ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Hindu Fisherfolk of Kerala

Religious Identity at the Crossroads

The religious identity of the Hindu fisherfolk of Kerala—the Dheevaras—has been a site of multiple and contradictory interpretations by agents and institutions with varied interests. While their caste association—the Akhila Kerala Dheevara Sabha—is urging them towards Sanskritisation and allegiance to Hindutva, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is engaging them in their communal propaganda. At stake is a host of religious practices and philosophies evolved by the Dheevaras through their occupation of fishing, and the contribution of early Dheevara reformers in critiquing the Brahminic domination of Hinduism and the caste system.

In 2011, when the disagreement between the governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu was at its peak regarding the water levels of the Mullaperiyar dam,1 the rather silent caste association of the Hindu fisherfolk (Dheevaras) in Kerala, the Akhila Kerala Dheevara Sabha (AKDS), proclaimed its solidarity towards the Congress-led Kerala government in a unique way. The AKDS conducted a day-long hunger strike in front of the Kerala secretariat on 14 December 2011 and declared that a special ritual called maanagni hotra puja would be simultaneously conducted in around 500 temples under the Dheevara karayogams2 in Kerala so that the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa would act reasonably on the dam issue. As per the AKDS monthly newsletter Viswakanthi (2012a), the puja has been depicted in the Matsya Purana and was introduced by the Hindu god Vishnu to evoke “wisdom” in women. While the caste association of the Hindu ­fisherfolk acquired much publicity through this religious act, the coastal villages of Kerala inhabited by fishing communities, including the Dheevaras, continue to be in the limelight as one of the most communal riot-prone areas in Kerala. The Marad riots3 of 2002 and 2003 exemplify the ongoing religious radicalisation of the Dheevaras, an ex-untouchable caste in Kerala.

This paper explores how the religious identity of the Dheevaras has been a site of multiple and contradictory interpretations by agents and institutions with varied interests. As the Dheevaras are being ushered into the process of Sanskritisation and indoctrinated into the Hindutva ideology by the AKDS, what is being overshadowed is a host of religious practices and philosophies that the Dheevaras evolved with their occupation of fishing as well as the contribution of early Dheevara reformers in effectively critiquing the Brahminic domination of Hinduism and the caste system. Apart from exploring the multiple interpretations of the religious identity of the Dheevaras this paper also discusses the persistence of untouchability in contemporary Kerala.

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Updated On : 23rd Apr, 2018

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