How West Bengal’s Durga Puja turned political during Mamata Banerjee’s rule

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal inaugurates the tableau of a community-organised Durga Puja, the state’s biggest annual festival, in Kolkata, on 17 October. The festival commenced on 22 October, amid several controversies over celebrations in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sonali Pal Chaudhury/NurPhoto/Getty Images
23 October, 2020

Early in September, Sukanya Dasgupta, a 62-year-old who teaches in a private school in the Tollygunge area of south Kolkata, received a WhatsApp message pertaining to celebrations of the upcoming Durga Puja, West Bengal’s biggest annual festival. The festival commenced on 22 October this year. The message listed a series of stringent restrictions, including curfew at night, to be imposed during the festivities, purportedly issued by the state government. She thought the government had done the right thing given the COVID-19 pandemic. The same day, her husband, Bappa Dasgupta, a 64-year-old retired businessman, received the same message but from a different source. Bappa, however, told me that after going through the whole text he realised that the contents of the message had not been issued by the Trinamool Congress state government.

He said that he watches political developments very closely, and that he “knew right away that it was the work of the government’s opponent with the aim of blaming the chief minister for restricting a Hindu festival.” It turned out that most of the restrictions listed in that message had actually been announced by the government of Tripura, which is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party. A few days later, on 9 September, the chief minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee called the messages “fake,” and said that the source of the messages was the “IT cell of a party.”

In the last week of September, social media in Bengal was flooded with news reports on how two other BJP-ruled states, Uttar Pradesh and Assam, had imposed similar restrictions on the Durga Puja festivities. This caused so much of an uproar that Swapan Dasgupta, a Rajya Sabha member of the BJP, in a rare instance, criticised his own party and condemned the UP government headed by Adityanath. Concurrently, on 24 September, Banerjee released her government’s set of guidelines for the festivities—the restrictions listed were far more lenient than those described in the Whatsapp messages, and allowed rituals which had been forbidden in the other BJP states.

Banerjee then went a step ahead and announced financial support of Rs 50,000 to each of the state’s 37,000 clubs that organise the puja. She also revoked panchayat and municipal taxes, tax on advertisement revenues and waived off electricity expenses by half. Sukanya told me that she soon realised that if the TMC had tried to impose restrictions, Banerjee’s political opponents would have used the issue against her. “Unfortunately, since 2016, the Durga Puja has become political.”

Banerjee and the TMC have deeply entrenched themselves in Durga Puja celebrations in a process that has been ongoing since before she came to power in 2011.The BJP has recently emerged as the principal opponent of the TMC in West Bengal—the party has never held power in the state while Banerjee is currently on her second consecutive tenure after the TMC ousted the Left Front regime which ruled the state for 34 years. The state is due for assembly elections in six months, and political analysts and residents see the TMC’s decisions on puja celebrations, in the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, as a culmination of a political tussle with the BJP over Durga Puja since 2016. That year, the BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh first branded Banerjee as “anti-Hindu” for her government’s decision to restrict the puja’s immersion procession to facilitate Muharram processions. Every year since then, the Puja has become the site of a slugfest between the TMC and the BJP. 

This time, the TMC and its supporters have used social media to brand the BJP as “anti-Bengali” based on the clampdown on celebrations in BJP-ruled states. Saugata Roy, a Lok Sabha member of the TMC, said, “The Bengal BJP unit should come clean on why their government in other states are not allowing this festival.” Fringe Bengali-rights groups, such as Bangla Pokkho and Jatiyo Bangla Sammelan, have also joined the campaign.

It seems that the campaign on social media has caused disquiet among BJP’s top Bengal strategists. Dasgupta’s tweet on 28 September made that clear: “UP Govt’s order that Durga Puja should be done at home is unfair & even absurd. Like the allowances for Ram Lila, Durga Puja should be permitted with harsh but sensible restrictions. Otherwise it is discriminatory. Bengali Hindus in UP appeal to @myogiadityanath to review order.” Notably, a few days later, the Adityanath government relaxed some of the restrictions.

These political strategies are being played out at a time when West Bengal is witnessing a steady rise of COVID-19 cases. Between 1 and 5 October, the state recorded more than 3,300 new cases per day on an average. Around fifteen hundred of these were just from Kolkata and its neighbouring district of North 24-Parganas. Celebrations in the midst of the pandemic have become another aspect of the political wrangling. Banerjee has sought to take credit for patronising the biggest festival of Hindu Bengalis, while the BJP, has started calling for a low-key Durga Puja.

On 9 October, Dilip Ghosh, the president of the BJP’s Bengal unit, said, “I appeal to puja organisers and the common people that please do not celebrate the festival this year. Do worship the goddess with devotion. But do not take part in the festivities this year. Pray to her that the pandemic gets over.” Ghosh added, “It gets scary when the chief minister asks people to celebrate.” The BJP’s decision is odd given that its leaders have been regularly holding political rallies comprising thousands of supporters since the lockdown was relaxed. Ghosh and other senior BJP leaders justified the rallies and said they were fighting “a virus deadlier than Covid-19 and it is Mamata Banerjee.”

Biswanath Chakraborty, a psephologist and a professor of political science at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, traced the politicisation of Durga Puja as simultaneous to the rise of Banerjee near the end of the Left Front rule, around 2009. According to him, the Left never engaged itself with the organisation of the puja, while some Congress leaders would associate in their personal capacities. “Banerjee targeted political capture of the locals clubs that organise the puja before coming to power and the TMC achieved complete political hijacking of the festival in the first few years of their rule,” Chakraborty said.

Human-rights activist and political commentator Ranjit Sur, however, traces the roots back to the 1990s—in the aftermath of the religious polarisation that began with the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He said that this was when Left leaders started making overtures and the initial step was to set up of stalls selling Marxist books near puja pandals. “The Left’s association with the Durga Puja started increasing from 2005-06, when some prominent Left leaders were seen inaugurating a few community pujas.”

In 2010, when Banerjee was the union railway minister, she designed the idol and theme of the community puja organised in the Bakul Bagan area of south Kolkata, close to her Kalighat residence. After becoming the chief minister in 2011, she turned into the chief puja inaugurator, a role that had earlier been the domain of celebrities. Puja inauguration became the monopoly of Banerjee and other TMC leaders. She composed lyrics, set them to music and got reputed singers to record them as part of puja-special music albums. This political capture happened quietly since no other political party was in this race with the TMC. 

However, things changed in 2016. For three successive years, 2015 to 2017, Muharram, a Shia Muslim festival, collided with the Bisorjon—a ritual of immersion of idols where large processions are held to bid adieu to the goddess. The state government had restricted events around Bisorjon to facilitate Muharram processions. The rationale given was that the government’s intention was to avoid communal clashes in case the two processions came face to face.

The BJP and the RSS used the issue to portray the government as anti-Hindu. In 2016, Sandeep Bera, a BJP supporter, moved the Calcutta High Court against the government’s decision and the case earned the state government rather harsh criticism from the court, which accused the state of attempting to “pamper and appease the minority section of the public.” During 2018 and 2019, the prime minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, who was then the president of the BJP, repeatedly used this issue to corner the TMC, and alleged that the Banerjee government was creating obstacles for Durga Puja to please another community.

The BJP has tried making inroads in organisation of pujas, too, but with limited success. In 2019, the BJP’s central leadership entrusted the state unit with finding puja organisers who would agree to invite Shah, who was by then the union home minister, to inaugurate their puja. After several failed attempts, the party managed to get an invite from a sole organiser in the BJ block of Salt Lake, a satellite township of Kolkata. But members of the club told the media that an honorary president of the club had sent the invite keeping everyone else in the dark. However, since an invite had already been sent to the country’s home minister, they would prefer not to insult him by withdrawing it. Shah did attend and inaugurate the puja.

This year, the BJP’s women’s wing organised a puja under the party’s patronage, held at the International Centre for Cultural Relations, a central government institute, in Kolkata. On 22 October, Modi inaugurated it virtually, with the Bengal BJP’s elite at the puja venue. Modi’s 23-minute speech highlighted the festival’s contribution to India’s nationalism and unity. “During Durga Puja, the whole of India becomes Bengal.” It was a first in the festival’s history. Till date, no political party has organised a puja under its own banner—the standard practice is of pujas being named after specific localities or clubs and being organised under their banner.

Banerjee’s inauguration spree, though the events were virtual this year, started a week before the formal beginning of the festival. On 14 October, she virtually inaugurated 69 pujas in different districts of north Bengal. Since then, she has inaugurated dozens of pujas every day.

Meanwhile, controversy continues to surround the Durga Puja. On 19 October, the Calcutta High Court restricted access to the puja tableaus for visitors in an attempt to avert COVID-19 clusters. Senior TMC ministers, such as Subrata Mukherjee and Firhad Hakim, who organise high profile pujas, have been very vocal about their dissatisfaction with the court ruling. For the TMC leaders, the pujas have been a massive, uncontested public relation exercise for years.