Monday October 1, 2007
Troubled waters swirling
INDIA DIARY WITH COOMI KAPOOR
EVEN if you are a confirmed atheist, would you be so insensitive as to publicly question another person's faith in God?
Now, in all probability your answer would be a firm 'no'. After all, believers and non-believers can co-exist peacefully without one running down the others faith in God or lack of it.
But if you are M. Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, you would not only mock at the believers but would also poke fun at their object of reverence.
The leader of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam waded into the ongoing Sethusamudram controversy by ridiculing the Hindu god Lord Rama.
Some say there was a person over 17 lakh years ago. His name, they say, was Ram. And we should not touch the bridge he built. Who is this Ram? From which engineering college did he graduate? Is there any proof of this? Ram is a big lie. In fact, if you read the old literature, Ram was a drunkard and worse, Karunanidhi has said in recent days.
Admittedly, the provocation for the Tamil Nadu chief minister was the opposition to the proposed channel across the Palk Strait between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka in order to reduce the distance and time for East-West ships. At present, the Palk Strait is so shallow that only small boats can go across it.
The supporters of the proposed canal argue that it will save ships coming from Europe and Africa 36 hours in time and 600 nautical miles in distance, a claim disputed by experts not necessarily swayed by religious or mythological reasons.
However, the real snag is that as per the existing alignment of the canal, the Ram Sethu or the Adams Bridge would be demolished.
Lord Ramas bhaktas believe that the Ram Sethu was built by the monkey god Hanuman for his simian army to go across the Palk Strait to defeat the demon Ravana and free Sita, Ramas wife, from the latters clutches. This is the popular version in the great Hindu epic Ramayana.
Karunanidhi has pooh-poohed such claims, saying that the formation under the sea they refer to as Ram Sethu is a mere collection of old coral reefs and sedimentation.
Though dredging work on the project has been under progress for some months now, the controversial project hit national headlines a couple of weeks ago when acting on a Public Interest Litigation, the Supreme Court stayed construction till further orders.
The central government, while opposing the grant of stay, filed an affidavit which questioned the existence of Lord Rama and debunked all talk about the Ram Sethu having been built by Hanuman.
It cited scientific opinion to claim that the so-called Ram Sethu was no more than a deep collection of coral reefs, sand and leafage, etc.
Sensing an opportunity, the opposition BJP seized upon the affidavit to chastise the government for questioning peoples faith in Lord Rama.
Lord Rama, they said, was the embodiment of Hindu culture, nay, Indian civilisation, its greatest icon revered by millions.
The Ramayana, along with the Mahabharta, constitutes the life-blood of Hindus religious belief systems. Various Hindu organisations jumped into the fray, seeking an apology from the prime minister for blasphemy.
Forced on the back foot, the government withdrew the affidavit immediately and ordered an inquiry as to how references to Lord Rama had been incorporated while a mere assertion that the so-called Ram Sethu was not a man-made structure would have sufficed.
Now Karunanidhi, a self-avowed atheist, intervened. He mocked Lord Rama and asserted that there was no question of the project being shelved or the alignment being changed to protect the so-called Ram Sethu.
He went on to say nasty things about the Hindu god, causing a Hindu leader to offer a price on Karunanidhis head.
It was now the turn of the DMK to respond. A couple of ministers in the Karunanidhi government declared that they would not allow Hindu organisations to operate from Tamil Nadu and sought the Hindu religious man who had called for Karunanidhis beheading.
The Hindu leader quoted religious scriptures to justify his call, saying that he had merely referred to the relevant sholakas prescribing punishment for anyone defiling the name of a god.
A couple of days later, a group of DMK supporters held a violent protest at the BJP office in Chennai. Not satisfied, the DMK has scheduled a state-wide bandh (work stoppage) in Tamil Nadu today to demand immediate resumption of work on the controversial project.
Critics argue that DMK is whipping passions over the Sethusamudram project with an eye on electoral gains. Though experts have questioned the economic gains likely to flow from it, the party believes that it would pep up the economy of the region, especially big and small ports in the state.
However, critics of the project argue that the proposed canal would allow only relatively small ships of 20,000 tonnage, whereas international shipping has now graduated to capacities several times more than these. Toll taxes and delays due to slow movement and consequently higher fuel usage could further nullify the gains.
Also, ecologists are concerned about the loss of valuable marine life in the Palk Strait, damage to coral reefs and fear of oil spills, etc. Besides, the proposed canal could be rendered ineffectual due to currents bearing sand; and, of course, in case of a tsunami.
Significantly, even the BJP-led opposition and the opposition AIADMK of former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa do not want the project to be abandoned.
They want it to be implemented but with a new alignment so that the Ram Sethu remains unharmed.
The Congress-led central government is caught in a bind since the DMK is one of its crucial allies. The issue remains unresolved, though the stay granted by the top court has allowed the central government breathing time to work out a compromise.