The Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal on Wednesday put restrictions on idol immersion during the upcoming Durga Puja celebrations in the state. The government said that idol immersions would not be allowed on October 1, as Muharram also falls on that day. The last and 10th day of the Durga festival is September 30, and immersions can begin that evening and, after a 24-hour gap, resume on October 2, the state said.
Speaking to the Indian Express, Chief Minister Banerjee claimed this was done to maintain peace in the state by preventing processions taken out during Muharram from clashing with the crowds of people out to immerse idols.
This announcement comes against the backdrop of increased communal polarisation in West Bengal, which has resulted in a string of low-intensity communal riots, like those seen in the state’s Basirhat subdivision in July and in Dhulagarh in December. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is trying to make inroads into West Bengal, has used these incidents to accuse Banerjee of appeasing Muslim voters – a charge which it has repeated for the immersion restrictions too.
Politics of appeasement?
Calling it the “politics of appeasement” and “vote bank politics”, the BJP criticised the move sharply and said that they will move court against the order. “Is the West Bengal government gradually turning into a Talibani administration?” asked West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh. “In schools, Saraswati Puja is stopped, and there are repeated restrictions on Durga Puja immersion.”
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh claimed that the orders would be disobeyed. “Hindus in West Bengal have decided not to listen to Mamata,” said RSS secretary for South Bengal Jishnu Basu. “Last year also, despite her orders, they performed the immersion up to midnight. We will provide all the support we can to the people who want to claim their religious fundamental rights”
Basu claimed that Banerjee has created a problem where there was none in order to score political points. “Muharram in West Bengal is a small festival, it is not observed everywhere,” he said. “In fact, some districts do not even have Muharram processions. This issue has been manufactured by the Trinamool.”
Creating an issue?
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) also criticised the Trinamool for communalising the issue. “No one should play with religious motifs,” said Mohammed Salim, a Lok Sabha MP and politburo member of the CPI(M). “We are seeing what is happening with [Dera Sacha Sauda chief] Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. We have seen what happened with the Babri Masjid. Playing with religious sentiments is easy but difficult to control later on.”
Like the RSS, the CPI(M) has said that the decision was taken only to further the Trinamool’s political aims. “This is being done deliberately,” said Salim. “Muharram is a small festival in West Bengal.
He added, “Is this the first time festivals have coincided in West Bengal? By mentioning Muharram as the reason for this, ultimately the innocent Muslim will be blamed.”
Speaking to Scroll.in, Prakash Singh, former Director General of Police of Assam and Uttar Pradesh, also said the orders barring immersion were unusual. “In all my years of service, I have never heard of such an order,” said Singh. “All you have to do is ensure that procession routes don’t clash.”
The increased communal polarisation of West Bengal – after decades of communal harmony – has allowed the BJP to grow in the state even as the CPI(M) shrinks to irrelevance. In a string of recent local elections and bye-polls in the state, while the Trinamool retained its dominance, the BJP has emerged as the second party.
While the Hindu Right wing has traditionally played a small part in West Bengal politics, the BJP intends to change that.
The Trinamool Congress has stepped up its engagement with Hindu festivals in a bid to counter the BJP’s Muslim appeasement charge. Earlier in April, many local Trinamool units held Hanuman pujas in the state. Last year, the West Bengal had organised a Durga Puja parade which involved a procession of idols to mark the end of the festival. The parade will also take place this year.
Fearing communal disturbances, the Banerjee government placed time restrictions on the immersion during Durga Puja last year too. At the time, the Calcutta High Court had partially struck down the order, letting private pujas immerse their idols at the time they wanted (though the restrictions would hold for the large community pujas). The court had remarked that “There has been a clear endeavour on the part of the state government to pamper and appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section without there being any plausible justification.”
The state did see local communal clashes in a number of areas during Muharram in 2016.