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In defence of Kali: Uproar over comments by Mahua Moitra

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

In defence of Kali: Uproar over comments by Mahua Moitra

Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra. She has asserted her freedom to imagine Kali in her own way. Her references to the religious customs surrounding Kali worship are all, however, grounded in fact.

Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra. She has asserted her freedom to imagine Kali in her own way. Her references to the religious customs surrounding Kali worship are all, however, grounded in fact. | Photo Credit: R.V MOORTHY

In public discussions on religion, it is the intolerant majoritarian view that is gaining ground.

The goddess Kali, always a popular and revered deity in West Bengal, has suddenly found herself in the middle of a political storm over a seemingly innocuous comment made by Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra. In a conclave organised by a media house on July 5, when asked about the controversy surrounding the depiction of goddess Kali smoking in a documentary film by Leena Manimekalai, Moitra said, “Kali to me is a meat-eating, alcohol accepting goddess. That is a version of Kali. If you go to Tarapith… that is a version of Kali that people worship.” The remark not only raised the hackles of the BJP, the main opposition in the State, but also upset the ruling Trinamool Congress, which wasted little time in condemning it. In the midst of the controversy, Kali also found mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on July 10, which precipitated a fresh war of words between the two parties.

Moitra’s comment, if not taken out of context, was a message of acceptance of diversity in worship and a rejection of homogenisation of religion. She had also said: “Within Hinduism, being a Kali worshipper, I have the freedom to imagine my Kali in that way. It is my freedom, and I don’t think anyone’s sentiment should be hurt by that. I have the freedom to do it as much as you have the freedom to worship your god as a vegetarian, white-cloth wearing goddess…. I do think religion should remain in the personal ambit, and as long as I am not interfering in your space, I think we should be allowed that.”

Moitra went to some length to emphasise the differences in religious practices in different regions of the country, pointing out that what is considered a common ritual in one part of India may well be considered sacrilegious in another.

Trinamool ditches Mahua

It came as a bolt from the blue, therefore, when her own party, which had fought and won the 2021 Assembly election on the plank of regional nationalism and the socio-religious cultural identity of the Bengali as distinct from that of the Hindi heartland, wasted little time in condemning the comment.

Hours after the comment was made, the Trinamool Congress declared on social media: “The comments made by @MahuaMoitra at the #IndiaTodayConclaveEast2022 and her views expressed on Goddess Kali have been made in her personal capacity and are not endorsed by the party in any manner or form. All India Trinamool Congress strongly condemns such comments.” The alacrity with which the ruling party issued the statement took a section of its own leaders by surprise. They felt the reaction was uncalled for and bad for the party’s image in the long run.

A senior Trinamool source told Frontline: “It was totally unexpected and gives the impression that we are trying to be all things to all people. If we try to outdo the BJP at their own game, we might end up losing our own Bengali identity — the identity which won us the 2021 election.”  On July 7, the Trinamool reiterated its stand on the Kali controversy on Twitter: “We do not support any depiction of Goddess Kali that hurts the sentiments of her devotees.”

“The Trinamool’s condemnation of Moitra’s comment took a section of its own leaders by surprise.”

Ironically, the Trinamool’s condemnation of Moitra’s statement came long before the BJP perhaps even realised that the matter could be used as a political tool. Many political observers are of the view that the Trinamool practically gave the BJP on a platter an issue to attack it with. The BJP immediately made the most of it: its activists hit the streets, staged demonstrations and demanded Moitra’s arrest. Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay, political observer and professor of sociology at Amity University, Chhattisgarh, told Frontline: “It is intriguing to see parties like the Trinamool Congress, that are supposedly opposed to the BJP’s line of Hindutva, trying to distance themselves from the kind of statements that Mahua Moitra made. She has not slandered anyone, nor has she said anything that scholars have not said ad nauseum over the years. Kali is actually a reversal of Durga; it represents the tantrik tradition in Hindu philosophy... everybody knows the rituals and traditions, Mahua Moitra was not inventing them.” In Mukhopadhyay’s opinion, the BJP has been instrumental in creating a “fictitious” public by way of trolls on social media, and the “Trinamool has just thrown Mahua Moitra under the bus for their satisfaction”.

BJP members protesting against Mahua Moitra’s comments on Kali worship, in  Kolkata on July 13.
BJP members protesting against Mahua Moitra’s comments on Kali worship, in Kolkata on July 13. | Photo Credit: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP

“By not distancing themselves from the BJP’s line of Hindutva, the Trinamool and other parties like it seem to be waiting for droppings from the BJP’s high table. By doing this they are also acknowledging that the BJP occupies that high table and they are satisfied with whatever scraps fall off it. The Trinamool should have stood by Mahua Moitra and pointed out with references that she was correct in her statement. Instead, they chose to fight fire with fire and add to the conflagration,” said Mukhopadhyay.

According to the BJP, Moitra’s statement was a “calculated” political ploy, on the part of both the MP and her party, aimed at appeasing a particular section of the minority community. Senior party leader and spokesperson of the Bengal unit of the BJP, Samik Bhattacharya, told Frontline: “In Mahua Moitra’s Lok Sabha constituency [Krishnanagar], the minority vote is around 31 per cent. She needs to consolidate 100 per cent here. It was a statement planted by the Trinamool. The party did not take any step against her.... It was a calculated message to a particular community that the Trinamool is with them.” According to Bhattacharya, there has been a paradigm shift in Indian politics from 2014. “Earlier there would be no protest…. Now people are protesting. So if someone makes an attack like this, believing it will go unanswered, it is not going to happen. There will be retaliation and protest,” he said.

Mahua remains defiant

Poster of Leena Manimekalai’s Kaali.
Poster of Leena Manimekalai’s Kaali.

Even as her own party left her to fend for herself, Moitra remained defiant. “To all you sanghis — lying will not make you better hindus. I never backed any film or poster or mentioned the word smoking. Suggest you visit my Maa Kali in Tarapith to see what food & drink is offered as bhog,” she posted on social media.

Sources close to Moitra told Frontline that the MP was not even aware of the controversy surrounding the poster of Leena Manimekalai’s film, as she had just returned from abroad. “Mahua’s point was not the film, as she did not know anything about it. Her point was against the ‘one-size-fits-all’ concept of Hinduism of the BJP,” said a source.

However, the matter had already snowballed into a political slugfest, and goddess Kali was suddenly the centre of a raging controversy. Even the Prime Minister referred to her in a speech on the occasion of the birth centenary celebrations of Swami Atmasthananda on July 10. “Swami Ramakrishna Paramhansa was one such saint who had a clear vision of Ma Kali.... He said this whole world, this variable and constant, everything is pervaded by the consciousness of the Mother. This consciousness is seen in the Kali Puja of Bengal. This consciousness is visible in the faith of Bengal and the country. The limitless blessings of Ma Kali are always with India,” said Narendra Modi.

Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s IT wing and co-in-charge of West Bengal.
Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s IT wing and co-in-charge of West Bengal. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement.

Following the speech, Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s IT wing and co-in-charge of West Bengal, posted on social media: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks reverentially about Maa Kaali being the center of devotion, not just for Bengal but whole of India. On the other hand, a TMC MP insults Maa Kaali...” In a separate post he said: “Smarting under public rebuke from Mamata Banerjee, TMC MP is using repeat defiance on the issue of Maa Kaali to humiliate her, diminish her stature as a leader, knowing fully well that she wouldn’t be able to act against her, for fear of angering her Muslim vote bank.” Mahua struck back with a post of her own: “Would advise BJP Troll-In-Charge for Bengal to tell his masters to stop commenting on things they have no clue about. Didi O Didi got them the boot. Now Maa O Maa will get them a foot on their chest.” She was referring to Modi’s election campaigns in Bengal where he would repeatedly refer to Mamata with the words “Didi, o Didi”.

Support from Tharoor

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor came out in Mahua Moitra’s support but later clarified that he was expressing his personal view.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor came out in Mahua Moitra’s support but later clarified that he was expressing his personal view. | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

Moitra, however, did find a supporter in Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who tweeted, “I am no stranger to malicious manufactured controversy, but am still taken aback by the attack on @MahuaMoitra for saying what every Hindu knows, that our forms of worship vary widely across the country. What devotees offer as bhog says more about them than about the goddess. We have reached a stage where no one can say anything publicly about any aspect of religion without someone claiming to be offended. It’s obvious that @MahuaMoitra wasn’t trying to offend anyone. I urge every1 to lighten up & leave religion to individuals to practice privately.” Subsequently, even he had to specify that the tweet was a “personal” opinion after his party reportedly distanced itself from his comments.

The entire controversy sends across a serious social and political message: When it comes to discussion of religion in the public sphere, any deviation from the majoritarian view, as espoused by the ruling party at the Centre, will not be tolerated, even by a party as avowedly opposed to the BJP as the Trinamool. A senior source within the Trinamool admitted that it is because of its own decision to condemn Moitra’s comment that the Trinamool has found itself politically cornered. “Mahua Moitra as the national spokesperson of the Trinamool has defended the party in the face of what many would consider indefensible things, like the Narada and Sarada cases. It was not right to slaughter one of the party’s faithful in public,” the source told Frontline.