Bangladesh is home to the second-largest group of Hindu Bengalis in the world. In 2015, their number was estimated to be around 1.7 crores, making up nearly 20% of all Hindu Bengalis across both Bengals. In Bengali Hindudom, Durga Pujo is the biggest festival. Bengal holds a very special place in the sacred geography of my Shakto religion. Parts of Goddess Sati’s dead body fell on sites that became Shakti-peeths – spots of divine significance. Of the 51 Shakti-peeths on earth, Bengal is blessed with 16, of which five fall in the territory of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the second-highest assemblage after the 11 in West Bengal. In Dhaka, Ma Durga as Dhakeshwari has been offering protective cover to the city for centuries.
While religious discrimination, persecution and occasional violence in East Bengal has seen the Hindu Bengali population percentage dwindle from about 25% in 1951 to around 10% at present, the scale of Durga Pujo celebration remains huge. Officially, the number of Durga Pujos this year is a staggering 29,700, an increase of around 300 from last year. The pujos vary from traditional family pujos to the ultra-high budget glitzy affair in Banani, Dhaka. Kolkata-style corporatisation of pujos has started but isn’t as widespread in Dhaka.
Dhaka’s most prestigious pujo is at the Dhakeswari National Temple, which the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited on Saptami. Other famous Dhaka pujos include those at Dhaka University’s Jagannath Hall, Ramna Kali Temple, Ramakrishna Mission, and Loknath Brahmachari Ashram. Other districts also boast huge number of pujos with 1,200 in Gopalganj, 900 in Sylhet, 628 in Jessore and 604 in Magura. The port city of Chittagong has 281 Chittagong city pujos are special as many of the immersions actually take place in the Bay of Bengal, unlike in rivers and ponds in most other places of Bengal.
The apparent oxymoron of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh being a secular republic with Islam as state religion is something that a ruling party sensitive to marginalisation of religious minorities has to always negotiate. The ruling Awami League is traditionally considered a few shades better, at least in rhetoric as well as minority representation, compared to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat opposition whose leaders have often taken recourse to anti-Hindu bogeys during political campaigning. In the context of the rising threat of Islamic militancy, the Awami League’s top leadership projects itself as the only credible defender of a pluralistic society against militant forces of religion-smeared homogenisation.
During Awami League rule, Hindu East Bengalis have a bit more confidence when conducting large-scale public religious celebrations in what is claimed as a “land of Muslims” by majoritarian political forces, who consider Hindus to be "left-over Indians” from pre-Partition times. Hence, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and President Abdul Hamid’s emphatic statements on the occasion of Durga Pujo are important. “Durga Puja and other rituals are performed from the depth of traditional heritage and Bengali culture so that the festival is never confined into the circumference of religion," President Hamid said.
Echoing this sentiment, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that Durga Puja is not only a festival of Hindus but of all communities, irrespective of religion. She talked about the thousand-year-old bond of communal harmony of Bengalis. She mentioned that everyone fought the Liberation War of 1971 unitedly and the country belongs to all. To any persecuted minority in the subcontinent, such lofty rhetoric even if not backed up on the ground, is psychologically uplifting. It is an acknowledgment from the top that their rights and claims to equal citizenship are not given by the majority’s pity or favour.
For any minority, this tonality matters and shows up in ineffable ways in the confidence of public presence and observance, unabashedly as minority and citizen at the same time. As if to underline the element of Liberation War legacy inheritance, this year’s tallest Durga idol was at Noakhali, a name etched deep in Bengali Hindu memory as the site of their widespread massacre in 1946 starting on the Kojagori Lakshmi Pujo day. That Noakhali boasts the tallest Durga idol in 2016, standing at 71 feet representing the year of Bangladesh liberation, is charged with deep symbolism.
However, such symbolism doesn’t take away the fact that every year, there also happens what can only be called a large-scale pre-Pujo annual Durga idol desecration festival involving idol destruction and vandalism late at night by “unknown miscreants” often with threat-letters being left warning against “idol worship” quoting Quranic verses. This year, such attacks and desecrations happened in more than 30 sites. To prevent this, Hindu and Muslim youth have come together to form idol protection vigilante units at nearly every pujo in Jessore district. Rarely are these miscreants brought to justice, thus promoting a culture of impunity. The “unknown miscreant” description also helps maintain the public narrative claiming that the culture of the land is essentially non-communal.
Durga Pujo has also been an occasion for minority protest. After the large-scale attacks on Hindus by Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat allied forces in 2001, many Durga Pujos replaced the idol with a ghot (ritual earthen-pot). The police directive calling for stopping of all pujo-related drum-beating and music during namaaz and azaan times (thus signifying an hierarchy among religions), requests of no music during immersion procession as well as banning of all fireworks adds to a sense of discrimination.
Durga Pujo is a high-priority law and order headache for the police and para-military forces that cast a very wide security net during the festival days, covering almost every pujo site through patrolling, CCTVs, dog and bomb disposal squads. Pujo pavilions are classified according to threat perception and security resources are distributed accordingly. Of the 226 DurgaPujos in Dhaka city, 88 have been prioritised for security.
Durga Pujos also see political and government patronage in terms of political functionaries visiting the Pujos, extending grants in cash or kind and other assistance to the Pujos. Locally influential people, including some Bengali Muslims, head pujo committees.
A great mixing
Puja-special advertisements are ubiquitous in the media and on the streets. Some TV channels do live telecasts from key pujo pavilions and have special programming. Posh hotels and restaurants have lavish Pujo-special meal deals, while fashion houses bring out Pujo-themed apparel collections. Street-foot stalls shoot up in numbers. In some localities, traffic is thrown haywire. It is this public presence, not as the exotic but as the banal, that every minority group craves.
The trans-communal element of Durga Pujo celebrations is borne out by the mixed nature of crowds thronging the pavilions. Though this is on a retreat with calls being issued to Muslims to avoid the “idolatrous” festival, mofussil towns still largely retain the trans-communal flavor. “The global and regional rise of religious extremism, both within the majority and minority religious groups should be identified as cause and effect of the gradual contraction of space for social and religious dialogues among the communities,” said Professor Swadhin Sen of Jahangirnagar University.
And yet the Mother Goddess offers a possibility of expanding that space when Dhaka-based graphic-artist Mita Mehedi draws Ma Durga with her lion replaced by the Royal Bengal Tiger and defending Bengal’s Sundarbans against the controversial Indo-Bangladesh thermal power project at Rampal. That striking image, shared widely by Hindus and Muslims alike, imagines Ma Durga, more than anything else, as a protective Bengali mother.