Anger in Kerala as Amit Shah Turns Onam into 'Brahminical Vamana Jayanti'

On the eve of Kerala's most important festival, the BJP president's greeting has people in the state up in arms

File photo from June 2016 of BJP national president Amit Shah during a visit to the Sivagiri Mutt at Varkala, Kerala. Credit: PTI

File photo from June 2016 of BJP national president Amit Shah during a visit to the Sivagiri Mutt at Varkala, Kerala. Credit: PTI

Kannur: Can a birthday greeting spark political controversy? The ‘Vamana Jayanti’ greeting by BJP national president Amit Shah, however, invoked public criticism against him by many in Kerala, including the Chief Minister himself.

RSS and BJP workers in Kerala appear to find themselves in an embarrassing situation following the Amit Shah’s ‘Vamana Jayanti’ greeting on the eve of Kerala’s Onam festival. Onam is a week-long festival that commemorates the homecoming of the mythological lower caste King Mahabali, whose rule was ended by Brahmin boy Vamana, an avatar of Vishnu.

Amit Shah, through a poster released on his multiple social media accounts, greeted every Indian (Samastha Deshavasi) ‘Vamana Jayanti’. The poster also contains a Brahmin boy placing his leg over the head of a King, apparently Mahabali.

The greeting drew sharp criticism from different corners in Kerala, including chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala. Amit Shah and his greeting were also criticized and ridiculed on social media platforms.

Onam, Mahabali and Vamana

Onam is a major festival in Kerala commemorating the homecoming of the mythological figure Mahabali. Mahabali, also known as Maveli, was an Asura king, under whose rule, according to the dominant belief connected with the festival, the people lived in utmost prosperity and were treated equally. The success of Mahabali as a good and powerful ruler made even the ‘Devas’ envious of him, prompting Vishnu taking on the form of Vamana, a Brahmin boy, one of his avatars, and approaching Mahabali. The mythological story says Vamana cunningly ended the rule of Mahabali, a King the people loved. But it is believed that the King would come from the nether world to visit his people annually. So people make their best preparations to receive their beloved King, according to the popular belief. Interestingly, though connected to Hindu mythology, Onam is observed and celebrated by a section of Christians and Muslims in the state. Flower carpet and Onam special lunch are some of the most popular and secular forms of Onam celebrations in which Keralites, irrespective of their faith, often participate.

“Keraites hurt, greeting should be withdrawn”

According to the chief minister, Amit Shah hurt the sentiment of people of Kerala. He demanded the withdrawal of the controversial greeting poster and an apology to Keralites from the BJP president.

“By wishing Vamana Jayanti on the day before Thiruvonam, BJP leader Amit Shah has ridiculed Kerala, Keralites and the culture of Kerala. Onam is the national festival of Malayalees. What is being reflected in this celebration is the unity of humanity, beyond the boundaries of caste and religion,” CM Pinarayi Vijayan said

”To hurt the emotional sentiments of the people is not suitable for responsible political leaders. If Amit Shah has political decency, he should realize this, withdraw the Vamana Jayanti greeting, and render apology to the Malayali community around the world.”

Vijayan further added that Mahabali and the concept of Onam are a continuous inspiration for those who strive “to build an era and world that are filled with goodness and equality”.

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala also criticized the BJP national president for “ridiculing” the Malayalis by “wishing the Keralites Vamana Jayanti on the eve of Thiruvonam”.

He said that the greeting was part of the conspiracy to alter the traditional concept of Onam and to Savarnise the festival. He added that Malayalis will not tolerate such efforts.

Pointing to similar arguments discussed in an article published in an RSS magazine in the state, Ramesh, a senior Congress leader in the state, was quoted by the local media as saying that Amit Shah’s greeting was not unplanned.

Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the state chief of the ruling CPI(M), also attacked the BJP president for a ‘hateful’ call ‘to reject Mahabali and to celebrate Onam as Vamana Jayanti’. Echoing Ramesh Chennithala, Balakrishnan also said that BJP national president was ridiculing the Keralites. He added that the greeting was part of ‘Hindu Rashtra agenda’ based on ‘Brahmin supremacy’.

BJP rejects criticism

However, BJP state chief Kummanam Rajashekharan stepped in and countered the allegation against the party’s national head. Rajashekharan said Amit Shah’s greeting came as Vamana Jayanti is being observed in various places in the country.

He also said that the birth day of Vamana is being observed in some Kerala temples itself, adding that Amit Shah has greeted Malayalis separately for Onam.

Challenging the argument that the ‘Vamana Jayanti greeting is against Mahabali’, Rajashekharan stated that it is not for the first time that a national leader has used the greeting Vaamana Jayanti.

This is not the first time that people and publications attached with the Sangh parivar have tried to apply a different, Vamana-oriented, reading on the Onam festival. An article published in Kesari, an RSS Malayalam magazine, recently argued that instead of commemorating the home-coming of Mahabali, the mythical Asura King, Onam should be celebrated to welcome Vamana or Lord Vishnu.

Sasikala, a controversial Hindutva campaigner, in a similar argument, had stated that Vamana was the freedom-fighter who liberated Kerala from Mahabali, inviting sharp criticism from various corners.

Social media including Twitter and Facebook has already witnessed a storm of tweets, posts and comments criticizing and mocking Amit Shah’s controversial Vamana Jayanti greeting on the eve of Onam.

One of the hashtags being used by many on social media reads #PoMoneShaji, roughly meaning “Son Shaji, get lost”. This hashtag is similar to an earlier #PoMoneModi one, which was widely used by the Malayali netizens to criticise and mock Narendra Modi for allegedly comparing Kerala with Somalia during the election campaign in the state in May this year.

Muhammed Sabith is a journalist and educator