Most often, courts orders are bland and insipid, sticking plainly to the law rather than being opinionated declamations. The ruling passed by the Calcutta High Court on October 6, modifying the rules set by the West Bengal government for idol immersion during Durga Pujo, did not stick to the script. The High Court accused the Mamata Banerjee of indulging in minority appeasement by ordering organisers to immerse their idols by 4 pm on Doshomi, the final day of West Bengal’s largest festival, Durga Pujo.
While criticism of this sort from a court might be unprecedented, this isn’t the first time Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress government has been accused of appeasing the Muslims of West Bengal. In practice, the Trinamool Congress plays the identity card wherever it can, with Hindus and Muslims frequently, but also with respect to more suppressed identities such as North Bengal’s Koch Rajbanshi people or Saontal adivasis. While it has seen short-term success by carpet bombing the state with identity politics, how long can this last?
Politicised court order
The government had put in time limits to the idol immersion given that Moharram processions the next day could cause, it argued, a law-and-order issue. The order struck this down by proceeding to argue that these processions are not an “inseparable” part of Moharram and that this "is also not the most important festival of people having faith in Islam”. The court also held that immersion is a vital ritual for “puritan Hindus” and those who “worship Maa Durga with a pure and clean mind”.
It directly accused the government of “being partial to one community” and attempting to “pamper and appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section”. The order even took a jab at Kolkata’s large community pujas, which the court said “indulge in performing puja to compete with one another for the purpose of winning prizes”. The court’s final order extended the final immersion time from 4 pm to 8.30 pm.
This is a welcome move. However, given the sensitive nature of the issue, the political and theological comments by the court in what is simply a matter of law seem rather unneeded and represent an unnecessary politicisation of the judiciary function.
Inexplicable government action
This isn’t the only odd thing in this episode, though. The original order by Banerjee itself was inexplicable on a number of counts. Firstly, it was a completely verbal order. The police were enforcing it without any written instructions. Moreover, the law and order point vis-à-vis Moharram makes little sense given that Doshomi, the day of immersion, was a day before, Ashura, the main day of observance for Moharram and the one which sees major processions move across the city. That immersions on the day before Ashura would result in a threat to public order seems rather improbable. As one of the petitioners themselves pointed out, there have been three instances since 1947 when the exact same pattern – of Ashura falling a day after Doshomi – has occurred and never have there been curbs placed on idol immersions.
Moreover, it has been nearly three decades since Kolkata last saw a communal riot. Adding to that, Moharram is rather small event in Kolkata, as compared to cities in the Hindi belt. Oddly enough, the West Bengal government’s order almost creates a communal situation in an attempt to over-enthusiastically respond to a threat that does not seem to exist.
Trinamool's confused identity politics
This confused identity politics is in many ways the hallmark of the how the Trinamool works. The ruling party before the Trinamool, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) exercised power through a strict party structure. The Communists had a deep base in the villages, from where it drew its cadre, supervised by an urban, upper caste bureaucratic class. So strong was the CPI(M) in West Bengal that it had practically supplanted the state – all power would flow through the party, right from Kolkata down to the villages.
Without this sort of party structure, the Trinamool grabbed onto identity to pull itself up. Most egregiously, the Trinamool stoked the embers of communalism after a riot in the town of Kaliachak in January. Banerjee has also openly reached out to the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, a pan-India organisation of Islamic clergy. Other forms of tokenism include the building of Muslim-only institutions such as the Aliah Madrasa University in Kolkata or a new Hajj house. Banerjee has also used the celebrated Bengali poet Nazrul Islam as a Muslim token, naming public places after him. Most absurdly, posters of Banerjee donning a faux hijab have been used by the party as campaign material in Muslim-dominated areas.
Although this doesn’t make the national media, Banerjee’s identity politics isn’t limited to Muslims. The Trinamool is also minutely involved with religious functions such as the Durga Pujo, helping organise them and using them as a tool for its public outreach. Banerjee has wooed Dalit groups such as the Matua religious sect as well as courted right-wing upper caste Hindus by commemorating the death anniversary of Hindu Mahasbha leader, and Bharatiya Janata Party founder, SP Mookerjee. In fact, even as parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party accuse the Trinamool of Muslim appeasement, in West Bengal itself the CPI(M) has constantly accused Banerjee of supporting right wing Hindu groups.
This sort of catch-all politics might see improbable but the Trinamool has seen great success with it. Not only did Banerjee end the Communists’ 34-year rule in 2011, it increased its margin of victory in 2016, easily sweeping away a CPI(M)-Congress coalition.
Of course, the diminishing returns of constant identity politics is apparent. While Banerjee might be big on Muslims tokenism, the actual hard benefit for Muslims from her administration is unclear and Muslims remain at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder as far as Bengali society is concerned. Moreover, clumsy moves like setting time limits for the immersion only end up angering Hindus – a phenomenon which has led to the steady rise of the BJP in West Bengal. In trying to be everything, Mamata Banerjee has seen success in the short run. But the dividends might dry up very soon if the Trinamool continues its ham-handed approach to governance.