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Can Goddess Durga be about small things?

Astra puja is a fringe activity and has no place in Bengal’s Durga Puja. Right-wing forces say otherwise

india Updated: Oct 01, 2017 08:25 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Durga Puja is the festival of about excess not austerity
Durga Puja is the festival of about excess not austerity (Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

It is shortly past 2am and rain clouds have given way to cool gusts of wind that soothe weary pandal hoppers, who heave forward in great lurches towards Mohammad Ali Park in central Kolkata. Behind the glow of the multicoloured pandal is a roaring fair, complete with scary rides, a ferris wheel and numerous kulfi-kala khatta and egg roll stalls. Samim Ali is milling in the thousand-strong crowd with three of his friends. They live in the maze of narrow alleys that make up Muslim neighbourhoods in the area.

Did he like the Puja?

“Yes, but the pandal should have been decorated better,” he says.

Has he heard of the controversy around Muharram and Puja? “It’s a small issue. They are blowing it up,” he answers.

They? “Yes, apni janen oi hindu VHPwala ( you know those hindu VHP walas)... I think we’re ok for now, but we’re not sure for how long. They’re growing.”

Ali isn’t wrong. The strengthening of the Hindu right-wing across West Bengal is unmistakable, fronted by the rising voteshare of the BJP – the saffron party’s vote share rose from 6% in 2009 to 16.8% in 2014. In the last assembly elections, the BJP got 10.2% of the votes, up from 4%. Organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its affiliates are also using a network of schools and ashrams, theology and incentives to try to enter the state’s cultural life. For the first time this Durga Puja, the rise of the Hindu right peppered conversation from the selfie-crazy crowds at Maddox Square to the back-alleys of the century-old Sovabajar Rajbati.

For decades, Bengal’s biggest festival escaped religious scrutiny as it ballooned in popularity, size and lure. But that is fast changing – and especially away from the nerve centre of Kolkata. Around 70 km from “Maa Ashche” (The Mother is Coming) billboards in the hinterlands of the South 24 Parganas is Nakurait. This village of around 100 households is believed to be the only Hindu-majority village amid a clutch of Muslim-majority villages in a district where every third person is from the minority community.

Weapon Worship or Shastra Puja ceremony at Durgabari, Phuleswar, Howrah. At the Uluberia event, the turnout was merely 150 people. (Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

What is unusual though is the local pujo: A modest, traditional affair run by the Hindu Samhati (HS), a fast-rising Hindu right-wing organisation with popularity to rival that of the VHP. Local youth say the Puja was stopped years ago after communal tensions but the HS revived the festival and gave them strength.

“We didn’t know what the Samhati was. They came to us, gave us the space to resist,” says Dipankar Mondal, 28. Standing next to him, Bilu Biswas nods and recounts how the tensions began over using mike during a Durga Puja procession that coincided with the evening azaan. Both of them now call themselves Hindu activists. The local MLA, Trinamool Congress’ Saokat Molla, admits that there were “some problems during pujo. But now, all Hindus and Muslims live in unity.”

The police and administration have kept a tight watch so far, with plain clothed detectives patrolling border districts and even WhatsApp or social media to keep a check on rumours and fake news.

“Rumour, I think, will be the worst facilitator of tension this year. So besides the cyber cells of Kolkata Police and West Bengal police keeping a close watch on the social networking sites, an awareness campaign among public has been launched to refrain from sharing or distributing fake and disturbing messages,” said West Bengal home secretary Atri Bhattacharya.

No armed processions

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has banned any kind of armed public procession and the government deployed police personnel outside the offices of VHP and other organisations to ensure no rallies were taken out for pujo. She has stressed on what she calls the Durga Puja’s legacy of communal harmony, as exemplified by several mixed-religion puja pandals in Kolkata such as Mohammad Ali Park, which was run by a committee of Muslims in a Muslim-majority neighbourhood.

“Never before has puja been celebrated in the midst of such apprehension….I don’t understand why some groups are insisting on idol immersion on Muharram. This is not the culture of Bengal,” said Sanjay Das, an organiser of the 85-year-old Ballygunj Durgabari Pratishtan in Kolkata.

But the suburbs are simmering. On Dasami, the VHP organised a show of strength in the once-industrial hub of Uluberia to showcase its most controversial move yet: A Shastra Puja or weapon worship on Dasami that academics say is alien to Bengal’s heterodox culture. “The astra puja is not a part of the Bengali culture… this is illiteracy about Bengali tradition…Durga Puja is about excess, not piety and austerity as the right-wing is trying to project,” said Tapati Guha Thakurta, a professor of history at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta. She added that she has never seen Astra Puja as part of the Durga Puja celebrations in the city before.

The VHP organisers, however, say astra puja is a local tradition dating back thousands of years. At the event in Uluberia, the turnout is just about 150 people but it doesn’t seem to dampen the spirit of the speakers. A speaker blames the death of Hindus in 1946 in Noakhali on a lack of weapons. “The weapon gives self-respect, courage. We have deviated from the real, traditional meaning of the puja,” roars Sachindranath Singha, VHP’s in-charge for West Bengal.

So what is the real meaning of the puja? There are several conflicting narratives but most historians converge on one point: That the autumnal celebration of the mother goddess, the slayer of Mahisasura is a recent phenomenon and only picked up in the latter half of the 18th century. Saugata Bhaduri of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University thinks the origin of the puja was secular; it followed the British abolition of a tax on Hindu festivities after Warren Hastings became governor general in 1772. “Zamindars thought if they hold some annual festivity, they could get a tax break,” he says.

The festival assumed its current community-funded form – called Sarbojanin (for everyone) – in 1910, when the Sanatan Dharmostsahini Sabha started a puja in Kolkata’s Bhawanipore. This was a time of communal tension; Bhaduri suspects that Durga Puja may have been used for consolidation of Hindus.

“There is no one narrative. Pujo has been co-opted at various times by various interests. But one thing is clear: Pujo is not for the sarbo-jan(everyone). Puja works during the existing hierarchies of Hindu society,” says Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay, a professor at IISER-Mohali.

But Durga Puja is only one front of a war that will be battled out in the districts. Right-wing groups are said to have poured in resources into places such as Bankura, Murshidabad and Nadia – there are more than 50 VHP camps in Muslim-majority Murshidabad itself, Sachindranath Singha of the VHP tells me. And they are focusing on Dalits and tribals, ostentiably with a purpose to “empower them against the aggressors”. In speech after speech, VHP and RSS leaders focus on communal dinners, how they are getting castes such as “Napit”, “Kumor”, “Dhaki” into the fold and letting them worship the goddess. But will this be enough to translate into a win for the Hindu right in the rural body polls across the state next year?

(with inputs from Sumanta Ray Chaudhuri)