For the backward community of Nadars in Tamil Nadu’s deep south, the binding identity of religion continues to be a key factor in shaping their social life and political outlook.

Come down to Irulappapuram village in Kanyakumari district, a symbol of assertion of Nadars, who were once treated as ‘untouchables’ within the Hindu society, one sees this dynamics at play even now, a significant pointer in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

As a community, they were once prevented from worshipping Lord Shiva. To overcome this denial, the ‘Hindu Nadars’ of the village constructed temples for Mutharamman, a female folk deity and an incarnation of Parvathi, wherein they offered prayers to Lord Shiva, too.

“Along with Mutharamman, we worshipped Siva. But the temple was always known in the name of Mutharamman. Today, everything has changed; not a single Monday passes without our reciting Thevaram hymns,” said P. Viswanathan, village leader. He still rued how his predecessors had been humiliated by ‘Brahmin priests’ in some of the important temples in the district. However, as Mr. Viswanathan recalled, the Nadars found a way to get even with the oppressive priesthood then by building their own temple for Lord Shiva in granite.

Over the years, temples of all folk deities — including ‘Sudalai Madan,’ the god of the graveyard, in Kanyakumari district — have “gone up” the social ladder to be on a par with ‘Vedic Gods,’ and all are housed in temples built as per ‘Agamic’ specifications.

Has their religious assertion, as a part of progressive social reform led to ‘Hindu identity politics’? Mr. Viswanathan is inclined to agree. He said a majority of the voters now prefer the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Writer Lakshmi Manivannan said both Hinduism and Christianity complemented each other “in perpetuating identity politics.” He backs it by pointing out that Hindus of Irulappapuram had constructed a big ‘Mutharamman temple’ after the local church had grown up in stature.

Captain S.P. Kutty, once a militant member of the RSS and instrumental in infusing a sense of belonging to the Nadars in Hinduism, long before the Hindu-Christian riots of the 1980s, agreed that the BJP in recent years had “immensely benefited” from the “religious assertion of the Nadars.” “When I contested the elections, I could bag 90 per cent of Hindu votes. But now the BJP leadership is lacking in ideology and leaders remain only as politicians,” said Mr. Kutty, an ex-Army officer.

Mr. Kutty further said that as the ‘Hindu Nadars’ have not yet intellectualised their reformed religious ethos, “they allow themselves to be exploited by the Brahmin priests in the name of ‘kumbabishekam,’ the practice of ‘prasannam’ and other rituals.” Mr. Kutty prides himself of he being an ‘RSS pracharak,’ but has distanced from the BJP.

While Mr. Viswanathan said inter-religious marriage among the ‘Nadars’ was very rare these days, Mr. Kutty reiterated that marriage was still used as a “trap to get well-qualified Hindu Nadar bridegrooms to convert.”

There is the other side, too. Noting that the identity politics of the ‘Nadars’ was encouraged not just by other religions but also by the (caste) politics of other communities, Mr. Manivannan said, barring a few exceptions, the church was no longer in a position to influence the voters.

“When real issues emerge, religious identity will fade away; today, all political parties are dominated by land and sand mafias. The real issues will unmask these mafias,” Mr. Manivannan added.

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