Why is Didi risking enraging Hindus?

The spat between the West Bengal Government and a few Hindu organisations over the suspension of the Durga immersion on October 1 — which coincides with Muharram — has attracted widespread attention. With the Calcutta  High Court intervening, as it did last year over exactly the same issue, and clearing the decks for Durga idols’ immersions without any break till October 4, there is a widespread perception — less in Bengal than the rest of the country — that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s systematic policy of Muslim ‘appeasement’ has suffered a setback.

The pugnacious Didi, who does not easily admit defeat, has been unfazed by the setback. Having attributed the restrictions to precautions against Hindu organisations (read BJP and RSS) using the day to trigger communal clashes, she has fallen back on administrative action to restrict — as opposed to ban — immersions on October 1. Durga Puja organisers will now have to seek prior police permission before they can say farewell to Ma Durga at either a river or the village pond. Consequently, it is expected that police will refuse permission for most immersions on the evening of Ekadashi/ Muharram.

According to the almanac, the most appropriate time for the immersion is on Vijayadashami evening (September 30) until till 1.36 am on October 1. In any case, Ekadashi is not considered appropriate for immersions. Consequently, the Government’s original order prohibiting immersions after 6pm on Vijayadashami was needlessly over the top. Since the few Muharram processions will happen on the afternoon of October 1, there was little likelihood of a communal face-off. Normal vigilant policing plus an appeal to good sense would have ensured that both Hindus and Shia Muslims would have observed their faith without treading on each other’s toes.

If Mamata had been guilty of administrative over-zealousness in putting a 36-hour ban on processions, it would have been understandable. Since the number of Durga Pujas in the State hugely outnumber the number of Muharram processions — in Kolkata city, there are 40,000 Durga Pujas against just two scheduled Muharram processions — her overkill didn’t make much sense. Not even if we recognise that, for some reason, Muharram in parts of West Bengal do tend to be excessively boisterous and, more important, the occasion for Muslim (and not merely Shia) assertiveness. In the past, over-excited youth brandishing iron rods and swords have come out of Muharram processions and vandalised cars and shops in Central Kolkata. last year, when Vijayadashami and Muharram fell on the same day, there was a big Hindu-Muslim clash in Kharagpur. According to Hindu groups, there were also clashes in 11 other places in Horwah, Malda, Bardhaman, East Midnapur and Murshidabad districts, including the desecration of Durga idols.

Interestingly, apart from the Kharagpur incidents which were perfunctorily covered, the local media chose to exercise self-censorship and blacked out all mention of the sectarian clashes. This is done for two reasons. First, to maintain the illusion of Bengal being an island of inter-faith amity; and, second, on the belief that coverage of such incidents will give ideas to some people. The approach does not seem to have worked. Denial has merely fuelled an underground rumour industry and also served to reinforce the sense of Hindu grievance against the local administration.

As the head of the administration, the Chief Minister isn’t subjected to this information deficit. She is fully aware that the Basirhat riots earlier this year were far more serious than was admitted and that the casualties weren’t exactly low. The attacks suggested a large measure of pre-meditation and organisation, as did the retaliation.

The question therefore arises: Why is Mamata risking a groundswell of Hindu anger by her over-zealousness that reeks of a lack of even-handedness.

The answers, alas, are not very appetising. By positing the Durga immersions hostage to Muharram, she is very consciously sending out a signal of special status to the State’s Muslims that accounts for nearly 30 per cent of the population. Nor is this an isolated incident. Mamata maintained absolute silence on the triple talaq judgment and has been vocal in demanding the Centre open the borders to Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. last week, the administration looked the other way as Muslim clerics made inflammatory speeches at pro-Rohingya demonstrations and meetings. One such speech, widely available on the social media, is particularly chilling.

Mamata’s second assumption is that by specifically targeting the BJP for the rise in communal feelings, she will achieve two results. First, she will establish herself as a doughty crusader against Hindutva — a position that will appeal to not merely the Muslims but also to the left-inclined intelligentsia that has been orphaned by the abrupt collapse of the left. Secondly, Mamata is aware that for all its boast, the BJP in the State lacks both the organisational wherewithal, the political imagination and the leadership to mount a serious challenge to her. Mamata is happy that the BJP has overtaken the CPI(M) as the number two party in West Bengal. But as long as it remains a poor number two, the Trinamool Congress will reap an electoral bonanza from the first-past-the-post electoral system. The BJP, as Amit Shah discovered on his recent visit to Kolkata, is nowhere close to establishing the booth-level networks that are all-important in the political battle. The opposition to Mamata remains entirely spontaneous and bereft of focus.

In sum, the approach of Mamata can be best summed up by what Jawaharlal Nehru’s biographer S Gopal had to say about the ‘secularism’ of the first Prime Minister of India. For Nehru, wrote Gopal, “the problem of minorities was basically one for the majority community to handle. The test of success was not what the Hindus thought but how Muslims and other communities felt.”

I guess the comparison should leave Didi very flattered.