Mamata Banerjee's reaction on the Durga idol immersion controversy is symptomatic of a leader suffering from a deep confusion about political trajectory. For the first time in her career, the firebrand mass leader appears unsure. Faced with a dominant, cunning and resourceful political adversary, the Trinamool Congress supremo is dithering. She has taken a series of missteps and the BJP would have noted it.
The West Bengal chief minister has ended up scoring an own goal while trying to be too clever by half. Her plan of using cultural chauvinism as an antidote to BJP's Hindutva card was giving dividends, and the BJP of late had suffered a cognitive setback while trying to introduce identity politics into Durga Pujo, Bengal's biggest cultural (not just religious) festival.
She didn't need to tamper with immersion dates or put a curb around timings. By trying to do so, however, Mamata may have allowed BJP a moral victory. Worse, her every step since the issue of firman has been confusing, bewildering and even contradictory, betraying an uncharacteristic nervousness.
The West Bengal government first declared that Durga idol immersion could only be carried out till 6pm on Dashami (30 September, Saturday) — the traditional day of immersion for Bengalis — and the curb will be lifted on 2 October. If the chief minister was apprehensive of a challenge to law and order, this was a daft way to meet it. Muharram, the day of mourning for Shia Muslims, fell on 1 October (Sunday). There was no need for a curb on immersion on Dashami.
On being dragged to court, the state government blinked and allowed immersion till 10pm. A fresh order was issued, and the earlier deadline was blamed reportedly on a "typographical error".
More was to follow. Acting on three petitions against the 1 October-ban on immersion, the Calcutta High Court bench of acting Chief Justice Rakesh Tiwary and Justice Harish Tandon took the state government to task on two consecutive days. On Wednesday, according to Times of India, the court asked the government not to "hide its inability by imposing immersion restrictions", observing that the state cannot block a citizen's constitutional right to practise religion on the mere assumption that there could be disruption of law and order.
On Thursday, the Calcutta HC revoked the Mamata government's order, allowed immersion till 12am on all days, and sternly reminded the state that "You are exercising extreme power without any basis... Just because you are the state, can you pass arbitrary order?"
In an 18-page order, the court said: "It is axiomatic to record that the state has no religion, which is one of the fundamental facets underlying secularism. There should not be any order of precedence in performance of the religious rites, rituals, ceremonies and mourning amongst the religious communities. There should be an equality in every citizen’s right with corresponding obligation of very state to protect the same."
At this point, the sensible thing for the chief minister to do would have been to accept the court's ruling and try and implement the court's direction that separate routes should be designated for Tazia and immersion processions, ensure adequate police bandobast and advertise the routes well in advance.
The chief minister seemed to have taken the court rebuke to heart, and though careful not to express open dissent, left no space for doubt that she disagreed with the ruling. In thinly veiled criticism for the HC order, she was quoted as saying soon after, "I will do what I can to keep peace in the state. Also, someone can slit my throat, but no one can tell me what to do."
By Thursday night, media reports indicated that the state will challenge the high court order in Supreme Court. On Friday, a TMC MP said there were no such plans and claimed that the HC order had actually been in state's favour.
Kalyan Banerjee told News18: "Yesterday, most of the media reported wrongly information that the High Court revoked the state government’s decision on banning immersion on Muharram day. Actually, the court’s verdict went in our favour. We are not going to move Supreme Court because the Calcutta High Court order is actually in our favour. Some people are trying to politicise the issue. Let them do it."
If this wasn't bizarre enough, a defiant Mamata passed a new order on Friday, making it mandatory for Durga Pujo organisers to seek a government permit for immersion, reported India Today.
Mamata is insistent that these steps are being taken to "maintain law and order" and she probably has a point, given the spate of low-intensity communal clashes that have taken place recently in Bengal. Her clumsy steps, however, have made it difficult for others to buy this logic. TMC and BJP's competitive identity politics has rapidly polarised the state polity and in this context, Mamata's move may very likely be interpreted as 'anti-Hindu'. The BJP will certainly try its best to convey that impression.
Last year, too, the Mamata government had been at the receiving end of a court rebuke, with the Calcutta HC holding it responsible for "minority appeasement."
The state BJP expectedly didn't waste any time. President Dilip Ghosh said "it is really sad that the Hindus in Bengal have no religious rights. They have to depend on the judiciary to celebrate Durga Puja" while an RSS functionary accused ruling party of "depriving the Hindus of their basic rights, only for the sake of appeasement of a particular community."
Abhijit Ghosal has pointed out in Hindustan Times that Mamata's steps to curb immersion were unnecessary, because hardly any Hindus immerse the Durga idol on 'ekadoshi' (the 11th day in Matri Paksha) which coincided with Muharram this year. Given the TMC's formidable influence among Puja committee members, writes the author, she could have easily leant on them to avoid that date.
It's worth pondering why Mamata missed out on such an obvious move, handing the BJP another chance to paint her as anti-Hindu. One possibility is that by issuing the curbs and diktats against immersion, Mamata has managed to send a message to TMC's Muslim votebank. In this calculation, the court rebuke is actually a favour. The gamble could have been that given Bengal's fierce cultural chauvinism, a section of Bengali Hindus will never vote for the BJP. As the recent controversies around depiction of goddess Durga and her children at a Jawed Habib salon, or a social media video on egg rolls (a popular Bengali snack) have shown, the BJP has still been unable to wrap its head around the fact for Bengalis, cultural identity may trump every other selfhood markers. Stringent Hindutva politics might not work here.
The second, more likely possibility is that Mamata's missteps are not deliberate, and stem from a confusion around her political trajectory. Her stunning victory in 2011 that ended 34-year Left rule in the state was made possible largely due to the agitation around Singur and Nandigram when Mamata successfully tapped into farmers' over losing land to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government's industrial push.
As Rajat Roy writes in Economic and Political Weekly, "Muslim population in Bengal is around 28%, and that of Scheduled Castes is around 23%, a majority of them peasants… After coming to power, the Mamata government took some steps to bring benefits to these socio-religious sections of the society. Though some of the steps—for example, provision of a monthly allowance to imams and muezzins—were symbolic, the administration was forced to turn a blind eye when there were incidents of a serious breakdown in law and order that involved Muslim population."
In an effort to consolidate the Muslim vote base, Mamata introduced identity politics in Bengal which had largely been free of it — paving the way for BJP to make inroads. Two can play this game, and in the race for consolidation of Hindu and Muslim votes, Mamata suddenly finds herself trapped in an image problem. This may explain her late dabs at soft Hindutva such as uploading a volley of Durga Pujo inauguration pictures on Twitter, or breaking into an impromptu Chandi Path (mantra).
Everywhere, it is a magnificent spectacle of superb creativity. My best wishes to all. pic.twitter.com/QNRhsflKEE
— Mamata Banerjee (@MamataOfficial) September 20, 2017
This ambivalence and soft Hindutva may actually work against her because it plays into BJP's hands. It remains to be seen if Mamata has the ability to pull off such a precarious balancing act.
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Updated Date: Sep 23, 2017 10:00:04 IST