West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s announcement that a whopping Rs.258 crore will be given to clubs in West Bengal for the upcoming Durga Puja has not only elicited criticism from the opposition parties, but has also made a section of the Muslim population in the State uncomfortable.
On August 22, she announced that the State government would extend a grant of Rs.60,000 (Rs.10,000 more than last year) to each of the 43,000 clubs across the State to organise Durga Puja. She also increased the rebate for electricity tariff in the Durga Puja pandals to 60 per cent (from 50 per cent last year).
For the past four years, Mamata Banerjee, who has often been accused of playing the religious card, has been increasing the grant given to Puja committees despite claiming that the State exchequer was in dire straits. In 2018, she had doled out Rs.10,000 to 28,000 puja committees in the State.
This year, announcing the grant, the Chief Minister said: “Our exchequer is empty. I hope Ma Durga fills our exchequer. But, in spite of these difficulties, we are increasing the money from Rs.50,000 to Rs.60,000 this year.”
The opposition, mainly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)--CPI(M), lost little time in attacking the ruling party.
According to Dilip Ghosh, national vice president of the BJP and Lok Sabha member from West Bengal, this was the State government’s attempt to divert the attention from the issue of corruption within Trinamool that came to the fore following the arrest of two of its top leaders by Central agencies. “Everybody will be happy after the Pujas and will forget about the scams…. Let those who are looting continue to loot…organise festivals and keep the Bengali population happy,” he said.
Senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty said: “The grant has been increasing from Rs.10,000 to Rs.60,000. Coupled with the rebate in electricity and fire brigade charges, the entire amount will cost the State exchequer around Rs.500 crore. The burden of this will be ultimately borne by the people only. At a time when DA is not being given, appointments are being deferred, and you are not being able to pay for development programmes, education or the Swasth Sathi [State government health insurance scheme], you are doing this at the cost of the interest of the State.”
According to him such measures can only advance the politics of the BJP. “Religion is being used for political purpose. Durga Puja, which was a universal festival, has now been converted to a Dada’s Puja [club puja], and State government funds are being used to enhance the image of Mamata Banerjee,” he told Frontline.
Mamata playing Hindu card?
The increase in grants this year by Mamata Banerjee was clearly aimed at countering the BJP’s oft-repeated allegation that the Trinamool Congress indulged in minority appeasement at the cost of Hindu sentiments. Referring to the BJP, Mamata Banerjee said while announcing the package: “Kolkata does not hold Durga Puja [they say]; people are not allowed to do Saraswati Puja. But nowhere in the whole world is Durga Puja celebrated the way it is in Kolkata.”
She also announced a holiday for State government employees from September 30 to October 10. Last year, Durga Puja was included in UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage. Mamata Banerjee asked the Puja organisers to hold massive rally on September 1 in Kolkata to celebrate that.
If Mamata Banerjee is succeeding in silencing the BJP on the issue of her alleged bias towards the minority, it is nevertheless causing considerable discomfort among a section of the Muslim population in the State. According to Mohammad Quamaruzzaman, influential Muslim leader and chairman of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation (ABMYF), the Chief Minister’s latest announcement was an example of the “real” appeasement of the majority.
Quamaruzzaman told Frontline: “The unfortunate thing is that those political parties who project themselves as secular are today appeasing the majority. All of them are now ignoring the minority as they believe that in order to take on the radical Hindutva of the BJP, they will have to indulge in Hindu appeasement. They will deprive the clerics, take over Wakf property to carry out government work, but will use government money to keep Hindus happy. They want to show that they are not lagging behind the BJP in any way.”
In 2018, his organisation had led a protest against the State government spending Rs.28 crore on the Puja committees. “But now, when all the political parties are on the path of appeasing the majority, the minority community is having to suffer in silence. If the anti-BJP parties were stronger in their opposition to such politics, then minority organisers like us would have had the courage to hit the streets in protest,” he said.