Extreme emotionalism almost always accompanies reports of ill health in popular political leaders in Tamil Nadu. The same holds good for film stars also. This can go to extremes in some cases and people have even committed suicide when a leader has taken ill.
The hysteria that accompanied the many days in which former Tamil Nadu chief minister MG Ramachandran was incapacitated was beyond belief. People held mass prayers, some did not eat for days on end, many pledged their worldly possessions to the gods. Ever more innovative ways were found to propitiate the gods in the hope that the leader would recover.
Current chief minister J Jayalalithaa enjoys similar cult status. Her Cabinet is usually prone at her feet before addressing her, they dare not look her in the eye. To the people of Tamil Nadu, she is the beneficent Amma whose largesse is scattered like gold dust around the state.
So it is no wonder that her illness has generated such hype and hysteria among the faithful. Ever since she has been admitted to hospital, her followers have been engaged in various forms of penitence, the most extreme of which is hanging on hooks or piercing their bodies with metal rods.
Given the relative secrecy surrounding her health condition and the speculation accompanying it, the forms of appeasement of the gods has taken on more bizarre and worrying forms. The latest and most alarming is a religious ceremony organised at her constituency RK Nagar in which the faces of some children were pierced by metal rods, a form of worship associated with Lord Muruga.
While an adult is free to mutilate himself as he pleases, this goes beyond the pale. And worship or no worship, this amounts to child abuse. PMK leader S Ramadoss is right when he says this amounts to human rights violations, in this case the rights of children.
The AIADMK MLA who organised this has come up with the unacceptable explanation that this was voluntary. Irrespective of whether this was voluntary or not, a child cannot be subject to any form of torture — which this surely is. This is an offence under the law and must be treated as such.
What makes it worse is the explanation of the honorary general secretary of the Indian Council for Child Welfare Girija Kumarbabu that one cannot question rituals. Of course one can, especially when it comes to children or any vulnerable group. The council is an NGO that receives government funds and Kumarbabu should be brought to book for this statement.
The charter of the council, of which Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Indira Gandhi were once part, was framed to protect children from all violence. Kumarbabu’s remarks that “We have many abusive cultural practices in our state like thee medhi (fire walking). But we refrain from making comments about these practices,” makes things worse.
There can be no leniency when it comes to harming children. The authorities must crack down on such practices involving children at once and not bother about whether this hurts sentiments or is part of tradition.