Kolkata: In a first, the West Bengal BJP has picked a non-Brahmin priestess to perform its annual five-day Durga Puja. Studying guidance and counselling at Kolkata’s Satyapriya Roy College of Education, 28-year-old Sulata Mondal is counting down the days to the high-profile celebration.
“I am very excited and hope many will come and join the celebrations,” Mondal told ThePrint, adding that Bengal BJP Mahila Morcha chief Tanuja Chakraborty informed her Thursday morning that the party wanted her to perform its Durga Puja.
A resident of North Dinajpur district, Mondal said, “If women can conduct puja at home, then why not outside? Why only men? I always wanted to do something different as a woman. I wanted to break the glass ceiling.”
Having “learnt the shastras”, Mondal started performing rituals at religious gatherings in 2018 and has since conducted Saraswati pujas, Kali pujas and Durga pujas. She has also officiated wedding ceremonies and performed shradh — a ritual to pay homage to ancestors.
But taking on the role of a priestess was not an easy task. “I faced a lot of objections from society. Being a non-Brahmin girl, performing rituals was unheard of. But now, people are more accepting. In fact, there is a lot of encouragement, people come to see me perform pujas that were traditionally performed by priests,” she said.
Mondal is not worried about the politics of it all. For her, it is about encouraging young women and men to better understand Hindu rituals. Bengal BJP chief Sukanata Majumdar, she said, told her that “a daughter has the power to perform puja for the mother [Goddess Durga]”.
According to political analyst Sourjya Bhowmick, the BJP is attempting an image makeover in West Bengal with this move.
“BJP is perceived as a party of upper caste. For them, women were not allowed or seen performing puja rituals before. In the past few years though, women performed puja on one or two occasions during Durga Puja. It’s still not common. With this decision, BJP is trying to change the perception that it is politically and socially progressive,” he told ThePrint.
Political science professor at Bangabasi College Udayan Bandyopadhyay said the move “appears to be a progressive step”.
“However, it has been done to give a message to Bengali Hindu lower-castes that BJP should not be perceived as a party led by the upper castes,” he told ThePrint.
BJP calls it ‘leap’, TMC says ‘nothing new’
The Bengal BJP first organised Durga Puja celebrations in 2020, ahead of assembly elections. The initiative was the brainchild of then BJP leaders Mukul Roy and Sabyasachi Dutta, both of whom have since returned to the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
The first Durga Puja organised by the BJP’s Bengal unit was inaugurated virtually by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2020. In 2021, the party’s puja was scaled down owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, this time around, party leaders are leaving no stone unturned in keeping up with the traditions and have even asked Union Home Minister Amit Shah to inaugurate this year’s Durga Puja, which they say will be the last such event due to “fund crunch”.
Calling it a landmark moment for the party’s Bengal unit, BJP MP Locket Chatterjee told ThePrint: “It is a proud moment for ‘nari shakti’ (women power) and we aren’t just saying it but showing it through action. It’s a big leap in empowering women and sending out the message that women are at par with men today. Unlike Mamata Banerjee who only offers lip service about women’s development, we know the reality, which is otherwise.”
BJP MLA Agnimitra Paul said this decision by the West Bengal BJP is an example of Modi’s progressive leadership.
“In Bengal, we worship mostly goddesses, be it Kali, Saraswati, Laxmi or Durga. According to Hindu shastras, a person becomes Brahmin by deeds, not by birth, and nowhere does it state that women can’t perform puja. Under Mamata Banerjee’s regime, women are being tortured in West Bengal. We want to set an example that women are powerful,” she added.
Countering the BJP’s claims, TMC leader Chandrima Bhattacharya said women performing Durga Puja isn’t a new phenomenon, and that the BJP “needs to check atrocities against women in states governed by their party first before talking about West Bengal”.
“Women here are already empowered, socially and economically. Under the able leadership of Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal women have several development schemes. Women priests performing Durga Puja has happened in the past, which highlights Bengal’s progressive mindset,” she told ThePrint.
Didi’s women voters
The TMC has a distinct support base among women — thanks to Didi, as Mamata Banerjee is fondly called. A range of welfare schemes aimed at women has helped the TMC cement its popularity among women voters.
Among those schemes is Kanyashree, which offers financial support for girl students to prevent child marriage; Sabooj Sathi to provide free cycles to girl students; Rupashree, which is a financial assistance scheme to help a girl get married; and the more recent, Lakshmir Bhandar, a monthly monetary aid scheme for women part of low-income families.
The TMC’s pitch for the 2021 assembly polls — “Bengal wants its own daughter” — was mindfully designed to tap into the minds of the state’s women voters.
This year, CM Mamata Banerjee sounded the Durga Puja dhak (drum) a month in advance, leading a colourful parade to thank UNESCO for bestowing the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ tag on Kolkata’s Durga Puja celebrations. Over 1,000 renowned puja committees of Kolkata, Howrah and Bidhannagar had joined the parade in the heart of the city earlier this month.
The procession, comprising hundreds dressed in traditional Bengali attire and dancing to the tunes of pujo songs, culminated with Mamata’s note of thanks. She was accompanied on stage by ministers and leaders, besides former Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly.
But the latest stand-off is not the first time the BJP and TMC have locked horns over Durga Puja celebrations in West Bengal.
In 2017, the TMC government restricted idol immersion on Vijayadashami (Dussehra) which coincided with Muharram in an order that was later stayed by the Calcutta HC. But the BJP took the opportunity to accuse the TMC of indulging in “appeasement politics”.
Revisiting the controversy, Union Minister Meenakshi Lekhi taunted Mamata Thursday, saying that the government which “banned” idol immersion, is taking credit for the UNESCO honour. “West Bengal CM must be very busy and the advice she is receiving from her advisors is questionable,” Lekhi reportedly said.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)