On the morning of 26th June, the people of the twin coastal districts of Udupi and Mangalore, almost fell off their breakfast tables in surprise when they opened their newspapers.
Vishwesha Tirtha Swami of the Sri Krishna Mutt in Udupi, a saffron-blooded icon of Hindutva, and venerated seer of the 700 year-old institution, had held an Iftar on the premises of the mutt the previous day. The incredible event had started with breaking of the fast at exactly 6.59 pm, as prescribed by Islam, with the swami personally serving fruits, nuts and kashaya and was followed by the offering of namaz. Present were an assortment of glitterati from the BJP and Congress.
To understand the significance of this you must first understand the history and dynamics of the Karavalli coast. This emerald green strip of land hugging the sea has been the laboratory of Hindutva for the past thirty years, with the Swami of Sri Krishna Mutt playing a stellar role in the growth of saffron political power. Why it got that way is worth recalling.
Karavalli, a northern extension of the Malabar Coast, has been the destination of trading ships from Greece, Arabia, China and Europe for well over 2000 years. The land of swaying palms, swift rivers and pouring rain has seen invaders, religions and trade wars. Islam came to this coast even when the Prophet was alive and Christianity was introduced with the compelling arguments of Portuguese cannons. Even home-grown religions have had a mixed history here. The early Dravidian settlers had their own nature rituals which were then layered with more “Aryan” ideologies from the north, including the worship of Shiva, Jainism and Buddhism. Some of the ideologies, like Buddhism died out, and Jainism declined. The worship of Shiva, Vishnu and a host of local deities continued to grow from strength to strength, woven with and adapted to local beliefs. And one of the institutions at the forefront of this Hindu evolution was the Sri Krishna Mutt at Udupi.
Meanwhile, over the centuries, traders from Arabia arrived in their dhows and settled among the native population, prospering from the spice trade and expanding Islam into numerous trading settlements that dotted the Karavalli and Malabar coasts. They were soon followed by the Europeans – first the Portuguese and then the Dutch and the English. The latter two were not really evangelists and allowed the population to follow their own beliefs. The Portuguese however were intent on propagating their religion and succeeded in converting a vast swathe of population into Christianity. The result of all this was that, unlike other parts of India, almost a third of the population in this coast became “non-Hindu”.
It has been almost a tradition that wherever the non-Hindu population was sizeable, the Sangh managed to polarize the population effectively for electoral success. The Karavalli coast was the first major beach-head of Hindutva in the south. And they used it to develop leaders and icons who could serve them in their crusade elsewhere in the Dravidian heartland. One such icon who rose to prominence in this laboratory was the seer of Udupi – Vishwesha Tirtha Swami. Over the years he made all the right noises and gestures to indicate to the Hindu population whom they should support and vote for. And he has been very effective in this as the mutt he represents is one of the most important abodes of Krishna worship in the country.
So, to the people of the coast the Iftar was an eye-popping development. They were used to seeing the seer in newspapers, inaugurating Hindu festivals and giving lectures on Hinduism. They had seen leaders of the BJP from Bangalore and Delhi sit at his feet as he gave them sage advice. To be holding an Iftar, that too on the premises of the mutt was revolutionary. But soon the expected happened. Assorted “Hindu” organizations led protest delegations to the seer, demanding that he publicly apologize for his action. The BJP, whose members had played an active part in the Iftar, went quiet. Fellow seers advised the venerated 86-year old to issue some statement showing remorse. But the seer was unmoved. He said he had done what his conscience had told him to do and there was no going back.
For a fleeting moment in history, religious politics had been stopped in its tracks. A frail, old man, had stood up and made a gesture that reverberated across the nation – reminiscent of another frail, old man, a Mahatma, who 70 years said “Courage comes not from physical strength, but from an indomitable will.”