Kolkata: For the over four decades that they had a stranglehold on West Bengal, the Left front governments always stayed away from the state’s biggest social, cultural and religious festival — Durga Puja.
Its leaders refused to patronise the puja pandals and even consciously attempted to downplay the very Hindu nature of the festival — the communist government circulars and documents always referred to the festival as ‘Sharodotsav (Autumn Festival)’ as opposed to Durga Puja.
The blatant politicisation of the puja began after the Trinamool Congress (TMC) grabbed power for the first time in 2011. In the years since, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has announced grants for the puja committees that set up the pandals, had some of them exhibit her government’s achievements while her party colleagues began to be associated with some of the biggest Durga Puja organisers in the state.
Some eight years on, the TMC political monopoly on the puja is being challenged, with the BJP, which made massive inroads in the Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal, seemingly discovering the potential to use the state’s single most important festival to push through its Hindutva agenda.
On 28 September, the day of Mahalaya, which marks the beginning of the Durga Puja festivities, the BJP top brass including the party’s national working president J.P. Nadda, state president Dilip Ghosh and senior leader Mukul Roy performed ‘tarpan (ablutions and offering water to deceased ancestors)’ for “80 members” of the party, who according to the BJP fell victim to political violence in Bengal.
On Tuesday, Home Minister Amit Shah inaugurated a Durga Puja pandal at Salt Lake, the satellite town located at the north eastern fringe of the city, where he insisted that the BJP will implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in West Bengal. He reiterated that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will aid refugees of all communities barring Muslims, before attacking the TMC government.
According to Ghosh, the party received several requests for Shah to inaugurate puja pandals, but the home minister agreed to do just one ‘token’ inauguration. “Several requests came for puja inauguration by Amit Shahji,” Ghosh said. “He agreed to open one in Salt Lake as a token initiative by the BJP.”
The BJP is also employing the playbook that it employs in other states such as Maharashtra, where it is highly involved in religious festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi. The party and its affiliates, such as the RSS, have launched public outreach programmes in Bengal, setting up book stalls, tea stalls and even launching boat rides.
A senior RSS functionary told ThePrint that the stalls contain books on the RSS’ roots in the state, issues regarding national security and why the NRC is a necessity. “The TMC tried to portray the Sangh and the BJP as outsiders. But RSS has its roots in Bengal,” he said. “The Jan Sangh was born here. We need to remind people about the history of the Sangh and puja is the best time for strengthening connect to the people.”
The BJP has been organising processions celebrating Durga Puja and Sindoor Khela on the final day of the festival. According to a senior BJP leader, the party has created a separate corpus to fund some puja activities and to systematically plan the outreach programme.
“The amount will run in crores. We have been told that there is no dearth of money but we have to reach as many as people we can during the festivities,” he said. “We started gaining ground in the state only after our party spearheaded a movement against Mamata Banerjee for blocking idol immersion for two days in 2017.”
The TMC, however, is taking none of this lying down. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is on a puja inauguration spree — she has inaugurated 61 pujas since 27 September.
It is still ahead in this race. Over the years, it has become an unsaid rule that the chief minister would open all the big banner pujas in Kolkata. Some of the huge pandals in the city are thrown open to the public at least 7-10 days ahead of Durga Puja and showcase Banerjee’s schemes and projects.
The chief minister also addresses the gathering, playing up her achievements.
A majority of these pujas are also organised by committees headed by TMC leaders.
For example, the puja by Suruchi Sangha — a club in New Alipore in South Kolkata — is now known as the ‘Aroop Biswas puja’ as the TMC minister heads the committee.
The celebrations hosted by the Chetla Agrani club are called the “Bobby Da r pujo”, as the Urban Development Minister Firhad (Bobby) Hakim patronises it. The Ekdalia Park puja is associated with its patron-in-chief Subrata Mukherjee, a former Union minister, former city mayor and now the state’s panchayat minister. In fact, West Bengal is the state where the Muslim Trinamool Congress ministers also head puja committees, the most prominent being the ones headed by Hakim and Javed Khan.
If that wasn’t enough, Mamata began announcing sops for the puja committees in Kolkata and the districts from 2018. These included a waiver of licence fees for the Puja organisers and a government grant of Rs 10,000 to at least 28,000 puja committees across the state. It cost the government exchequer around Rs 28 crore in 2018.
This year, the chief minister hiked the grant to Rs 25,000 for each of the committees and Rs 30,000 to the ones run by women.
“Durga Puja in the state always had a social connotation. Since Mamata Banerjee came to power, Durga Puja has become a space to deliver political statements,” said Dilip Ghosh. “The religious and social fervor of puja has long gone. Her government also offers a Rs 25,000 bribe, I repeat bribe and not donation to the puja committees. Any committee taking the bribe from the government is duty bound to the ruling party.”
The Trinamool Congress, on the other hand, holds BJP responsible for this rat-race to capture puja committees and for ‘dividing’ people. “In last four decades, we have never witnessed central ministers flying down from Delhi to Kolkata to get hold of puja committees,” said Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy. “This looks a desperate move by the BJP to get control over things. The blatant attempts to politicise the most secular festival of the country will only bring discontent for them. I am sure that the replacement of Durga Mai Ki Jai by Jai Shree Ram will not go down well in the state for BJP.”
The Mamata vs BJP fight over Durga Puja began two years ago.
In 2017, the TMC government issued an order asking puja organisers to complete the immersion ceremony by 6 pm on 30 September. Committees were also barred from taking out immersion processions for two days after 30 September. The reason: it was Muharram on 1 October and the government feared processions by two communities could result in law and order problems.
The order drew huge flak from the puja organisers and subsequently it was extended to 10 pm of 30 September. The BJP, however, latched on to the opportunity and began accusing the TMC government of appeasing the Muslim community.
Some organisers even moved court. A two-judge bench of the Calcutta High Court had back then set aside the government’s ban on the immersion on 1 October and issued an interim stay allowing organisers the freedom to immerse their idols as per the religious calendar.
Since then, in nearly every political rally, Shah and other leaders have categorically mentioned how Bengalis can hold Puja and other rituals “freely” if BJP comes to power in the state, blaming Banerjee’s ‘minority appeasement’ for such decisions that hurt Bengali sentiments.
Calling the scenario the best example of ‘competitive communalism’, Left Front chairman Biman Bose said: “Both these parties are trying to create a religious fanaticism in the state and polarise people.”
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