The tradition in West Bengal is that in the festival season there is no politics.
Ideological tension has always been a part of “organised” Durga Pujas. As the greatest exercise in mass mobilisation by people from undivided Bengal and of course, post-Independence, it has been through several phases of such tensions.
The mass mobilisation, at the community level and then its spread as every “para” or locality organised itself to celebrate Durga Puja was a process of democratisation. It challenged the exclusivity of the pujas celebrated in wealthy homes, landed gentry or trading barons, starting sometime in the 18th century when, as popular history goes, 12 friends got their act together in Gooptipara in Hooghly district and organised a collective puja. By the 20th century, the Barowari puja turned into a Sarbojonin — inclusive of everyone — puja. The Baghbazar puja, now in its 101st year, set the trend in 1926, when the celebration moved out of the home and into a public space.
The connection of the puja celebration to the public through the spaces that the extraordinarily creative pandals occupy makes the festival a political statement of inclusion. Nationalists in Baghbazar added an exhibition on Swadeshi in 1929 and so turned the celebration into an assertion and joined it to the Independence movement. The conversion of a Calcutta Municipal Corporation metal scrapyard into a permanent space for Durga Puja, approved by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose when he was mayor, put a political seal on the celebration. His appointment as president of the Baghbazar puja in 1938-39 was public acknowledgment that pujas are political.
Pujas are completion deified. The theme of the pujas, corporate sponsorship and corporate reward has transformed the pujas into a political comment on current issues. Thikana or address, one such theme in 2019, is public art on the insecurities of migrant families — people who now worry or even kill themselves because the BJP is set on weeding out “termites” as Amit Shah contemptuously described illegals, or rather Muslims who had moved across the border and into India.
The inauguration of an obscure puja in the posh Salt Lake by BJP president Amit Shah was not a random choice. The satellite township laid out by West Bengal’s first chief minister, Bidhan Chandra Roy, was an indirect acknowledgement that middle class people made refugees by Partition needed space to sink roots and reconstruct their lives by acquiring heavily subsidised land to build houses. The connection between the puja’s inauguration and the BJP’s meeting for party workers on the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Bill is blindingly obvious.
It was a very early launch for the state Assembly elections in 2021, because the message the inauguration-plus-meeting delivered was that the BJP in power in West Bengal open up the state for branded loyalists. The subtext of becoming a “legal” was the fulfilment of aspirations for a secure and rooted future. As a communication strategy, it was low cost, because the BJP invested only in organising the meeting, not on the puja, which has moneyed patrons, though not all of them with concerns about citizenship because of upcountry origins.
The transition of the BJP from the wings to centrestage is happening now. The BJP was busy with occupying the smaller puja spaces in 2017 and 2018, with the proliferation of Ganesh pujas as part of the competition over religious celebration with the Trinamool Congress — from organising astra (weapons) pujas in 2017 to creating noise that trapped Trinamool Congress supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee in a manufactured controversy over when the Durga idol could be immersed without trespassing on the Muharram processions on the streets. Destabilised by the political pressure the BJP exerted, Ms Banerjee overreacted and issued state and citywide time slots for both events.
The Durga Puja inauguration by Mr Shah is like a laser show. It projects the party but it does not seriously challenge the Trinamool Congress by trying to occupy puja organisations on a large scale. It is an exercise in appropriating the mobilisations that happen around the festival without investing in the celebration itself.
Where the Trinamool Congress dominates through patronage of dozens of award-winning, spectacular and outstandingly creative Durga pujas, the BJP has its limitations. And, the Trinamool Congress’ support to the Durga pujas is part of a longer tradition of political leaders fronting community organisations. The tradition is decades old: Simla Byayam Samity’s puja was organised by Atindra Nath Bosu, a revolutionary and associate of Sri Aurobindo and Jatindra Nath Mukherjee aka Bagha Jatin in 1926. His purpose was mobilisation of youth power for the nationalist cause.
The Amit Shah inauguration does not associate Durga Puja with the spirit of the festival. It cannot. The spirit of the festival is and was a celebration of the Mother and her children, who are all deities. With the infusion of the festival with an overwhelming flavour of controversy on citizenship and the entitlement of Hindus to an identity in India, the BJP has gambled.
The political tradition in West Bengal is that in the festival season there is no politics. The BJP has trampled on it. The government it heads at the Centre has trampled on the tradition of immersion of the deity, integral to the story of Durga’s journey back to Kailash, by imposing a fine on anyone or any organisation that dumps the idol in the Ganges.
By messing around with the festival, as a party and a government, a convergence that the BJP otherwise scrupulously avoids, Mr Shah turned the spirit of the harvest festival into a portent of something nasty happening immediately after. In contrast, the Trinamool Congress has hit the right notes: It has supplemented thinner puja budgets with subsidies; it has joined in the competition for the aesthetics of the pujas; and it has maintained its dual role as participant and government in the celebration which will culminate with the Carnival, a pageant presided over by Mamata Banerjee as the Mother, or Bangajanani paying homage to Biswajanani.