Thiruvananthapuram, Nov. 10: The CPM's position on the management of a famous temple's huge assets has revived the debate about the Marxists' view of religious faith and their alleged bias against Hindus in particular.
The Kerala CPM wants the public and political parties to have a say on the fate of the treasure, worth billions, recovered from the underground vaults of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. Party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan explained the logic on Thursday.
One part of the riches is made up by the jewellery, idols and other valuables used in daily rituals. The other is the wealth donated by the former Travancore royals that, Vijayan said, would include money received as tax or acquired in the course of annexing territory.
Vijayan said the temple may retain the first part but the second should be treated as national wealth, thus reaffirming the CPM state secretariat's known stand. A case relating to the temple's assets is now before the Supreme Court.
Historians say the shrine finds mention in literary works dating to the 9th century. In the first half of the 18th century, the royals became involved in its administration. In AD1750, king Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma submitted his kingdom and all its assets before the deity and ruled the state as "Padmanabha Dasa", servant of Padmanabha.
The immediate reason for Vijayan's comments on Thursday was a report submitted by former solicitor-general Gopal Subramaniam, the amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the apex court case. The report said politicians should be kept out of the temple's administration and the royal family should be given a definite role in its affairs.
Vijayan slammed the report as an attempt to bolster the royal family's control over the temple and called for a body on the lines of the endowments board to be put in charge of the shrine's administration.
He found support from party arch-rival V.S. Achuthanandan, leader of the state Opposition, who lambasted the amicus curiae in a statement and requested the apex court to reject the report.
Unwittingly, Vijayan's assertion has let the genie of the CPM's stand on religion out of the bottle.
"The CPM is eying the temple wealth. What right does it have to insist that the shrine be brought under government control or (advise on) how to spend the wealth stored there?" state BJP president V. Muraleedharan said.
"Even the Supreme Court had appreciated the integrity of the royals for safeguarding the wealth all these years. We believe that the temple should be run by the devotees and the royals' representatives."
K. Surendran, another BJP leader, said: "This only proves the CPM's double standards. Why doesn't it adopt a similar stand on other religions? There are wealthy mosques and churches. Will the CPM ask for an audit of their funds or insist they be brought under government control?"
He added: "In Sabarimala, a smaller shrine dedicated to Vavar (the Muslim chieftain of Lord Ayyappa, the main deity) shares the same compound as the temple. The Sabari shrine's revenues of over Rs 100 crore go to the kitty of the Devasom Board, which includes government representatives. There's still no audit of the offerings received at the Vavar shrine and the money goes to the mosque trust that administers it. What does the CPM have to say about it?"
Such charges of bias against the CPM are not new. In 2008, the Law Reforms Commission under Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer had mooted a bill that required all properties of every church and diocese to be constituted into a trust and registered with the prescribed authority. The CPM was in power then but the proposals never saw the light of day.
Then law minister M. Vijayakumar of the CPM is candid: "The proposal was not taken up or discussed as it was bound to create a controversy."
The CPM lost two dynamic MPs over its stand on matters of faith during the Achuthanandan government's tenure (2006-2011). Three-time Kannur MP A.P. Abdullakutti was expelled for raising questions on the topic, while Alappuzha MP K.S. Manoj quit the party over similar differences.
As the issue snowballed, CPM general secretary Prakash Karat clarified that the party does not bar people with a religious background from joining it.
"While they may practise their faith, they are expected to also uphold secularism and oppose the intrusion of religion into the affairs of the state," Karat wrote in party weekly People's Democracy.
Social commentator B.R.P. Bhaskar tried to explain the CPM's dilemma. "Marxism decries religion but its followers know the importance of religion in our society and so cannot oppose it. This has led to a dichotomy and, at times, double standards in their approach," he said.
"The high court order (challenged in the apex court by the royals) asking the state to take the temple over came in January 2011 when the Achuthanandan government was in power. Why didn't the Left act on it then?"
He said all that was happening now seemed to be part of a CPM strategy to retain Ezhava votes.
Two key Hindu groups, the warrior-caste Nairs and backward Ezhavas ' represented by the Nair Service Society and Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, respectively ' had a few months ago decided to work together to counter the growing influence of Christian and Muslim parties in the state administration.
This would indirectly benefit the BJP and harm the CPM as the Ezhavas have been traditionally close to the Left. The pro-royal Nair Service Society has come out against Vijayan on the temple issue but significantly, the Yogam has been silent.
Bhaskar hinted that the CPM was hoping to woo the Ezhavas with its anti-royal position.
"The CPM may be hoping that its stand would bring about a cleavage between the two groups and the party would gain from it," he said.
Congress chief minister Oommen Chandy joined the debate yesterday, saying the wealth belonged to the temple and should remain with it.