The Big Story: Process & processions

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s misguided attempts to prevent communal tension between Hindus and Muslims on the occasion of Muharram following Durga Puja were rightly called out, not just by other parties but also the Calcutta High Court. Banerjee made the confounding choice to restrict immersions on Vijay Dashami, the day Durga idols are traditionally immersed, even though the Muslim festival of Muharram only followed the next day. The decision prompted much blowback from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which accused Banerjee of “appeasing” minorities and restricting the rights of Hindus. Now the BJP’s own alliance government has given the go-ahead for similar restrictions to take place in Bihar. But there are crucial differences.

The Bihar government has itself, according to NDTV, not issued any sweeping orders restricting immersion timings. Several local authorities, including the Patna district administration, have issued directions calling on Puja committees to immerse idols on Vijay Dashami, September 30, to avoid a clash with Muharram processions on October 1. “We don’t want to create a situation where puja and Muharram processions clash,” said Patna district magistrate Sanjay Kumar Agarwal. These directives have then been backed by the local government, with Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP saying “it is a law and order issue rightly taken by the district administration. I appeal to all Hindus and Muslims to celebrate their festivals and maintain communal harmony.”

The big difference between Bihar and West Bengal, aside from the orders coming from the local administration rather than the state, is that the restrictions simply applied to the day of Muharram itself, when the chances for a clash between processions was most likely. In fact, the order encourages the immersion of Durga idols by September 30, Vijay Dashami, while restricting them the following day, Ekadashi. These two differences, leaving the directions themselves to local bureaucratic authorities and not interfering with the most common traditions, also allowed the Bihar government to blunt any similar “appeasement” criticism, while nevertheless making the case for religious restrictions aimed at maintaining “communal harmony.”

The stance did not go unchallenged. Union Minister of State for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Giriraj Singh said: “Kya Bihar ka Hindu dashwi manane Pakistan ya Bangladesh jayega?” Should Hindus in Bihar go to Pakistan or Bangladesh to celebrate Vijaya Dashami? Singh asked for the government to draw up separate routes for Puja and Muharram processions so that no community would be restricted by date. This was shot down, with Modi asserting that there would not be any change in routes, but local authorities would be free to put restrictions depending on the situation.

But beyond Singh, there was little criticism of Bihar’s approach, and certainly not the vehement, communal language used by the BJP in attacking Banerjee’s admittedly suspect policy. Rastriya Janata Dal spokesperson Manoj Jha pointed out how the BJP was clearly trying to polarise matters in West Bengal, after Banerjee gave them an opening: “The different approach is giving conflicting signals... Can we deny that there is a party that is doing everything possible to take the land of Tagore and Nazrul Islam to the polarised pre-Partition days?”

Both Banerjee and the BJP must acknowledge the utility of the Bihar model, leaving power to local authorities but also, importantly, recognising that some restrictions which don’t infringe on the main traditions might be necessary to prevent violence.

The Big Scroll

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