From Pandals to Battlefield: Politics of Durga Puja and Why it Matters to BJP's Plans in West Bengal

Image for representation. (Reuters)

Image for representation. (Reuters)

In order to slowly chip away at the Trinamool Congress's vote bank, the BJP is aiming to increase its imprint on smaller ‘parar puja’ (neighborhood puja) during celebrations later this year while simultaneously looking to enter the larger ones in Kolkata.

Aniruddha Ghosal
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Kolkata: Before the Income Tax Department issued notices to Durga Puja committees and before West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced a protest in response, the state had been witnessing a pitched battle between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the control of Durga Puja committees in the state.

Reacting to the IT Department’s notice to the committees, Banerjee earlier said in a tweet, “These festivals are for all and we do not want any puja festival to be taxed. This will be a burden on the organisers.”

But BJP’s state president Dilip Ghosh countered that provisions in law existed to probe irregularities in these committees, arguing, “There should be no extortion in the name of Durga Puja.” He also accused a section of ruling TMC leaders of laundering money allegedly looted in chit fund scams through the puja committees.

The TMC, which held a day-long dharna on Tuesday, accused the BJP-led government at the Centre of sending IT notices to the Durga Puja committees to intimidate them and make them surrender to the saffron camp. Accusing the BJP of "political double standards" for alleging that the TMC was trying to stop Durga Puja in Bengal, the ruling party said in reality it is the saffron party which is attempting to do so and that more pujas are being held under the TMC.

However, the Central Board of Direct Taxation (CBDT) in a statement on Tuesday dismissed reports of the IT Department having issued any such notices.

"There have been reports in the media about income tax notices being issued to Durga Puja Committees in Kolkata recently. The reports also mention that income tax notices were sent to the Durga Puja Committee Forum in the last few weeks," it said. "It is unequivocally stated that the said reports are factually incorrect and are strongly denied. It is a fact that no notice was issued to the Durga Puja Committee Forum by the Department during this year."

The CBDT said as it had received information about several contractors, who were doing work for the Puja committees, evading taxes, notices under section 133(6) of the Income Tax Act were issued in December last year to about 30 committees seeking details of tax deducted at source on payments made to contractors and event managers engaged by those committees. "This was part of an exercise carried out by the TDS wing of the department to ensure that the contractors and event managers pay their due taxes in time," it said.

Even as the back-and-forth between the parties continues, what both of them agree upon, underlining the protests, is the importance of these committees and the puja celebrations themselves, in the political landscape of the state. As a TMC-turned-BJP leader pointed out, “It was Mamata (Banerjee) who really wielded these pujas as a political weapon in the 1990s. But this is possibly the first year when the BJP, with their politics of Hindutva, will supercharge these pujas.”

Over the last month

Since the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year that saw the BJP return to power with its best-ever performance in West Bengal, the party has been looking to make successive inroads into the state. The strategy, as a state committee leader put it, was to “eat away at the TMC and corner Mamata Banerjee ahead of the 2021 Assembly elections”.

Ahead of Durga Puja celebrations in October, this strategy manifested in the party looking to increase its imprint on smaller ‘parar puja’ (neighborhood puja celebrations) while simultaneously looking to enter the larger ones in Kolkata. On July 4, activists from both parties clashes over the control of a 42-year-old South Kolkata Adi Barwari Samiti puja at Taliganj, leading to several arrests.

But the most politically fraught battle has been for the control of a puja at Hazra in south Kolkata, organised by ‘Sanghashree’ club. For years, the chief adviser of the club was Kartik Bandyopadhyay, the chief minister's brother. But in July, ‘Anandabazar Patrika’ reported that BJP general secretary Sayantan Bose had been made the committee chairman. On Sunday, the ruling party in Bengal appeared to regained control of the club after after state minister Shobandev Chattopadhyay was quoted by the newspaper as saying, “This puja has nothing to do with Sayantan Basu”.

A BJP leader claimed that the TMC is trying to occupy these pujas with force. “It’s happening across the state. The TMC knows that it is losing control of the state and is reacting violently,” the leader added.

But the TMC denied the allegations.

Why puja committees matter

In Bengal, politics has never been far from Durga Puja. A year after Indian Airlines flight IC-814 plane was hijacked from Kathmandu and flown to Kandahar in Afghanistan on December 24, 1999, a group in Kolkata had depicted the plane in a puja pandal and represented Durga and her family as the trapped passengers inside.

Other themes at pandals included the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk in 2000 while others highlighted the 1991 Gulf War and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

When the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was first being challenged by the TMC in 2000, the political rivalries had similarly revolved around pujas. In Midnapore, for instance, violence had led to the destruction of property, followed by evictions. A BJP ally at the time, Banerjee had asked TMC workers to assist “victims” of the Left’s “red terror” by helping them organise pujas. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had also reprimanded West Bengal CM Jyoti Basu for the violence.

At the time, the CPI(M) had no pandal associated with the party or the government as the outfit’s ideological stance went against religion and grandiose spectacles of religiosity funded by elites. However, since 1964, the CPI(M) had strategically ensured its presence in the spectacle and celebration of the puja through book stalls selling party literature.

A senior CPI(M) leader in Purulia explained, “The Durga Puja celebrations aren’t just about religion; they are about the state’s culture. With thousands of people coming to each pandal, each celebration was a vital source of outreach.”

By the mid-1990s, with the rise of Hindutva politics in the country and the Left becoming increasingly aware of political pragmatism, its leaders began inaugurating pujas and tackling the TMC on their own turf.

After coming to power in 2011, TMC began dismantling the various structures that the Left had in place in the state, ranging from offices in villages to unions. It began to replace these structural organisations with its own bodies.

“Key to all of this were these puja committees and clubs. They functioned like the district and bloc level committees of the Left. They acted as a local extensions of the party and ensured connect with the voter on a yearly basis, culminating in the puja celebrations,” said the senior leader.

Banerjee, unlike any leader before her, ensured her party’s presence during the festival. Her government began giving Rs 10,000 to each of the 28,000 committees in the state last year, while she herself wrote a puja song that was played across the city.

But 2019 promises to be a puja like no other. To the political sphere of Durga Pujas in the state, and the traditional politics of the challenger trying to oust the ruling party from its areas of control (such as committees, clubs and trade unions), the BJP has added Hindutva to the mix.

As one BJP leader put it, “For decades, there was an attempt – first by the CPI(M) and then the BJP – to take Durga Puja away from its Hindu roots. It was reinterpreted as ‘sharodutsav’ (autumn festival).”

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