In India’s southern-most constituency, Kanyakumari, residents vote on the basis of religion. Caste, which plays a significant role in other Tamil Nadu districts, has few takers here. The majority of Christian and the considerable Muslim voters have together always decided the fate of the candidates here in every election.
In the past, the Christians and Muslims have favoured the candidates of the DMK-Congress alliance turning a blind eye to whether they were Nadars or whether they were Hindus or Christians.
This was largely due to the “anti-BJP stand” the community had for many years. “The residents just wanted to select a secular candidate,” said Kurumpanai Berlin, founder, Neidhal Makkal Iyakkam, an organisation fighting for rights of the fishing community.
This was the norm, even when the AIADMK had no truck with the BJP in the past. “It was only when AIADMK contested on its own, locals started to consider candidates with a religious lens – was the electoral candidate a Hindu or Christian Nadar and if he was the latter, whether he was a CSI Nadar, Roman Catholic Nadar, etc.,” pointed out Berlin.
“But after the AIADMK joined forces with the BJP, the people here came together to defeat the fascist party,” he added. But now, the situation is not so black and white anymore.
The woes of Kanyakumari’s fishing community may split votes
Will the trend continue in this election too? “It’s doubtful,” said Berlin. The situation has become ambiguous largely because of the fishing community here, who is a sizable vote- bank besides the Nadars. The fishing community is made up of people from all religions and castes. However, the two major castes that dominate in the littoral constituencies of Colachel and Killiyoor are the Mukkuvar and Paradhavar.
According to Berlin, the DMK and Congress have reportedly gone back on their word to the fishermen by not giving them a seat in this election. It has been the same story for the last three elections but the fishing community had hoped to bag a seat this time. The fisherfolk community, which is always considered as an assured vote-bank for any Nadar candidate, is now ostensibly angry with the DMK-Congress combine.
Moreover, BJP’s polarisation strategy in this area has mostly impacted the livelihood of the fishing community.
Starting from the Mandaikkadu Riots (a communal riot which broke out between Hindus and Christians) in March 1982 to the building of a new container port, it is the fishermen who have borne the brunt.
“Even though AIADMK leaders like Thalavai Sundaram are against the new port, their candidates will not get the support of our people because AIADMK has allied with BJP. Meanwhile, the DMK alliance has also given up on them so the fisherfolk are upset. The fishing community votes may be split this time,” Berlin said.
Polarisation within the religions
If the fishing community’s votes may get divided this time, the BJP’s attempts in the area to create hostility among different religious sections within the Nadars, will also impact voting behaviour this time in this constituency. Since Dravidian and national parties appoint Nadars in key positions in their parties, the BJP has been creating a divide among them on religion lines.
“Some of the Nadars are also in Pentecost ministries. They used to visit the neighbouring villages and pray in public. It was at that time, the Hindutva group attacked them. The Nadars from other divisions like CSI or Roman Catholic failed to support them,” said Venice, a fisherman.
T Lajapathi Roy, an advocate practising in the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court said that BJP’s efforts to polarise community on communal lines extend to the point where new churches are not allowed to be built in Kanyakumari.
“It is true that the AIADMK is ruling the state for the last five years. But here, the BJP rules indirectly. If there are 200 advocates practising in Madurai bench, half would have dealt with at least one case on the district administration’s refusal to give permission to build churches. The people are not allowed to even rebuild damaged portions of some churches,” alleged Roy.
Roy, who also authored a book Nadar Varalaru: Karuppa? Kaaviya? talks of how the Hindu Nadars are divided as well.
“The Nadars here follow two sects – Ayya Vazhi and Amma Vazhi. The former is anti- Brahminical and it is rare for devotees from this sect to visit Hindu temples, while the Amma Vazhi sect believes in the worship of Amman (a female deity). The latter has become more Sanskritised and follow rituals like Thiruvilakku pooja, reciting Sanskrit slokas and organising spiritual orations, which was not the case earlier,” said Roy in his book.
Instead of observing Sanskritised rituals and reportedly becoming overly religious, the Amma Vazhi Nadars should remember their past history such as ‘Thol Seelai Porattam’ (Right to wear upper cloth for women), he said.
Roy said that BJP’s objective is to bring Rama Rajya. “But about 218 years ago, this kind of rule was a reality under the Hindu Kings of Travancore. The Nadars were then called as Shanars, and the women of that community weren’t allowed to cover their breasts. After many struggles and conversions to Christianity, this tradition was scrapped. It is this history, now considered as ‘objectionable’ by a section of the saffron party, who are using this to win over this sect on their side, ” Roy added.
Forgetting the violent history
Part of the problem about polarising communities lies in forgetting history, said Meeran Mitheen, a Dravidian political observer.
About 25 years ago, in Kanyakumari, the Nadars voted for Congress and the non-Nadars pitched for Dravidian parties. Even then, support for AIADMK was high, he said.
Mitheen added, “When Hindutva groups started to make inroads in this region in 70s and 80s, they got some kind of support from the people here. After the Mandaikkadu Riots, it became easy for the Hindutva groups to consolidate the Hindu votes, especially in the Padmanabhapuram constituency, where Hindus are dominant. That’s why during MGR’s period, Hindu Munnani, had won from that constituency in the 1984 elections, the only constituency the right wing had won. In 1996 too, the BJP won from the same constituency.”
The 1996 victory for BJP could have been the result of ‘good governance yatra’ launched by LK Advani in Kerala as well. Given, Kanyakumari’s proximity to the neighbouring state, saffron enthusiasm probably got reflected in Padmanabhapuram.
Roy raises another factor. The votes that Congress attracts from Christians, Muslims and a section of Hindu Nadars in some of the constituencies here are basically votes polled not for the Indian National Congress (INC) but Travancore Tamil Nadu Congress (TTNC), a party floated by freedom fighter Marshal A Nesamony.
“It was Nesamony, who was behind the merger of Kanyakumari with Tamil Nadu. Thanulinga Nadar, a two-time MP was in his party first before he became the state president of Hindu Munnani. Because of these reasons, the people of Kanyakumari still vote for Congress, in memory of TTNC,” Roy said.
Some like Mitheen felt that BJP’s polarisation tactics will fail here because of these factors. However, BJP candidates and leaders start their campaigning from Agasteeswarar temple to harvest votes of Hindus. But, according to Mitheen, Kanyakumari has the highest literacy rate in the state so there is a possibility that people here give importance to secularism more than anything else.
“They do not see BJP as a party that works for national integration,” said Mitheen, adding the BJP does not stand a chance in this election. While, there are others who think differently.
The ambiguity here has largely stemmed from BJP’s major polarisation drive in the area over the years, making it difficult to assess the voting behaviour of this constituency before the upcoming Assembly elections on April 6.