‘Why celebrate a casteist, alien and alienating festival?’ : A pamphlet on Onam distributed by Ambedkar Reading Group, DU in September 2012 

We are living at a time when Indian universities are being transformed by the entry of SC/ST/OBC and other minority students into its once exclusionary space. This space, which the Dalit-Bahujan scholar Kancha Ilaiah once described as an ‘Agrahara’’ is today being interrogated by these students who are challenging many of its taken-for-granted customs, traditions and celebrations, all of which have helped maintain its exclusionary nature.

Thus many new protests against the hegemonic Savarna culture of the University can be seen today, as witnessed in the Beef Festival in Central University, Hyderabad, the Beef Festival in Osmania University; the Beef-Pork festival in JNU; the pamphlet against Durga Pooja brought out by Bahujan students in JNU; the burning of the Manusmriti in JNU; and the celebration of Ravana Jayanathi in Osmania. Similarly, the festival of Onam, which is celebrated in many campuses as the national festival of Kerala has also been heavily interrogated in the Central University of Hyderabad; EFLU, Hyderabad; and Jamia Millia Islamia,, Delhi. Our own online forums have witnessed heated debates on the same.

As a student community, it is important that we pay heed to the many questions that are being raised with regard to Onam and other such celebrations.

First of all we must understand that Onam, which was not a very popular festival before the 60s, was deliberately installed as the national festival of Kerala, by the State, under the chief ministership of Pattom A. Thanu Pillai in 1960. Though Onam is celebrated in varied ways in different parts of Kerala (for instance in Malabar, non-vegetarian food is an integral part of Onam among ‘lower’ castes and Dalits) it was given a very Savarna flavour with vegetarian food, the Nair way of dressing (Mundum Neriyathum) and the Savarna dance form of Kaykottikali. It was also associated to other high art-forms like Kathakali and Mohiniyttam, which again are taken from the ‘upper’ caste life-world.

The celebration of Onam then marked the way in which Kerala became dominated and marked by Hindu, Savarna tropes. When taken up by educational institutions and other cultural organizations like the local Sports & Arts Clubs, it kept propagating the idea of Kerala as Hindu and ‘upper’ caste. Even as there were great many variations in the way in which Onam got celebrated at the local level, most non-dominant groups were still forced to fit into its Savarna scheme and claim it as their own. Those who refused to do this were accused of betraying the ‘imagined community’ of Kerala and were viewed with great suspicion. Given this, we cannot claim to celebrate Onam innocently, turning a blind eye to the many dominant ideologies that it worked to install and circulate.

In fact, today Dalit and Bahujan students are trying to interrogate many cultural practices that have worked to establish and maintain the caste system in this country.Take for instance the way in which the students of AIBSF, JNU, pointed to the caste violence of the hugely popular Durga Pooja. As they write in an article published in the web journal, Round Table India (For an informed Ambedkar age ) “Hindu gods and goddess and the festivals surrounding their myths are nothing but the history of ‘upper’ caste domination over the indigenous population of the country – SC, ST and OBCs and therefore the time has come to re-interpret these texts with Bahujan perspective.”

In particular, the myth of ‘Goddess’ Durga’s slaying of ‘demon’ Mahishashura is nothing but the brutal killing of a Bahujan king by an ‘upper’ caste Aryan woman through treachery, and therefore for all the indigenous population of the country a very sad day, unlike for the brahminical class that celebrates it with great pomp and show by giving it a religious fervour..

Mahatma Jotiba Phule has also put forward a similar analysis of the Asura kings, who he argues were the indigenous rulers who were conquered and then demonized by the Aryans. Bali (or Mahabali), according to Phule, was one such egalitarian king who was then defeated by the Aryans, who gave birth to the caste system to institutionalize their dominance.

Onam, we cannot ever forget, is grounded in the defeat of Mahabali at the hands of Vamana, the Brahmin. In many parts of India, this defeat is celebrated as Vamana Jayanthi or the Victory of the Brahmin. Kerala, with its powerful anti-caste assertions, might not have accepted such a Brahminic celebration. So we are given the worthless compensation of a single day, so that Mahabali can come back to visit his people. It is this sad day of defeat and subjugation that we now celebrate as Onam.

M B Manoj,a Dalit scholar and poet (in an interview given to the Youtube Channel, Dalit Camera) argues that Onam marked the establishment of the caste system in Kerala. He says that Onam is “a black day for Dalits, even as it is a day of happiness for the upper caste.” He also tells us about the hunger strikes carried out by Dalit organisations in Kerala on Onam day, to mark this day of defeat.

Yet another thing to note here is this: Onam and its casteist content have gained such currency in Kerala because it is being circulated through the discourse of secularism, which constructs Savarna, Hindu festivals and rituals as something that all Malayalees ought to enjoy and celebrate. This secular pressure excludes anyone who is unwilling to participate as disruptive and divisive.

It is this pressure or ‘secular violence,’ that forces many Dalit-Bahujan, minority students to take part in a festival which has been installed by savarna forces to gain power and ascendancy over them. In fact, it would be interesting to see how many students gathered here today eat vegetarian food or wear the neriyathum mundum (as seen in the posters), except during such Onam gatherings in the public sphere. It is imperative that we question why we would then celebrate such an alien and alienating festival as our own, without thinking of the many historical and cultural problems that frame it.

It is sad that we as a community of thinking students, failed to take note of all the debates that are reverberating in the many forums of this university and other universities around us. The question before us as a community is whether we are going to mindlessly go on with the given Hindu, savarna scheme, or are we going to at least start a debate regarding all this?



(From a pamphlet distributed by “Ambedkar Reading Group” against the Onam celebration organized by “Maithry”, a “Malayali” Student platform, in September 2012 in Delhi University)



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