BJP and Narayana Guru in Karnataka
Kannada and culture department minister V Sunil Kumar recently held the Narayana Guru Jayanti at Mangalore and noted that reformers and visionaries should not be limited to just one caste or community

BJP stakes claim for Narayana Guru's legacy, to woo voters ahead of polls

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka is making a strong bid to stake its claim over the legendary social reformer and philosopher, Narayana Guru, who is highly revered in the state, with an eye on the upcoming Assembly elections scheduled early next year.

At the recent Janaspandana public rally, held to mark three years of BJP rule in Karnataka and the one-year reign of the Basavaraj Bommai government, significantly, the party made a big show of its great ‘affection’ for Narayana Guru.

A photograph of Narayana Guru prominently figured along with the images of BJP ideologue Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Bharat Mata on the dais. Later, Chief Minister Bommai, BJP state chief Nalin Kumar Kateel, and former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa paid their respects to these photographs.

Ironically, the same BJP government faced flak when they dropped the lessons on freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, Periyar and Narayana Guru from Class 10 textbooks and replaced them with the speeches of RSS founder KH Hedgewar and other revolutionaries associated with the right-wing ideology.

Also read: Janaspandana: A rally of hope for Karnataka BJP in Old Mysuru region

Narayana Guru’s principles of compassion, inclusivity and living in harmony, obviously were not in sync with the party’s ideology. Narayana Guru’s story and teachings were at first removed by the textbook committee of the state education department from the Class 10 textbooks. Later, after severe backlash, the lesson on Narayana Guru was transferred from the history book to the Kannada language Class 10 textbook. This move, which had stirred up a lot of controversy in the state, was criticised by Opposition parties and discussed at various levels.

The rejection of Narayana Guru’s tableau at the Kerala government’s Republic Day parade this year too had angered the Ezhava community in Kerala and coastal districts. At that time, hundreds of Billavas, who like the Ezhavas (Narayana Guru was born in the Ezhava community), view the social reformer as a spiritual deity, draped in yellow and waving yellow flags staged a huge procession titled Walk for Respect in Mangalore as a form of protest. Like in the case of the Ezhavas, Narayana Guru instilled self-respect in Billavas.

BJP has a major share of Billava votes

Billavas are numerically strong and therefore politically valuable. Political observers feel there is a reason why BJP seems to be latching onto Narayana Guru’s legacy. In the run-up to the elections, the BJP is keen to woo the economically backward Billava community, which belongs to the coastal districts of Karnataka, including South Kanara and Udupi. This sizable community is believed to play a key role in increasing the vote share of parties in the area.

After BJP youth leader Praveen Nettaru was murdered, the Billava community, who had become foot soldiers of the BJP, and other backward classes, have turned against the saffron party. The BJP fear that Praveen’s murder will become an issue during the elections and work against them. A majority of the BJP’s vote share in the coastal districts is from the Billavas and other backward-class communities. However, the Billavas feel that they are just being utilised politically and not given any proper representation or credit in the party.

The community feels that their boys like Parveen, who belonged to the Billava caste from South Kanara, are becoming the victims of communal clashes. In fact, the party workers from all over the state had started giving up their memberships but the top leadership managed to calm them down.

Also read: Seer’s arrest: Parties tread with caution fearing Lingayat voters’ ire

Even the state BJP chief Nalin Kumar Kateel, who hails from the Bunt caste, which is the next largest population after the Billavas, had to face the ire of the disturbed party workers. In fact, CM Bommai postponed the Janotsava because of this unrest among party workers and promised to give a job to a member of Praveen’s family.

Laying claim to Narayana Guru

Besides displaying Narayana Guru’s photograph at the Janaspandana rally, the government has also started sponsoring programmes on the social reformer. Recently, the Kannada and culture department, under its minister V Sunil Kumar, observed Narayana Guru Jayanti in Mangalore.

At the function, Sunil Kumar noted that reformers and visionaries should not be limited to just one caste or community. People should join hands to end communal differences and strive for peace and harmony in society by following the ideas of Sree Narayana Guru, he said, adding that the essence of each religion is the well-being of society and people.

Further, the minister lamented the fact that successive governments have kept the youth in the dark about the contributions and messages of social reformers, including Brahmashree Narayana Guru, by not incorporating their life and messages in textbooks since Independence. The lives and ideals of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Basavanna, Narayana Guru were still relevant and would have helped in shaping the youth in a better way taking them beyond religion, caste and creed, added Sunil Kumar.

Also read: Karnataka hijab row: Religious right is fine, but what about school dress code, asks SC

The life of Narayana Guru

The spiritual leader Narayana Guru belonged to the Ezhava caste of Kerala and is also known as Ilava, Irava, Ezhava, Billava, Poojary, and Eediga in the region of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and coastal Karnataka. He was responsible for starting a movement in Kerala and parts of  Karnataka against the evils of caste domination and worked for social equality.

Narayana Guru lived between 1856 and 1928. When he consecrated a Shiva idol from a piece of rock taken from a river, the upper castes were furious and questioned Narayana Guru. His reply then became a famous quote as he is supposed to have said: ‘This is not a Brahmin Shiva but an Ezhava Shiva’.

The Ezhava caste, in those days, suffered from discrimination from the upper castes and so Narayana Guru consecrated around 45 Shiva temples in Kerala and Tamil Nadu to ensure down-trodden castes too could enter temples. He had led the Reform movement in Kerala, revolted against caste system and worked on propagating new values of freedom in spirituality and social equality which transformed the society.

Shree Narayana Guru is revered for his Vedic knowledge, poetic proficiency, openness to the views of others, non-violent philosophy, and unrelenting resolve to set right social wrongs. He was one of the most successful social reformers to revolt against the caste system in India.

Even Ramana Maharshi, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi were greatly impressed with Narayana Guru and visited him in 1925. Gandhi is said to have discussed various issues, including untouchability, with him at Kottayam in Kerala.

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