Festivals in Bengal have turned into a game of one-upmanship between TMC, BJP and CPI-M

Kolkata: In Bengal, celebration of deities has not only become suspect, but also a politically contentious matter.

The impact of Ram Navami celebrations, with tableaus, bhakts rallying in disciplined ranks including the Bharatiya Janata Party state chief, Dilip Ghosh, many of whom brandished swords, carried tridents and generally created a spectacle of muscular piety, has provoked not only the Left led by the Communist Party of India Marxists and the Congress to protest such display, but has also prompted Mamata Banerjee to lash out.

From Bankura, she thundered: “The BJP should not describe Ram Navami as its own. The BJP has nothing to do with it. It should stop using religion.” In the eyes of the Trinamool Congress, the BJP’s game in Bengal was “divisive politics,” which contradicted its avowed agenda of ‘Sabka saath’ (support to everyone).

The size, scale and organisation of Ram Navami celebrations in Bengal, coming soon after the spectacular triumph of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh polls, has clearly rattled not only the Trinamool Congress, but also the Left and the Congress. Not to be outdone, the party’s strong man from Birbhum, the irrepressible Anubrata Mandal declared, "There are 127 Bajrangbali, aka Hanuman, temples in Birbhum district. On Wednesday evening in each of the temples, puja (prayer) will be held. All our legislators and other party leaders and workers will take part. We will worship Bajrangbali everywhere."

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

What it adds up to is a political competition to seize icons that are visible as signals to primarily niche populations but open up the possibility of the quintessential Bengali steeped in Durga-Kali-Gobindo-Gopal traditions of worship. They are also about connecting to and integrating with a larger pan-North India mobilisation around Ram, the temple-building project in Ayodhya and the confrontations and tensions around possession of Babri Masjid as a contested space.

That neither Ram nor Hanuman are locally familiar does not matter for the moment. They are being appropriated by rival political parties in Bengal as attention-grabbing symbols; the sacred nor piety seems to have much to do with it. Because these ways of appropriation are unfamiliar, there is a certain uneasiness about it at one level, and at another, it is being brushed aside, as though of little consequence. There remains a touching faith in the essentially inclusive traditions of religious celebration in Bengal.

The long history of ever increasingly spectacular and noisy community-funded and organised celebration of deities goes back to 1790. At that time, the first of the boroyari (12 comrades) pujas were initiated in Guptipara in Hooghly district. It then evolved into the Sarbojanin (all inclusive) pujas that now define the Durga Pujas, with the themed installations that are works of art. The inclusive character of the pujas in Bengal is so firmly established that “pandal” hopping or visiting the themed installations is a secular rather than sacred ritual.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of pavement piety, with tiny temples springing up as centres of once-a-week worship of Shani, a few Shiv mandirs (temples) and an assortment of Hanuman images. The bat-tala or banyan tree shelters on the street are not politically sponsored avowals of faith; these are privately organised appropriations of public spaces that are ignored by local governments.

On the other hand, there has been an equally deliberate and politically significant association with pujas under the auspices of Mamata Banerjee, who has worked to establish a religiously observant image. Before she became chief minister, Mamata Banerjee’s piety was less visible; it was mostly limited to celebrating Kali Puja at her home with her faithful in attendance.

In the run up to 2011, the private became increasingly public, with images of the Trinamool Congress leader popping up in open palm prayer typical of the namaz and also as the chief celebrant at select Durga Pujas patronised by various luminaries of her party. This changed after she became chief minister, when in Durga Pujas across Kolkata and even in the district, Mamata Banerjee appropriated a ritual role of pran ptatishtha, that is, consecration of the deity, and chanted shlokas from Devi Mahatmya to confirm her credentials in the social hierarchy.

Political sponsorship of religious celebration was taboo for the CPI-M and its Left allies before and even after it came to power in 1977. Quite apart from the ideological prohibitions that were part of the Communist code, there was a strong and deep-rooted resistance to public associations with piety and ritual because it was a violation of the secular principle of separation of the state and politics from religion. And yet, there was a slackening of the taboos towards the end, when more and more CPI-M leaders turned into patrons of Sarbojonin Pujas on the plea that these were inclusive celebrations that were not essentially religious in character. By branding the Durga Puja as a festival rather than as a religious festival, the CPI-M overcame its scruples.

The fudging of the line separating the secular-political from the religious-political was a move to popularise the Left by association with a ”festival”. What followed was political competition with other parties turning patrons of local pujas, stridently participating and patronising celebrations and turning the community into an arena for rivalry. By opening the gates, the CPI-M released a flood.

The BJP, RSS and its associates have taken this one step further by following the logic established by precedent. The difference is that in organising Ram Navami celebrations and processions of armed youth and even children because Ram was always armed, the BJP has connected to a more dangerously volatile politics than the relatively innocent competition between local political leaders of the para (residential community) puja kind.

In the Trinamool Congress’s over-the-top reaction to the mobilisation by RSS-BJP and their associates, the issue has acquired a degree of significance. The Hanuman pujas recklessly organised by the Trinamool Congress have raised the stakes and confirmed Mamata Banerjee’s fears that the situation can become unstable and divisive. Confronted by the BJP’s announcement of the Ram Navami celebrations, the Trinamool Congress had to do something to counter the challenge and reclaim the space that was being taken away from it. The choice Mamata Banerjee made was to turn defensive.

It could mean that from now on, every time the BJP-RSS and its associates provoke her, she will have to choice except to react to protect her position as the matriarch of Bengal. It is a dangerous game of one-upmanship. It makes Mamata Banerjee vulnerable in ways that can only work to BJP’s political advantage, unless there is a strong reassertion of the conventions of secular harmony that prevailed after 1947 till now, underwritten by a political consensus that rarely faltered. For that to happen, the CPI-M and the Congress will have to do more, overcoming their current incapacities.

Ram Navami and Hanuman puja celebrations in Bengal mark a shift in the way in which politics will be played in the future. The metaphor of good will demand making a choice between secular harmony and majoritarian communalism.

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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2017 15:08:49 IST

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