Bring me the head of the chief minister of Tamil Nadu

Tensions continue to flare in the battle over Lord Rama's Bridge. But what do you expect when you call a god-king a "drunkard"?

Published October 1, 2007 8:19PM (EDT)

In defiance of an order by India's Supreme Court, the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu ground to a halt on Monday, as citizens, businesses and government-run organizations heeded the local ruling political party's declaration of a "bandh" -- a kind of general strike. In Chennai, schools closed, public transport systems shut down, and popular shopping areas "wore a deserted look."

M. Karunanidhi, the octogenarian chief minister of Tamil Nadu's ruling front, called for the bandh in order to rally popular support in protest of the lack of progress on the "Sethusamudram canal project" -- a controversial plan to create a shipping lane through the Palk Strait between Sri Lanka and the Indian mainland that would cut transport time between India's eastern and western coasts.

Dredging the shipping lane will require cutting through an underwater formation of sand and coral known colloquially as "Adam's Bridge." As covered in How the World Works two weeks ago, devout Hindus believe that Adam's Bridge is really Lord Rama's Bridge -- a structure built (with the help of an army of monkey-warriors) by the fabled and much-venerated avatar of Vishnu, as part of his successful effort to rescue his bride Sita, who had been abducted by the demon king Ravana.

Environmentalists hate the project, which has also been much criticized on economic and infrastructural feasibility grounds. But the most recent political uproar exploded in mid-September, when India's Archaeological Survey Institute declared in an affidavit filed with the Supreme Court that no historical evidence proved Lord Rama had ever existed. Hindu fundamentalist organizations seized upon this impolitic declaration and organized national protests, forcing the federal government to disavow the affidavit and to suspend the employment of the ASI officials involved in its creation.

But while the federal government may be backtracking as quickly as it can, in Tamil Nadu, the local government is unrepentant. Questions of religio-historical authenticity take a back seat to the perceived economic boom that would result from bringing a steady stream of shipping closer to Tamil Nadu's shores. Thus, not long after the federal government disavowed ASI's affidavit, Chief Minister Karunanidhi (an alleged atheist) stoked the flames.

"Some say there was a person over 17 lakh years ago. His name, they say, was Ram. And we should not touch the bridge he built. Who is this Ram? From which engineering college did he graduate? Is there any proof of this? Ram is a big lie. In fact, if you read the old literature, Ram was a drunkard and worse."

It's one thing to deny a legendary figure's historical reality. It's quite another to call him a drunkard. That's, uh, provocative.

And it resulted in a predictable response. On Sept. 21 a former member of parliament affiliated with the Hindu fundamentalist/nationalist party BJP issued a Hindu fatwa and called for Karunanidhi's death, declaring that "saints in Ayodhya" (Rama's birthplace) would "weigh in gold" anyone who beheaded the chief minister.

How the World Works must confess, we were originally taken aback at the reports of an Indian politician calling Lord Rama a sot. It seemed intemperate. But that's before we knew the back story.

Atheist anti-Hindu sentiment in Tamil Nadu has a long history. Karunanidhi may have been doing no more than following in the footsteps of his one-time mentor, E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, known also as "Periyar."

Take, for example, this quote on religion attributed to Periyar:

"He who created god was a fool, he who spreads his name is a scoundrel, and he who worships him is a barbarian."

Words are not minced in Tamil Nadu.

Periyar is a controversial figure in Indian history. He was an early denouncer of the caste system, which he perceived as a means by which northern "Aryan" Hindu Brahmins oppressed the peoples of the South (sometimes referred to as "Dravidian.") Periyar sought self-determination for southern India, and even published his own interpretation of the Ramayana epic, in which Lord Rama is a weak and vacillating Northern invader, while Ravana, the demon king who abducted Rama's bride, is actually a noble Tamil striving to keep his lands free from the alien conquerors.

Periyar was inspired by discriminatory treatment he had received as a youth from high-caste Brahmins and by what he saw as the unconscionable imposition of Hindu culture upon the south.

An excerpt from "Untouchable: Dalits in Modern India," by S. M. Michael 1937, Hindi was introduced to the south as a compulsory subject in schools. Taking this as an affront to Tamil culture and its rich literary tradition Tamil patriots like Annadurai, Karunanidhi, and others under the leadership of Periyar reacted with violent protest. He saw the imposition of Hindi as a step toward subjugation of the Tamil peoples by the north Indian Aryans. The Hindu religion was denounced as an opiate by which the Brahmins had dulled and controlled the masses: "A Hindu in the present concept my be a Dravidian, but a Dravidian in the real sense of the term cannot and shall not to be a Hindu. Pains were taken to destroy images of Hindu deities such as Rama and Ganesha. According to Periyar, "Rama and Sita are despicable characters, not worthy of imitation or admiration even by the lowest of fourth-rate humans."

If Periyar were alive today, one might conjecture that he would be quite fine with the prospect of blowing up Lord Rama's bridge, purely on the grounds that it was sacred to Hindus, and without any regard to its economic vitality.

Periyar also founded the Dravidar Kazhagam, the first Dravidian political party in India. The current chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi, leads the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a direct offshoot of the DK.

A general election is approaching in Tamil Nadu. In the best tradition of his predecessor, Karunanidhi's histrionics may be nothing more than an attempt to capitalize on anti-northern resentments as a vote-getting strategy.

Ironically, on a national level, the BJP is operating along very similar lines, from the opposite direction.

So, depending on your frame of reference, Monday's bandh in Tamil Nadu is merely the latest chapter in an epic saga dating back hundreds of thousands of years, or just business-as-usual pre-election get-out-the-vote tactics. There's no reason it can't be both, of course -- in India, all you have to do is scratch a random news headline and you are immediately immersed in a sensory overload of history, mythology, religion, politics and economics. Few recent developments demonstrate this truth as much as the ongoing adventures of Lord Rama's bridge.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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