Sweat beads dotting his brow, Prasanjit Rajwar adjusted his saffron bandana and panted, taking a breather. In the midday April sun he stood behind a wall of loudspeakers two-storeys high on which the chant of “Jai Shree Ram” was set to music and playing on a loop.
Then the beat dropped.
Rajwar and hundreds of young men around him erupted in a frenzy, dancing to the techno beats from the loudspeaker-wall. Thumping bass and flailing bodies flooded the narrow street.
This is how Purulia, a small town in the state of West Bengal now celebrates Ram Navami, a homage to the hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana.
But this wasn’t simply a religious event. Rajwar was dancing at a parade organised on Saturday by the Bajrang Dal, a part of the Sangh Parivar, which also counts the Bharatiya Janata Party as a member.
In the past decade, Purulia district has seen incredible political flux. The area’s Maoist militants have been wiped out, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)‘s star has waned and the Trinamool Congress has been in power since 2011. These changes have made space for an aggressive form of Hindutva to rise.
So strong is the force of aggressive Hindutva in Purulia now that the Trinamool organised its own Ram Navami parade on Sunday, copying everything right down to the techno music. The target: the upcoming 2019 general election. Purulia votes on May 12.
However, the effects of this go much beyond the polls. While this Hindutva mobilisation is making the town’s Muslims anxious, it is also overshadowing the indigenous Gajan festival celebrated to worship Shiv and other tribal deities.
A new tradition
The Bajrang Dal has been organising Ram Navami parades since 2017 in Purulia district. The procession in 2018 saw the open display of swords and knives. The belligerent marches resulted in clashes at multiple places in the district with one man allegedly murdered.
The 2019 procession, however, had no brandishing of swords and knives. Instead, the focus was on revelry, with crowds of people dancing behind massive loudspeaker sets powered by mobile generators.
The songs, consisting of hard techno beats interspersed with religious slogans in Hindi, had been imported from north India. Unlike Bengal, India’s Hindi-speaking states have a long tradition of celebrating Ram Navami.
Politics and religion
After the violence in 2018, the local Bharatiya Janata Party was wary of claiming direct credit for the rally. “We don’t organise the Ram Navami here, the Bajrang Dal does,” Vidyasagar Chakraborty, district BJP president told Scroll.in. “Yet we are blamed in case anything goes wrong.”
On the ground, however, the parade seemed very much like a BJP function. Both the Purulia Lok Sabha candidate from the BJP as well as the district party leadership took part in the procession and much of the organising was done by local party functionaries.
The runaway success of this form of Hindutva mobilisation can be seen from the fact that the Trinamool decided to copy it this year in Purulia. Held on Sunday, the Trinamool parade had more loudspeakers but fewer people. Moreover, the participants were far less enthusiastic, with many coming from the surrounding villages rather than the town, unlike the BJP rally. “The Trinamool Ram Navami is organised by paying boys from the villages,” alleged Satyajit Adhikari, Purulia town president of the BJP.
Show of strength
Like the BJP, the Trinamool officially denies involvement in the rally. “This was done by private people, clubs and temples not the Trinamool,” said Gaurav Singh, who jumped from the Bajrang Dal to the Trinamool Youth Congress in September, 2018. Singh had organised the first Ram Navami parade in 2017 for the Bajrang Dal and was now the chief organiser for the Sunday parade.
Other members of the Trinamool, however, were more direct. “Ram Navami parades are nothing but a show of strength by the BJP in Purulia,” claimed Manikmani Mukherjee, district vice president of the Trinamool. “So we did this to show them our strength just before the election.”
The lack of enthusiasm, however, is not limited to the revellers at the Trinamool parade but extends even to the leadership. “This is a new thing; Ram Navami was never there in Purulia,” said Mukherjee. “This has come from Uttar Pradesh-Bihar, this is not the culture of Bengal.”
This phenomenon is not limited to Purulia. Over the past two years the BJP has organised armed Ram Navami processions across the state. In some places, the Trinamool has also countered with Hindutva parades of its own, mostly with little luck.
The BJP has grown significantly in Bengal on the back of this Hindutva politics and heads into the Lok Sabha elections as the principal opposition to the ruling Trinamool – a significant rise for a party which, historically, did not have much of a presence in the state.
Muslims and Mahatos
The armed processions have made the Muslims of Purulia anxious. “There were never any communal tensions here before this,” explained local leather trader Azghar Ali. “But now we are on edge whenever these huge processions pass through the city.”
Also worried is Nripen Mahato, the Youth President of the Adivasi Kudmi Samaj. “There is a strong push for Ram Navami and Hanuman worship in Purulia by organisations such as the Bajrang Dal and the BJP,” said Mahato. “It is not only limited to Ram Navami. You can now see so many Hanuman temples coming up in Mahato villages. These were not there five years back.”
The Adivasi Kudmi Samaj represents the Kudmi Mahato caste that, according to informal ground estimates, is around a third of the population of Purulia district. Now classified as an Other Backward Class, Nripen’s organisation is lobbying to see the group recognised as Adivasi and included in India’s Scheduled Tribe list. The demand was supported by the West Bengal government in 2018. However, the Union government is yet to take a call.
Ram and Shiv
Mahato’s observations on the region’s changing religious mores are reflected in the rapid growth of new religious structures. The Telegraph reported that 500 new Hanuman and Ram temples had come up in Purulia district over the past year.
This is now replacing earlier, indigenous religious customs. “Traditionally, the Mahatos celebrate the Gajan festival during this time, not Ram Navami,” explained Nripen Mahato. “We worship Shiv and a deity called ‘budha baap’ (old father).”
Gajan is observed by lower castes Hindu Bengalis across West Bengal, Bangladesh and parts of the North East. One of the largest Gajan festivals in Purulia is held in the tribal-dominated area of Ajodhya hills. Even this, however, is not very big anymore: when Scroll.in visited the fair on Sunday, there was only a fraction of the crowd that was there at the town Ram Navami the day before.
At the fair, sanyasis swing from a pole high in the air, suspended using metal hooks. On the sidelines, people from the surrounding villages as well as from the neighbouring state of Jharkhand play games and eat snacks. Other rituals for Gajan in Purulia involve the Chhau dance and animal sacrifice.
It’s a world away from the thumping techno beats of Ram Navami. However Rabindranath Mahato now has a foot in each, attending the Bajrang Dal function on Saturday and the Gajan fair on Sunday. “Earlier we only had Gajan in the month of Chaitro,” said Mahato, referring to the final month in the Bengali calendar. “But now there are both.”
Mahato hesitates when asked which he likes better. “Ram Navami,” he answers eventually, smiling shyly. “They play such loud music.”