a nearby village of potters and idol-makers, some to meet advance orders and some for sale at several sites where it set up markets. In the end, around 70 images were sold for installation in the city, but quite a few more never found buyers. In 2000, three weeks before the festival, the Munnani brought 10 craftsmen from Kanchipuram who manufactured about 150 images in a warehouse on the outskirts of Madurai. The village potters complained about their loss of trade, but partly because some of the images made in the warehouse were sent to other towns, the Munnani could not supply last-minute customers and the total sold in Madurai was only slightly higher than in 1999. The effectiveness of the Munnani’s manufacturing and distribution system is indeed very variable. Thus for Coimbatore city and its vicinity, the Munnani efficiently supplied more than 300 images in both years. By contrast, for Ramanathapuram town, it supplied 72 images from a site 200 miles away in 1999, but sold only 50 of them, which led to an argument about payment for the rest; that in turn ruined distribution in 2000 because nothing was properly organised and only 20 images were belatedly obtained.

The asking price everywhere varied from 300 to 500 rupees for a three-feet image, to 3,000 to 4,000 rupees for a six-feet one, to double that for a 10-feet one, although the final amount always depended on what people were willing or able to pay. The Munnani, however, also gives images away, usually on condition that recipients promise to buy them in future years. Thus for example, I came across an image beside a small Vinayaka temple in a Madurai suburb. The temple had recently been built by a local group of auto-rickshaw drivers, and the Munnani gave them the image, on the understanding that next year they and the families resident nearby would buy one themselves. This is common practice everywhere, for the Munnani’s overriding objective is to maximise the number of images installed, even if it has to donate many of them, and often the technique works well. But not always; in 2000, the drivers just mentioned, collected 8,000 rupees and ordered a tall image, but the Munnani supplied only a small one, which the drivers rejected.

On Chaturthi day, Vinayaka’s images are installed in ‘pandals’ decorated with fronds and flowers, which are usually built on the roadside next to temples, houses or shops, or at prominent junctions. Pandals set up by Munnani supporters or units are decorated with the Munnani’s saffron flags, or those of the RSS or BJP, and it is these flags which clearly identify pro-Munnani images. With variable success, the Munnani quite often tries to force its flags on to independent groups as well. Sometimes Munnani activists deliberately place images close to mosques or churches. All images, wherever positioned, are normally guarded round the clock by the police. Often a sound-system is set up, so that the nearby population can be subjected to deafening film music and the occasional hymn; when this is done near a mosque, trouble at the time of prayers is the predictable outcome and has to be dealt with by the police. Brief rituals of worship are normally carried out when the image is installed and thereafter twice a day until the immersion procession which concludes the festival; in some cases, other religious and cultural events are also held.

The Hindu Munnani’s goal of maximising the display of images in each locality is well served by very tall images at prominent sites. In Chennai since the late 1980s, what might be called the festival’s epicentre has been the Tiruvatiswaran temple in Triplicane; since their split, both the Munnani and Hindu Makkal Katchi have erected near the temple very tall images of the armed ‘Victory (vetri) Vinayaka’ (18 feet in 2000, but as high as 33 feet in 1995) (The Hindu, August 29, 1995). In the heart of Thyagaraya Nagar (T Nagar), a large suburb in south-west Chennai where the festival has long been celebrated on a grand scale, a huge image is built on a trailer beside a main road; in 2000, it was a 25-feet high display of Vinayaka with the ‘Navagraha’ (Nine planets). In other towns and cities, the tallest images are normally around 12 feet high. Tall images in prominent positions – like the 13-feet Vinayaka placed in Coimbatore’s central business area – make an extremely striking impression that nobody could overlook. On the other hand, because all the images together mean that more and more of the public space can be claimed as Vinayaka’s domain and hence as the Hindus’, three- or four-feet images scattered widely across quiet suburbs and small villages proclaim Hindu ubiquity as much as tall ones standing at major urban road junctions. In places where Hindus are indisputably in the majority, the god’s multiple manifestation across the landscape can make a powerful impact. Yet Vinayaka’s demonstrative effect is of course most provocative wherever Hindus are in the minority, as in many parts of Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Kanniyakumari districts in the far south, where the Munnani and its allies have made particular efforts to install images and celebrate Vinayaka Chaturthi as ostentatiously as possible. Like the saffron flags flying over countless Hindu households during the Ayodhya campaign, the multitude of Vinayaka images ‘swamp(ed) individuals in their ubiquity, contriving a sense of the irres
istible tide of Hindutva’ [Basu et al 1993: 60].

Procession and Immersion

Hindu ubiquity is asserted in a dynamic, rather than static, form on the festival’s final day when Vinayaka’s images are taken in procession for immersion. In Chennai, the procession always takes place on a Sunday to encourage participation; in 1999 and 2000, the Sunday fell six and nine days respectively after Chaturthi day. In some other places in 1999, the procession was also six days after Chaturthi, but in most the interval was shorter; in 2000, the majority of processions occurred on the first Sunday, two days after Chaturthi. Nowhere in Tamil Nadu does the festival last 10 days, as in Maharashtra.

The ideal model for the processions is that all the images, singly or in small groups, progressively join together until they flow like a river in one big procession to the immersion site. For shorter processions of a few miles lasting for a few hours in most towns and cities, images are usually transported on cycle– or hand-carts; on longer ones lasting for most of a day (as in Chennai or rural southern Tamil Nadu), the images go on small vans or other motorised vehicles.

In Chennai in the late 1980s, the number of images rose quickly and although the total (like the size of the crowds) is always subject to claims and counter-claims, by the early 1990s, there were a few hundred tall images and probably around 5,000 three- or four-feet ones. By the end of the 1990s, the total number was probably around 6,500. In 1999 and 2000, there were 18 assembly points where a very tall image had been installed. On the final day, all the images in the city were taken to these points, from where they eventually converged into three processions to the immersion site on the beach, just east of Triplicane.5

Until 1992, images from all over the city joined to pass through Triplicane, but since 1993, separate processions from the north and south have only met the Triplicane one at the beach. The single procession was divided into three to reduce the threat of conflict in Triplicane, an area with a mixed population in which some parts are visibly dominated by Muslims. After leaving the Tiruvatiswaran temple, where (as already mentioned) a very tall Vinayaka image is installed, the procession goes near the Ice House mosque. Outside this mosque, serious violence repeatedly erupted between Hindus and Muslims in the early 1990s, although since 1996 heavy policing and diversions in the processional route have largely prevented trouble.6 In 2000, Rama Gopalan, the Hindu Munnani’s state president, once again tried to lead the procession past the Ice House mosque instead of along the diversion ordered by the police. He and his followers were quickly detained and the Munnani’s unsuccessful attempt to provoke Muslims was not much more than a token gesture (The Hindu, September 11, 2000). Yet it no doubt did remind people about Vinayaka Chaturthi’s troublesome history in central Chennai.

Elsewhere, one unified procession to the immersion site is normal. For example in Madurai, images in the city’s north, south, east and west zones were taken to four assembly points, and from there went in separate processions to a central point to join images from the city centre. A unified procession then circumambulated the old city before reaching the immersion site in the river Vaigai. Similar arrangements were made in other towns and cities, where immersion took place in rivers, canals or lakes. In Coimbatore, though, where several Hindus were murdered close to the festival in 1997 and bombs were exploded a year later, tension between Hindus and Muslims remained high in 1999 and 2000. The Coimbatore police therefore refused to allow different processions to unite, as the Hindu Munnani wanted, so that all the images were taken individually or in small groups to a lake outside the city.

For the mainly rural areas in south Tamil Nadu, the sea is often the place for immersion. Images from different village sites come together at initial assembly points, and as the procession moves along, it may be swollen by more images before it reaches the coast. Images from the small town of Arumuganeri and surrounding villages were taken to Tiruchendur, where they joined those from other places, to be immersed beside the great seashore temple of Subrahmanya. In 1999 and 2000, this procession skirted the ancient Muslim port of Kayilpattinam, although there was serious violence earlier in the 1990s when the procession actually entered Kayalpattinam. In Kanniyakumari district, where the festival was efficiently organised, 10 separate processions flowed across the countryside in 1999, six to the sea and four to rivers, and in 2000 one more procession to a river was added. Altogether, these processions took over 730 images (including small domestic ones) for immersion in 1999 and 840 in 2000. Of the six seashore sites, three were very close to Catholic fishing villages and one to a Muslim one.

It is an important feature of Vinayaka Chaturthi in Tamil Nadu that Vinayaka is made to manifest himself not only in Chennai and other major urban centres, but also in small towns and villages, and on the way to immersion, the god moves through the countryside as well as along city streets. Most literature on festival processions and religious communalism is about control over urban space, but rural cases are probably under-reported, so that it is unclear whether Vinayaka Chaturthi in Tamil Nadu is unusual. In any case, our evidence shows that the Hindu Munnani and its allies expend a lot of time and money in rural areas, as well as urban ones, and their balanced, comprehensive effort vitally contributes to successful promotion of the festival as a dramatic expression of the Hindus’ collective presence.

In general, the immersion ritual tends to be perfunctory and the images are dropped almost unceremoniously into the water. In some places, however, such as Tiruchendur, the ritual was done more carefully and elaborately. Moreover, the Munnani has reacted to criticism about excessively casual disposal, so that in 2000 more effort was made to immerse images in a dignified manner in some localities, such as Kanniyakumari district. Elsewhere, as in Madurai, exhortations from Munnani leaders were ignored by all the young men enjoying themselves tipping images into the river.

Everywhere, though, the procession is a more important event than the immersion, and every procession attracts large crowds of men, women and children as spectators – not all of them supporters of the Munnani, as its spokesmen like to claim. The procession is also the part of the festival most likely to provoke serious trouble for two related and familiar reasons. First, as already mentioned for Triplicane, the route often goes past mosques or churches, or crosses Muslim or Christian areas; secondly, the vast majority of people walking in the processions are young men, who are expected by everyone, including themselves, to cause trouble. Thus in the processions, aggressive horseplay – for example, men drenching each other in coloured liquids or staging mock fights – is commonplace and often veers on the edge of spilling into the watching crowds. A significant minority of men also get drunk before they join a procession. In 1999 and 2000, all processions were policed extremely heavily, but the police also required Munnani and Sangh parivar officials, who were neatly dressed in white and wore rosettes, to maintain order in the far larger crowd of dye-stained youths with orange headbands whom they accompanied. Vinayaka Chaturthi processions rarely contained more than a few ‘respectable’ men apart from the organising officials and rarely any women; an exception was in Dindigul in 2000, where many women fully participated and took part in protests against police control of the procession. Hence almost all the processions, tilting precariously between aggressive exuberance and incipient v
iolence, were very masculine events, and the young men in them were assigned to the stereotypical category of ‘rowdies’ with uneducated, low-caste, lower-class, slum-dwelling backgrounds.7 All over India, at least since colonial times, better-off citizens, as well as officials, politicians and policemen, have assumed that rowdies and the urban poor in general are predisposed to riot during religious processions.8 It is no different in contemporary Tamil Nadu, except that rowdies now inhabit both urban and rural areas.

Although the slogans vary slightly, the Hindu Munnani issues instructions about what should be shouted at all processions. Calls for Hindu unity are common and one frequently heard chant is ‘This country is a Hindu country! It’s the Hindu people’s own country!’9 Most prevalent of all is ‘Om Kali! Jai Kali! Bharatmata ki jai!’ In other words, while proclaiming victory in Hindi to ‘Mother India’ – unambiguously understood as Bharat, Hindu India – it is supremely violent Kali who is invoked and praised. Munnani activists say Kali’s name inspires courage in them, but almost all slogans are plainly intended, too, to be aggressively Hindu and they are understood as such by Muslims and Christians, who hear them most vigorously yelled out when a procession passes a mosque or church.

In 1999 and 2000, the policing of Vinayaka Chaturthi processions was extremely tight. Furthermore in 2000, more so than in 1999, sometimes because BJP leaders persuaded or coerced Munnani leaders into cooperating with the state bureaucracy and police, agreement was often reached about the level of regulation, especially in sensitive areas; the fracas in Triplicane near the Ice House mosque was actually an exceptional case. Wherever tension between Hindus and Muslims or Christians ran high, such as Coimbatore and Dindigul, the police made the organisers abandon any attempt to take large, unitary processions on routes that might provoke trouble. In the rural south of the state, some immersion sites have been selected because they adjoin Muslim or Christian settlements, although this does not always cause trouble; thus in Tuticorin, Catholic fishermen actually immerse the images from their boats. In some sites of earlier violence too, such as Kayalpattinam, local Hindus and Muslims have agreed to arrangements which avoid trouble. Yet active cooperation by non-Hindus is very unusual at the festival; it is mainly because the DMK government supported by its BJP ally used its power effectively that communal violence was almost completely prevented at the festival in 1999 and 2000.

Effective policing does not turn Vinayaka Chaturthi processions into peaceful religious events like ordinary temple festival processions, however, because they are normally still raucously aggressive outings that are deliberately designed to make the Hindu presence felt everywhere. Both the installation of large Vinayaka images and the processions which follow are plainly about dominating the ‘public arenas’, in Freitag’s phrase, ‘in which community (is) expressed and redefined through collective activities in public spaces’ (1989: 6). Of course, this does not mean that all Hindus actually form a single social group with the same interests and ideology, whether in north India in the 1920s [Freitag 1989: 297-98 and Gooptu 1997] or in Tamil Nadu today, for this Hindu ‘community’ is a primarily an ideological construct (as we shall see in more detail below). More specifically too, the Munnani leadership plainly does not share much in common with the rowdies who throng to the Vinayaka Chaturthi processions and get a real chance, at least for a few hours, to take over the public space in which they are usually marginalised for their own enjoyment and self-manifestation [Hansen 1999: 213]. Yet the Munnani also draws political strength from the noisy, aggressive style of young men by combining it with the leadership’s sense of management; the Munnani uses the festival dually, much like the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, ‘as a field for demonstrating its ability to manage the city (or other locale), and to appear as an alternative power’ [Heuze 1995: 242].

Although the young men’s support is wanted and needed, Munnani leaders know that noisy and aggressive public events are completely unattractive to most Tamil women with some self-respect, and that very few women will ever join the processions if there is any risk of violence.10 The Munnani has therefore sought to attract women by organising religious and cultural events during Vinayaka Chaturthi, although unlike the RSS it has no women’s wing. Particularly popular is ‘tiruvilakku puja’ (‘holy lamp worship’), when large groups of women, often accompanied by their daughters, collectively worship their household oil lamps in front of a Vinayaka image. In Madurai, the Munnani organised a lamp worship for the first time in 2000; it was attended by about 100 adult women and was led by a devotional singer and her group. Our evidence suggests that throughout Tamil Nadu, women’s involvement in Vinayaka Chaturthi rose considerably in 2000, especially through participation in lamp-worshipping rituals. The Sangh parivar has been promoting these in the state for quite a long time, and as Geetha and Jayanthi observe, such rituals persuade women to see themselves as full participants in the Hindu movement and also erase boundaries between private and public spaces, so that Hindutva can become ‘a matter of great personal concern for ‘ordinarily religious’ Hindu women (1995: 247).

Independent Festival Celebrations

Despite the leading role of the Hindu Munnani and its Sangh parivar allies, they do not completely monopolise the public festival, because other groups also set up large images, take them in procession and otherwise celebrate Vinayaka Chaturthi.

Our evidence from several towns and cities in 2000 suggests that independent public celebrations of Vinayaka Chaturthi not controlled by the Munnani are most prevalent in some northern areas of Tamil Nadu. Thus in Vellore, the Hindu organisations are very weak and the festival celebrations were mainly in the hands of DMK and AIADMK party committees, which only a few RSS members were able to join. The committees set up 48 tall images and when they were taken in procession for immersion, RSS activists put up their saffron flags and handed out headbands to young men on the streets, but people took little notice of them and RSS influence was minimal. In Salem, the Munnani and RSS played a bigger role than in Vellore, but they controlled only one out of three processions. In Erode, although the Munnani has organised the public festival since 1989, about one-third of the town’s 48 images were set up by independent groups which resented Munnani attempts to impose centralised control. In the twin towns of Bhavani and Kumarapalaiyam, near Erode, however, it was similar to Vellore, because the Munnani played no role and the festival was mainly run by local voluntary associations. Furthermore, in the surrounding rural areas, no public festival with processions was held at all.11

Yet even in places where the Munnani dominates, there can be significant independent activity as well, as there is in Madurai. A few illustrative examples may be given. At a small Vinayaka temple controlled by a group of Saurashtra families, the Chaturthi festival was started in 1994. An image is set up on the roadside and it is taken by itself to the sea for immersion. Saurashtra spokesmen vigorously insisted that their temple’s festival had no connection at all with Munnani events. Another example is an image set up in a housing colony for the first time in 2000 by an informal association of young men. Like many such associations, which are common in urban areas, its members said it was non-political and not linked with the Munnani. Unlike other non-Munna
ni images, however, this one did go (at the back) in the Munnani-controlled procession to the river. There are also numerous small Vinayaka temples throughout the city, which do not set up images but do hold special Chaturthi festivals.

A further example comes from an old Vinayaka temple in the jewellers’ street in central Madurai, where a six-day festival is held, with a range of religious and cultural events. The festival, started in 1983 by a gold and silver refiner of Maharashtrian origin, is jointly sponsored by a Maharashtrian ‘friends’ association’ and a Chettiyar jewellers’ association. Not surprisingly, they have plenty of money to spend and in both 1999 and 2000, a beautifully painted clay image, five feet tall, was brought from Kolhapur in Maharashtra. The founder explained that he was inspired by the Maharashtrian festival and he insisted (as did Chettiyar jewellers listening to our conversation) that there were no links with the Munnani. People should join together to celebrate Vinayaka Chaturthi, he said, but they should not politicise a religious event.

It is unclear how much non-Munnani activity exists in most other cities in Tamil Nadu, but in Chennai there is a lot and it is becoming increasingly significant. Thus in the metropolis, the processions to the beach include numerous images taken along by people who have no connection with the Munnani. For instance, in Sowcarpet in the old business quarter of Georgetown, there are many ‘Marwari’ families of Rajasthani, Gujarati and Maharashtrian origin. Vinayaka Chaturthi is popular among them and since 1988, a Marwari businessmen’s festival committee has installed a very tall and elaborately decorated image and sponsored a programme of religious and cultural events; on the final day, the Marwaris take their image in the north Chennai procession. In general, the Marwaris tend to be sympathetic to Hindutva ideology, but the committee president insisted that it had no formal links with the Munnani or other political organisations. In Sowcarpet in 1999, there were also at least three large Vinayaka images installed by local DMK and AIADMK party branches. These images joined the north Chennai procession to the beach as well, but the people accompanying them insisted that they were merely following the route approved by the government and did not support the Munnani.

Even in Triplicane, there are independent celebrations. Thus in Kosapet in 2000, I met two young men from Triplicane Youth Association who were buying an image to install for the ninth year. They would take it in the final day’s procession, but vehemently denied any connection with the Munnani. Vinayaka Chaturthi’s development away from its Munnani origins is particularly obvious in the extensive suburb of T Nagar, which is mainly populated by middle class, upper-caste Hindus. To celebrate the festival at neighbourhood temples or before installed images, local committees arrange lamp worship and devotional singing, song and dance competitions for children, and a variety of other events on an ever-increasing scale. Indeed, since the mid-1990s in T Nagar, the Munnani itself has organised many such events, as well as public meetings and debates, to which it has invited a cross-section of prominent people and politicians. A similar development has taken place in Alwar Thirunagar, a middle class suburb west of T Nagar, where the Munnani first installed an image in 1993. Its festival programme for 2000 listed an array of morning and evening rituals, together with other events like blood donation, devotional singing, ‘ladies’ oratory’ and a children’s fancy dress competition. Programmes of this kind have a wide appeal and a significant feature of them is that they raise women’s participation, which at religious and cultural events usually exceeds men’s. Experienced journalists also consider that although there are vast crowds at the final day’s processions and immersion in Chennai, numbers have fallen in recent years because fewer people want to be involved in what they see as the festival’s provocatively communal climax. Vinayaka Chaturthi’s evolution in Chennai into a religious-cum-cultural festival that less blatantly expresses the political message of Hindu nationalism will be discussed again in conclusion.

Hindu Unity and Munnani Objectives

In semi-public interviews, Hindu Munnani, RSS and BJP spokesmen usually insist that they are campaigning for Hindu pride, assertiveness and above all unity, rather than against Muslims and Christians, although their alleged conversion campaigns attract a lot of opposition. (In private conversations, however, vitriolic prejudice against non-Hindus is fairly common.) Processional slogans call on Hindus ‘to hold up their heads’ and (as noted above) proclaim that India belongs to the Hindu people. Hindu unity, also emphasised in slogans, is the main message at Munnani public meetings during Vinayaka Chaturthi and the Munnani posters in Madurai in 1999 were typical in pronouncing that ‘Hindu unity (is) national unity’, and calling for Hindus and hence the nation to ‘rise up’.12 The principal objective or aspiration is to build on the pride and unity of all Hindus a strong and assertive Hindu Indian nation or ‘country’ in the older patriotic sense, for ‘desam’ (‘desh’) or its pure Tamil equivalent ‘nadu’ – not ‘rashtra’ – is the term always used [Benei 2000: 214-17]. The ‘special treatment’ for religious minorities favoured by the ‘pseudo-secular’ state must of course end, but Munnani spokesmen often emphasise ‘Hindu tolerance’ as well and like to cite instances of non-Hindu support for Vinayaka Chaturthi celebrations. Furthermore, in a somewhat backhanded compliment, they often suggest that Hindus should emulate Muslims and Christians, who stick together and stand up for themselves. Thus Vinayaka Chaturthi can unite Hindus like Friday prayers or Easter and Christmas unite Muslims and Christians, and it can partly do this because Vinayaka, more than other deities, appeals to all Hindus in Tamil Nadu and effectively symbolises pan-Indian Hindu unity.13

In this context, it is interesting that Tamil Nadu’s Vinayaka Chaturthi has been deliberately copied from Maharashtra, as every Munnani activist can explain by summarising the story of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s invention of Ganesha Chaturthi as a public political festival in Pune in the 1890s. In Maharashtra today, the festival has become immensely popular; in Mumbai and other cities, numerous elaborate images are displayed in complex tableaux, and hundreds of thousands of people turn out for the immersion processions on the tenth and final day.14 In comparison, Vinayaka Chaturthi in Tamil Nadu is still a small-scale event. Whether it is the cause or effect of imitation, however, the Tamil militants’ almost eulogistic view of Maharashtrian Hinduism is very striking. Not only is Tilak a familiar hero to them, but so too is Shivaji, the Maratha warrior-king now revered as the conqueror of the Mughals. Notwithstanding their Hindi slogans and the Ayodhya campaign’s exemplary impact, Hindu nationalists in Tamil Nadu take more from Maharashtra than north India.

For the Munnani, the goal of Hindu unity means that eliminating internal divisions – especially of caste and class – is critically important. Claiming high levels of support among the poor is a perennial theme of Munnani propaganda, which is partially validated by its undoubted appeal to many young men among the urban poor. The Munnani, however, has also strenuously sought to promote its anti-caste credentials, particularly by highlighting dalit participation, and it has often enthusiastically donated Vinayaka images to dalits. In the late 1980s, as Anandhi (1995: 36-43) shows, the Munnani and RSS were very active among poor dali
ts in Triplicane. Brahman volunteers worked hard in the slums and gave away images, as well as money, to encourage participation in the festival. The dalit panchayat president had the honour of starting the main procession and young dalit slum-dwellers were given real responsibilities in organising the festival; they also attacked Muslims in a riot during the procession in 1991 (and probably other years as well). All this activity at Vinayaka Chaturthi, concludes Anandhi, ‘has been successful in forging a collective identity among the dalits of the Triplicane slums’ (ibid: 39). Our own data are rather impressionistic, but they suggest that in addition to Chennai, dalit participation has become significant in Coimbatore in particular, where in 1999 a dalit woman also led the lamp worship before the tall image in the city centre. Elsewhere, notwithstanding popular prejudices about ‘rowdies’’ caste backgrounds, dalits seem under-represented as active participants in the festival.

Ramanathapuram in southern Tamil Nadu is arguably an extreme case, because of the chronic conflict between the dominant ‘Maravars’ (belonging to the other backward classes) and the increasingly assertive dalits. Yet significantly, in Ramanathapuram town, the number of images installed by dalit groups remains negligible compared with other castes, and few dalits have ever walked in the processions, from which they feel excluded by the far more numerous Maravars. An appearance of unity has been preserved because a dalit has flagged off the immersion procession almost every year, but in 2000 the man selected for the honour decided it was a pointless gesture and did not turn up. Indeed in Ramanathapuram, the Munnani is effectively controlled by Maravars and allied groups, so that it has become another resource to deploy in the southern districts’ ‘caste wars’. Somewhat similarly, in Vilathikulam in Tuticorin district, caste factionalism in the festival committee in 1999 – as well as a murderous clash between OBC Nayakkars and Pallars (dalits) – led to a three-way split in 2000 between a group of forward and OBC castes, the OBC Tevar and Nadar bloc, and the dalits. Tevars then set up a new, separate committee with Nadar support and effectively took over the Munnani, so that fewer people from other castes and no dalits at all participated in the festival and procession.

Outside the southern districts, hostility between dalits and OBC communities is mostly less severe and ‘casteism’ in general is less blatant within the Munnani and Sangh parivar. Nonetheless, these organisations – like almost all political, social or religious movements in Tamil Nadu – have been affected by brahman versus non-brahman politics, and more recently by growing dalit militancy. Despite its declared intentions and some conciliatory work in conflict-ridden areas, the Munnani has been unable to overcome the animosity between dalits and other Hindus in many parts of Tamil Nadu. For better or worse, the advance of Hindu nationalism in the state, as elsewhere in India, is still blunted by caste divisions.

Caste of course is not the only important source of social tension. In some areas, Vinayaka Chaturthi generates apparently peculiar alliances, notably in Kanniyakumari district close to the Kerala border, where (as in Kerala itself) there are many large rubber plantations owned by Nayars and Syrian Christians. The mainly low-caste workers in these plantations are organised by Communist Party of India (Marxist) unions. On the basis that the BJP and Hindu nationalists are strongly anti-communist, the plantation owners have been generous sponsors of Vinayaka Chaturthi. The high-status Syrian Christians claim descent from St Thomas’s converts and look down on newly-converted low-caste people; hence for them, the Munnani’s vigorous antipathy to Christian conversion in southern Tamil Nadu is immaterial compared with its potential value in the battle against Marxist union militancy.

In Madurai, competition among different groups of businessmen seems to be a relevant factor. Thus the Hindu merchants who support the Munnani – mostly Nadars, Saurashtras and Chettiyars – expect the solidarity generated by Vinayaka Chaturthi to contribute indirectly to their struggle against Muslim rivals, whereas the rich Chettiyar elite virtually monopolising the jewellery business faces no serious competition, does not want to antagonise any customers, and keeps its distance from the Munnani’s celebrations. Although insufficiently detailed, our information about financial sponsorship of the festival suggests that the competitive interests of local businessmen and traders, which are often related to religion and caste, are salient in many places.

Attempts to promote unity are sometimes thwarted by factionalism within the Hindu organisations themselves. Sometimes, as in Vilathikulam, such factionalism was directly related to caste conflict, but other factors can come into play. Thus, for example, in Kalakkadu in Tirunelveli District, the number of places where the festival was celebrated fell sharply from 1998 to 2000, initially because villages dominated by the AIADMK refused to join in when the BJP allied itself to the DMK, and subsequently because of a bitter dispute between local leaders of the Munnani and VHP. In various places, too, the BJP sought to tighten party control over the Munnani in 2000 and caused resentment among the latter’s activists, so that local festival committees became ineffectual.

Sociological first principles indicate that the organisation of Vinayaka Chaturthi must be shaped by local social, economic and political factors, including caste and class. With the data available to us, however, it is hard to say whether the festival, and Munnani campaigning in general, have reduced divisions among Hindus across Tamil Nadu, although it is worth noting that Munnani spokesmen usually acknowledge that they still have a long way to go.

The Normalisation of Hindutva

For the Sangh parivar, Hindu unity is primarily an ideological project to persuade Hindus to become conscious of themselves as Hindus belonging to a single, majority ‘community’, rather than a campaign of social engineering to overcome divisions among them on the ground. Thus although resolving caste disputes may be a worthwhile goal, it is also more importantly a means to induce all the protagonists, especially dalits, to identify themselves as Hindus first and foremost.

For at least some Munnani leaders, the project of Hindu unity is related to the development of a less explicitly communal, political festival. Everywhere in Tamil Nadu, the vast majority of independent festivals involving installation of images in public places came in the wake of Munnani initiatives in the 1980s, and a huge proportion of local Vinayaka temples have started new festivals or expanded old ones over the same period. Some people who organise independent festivals like those in Chennai and Madurai referred to above are vigorously opposed to the Munnani, whereas others are neutral or sympathetic to it. Yet in Munnani eyes, these different attitudes hardly matter. Thus when I asked the president of the Madurai Hindu Munnani about the independent celebrations, he replied that the Munnani wants to see the widest possible involvement in the festival. He correctly observed that the festival has long been very popular among all Hindus in Mumbai, thought that it was developing in the same direction in Chennai, and hoped that Madurai would follow suit. The president of a BJP youth wing in Chennai made a similar point in explaining his view that, since about 1995, the Munnani – despite controlling the processions – has been facilitating rather than directing Vinayaka’s festival in Chennai. Yet this did not worry him, for he saw it as a sign of success that the festival is now so popular among all Hindus, not just Munnani

Observations of this kind acutely highlighted for me how the normalisation of Hindutva is proceeding. As strenuous denial of Munnani links actually tends to confirm, many people are liable to see any public celebration of Vinayaka Chaturthi as supportive of Hindu nationalism and the Sangh parivar’s objectives. And because the large-scale, public festival which the Munnani has vigorously promoted has become an important event in the calendar of so many Hindus, even independent celebrations can be plausibly claimed by Munnani spokesmen as further evidence of Hindu ubiquity and of ever-increasing Hindu pride, assertiveness, self-consciousness and unity as a ‘community’ joined together in worshipping their god.

Looking back over Vinayaka Chaturthi since the mid-1980s, the most striking feature is the sheer scale and rapidity of its expansion from one little event in Chennai to the huge public festival celebrated throughout Tamil Nadu today, which has allowed the Hindu Munnani and Sangh parivar to make their presence felt almost everywhere, although in some northern areas (as noted above) they have little or no control over the festival. In Chennai in particular, however, the festival has evolved in a distinctive way. Thus the processions – although organised by the Munnani – include many images brought by groups not linked with it, and compared with earlier years there is now more emphasis on religious and cultural programmes, and less on street-level confrontation with non-Hindus as in old Triplicane. This evolution, in suburbs like T Nagar and Alwar Thirunagar, reflects the expanding influence of business and professional groups, and especially the burgeoning middle classes, mainly from higher castes, whose members share the same aspirations and attitudes as the rest of the ‘great Indian middle class’.

The modern rise of Hindu nationalism, as Hansen observes (1999: 234), has occurred within a context of globalisation shaped by the goal of ‘a democratic and modern world order’. The saffron movement’s leaders and supporters want Hindu India to be recognised as one of the ‘respected members of that elusive global “comity of nations”’ that is so desirable to all nationalists. Moreover, especially owing to the growth of the Hindu diaspora, it has now become increasingly plausible to proclaim Hinduism as a true ‘world religion’ [Benei 1998]. All this matters a lot to the urban middle classes, especially in Chennai and to some extent in other cities, for their lives are increasingly influenced by national and transnational networks, rather than by their ascribed status in Tamil society and its caste system. For these citizens, who see themselves as modern Hindus upholding authentic ancient traditions within a modern nation and globalised world, Vinayaka Chaturthi is evolving into a religious and cultural celebration that is less overtly communal and political than it still is for most other people elsewhere in the state.

Yet this does not mean that the politics of Vinayaka Chaturthi no longer concern the middle classes. As ‘respectable’ Hindus, they normally keep away from aggressive processions and deplore violence, and like most Hindus in Tamil Nadu, the majority of middle class people do not actively support the Hindu Munnani or the rest of the Sangh parivar. Nevertheless, Hindus of all social classes are now increasingly unlikely to regard these organisations as extremist. No longer beyond the pale, Hindu nationalism – with its dream of Hindu pride, assertiveness and unity as the basis for a Hindu nation – has become part of the normal political discourse today, as it was not a decade ago, and the dramatic expansion of Vinayaka’s festival has contributed much to Hindutva’s normalisation in contemporary Tamil Nadu.


 1 See also Fuller (1996: 24-28) (which wrongly states that Vinayaka Chaturthi started in Chennai in 1990) and Pandian (1990).

 2 Manor, for example, asserts that the BJP’s ‘fundamental problem was and is that Hindu nationalism has never captured the imagination of the voters in Karnataka or … elsewhere in the south’ (1998: 189); Hansen and Jaffrelot are more cautious, but still overlook the ‘vernacularisation’ of Hindutva in Tamil Nadu and exaggerate the BJP’s weakness there (1998: 18-19). Subramanian recognises that the AIADMK has tended to sympathise with Hindu nationalism (or ‘revivalism’ in his terminology); nevertheless, ignoring the reality on the ground, he purports to explain why Dravidianism, especially in its DMK form, prevents Hindu nationalism from flourishing in Tamil Nadu (1999: 31, 306-9, 315-8, 323-25).

 3 See also Assayag (1998) on the Sangh parivar’s invention of processions in the 1980s.

 4 Chaturthi day fell on September 13 in 1999 and September 1 in 2000. The researchers, who were recruited and coordinated by Francis Jayapathy of the Folklore Resources and Research Centre, St Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai, were (in both years unless otherwise indicated): D I Aravindan and Palani (1999), Chennai; T Victor Manohar and A Renuga Devi (1999), Coimbatore; M Vincent Raj, Tiruppur; K Ramapandy, Ramanathapuram; M Kalyani Kumar, Vilathikulam, Tuticorin dt; A Sivasubramanian, Tuticorin; P Shanmugavalli, Arumuganeri, Tuticorin dt; A Gurusamy, Kalakkadu, Tirunelveli dt; A K Perumal, Kanniyakumari dt; M Swaminathan (2000), Vellore; P Chelladurai (2000), Tiruvannamalai; Kannan (alias Sahasranamam) (2000), Salem; T Kannan (2000), Tirucchirappalli; M Panneer Selvam (2000), Peravurani, Thanjavur dt; V Innocent Sasikumar (2000), Dindigul. Also on the research team were Geert De Neve (2000), Bhavani, Kumarapalayam and Erode; and myself in Madurai. I am grateful to all the researchers for their valuable work. This research is part of a larger project at the London School of Economics on ‘An anthropological study of globalisation and its local impacts in India’, financially supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. I thank those who discussed another version of this article in seminars at the Southern Asian Institute, Columbia University, and the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, and at a workshop in Paris of the LSE/CNRS collaborative project on globalisation in India. I am also grateful to Véronique Bénéi, André Béteille, Geert De Neve, Henrike Donner, Thomas Hansen, John Harriss and Francis Jayapathy for critical comments on earlier versions of the article.

 5 The immersion site is at Seerani Arangam. The three convergence points are Tiruvatiswaran temple in Triplicane, Napier Bridge north of the immersion site, and a statue of Muthuramalinga Thevar in Nandanam, near T Nagar, in the south.

 6 In 1996, protesting about diversion away from the Ice House mosque, the Munnani refused to take its own images in the immersion procession on September 22 and challenged the police order in the courts. The Madras High Court ruled against the Munnani on October 1, but the stalemate continued until the end of December, when the police began to remove images still awaiting immersion in the face of Munnani protests and provocative attempts to take out their own processions. (This lengthy episode was continually reported in The Hindu and other newspapers.) In Dindigul in 1999, some images were similarly left for three months owing to a dispute over the processional route; the images were eventually taken for immersion by the police.

 7 Large numbers of young men from the urban poor belonged to the film star fan clubs studied in Madurai in the mid-1980s by Dickey, who comments on the widespread impression among the general public that fan clubs are just ‘groups of “rowdies”’ (1993: 159, 192 n 15). She also notes a strong rise in Munnani support in the late 1980s (ibid: 21);
although I lack adequate evidence, I suspect that the young men in the Vinayaka Chaturthi procession are also well-represented in the fan clubs, or perhaps that they used to be, since some of the Munnani’s supporters may have come from fan clubs whose political outlook is no longer sufficiently assertive for Madurai’s urban poor.

 8 Typical is the case in Mumbai discussed (citing further sources) by Hansen (2000: 52-58); on ‘rowdies’, see also Dhareshwar and Srivatsan (1996).

 9 Inda nadu Hindu nadu! Hindu makkal sonda nadu!

10 Jaffrelot (1994: 274-82) contends that since the 1980s, many Hindu nationalist processions have been deliberately organised to provoke communal violence in order to generate Hindu unity, notably between untouchable and high castes, against a common enemy. Our data on Vinayaka Chaturthi provide no evidence for this contention; Munnani spokesmen insist on the need to ‘defend’ Hindu rights, but they do not actually want violence at processions, because they know that it reduces active participation in the festival by higher caste, middle class people, as well as all women, even if they are committed supporters.

11 Also in northern Tamil Nadu is Tiruvannamalai district, between Vellore and Salem, where the Munnani and its allies are strong, so that they could organise the festival on an impressive scale across the district. Unfortunately, we do not have enough data properly to explain the pattern of variation in Munnani support.

12 Hindu ottrumaiye! Nadattin ottrumai! And Hindu elucciye! Desiya elucci!

13 Vinayaka has this symbolic quality almost by a process of elimination. Even though Vinayaka is Shiva’s son, he is not seen as an exclusively Shaiva god by Vaishnavas; he is not identified with Tamil regionalism like Murugan (Skanda); he is not regarded as a predominantly north Indian god like Rama or Hanuman; and in contrast with many deities in Tamil Nadu, he is not thought to belong more to brahmans than non-brahmans, or vice versa.

14 Munnani leaders echo Tilak, who contrasted Muslim and Christian ‘congregational worship’ with Hindu family and individual worship, and emphasised the importance of nationalism in spreading Ganesha’s worship ‘from the family circle to the public square’ (qu in Jaffrelot 1994: 265). On the Maharashtrian festival, see especially Barnouw (1954), Cashman (1975: ch 4), and Courtright (1985: ch 5), as well as Kaur (1998: ch 8) for some material on recent changes related to the rise of Shiv Sena.


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