THE Mahamaham in the temple town of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu took on a saffron hue this year as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) virtually hijacked the 10-day festival celebrated once in 12 years. Swamping the town with saffron flags was only a part of the VHP's plan to inject Hindutva into the "Kumbh Mela of the South".
Posters put up by the VHP exhorted Hindus to unite at the time of the festival and vote for the party that would build a Ram temple in Ayodhya, ban cow slaughter by a piece of legislation, form a separate board for Hindu temples and, among other things, withdraw the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir. To show that it was `their festival', VHP volunteers carrying saffron flags forced their way into the Mahamaham tank at the time of theerthavari, or the sprinkling of holy water on devotees taking a dip. The police force did little more than chide them.
As many as 1,400 VHP volunteers and 400 RSS workers arrived in Kumbakonam on February 25, a day ahead of the festival, and went about putting up flags and posters - 75,000 flags and one lakh posters. They also opened annadhanam (free meal) centres at several places and an information centre in front of the Kasi Viswanathaswamy temple near the tank. One VHP office-bearer said the volunteers had distributed 3,50,000 food packets in 10 days.
The VHP also organised a two-day conference of Hindu saints (Thuravigal Mahanadu) on March 3 and 4. VHP general secretary Ashok Singhal attended the conference along with the heads of the Dharmapuram and Thiruvavaduthurai adhinams (centre of Saivite culture), the Sankaracharya of the Kanchi mutt Jayendra Saraswathi, Ooran Adigal of the Ramalinga Swamigal Ashram in Vadalur near Pondicherry, and others.
Amid all the Hindutva campaign, Muslim organisations donated rice to organise annadhanam during the Mahamaham, signifying communal amity. Christian organisations also served the devotees. Members of the All India Youth Federation staged a demonstration in Thanjavur on March 5 demanding the removal of all posters put up by the VHP at Kumbakonam.
The VHP's takeover of the town drew criticism from several political parties. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) objected to "the district administration allowing the VHP to take advantage of a common festival". At a meeting of representatives of political parties called by the District Collector before the festival, G. Veeraiyan, State Secretariat member of the CPI(M) and a former member of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, said no political party or organisation of a political party should resort to any publicity at the festival. The Collector, he said, had agreed to the suggestion. But contrary to this, the VHP put up posters and flags and launched a campaign. The CPI(M) appealed to the Collector to remove the posters but in vain.