Janmabhoomi, the mouthpiece of the Kerala unit of the BJP, has come under fire for using a casteist slur against Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. In its daily front-page cartoon on Saturday, the Malayalam newspaper had portrayed two men discussing the privilege motion moved against the CM for planning a 'women's wall' on the Sabarimala issue, with a caption that read "this is what will happen if power is given to someone who should climb coconut trees."
The cartoon has put the BJP, which has been vocal about the need for Hindu unity against the Left government's stand on Sabarimala, on the backfoot.
The 'coconut climber' reference was to Pinarayi Vijayan who comes from the "Thiyya" community, an OBC caste, whose members traditionally worked as toddy-tappers. His father Koran was a climber by profession and the cartoon associates his current position with the ancient Hindu principle of Varnasrama Dharma - the system that prohibits people from breaking away from traditional jobs bestowed upon them, based on caste hierarchy.
Earlier, in October, the Aranmula police had filed a case against a woman from Pathanamthitta who made a similar statement against the CPI-M leader through a Facebook video.
In response, the ruling party criticised the saffron group for backing age-old social evils.
"These are times when people purposefully try to avoid sexist and casteist remarks even in casual conversation. Such a derogatory remark in the mouthpiece of the BJP shows the true colour of those controlling the party. This is not the first time the Sangh Parivar's insistence to establish the caste system within the democratic setup gets exposed," Kerala Finance Minister Dr TM Thomas Issac said in a Facebook post.
Socio-political observers too were critical of the daily for using caste as a tool against a political rival and man holding such a high administrative post. Many said the cartoon provided solid proof that the BJP is driven by a Hindutva agenda and wants to re-establish a caste-based order in Indian society.
"It is not just the cartoonist who needs to be addressed. No cartoon will get printed without the permission of the editor. It travels through various levels at the newsroom before getting published, and nobody (at Janmabhoomi) questioned the casteist element in it, which indicates the outlook of the whole firm," veteran journalist BRP Bhaskar wrote on Facebook.
The cartoon comes against the backdrop of multiple campaigns by the Kerala government, including the statewide 'women's wall', against attempts to take the state back to, what some claimed were, the dark ages of casteism and patriarchy. A faction led by the BJP and RSS has declared these movements as pseudo-progressive efforts by the communists who want to tarnish Hindu traditions.
"Caste is a major element operating within the BJP. While they talk about Hindu unity on the one hand, they ridicule the lower-caste communities on the other through means like these. This is a good chance for the SC/ST/OBC population of Kerala to realise that the followers of Manusmriti can never accept caste equality. The party wants to establish a political order based on Brahminical ideology which has no place for the downtrodden," said Dr PK Gopan of the Library Council.
While SNDP Yogam (representing the Ezhava community) and the KPMS (representing Pulayas) have already declared their support for the 'women's wall', the Nair Service Society remains with the BJP, staunchly opposing the idea.
As the cartoon stirred a hornet's nest on social media platforms, many BJP sympathisers came to the defence of the newspaper stating that the cartoon is a work of art and leftists need to drop their selective backing for the right to expression.
But does this argument stand? No, says Dr C Unnikrishnan, Kollam district president of the Purogamana Kala Sahitya Sangham (PuKaSa). "By stating that the son of a toddy tapper shouldn't be given a plum post, what idea are they trying to express? It is nothing but a pure casteist remark. This coming from the party which celebrates their Prime Minister once being a "chaiwallah" exposes their double standards and proves beyond doubt that it is the caste-based ideology that leads them," he said.
Citing an episode from Kerala history, he added, "When Dr Palppu (1863-1950) requested the Maharaja of Travancore for a job after passing the medical exam, he was reminded of his traditional job of climbing coconut trees. When he mentioned his qualification, he was asked to climb bigger trees instead. They are trying to bring back that ideology to Kerala. Janmabhoomi is posing a challenge to democracy, secularism and the Indian constitution."
Kerala's Left government had welcomed the apex court ruling allowing young women to enter the Ayyappa temple, while the opposition Congress and BJP launched protests against the ruling.
Lakhs of women are expected to line up for the 'women's wall' from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasargod, extending their support to the state government’s resolve to implement the Supreme Court’s verdict allowing women of all ages access to the Sabarimala shrine and to protect the secular and progressive values of Kerala.