The April 10 fireworks disaster at the Puttingal temple was the result of blatant violation of safety rules by the temple committee consisting mainly of supporters of the BJP, India’s ruling party. The Kerala police under the control of Congress party, which rules the state, too turned a blind eye to the safety aspect. The tragedy struck during the current assembly elections campaign and aggravated its political aspects. With an eye on the vote bank, a Congress member of Parliament facilitated the illegal competitive fireworks displays and elephant parades. Strict implementation of safety rules was, thus, out of question. Days after the Kollam fire, politics was in action again in the management of the legendary Thrissur Pooram (April 17-18) that too involved fireworks and elephant parades
Politics seems to matter more than lives in the south Indian state of Kerala, a crucible of many political experiments.
The fireworks disaster that left 113 people dead on April 10 at Puttingal temple in Paravoor town in Kollam district proved it. The temple authorities and politicians could have stopped the competitive fireworks at Puttingal but they were more concerned about the political fall-out of such a step in the election-bound state. So despite a ban order from the Kollam district collector, they gave the go-ahead for the fireworks.
Barely a week after the Puttingal tragedy and the subsequent Kerala High Court stay order banning fireworks and elephant parades at festivals, politicians were again seeking ways to lift the ban at the mother of all festivals in the state, Thrissur Pooram, on April 17-18.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy knew his Congress party was facing tough assembly elections in May. He made a smart move to ensure the smooth conduct of the fireworks at Thrissur Pooram so that his party stands a good chance of winning the assembly elections.
Following the Puttingal tragedy, public opinion grew for banning festival fireworks in the state. The chief priest of the famous Sabarimala temple said fireworks are not part of temple festivals. Another religious luminary, head of the Sivagiri Ashram in Varkala, also opposed fireworks displays at temple festivals. Some temples dropped plans for such displays and Christian churches followed suit.
The state Director General of Police, considering law and order, demanded a ban on festival fireworks since restrictions won’t work.
The Kerala High Court on April 12 issued an interim stay on high-decibel fireworks at temple festivals.
Festival organizers and administrators of temples, however, wanted the fireworks to go on. Contractors of fireworks, who had commercial interests, too demanded it.
The first event to be affected by the high court ban was ‘Thrissur Pooram’ famous for its fireworks. The Pooram organizers opposed any attempt to curtail the fireworks. They felt the festivities would lose all glamor without the pyrotechnics display.
The fireworks ban also rattled the thriving Christian business community of Thrissur who do brisk sales during the Pooram. On April 14, a sit-in was organized. The Metropolitan Archbishop of Thrissur, Mar Andrews Thazhath, also participated in the sit-in demanding temple managements be allowed to have fireworks.
In the meantime, the state forest department tried in vain to restrict the parading of elephants to just three hours in a day. But this would have impacted the way in which the festival has been conducted.
Chandy intervened and the forest department’s orders were overruled.
The chief minister convened an all-party meeting which decided that the fireworks would be restricted but not banned. The state high court fell in line since a Supreme Court order already allowed fireworks at Thrissur Pooram.
The chief minister later visited Thrissur and assured the religious trusts that the government would extend full cooperation to the Pooram festival but restrictions by the high court should be respected.
As usual, thousands of people gathered at the Thrissur round to watch the fireworks in the wee hours of April 18. The event went ahead without any hitch.
In Kollam, the temple fire tragedy was caused by callous mismanagement. The Director General of Police blamed the district magistrate in charge for having mismanaged the situation. The latter, in turn, blamed the local police for not implementing her orders.
Some alleged that the young magistrate, a Muslim, was partial in permitting fireworks in deference to Hindu sentiments though she had prohibited ‘competitive fireworks’.
The Director General of Police objected to VIP visits from New Delhi since it hampered police efforts to maintain order in a delicate situation. The medical fraternity too objected to central government politicians who rushed to commiserate with the injured though they really had elections in mind.
The intensely political Prime Minister Narendra Modi rushed to Kollam with a team of doctors as if he had no faith in the local medical fraternity.
Kerala has many legendary temples, mosques and churches together with a fine variety of music and dance forms. A mosque had come up there in the lifetime of the Prophet and a synagogue in Kochi speaks of the syncretism. A famed Christian singer celebrates Krishna the Hindu god. A legendary Muslim is a dancer in the ‘Kathakali’ (a celebrated Kerala classical dance form) tradition.
A sensitive Muslim writer observes that many Hindu gods and goddesses carry a variety of musical instruments. According to him, the fire tragedy at Kollam temple was the outcome of “politically induced cultural aggression, wasteful indulgence and subversion of what was innately musical and rhythmic in varied forms of worship.”
He concludes: ‘Firecrackers, among other deviations, threaten to turn a hoary tradition into a vulgar ritual, espoused by a neo-fascist cult!”
The author, born in Kerala, was a senior government official in New Delhi and an author