On August 23, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made an announcement on – where else – Twitter. “This year Durga Puja & Muharram fall on the same day,” she wrote. “Except for a 24 hour period on the day of Muharram, immersion will resume on October 2 and will continue till October 4.”
What did this mean? The last day of Durga Pujo, Dashami, falls on September 30. The next day, October 1, is Muharram, labelled in the Hindu Bengali almanac as Ekadashi. Muharram is a Muslim observance that sees large processions of mourners – the matam. Banerjee was apprehensive that processions of Hindus out to immerse the goddess Durga’s idol would intersect the matam processions and lead to violence. So, she restricted immersion on Dashami till 6 pm (which practically meant the whole day since the idols are generally immersed late in the evening) as well as the day after. Immersion would only take place from October 2.
On Thursday, a two-judge bench of the Calcutta High Court struck this order down. Justices Rakesh Tewari and Harish Tandon ruled that since there was “communal harmony in the state” such a restriction was “arbitrary”. The Bengal government, on the other hand, argued that the situation on the ground warranted restrictions. While the court may have been right in theory – Bengal has indeed not seen large-scale communal violence in the recent past – Banerjee’s apprehensions were not entirely baseless. There has been a sharp rise in communal violence, with a series of low-intensity riots making headlines over the past few years.
Yet, while Banerjee’s proposed restrictions might have been aimed at reducing the communal temperature, they were so clumsy they had the opposite effect. Firstly, Banerjee’s contention that “Durga Puja & Muharram fall on the same day” is factually incorrect. Muharram is a day after the last day of the Pujo, Dashami. This might seem a pedantic point to make but it’s quite relevant.
Banerjee did not need to restrict immersion on Dashami. This is significant since, traditionally, Dashami is the day the Durga idol is immersed. At present, given that the festival has morphed into a large, commercial event in Kolkata, many large Pujos in the city delay immersion beyond Dashami. In most other parts of Bengal, however, the Dashami immersion date is still adhered to.
Thus, an immersion restriction on Dashami was a serious infringement on the way Durga Pujo is practised. Why the Banerjee government thought of putting in place such a serious restriction when Muharram was the next day is a mystery. All the government needed to do was to thoroughly police and regulate the immersions on Dashami. In fact, there is precedent: in 1982 and 1983, Muharram fell the day after Dashami. While the Left Front government restricted immersion on Muharram, immersion on the preceding day was allowed within a certain time window.
What makes the government’s job easier is the small scale of Muharram in Bengal. There are few Shias – the main sect that observes Muharram – among the Muslim Bengali community. In fact, many parts of the state do not even have a Muharram procession. Muharram is mainly observed in parts of Kolkata and other urban areas with significant non-Bengali Muslim populations.
What about restrictions on immersion on the day of Muharram, October 1? Things get trickier here. Even if Muharram is small-scale, a procession is difficult to police. What makes things easier for the government though is that Muharram coincides with Ekadashi – the day when, traditionally in Bengal, Durga idols are not immersed. Thus, the insistence from some quarters that immersion must be allowed on Ekadashi either betrays a poor understanding of Durga Pujo in Bengal or is simply an act of truculence.
This truculence is not a one-off thing. The Bharatiya Janata Party has pushed Banerjee hard on the communal issue, taking out armed marches on Ram Navami earlier this year. Even on Durga Pujo, the saffron party has threatened to take out armed marches. This is unsurprising since communal polarisation helps the BJP while being rather harmful for the Trinamool, which has a voter base equally divided between Hindus and Muslims. Therefore, any reading of this situation as one of so-called Muslim appeasement is wrong. While the Trinamool has often wooed its large Muslim vote base, that is not the case here. It gains no Muslim votes by restricting idol immersion. Banerjee’s mishandling of this situation has not only been bad for Bengal, it will harm her own political prospects as well.