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.