West Bengal's communal cocktail: Why have festivals become Bengal’s new flashpoints?

The Calcutta High Court on Thursday quashed a West Bengal government order halting the Durga Puja immersion so that it does not coincide with the Muharram procession.

Published: 23rd September 2017 11:23 PM  |   Last Updated: 23rd September 2017 11:32 PM   |  A+A-

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (File| PTI)

Express News Service

KOLKATA: The Calcutta High Court on Thursday quashed a West Bengal government order halting the Durga Puja immersion so that it does not coincide with the Muharram procession. While the state government feared that allowing processions of both festivals on the same day would risk a repeat of the 2016 communal flare-up, the High Court ordered the state to manage the two processions by demarcating separate routes.

What was the controversial West Bengal government order about?

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee issued an order on August 24 stating that Durga Puja immersions could not be done after 10 pm on September 30 and on October 1 because the Muharram processions are taken out that day. She cited potential law and order problems as her justification.

What was the basis for Mamata Banerjee’s order?

West Bengal witnessed communal flare-ups in six urban centres on October 12 and 13 last year when Durga Puja immersion and Muharram coincided. Mamata Banerjee wants to avoid a repeat of such clashes.

However, the police did not submit any report to the state administration suggesting any such possibility. Since there was no police advice on the matter, the High Court dismissed the state government’s fears as ‘baseless speculation’.

What was the High Court’s verdict?

The High Court allowed Durga Puja immersion on all days from Dashami (September 30) till 12 am, even on Muharram (October 1), and ordered the administration to ensure that the two processions take separate routes that do not intersect.

Why was this an embarrassment to Mamata Banerjee?

The High Court rebuked the state administration for using ‘extreme power’ on citizens and accused it of issuing arbitrary orders to curb the rights of citizens. It also asked the Kolkata police to learn procession management from their Mumbai counterparts who handle the Ganesh Chaturthi and Muharram processions whenever they occur on the same day. The Calcutta Hgh Court judgment gave crowing rights to the BJP, which opposed Mamata Banerjee’s order, describing it as a case of Muslim appeasement.

What was Mamata Banerjee’s reaction to the judgement?

The West Bengal chief minister reacted strongly. “They can slit my throat but no one can tell me what I should do to ensure peace in the state,” she said. She also said the central government conspired to have the order quashed. Mamata Banerjee’s warned the BJP against fomenting violence by taking out rallies with swords and tridents on Dashami like it did during Ram Navami this year.

Is the BJP using Hindu festivals to expand its political base?

Though the RSS-BJP’s penetration into Durga Puja committees has been slow and negligible, the saffron brigade has made significant headway into the Bajrang Akharas which mainly conduct Ram Navami and Ravan Dahan celebrations. This serves its purpose of gaining the support of the youth.

What happens in these processions?

Shrill cries of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ issue from loudspeakers and youngsters dance with shining swords and tridents are during Ram Navami and Dussera processions. Many of the procession routes go through Muslim-dominated areas. As was the case in the 2016 Durga Puja-Muharram communal flare-up, minor altercations while Hindu processions pass through Muslim localities or vice versa led to massive communal tensions and arson. Curfews, arrests and massive deployment of police forces were required to quell communal trouble.

Is BJP concentrated only in Hindi-speaking migrant urban pockets?

No. Though a large chunk of the BJP membership in the state comprises of Hindi-speaking Hindu migrant youngsters mainly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the party has also made some gains by garnering support of rural Bengali Hindus living as minorities in Muslim-dominated regions or living in the vicinity of a large Muslim populations, thus tapping into their insecurities.

What political gains has the BJP made in Bengal?

Since garnering 17 per cent of the polled votes in the 2016 Assembly elections, BJP has made its presence felt in all elections since then. It has slowly replaced the Congress and Left to emerge as the main opposition to the Trinamool Congress.

What are BJP’s points of attack against the Trinamool Congress?

Though Trinamool Congress has a mass rural support base due to the welfare schemes and infrastructural development it has taken up, the ruling party has been sharply attacked by opposition parties including the BJP for involvement in the Saradha scam. Besides, the Mamata Banerjee government enjoys massive support among the 30 per cent Muslim population of the state, has been accused by the BJP of being partial towards the community in providing scholarships, stipends to Muslim clerics and inclusion of Muslim castes in the OBC category.

Has Mamata attempted to woo Dalits and caste Hindus?

During her first term, Mamata identified that the Dalits constituted some 30 per cent of the electorate and the largest Dalit caste - the Namasudras -- were politically and socially united and formed a massive vote base in the southern districts of the state. She successfully wooed them by giving tickets to leaders of the Matua Mahasangh, the religious reformation movement of Namasudras headquartered in Thakurnagar in North 24 Parganas. She also identified the second largest Dalit caste - the Rajbongshis - of north Bengal and made deep inroads into Rajbonghshi-dominated areas in Coochbehar and Jalpaiguri districts, which were earlier bastions of the Forward Bloc, a constituent of the Left Front. She also offered prayers at the Jagannath temple in Puri, Odisha and proclaimed herself as a ‘true Hindu’ who doesn’t need any certificate from the BJP.

Has such politics affected the social fabric of the state?

As Bengal’s society is highly politicised and well-informed, decision-making and controversies definitely have a deep impact on the people. However, the social fabric and communal harmony have largely remained intact despite communal flare-ups. Hindus and Muslims in most parts of Bengal have learnt to live together not only because of deep cultural ties but also because of economic inter-dependence.

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