Durga Pujo in West Bengal – as one may be sick of hearing by now – is a festival like no other. The art, the culture, the food, the gaiety make it a special date in the Bengali calendar. Yet, this year’s Pujo is slightly different. For the first time, Durga Pujo has become a political battleground. With the Bharatiya Janata Party trying to grow in West Bengal, Hindutva has featured as part of the festival. The Sangh Parivar even plans to take out armed marches during the festival.
This year’s Pujo has been marked by debates on whether eating meat during the festival is against the rules of Hinduism and whether the Mamata Banerjee government’s plan to regulate the immersion of idols – to prevent possible clashes with the Muslim processions observing Muharram – is appeasement or not. Neither the eating of meat nor the regulation of immersion is new, though. The Left Front government had prevented immersion in 1982 and 1983, when, like this year, Muharram fell a day after the last day of Pujo. Ironically, this year, the Bihar government – in which the BJP is a partner – has also banned immersion on Muharram. However, since allegations of appeasement help the BJP politically in Bengal and harm the Trinamool Congress, given that latter’s mixed Hindu-Muslim vote bank, they have raged during this year’s Pujo.
Yet, even as it is accused of appeasing Muslims, the Trinamool has adopted Durga Pujo like no other party in West Bengal, now or before. The Trinamool government, in fact, patronises the festival so much that it has acquired the characteristics of a state event.
Since the start of the Pujo, Banerjee has been on a spree inaugurating pandals, with each inauguration carefully photographed and catalogued on her Twitter timeline. Last year, too, the chief minister had inaugurated about 100 pandals. These events are often politically charged with Banerjee delivering speeches attacking the BJP.
Inaugurations are, of course, just the start. The government will confer a range of “Biswa Bangla Sharad Samman” awards on pandals. Ambitiously, there is even an award for the best Pujo in the world. Banerjee has also written the lyrics of a Pujo theme song, the video of which, predictably for the Trinamool’s all-encompassing if bumbling brand of secularism, has visuals of mosques and churches along with pandals. Most significantly, though, the Bengal government last year introduced the Durga Puja Immersion Carnival – a parade of idols through one of Kolkata’s widest thoroughfares to conclude the festival. Presided over by the chief minister herself, the parade was described by one excited Bengali as “Kolkata’s answer to the Rio Carnival”. While most visible in Kolkata, the state’s patronage of the Pujo extends to the districts. Historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta writes:
“The sharply transformed political life of the festival finds manifestation in newer scales of Didi’s largesse and licenses — as she doled out pre-Puja donations to local clubs, waived at will corporation regulations and taxes over commercial hoardings, made it mandatory for various municipal departments to sponsor ten Pujas in the city and one Puja each in the district.”
Although the government publicly patronises Durga Pujo, politics intersects the festival most significantly via the many Trinamool-controlled neighbourhood clubs that organise the pujos. Even prominent Muslim Trinamool leaders like Firhad Hakim organise major pujos through their clubs. The Calcutta High Court may have struck down Banerjee’s order restricting idol immersion on Muharram, but the Trinamool expects the diktat to be still followed, albeit informally, attesting to the strength of the party’s club network.
This Trinamool-club nexus means that Pujos are centres of power in Kolkata city. Pandals now grab valuable road space months before the festival begins and powerful clubs easily flout municipal rules during the time of the Pujo. Land grabbers are allowed easy pickings if they donate to the clubs controlled by Trinamool leaders, The Hindu reported in 2015.
To be sure, the Trinamool is hardly the first ruler of Bengal to have patronised the Pujo. During the Raj, having a British official over at your Pujo was an honour if you were a wealthy zamindar. Later, as the Pujo become a neighbourhood institution, the Congress, under leaders such as CR Das and Subhas Bose, would use them to mobilise the community against the colonial state. The tradition continued even after the British left Bengal. The leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have been known to inaugurate Pujos even if, being atheists, they did not indulge in any of the religious rituals as Banerjee enthusiastically does. Quaintly, the CPI(M) would set up book stalls outside major pandals, hoping that the lakhs of people streaming in for a look at the goddess Durga would also take a gander at dialectical materialism, class warfare and such.
Given the prominence of Durga Pujo in the Hindu Bengali calendar, the fact that rulers have used it to reach out to the people is hardly surprising. But the scale of the Trinamool’s endorsement of the festival is unprecedented. This patronage has acquired urgency in 2017, as the BJP tries to paint the Trinamool as a party that appeases Muslims. Pictures of Banerjee – herself a devout Shakto Hindu – worshipping Durga, the Trinamool hopes, will deflect some of the BJP’s attacks.
This, however, is not the first time the Trinamool has tried to out-Hindu the BJP. In April, when the BJP tried to introduce to Bengal armed marches during Ram Navami – a common practice in the Hindi-speaking belt – the Trinamool countered it by organising Hanuman Pujos.