Don’t blame Nehru for the Kollam temple tragedy

Despite Swarajya’s claim, the fire at Puttingal Temple wasn’t caused by Nehruvian secularism

ByVinay Aravind
Don’t blame Nehru for the Kollam temple tragedy
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“The butler did it” is a hoary old trope in mystery fiction and widely regarded as the ultimate cliché. However, investigations into the provenance of the phrase have revealed that there are, in fact, not very many books where the butler is the actual culprit, and that its status as a cliché is largely undeserved. This reminds me of the right-wing commentariat in India and their obsession with Jawaharlal Nehru. There is hardly a failing with the Indian state or untoward incident that they wouldn’t eagerly blame on India’s first prime minister. But even by these standards, R Jagannathan’s op-ed in Swarajya laying the blame for the Puttingal fireworks incident at Nehru’s doorstep is farcical.

Jagannathan starts off the piece sensibly enough, acknowledging that human negligence, violation of norms, and poor safety measures are some of the causes for the tragic incident. Then he takes an incredible leap that would put even Subramanian Swamy, the right-wing’s most accomplished intellectual gymnast, to shame.

The premise, though Jagannathan does not explicitly say so, is that a significant cause of the accident was the fact that the temple was small. This premise is essential because it is on this basis that he builds the central argument: that India has too few big temples and too many small temples, and this is all because Nehru was a wretched secularist. Then Jagannathan proceeds to wheel out a lot of corporate jargon about how temples should equip themselves to take on the right-wing’s other favourite pantomime villain, “the Abrahamic religions”.

Let’s unpack this step by step.

Firstly: the size of the temple. It is true that the massive crowd of 15,000 was packed into a space not designed to hold 15,000 people. Also, several of these people were in the narrow lanes adjoining the temple. However, virtually every news report suggests that the immediate cause of the tragedy was the explosion of the stored fireworks and subsequent collapse of the buildings around it.Most of the victims were those who were closest to the explosion. There is nothing in any news report or account of the events to suggest that had there been more space, fewer people would have died.

Fireworks displays are like rock concerts (to use a gauche western analogy).They’re visual spectacles and the people who come to witness it will throng as close to the spectacle as possible, and as tightly as permitted. Had this been a temple with a great deal of space, people would still throng as close to the action as they were allowed. The only way to prevent this from happening is to set up barricades and ensure that the people are at a safe distance from the explosive material. This would have pushed the people farther away, and into roads and bylanes, but this has never stopped a crowd in India from enjoying a religious festival (as pretty much anyone who’s lived here for any length of time would have witnessed first hand).

Secondly, all the causes that Jagannathan graciously concedes in his opening paragraph, have led to disastrous incidents even in places with massive capacity to hold people. The Hillsborough disaster comes to mind as an example of some of the same failings leading to a tragic accident in a venue designed to hold a huge number of people. Setting up very large temples, with vast capacity, is not going to reduce the risk of such an accident if safety norms are violated, regulations are ignored, and human beings are negligent.

And of course, Nehru! Jagannathan states that, “Thanks to his disdain for religion, Jawaharlal Nehru did not pay much attention to actually encouraging private temple-building in modern India.” This is an absurd statement. There is a great deal of legitimate criticism that can be levelled against Nehru: that he was a casteist and even worse a caste apologist, that he didn’t actually understand socialism, and so on. But the one thing that he did that was unquestionably beneficial was his passionate espousal of a secular state. In this, he was not alone and I wouldn’t give him all of the credit for it, but he was vehemently against the state involving itself in religious affairs, and that is the one aspect of his legacy that endures without blemish.

Unless of course you’re the Hindu Right, because it is this secularism that has stood as the greatest obstacle for the Hindu-rashtra project.

Having set up a secular state, it is absurd to expect Nehru(or anyone else in charge of that state) to pay attention to encouraging the construction of any sort of private religious institution. It’s not as though private temple building has suffered on account of this. Examples such as the massive Akshardham temples in Delhi and Gujarat and several very large Iskcon temples around the country come easily to mind. The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1951, which is a subject of legitimate criticism, places no restrictions on the construction of temples.

The rest of Jagannathan’s opinion piece goes on to talk about how Hindus should build bigger temples, which should indulge in mergers and acquisitions, acquire franchisees and other such management gobbledygook and to none of this do I have an objection. Religion has always been a commercial enterprise and if one religion or another decides to become more professional and corporate in their quest to exploit the gullible, it would hardly be the worst aspect of it.

Yet even here, Jagannathan’s proposals are not without flaws. For instance, Jagannathan cites other examples of other temple-related accidents in the country, such as the Madher Devi Temple stampede that occurred when 300,000 people converged on the temple for its annual festival. This is where his corporate-speak fails to account for practical considerations. Temples in India tend to have once-a-year ‘festivals’ that often attract massive crowds of people. Even if we were to take his position at face value — that Indian temples need to be bigger — it would be impractical and outrageously expensive for any sort of religious institution to set itself up with a capacity to accommodate all of the people who converge at that place only once a year. It would be wildly excessive considering the requirements for the rest of the year and would cost more money than could be recovered in a practical amount of time. Of course, this is only a very minor quibble with an argument that suffers from other glaring problems.

The most significant of these is the regrettable desire on the part of Jagannathan (and most of his compatriots on the Right) to lay the blame for anything and everything with Nehru, and the extent to which facts and logic can be concealed and twisted to achieve this objective. Not only does it serve to distort the factual narrative, it diverts attention away from serious problems such as the systematic flouting of norms and regulations by religious institutions. One wishes that the attention and sharp pen of influential commentators such as Jagannathan would be directed at such actual problems, and not towards tilting at the Nehru windmill.

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