The Ramrajya Rath Yatra – which aims to garner support for a Ram temple in Ayodhya and consolidate Hindu votes for the 2019 general elections – entered Tamil Nadu on Tuesday to loud protests from political parties in the state.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader MK Stalin – who had on Monday called for a ban on the yatra, saying it could disturb the state’s peace and communal harmony – walked out of the Assembly to stage a road roko protest outside the Chennai secretariat. He was detained by the police along with several members of his party.

There were reports in the media of the preventive detention of over 100 people in Tirunelveli, Kancheepuram, Madurai and Kanyakumari districts as well.

Organised by the Shri Ramdas Mission Universal Society of Maharashtra, the 39-day rath yatra was flagged off from Ayodhya on February 13 by Vishwa Hindu Parishad general secretary Champat Rai. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad is a prominent participant in the campaign, which also has the support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The yatra is part of the larger Ram Janmabhoomi movement to mobilise support to build a temple at the spot where the 16th-century Babri Masjid stood before it was demolished in 1992 by BJP-led Hindutva groups. These groups believe this is the spot where Ram was born.

From Uttar Pradesh, the Tata mini truck refurbished in the likeness of the proposed temple in Ayodhya wound its way through Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala without facing significant opposition. In November, the Union Home Ministry had written to all six states the yatra would pass through asking them to take “appropriate action” for a smooth journey.

Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are all ruled by the BJP, while the party hopes to wrest Karnataka from the Congress in elections due this year and is working to make inroads in Left-ruled Kerala.

But as the yatra ended its Kerala leg and entered Tamil Nadu through the border municipality of Sengottai in Tirunelveli, the tension in the air was palpable.

Heightened security

Over 1,500 police personnel manned 32 check posts along the yatra’s 80-km route through Tirunelveli to ensure “no untoward incident occurs along the way”, said Superintendent of Police P Arun Sakthikumar.

Collector Sandeep Nanduri had on Monday imposed Section 144, prohibiting any gathering of more than five persons, across the district till March 23 – when the procession is set to reach its final destination, the pilgrim town of Rameswaram in Kanyakumari district.

In his order, the collector wrote: “… Even a minor incident in the Rathyatra along the entire route will snowball into a major communal clash with serious impact on law and order situation in the district.”

He went on to say, “It is reliably learn[t] that some miscreants are planning to utilise the opportunity to instigate violence and spread communal tension, which will not be limited to this district only. A serious and grave possibility of public order disturbance, communal clash, danger to public peace and tranquillity exists.”

Superintendent of Police Sakthikumar confirmed that preventive arrests had been made in Tirunelveli, though he did not give a number.

The security eased up slightly when the yatra reached its next stop in the state, Virudhunagar district. No prohibitory orders had been imposed here. “We have not received any such information,” said M Rajarajan, the superintendent of police. He added that 400 to 500 police personnel had been deployed at five check posts along a 51-km stretch.

Yatra politics

Opposition parties in the state accused the BJP and the Sangh Parivar of trying to create communal trouble.

Manuraj Shanmughasundaram, spokesperson for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and a lawyer, called the yatra “communal and contemptuous” as the Ayodhya title suit was still pending in the Supreme Court. The top court is hearing petitions against an Allahabad High Court verdict that had split the site in Ayodhya equally between the petitioners – the Nirmohi Akhara and Sunni Waqf Board – and the deity Ram Lalla.

Shanmughasundaram said no political party must be allowed “to manipulate the issue to make political gains, especially in a state where their presence is nil”.

He also criticised the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in the state, saying, “The VHP, which is acting as a Trojan for the BJP, has placed a direct challenge to law and order of the state. Unfortunately, the BJP’s proxy government that is ruling Tamil Nadu will be playing into the hands of those who seek to communally polarise the state.”

Su Ba Veerapandian of the Dravida Eyaka Tamilar Peravai said the route chosen by the yatra’s organisers through southern Tamil Nadu was strategic as many parts of the region had a history of communal tension. In the 1980s, Kanyakumari had witnessed clashes between Hindus and Christians in which six persons had died in police firing. Veerapandian said the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had stoked that violence. In 1981, hundreds of Hindus had converted to Islam in Meenakshipuram reportedly as a result of upper-caste oppression. It had led to the formation of an anti-conversion law in the state in 2002, for which the Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government was heavily criticised. The law was scrapped in 2005.

“The VHP is bringing this yatra here to a peaceful Tamil Nadu and creating communal problems,” Veerapandian said. “We people of Tamil Nadu will never allow any such event. We are all brought up by Periyar, and so we strongly believe that communal riots should not happen in our land.”

Dismissing these claims, the BJP’s spokesperson in Tamil Nadu, SP Sekar, said the opposition to the yatra was uncalled for. “Those who are opposing have two faces – one political and one personal,” he said. “Personally, everyone is going to temples and performing Hindu rituals. But they are outwardly opposing it to please, appease and canvass minority votes.”