Imagining a quasi-nation
On October 14, the Government of West Bengal organised a “special procession” at the Red Road with the best Durga idols of Kolkata. The Red Road is typically reserved for top official functions of the state. The Kolkata Traffic Police even live-streamed the grand ceremony via their Facebook channel. These Durga idols and their associated Pujos have won the official competition launched by the West Bengal government around the festival, called the Biswa Bangla Sharad Samman (Global Bengal Autumn Honour). It also has its website with full details.
According to the site, “Biswa Bangla Sharad Samman (BBSS) is an event to recognise and appreciate the brilliance and innovation in organising Durga Puja. It is one of its own kind having local, national, and international participation in an immensely healthy competition for excellence. BBSS was initiated in 2013 and since then has been gathering more and more colour, grandeur and enthusiasm. Baroari pujas from Kolkata, West Bengal districts, other states of India and even from foreign countries participate to get acclaim and honour in organising quality Durga Puja in terms of divine and novel idols, pandals, ambience, artistry and environment. The Information and Cultural Affairs Department of Government of West Bengal, duly inspired by its Honourable Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has come up with this unique initiative to nominate and reward the best pujas, throughout the world, thereby highlighting the core concept of Biswa Bangla. It is to showcase and uplift our indigenous tradition and culture to the reach of the World. BBSS also encourages creativity and aesthetics and larger participation in this greatest festivity. There are 11 award categories for Kolkata and 3 for rest of Bengal. Best Pujas across India and Best Pujas across the World are awarded. A mass celebration like Durga Puja has very few counterparts in the world and Biswa Bangla Sharad Samman is your opportunity to take part in this greatest festival of the world.”
While these prizes may seem innocuous, its significance, whether intended as such by Mamata Banerjee and the West Bengal government or not, is tremendous. Not only have West Bengal government sponsored honours/prizes been bestowed on Pujos in Kolkata and every district of West Bengal, but there are also two award categories that take the ambit of this beyond the jurisdiction of the Government of West Bengal to include “Rest of India” and “Rest of World”. The winners for these two categories have not been declared in the website while those within West Bengal have been. It is significant that no particular “foreign country” is excluded. The non-West Bengal entity with the largest and grandest scale of Durga Pujo is the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Durga Pujos also happen in a big way in Tripura, Bihar, Jharkhand where historically long-entrenched Hindu Bengali populations exist apart from other areas in the Indian Union and the world as a whole where immigrant Hindu Bengalis have their Durga Pujo celebrations. While Durga Pujo is also celebrated by some non-Bengali communities, especially in the Eastern regions of South Asia, it is most strongly associated with Bengalis in general and Hindu Bengalis in particular.
The Hindu Bengali majority political entity of West Bengal is a product of the 1947 communal Partition of Bengal. The public opinion shaped around 1946-47 for a partition of Bengal envisaged a permanent Bengali Hindu majority homeland. The official stance of West Bengal being just another appendage of the secular Indian Union is far from how its proponents conceived West Bengal as a place for Bengali Hindus to escape religious persecution. This idea that West Bengal is the refuge of last resort for Bengali Hindus is something that is widely held, just like East Bengal (in its political form as the sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh) is the permanent Muslim Bengali majority homeland (and demographically increasingly simply a Muslim Bengali land). The gulf between Constitutional official-speak from above and tacitly understood people’s conceptions from below is evident. Mainstream political discourse with its set of “lakshman rekhas” necessitates the usage of codes, private pronouncements and signals that put forward ideological stances without publicly spelling it out. While the Trinamool doesn’t have overt Hindu-ness as its political ideology, being a mass party, it also draws upon this understanding, not in the communal, exclusivist, anti-Muslim, and hard-majoritarian undertone of the Hindu right but as a near-universally shared conception in West Bengal of West Bengal being the fountainhead of Bengali Hindudom globally. This is why, Mamata Banerjee, while being characterised by opponents as a “minority-appeaser” (a term hurled at anyone in subcontinental politics who doesn’t bow under reactionary majoritarian pressure and gives the minority some of what its due), simultaneously can project West Bengal’s unique place in global Bengali Hindudom. Probably not consciously, but the idea of giving prizes to Durga Pujos worldwide, claims Hindu Bengalis all over as its “own” in some sense, if not in the sense of constitutional citizenship, but in the sense of belonging to the same trans-national, quasi-national community, with West Bengal being its only realistic nerve-centre. This is an imagined global community, with West Bengal at its centre.
When the West Bengal government pronounces something as Bengali, it doesn’t exclude Muslims, but specially includes Hindus, just like how when the People’s Republic of Bangladesh talks about Bengalis or Bengali nationalism, it has a particular idea in mind that doesn’t explicitly exclude Hindus (made harder by the intense Bengali native particularity of some of its fundamentals) but specially includes Muslims in general and East Bengali Muslims in particular. This is clear in how they two entities conceive Durga Pujo and Eid respectively as being the prime festival in Bengal. It is reflected in official pronouncements to the number of holidays granted in their respective official calendar. West Bengal gives multiple holidays during Durga Pujo. People’s Republic of Bangladesh gives multiple holidays during Eid. Thus, West Bengal’s Durga Pujo greetings and People’s Republic of Bangladesh’s Eid greetings are “for all” while the converse, that is, West Bengal’s Eid greetings and People’s Republic of Bangladesh’s Durga Pujo greetings are for particular communities, with carefully-worded universality as an afterthought, and guarded participation as a public performance (though Mamata Banerjee pushes the envelope a bit on this count) with necessary reminders of communal harmony and secularism that never accompany greetings that are “for all”.
Durga Pujo is by no means the biggest festival as far as the whole of the Indian Union is concerned. It is hardly a “national” festival in a Union-wide sense. In the Pujo issue of the Trinamool party mouthpiece Jaago Bangla (Rise Bengal), Mamata Banerjee, in the very first line of her article, terms Bengal’s Durga Pujo as the “our national festival”. When she does this, it is one of those rare moments when she comes closest to articulate her particular West Bengali and hence Hindu-majority sense of identity (albeit couched in the language of cultural celebration) as something that constitutes a “nationality”, something that is otherwise taboo in the Constitutionally mono-national Indian Union, irrespective of the reality of it being a multi-national super-state. This is no call from her for a renegotiation of the nationality question in the Indian Union. That the term “Bengali nation” may seem so seditious in the present day Indian Union would have appalled Chitta Ranjan Das, the Congress and Swarajist president and arguably the last trans-communal Bengali stalwart of United Bengal (the last trans-communally credible uniter, if you will), who used this term often and liberally and meant exactly what it said. His conception of India, in a civilisational sense, not unlike the evolving idea of Europe as a civilisational umbrella entity with constituent nationalities, will now be termed “anti-national” and his idea of “Bengali nation” as seditious. That the term can only find such indirect mention by the premier of West Bengal shows how much that idea and identity has regressed in the western half of Bengal since the days of C.R.Das and especially so after the Partition of 1947.
Bengal does have a very special place in the Shakto religion. When parts of goddess Sati’s dead body fell on earth, each of those sites became a Shakti-peeth — a space of divine significance. Of the 51 Shakti-peeths on earth, West Bengal is blessed with 16 while East Bengal has the second highest number at 5. Thus, many Bengali Hindus would claim in an off-hand manner that Durga Pujo, who is Shakti incarnate, as Bengal’s biggest festival. This would be contested by pointing out that with a majority of Bengalis being Muslims, Eid ought to be Bengal’s biggest festival. It all depends on what you mean by “Bengal’s biggest”. The most widely celebrated festival in Bengal is Eid. The most widely celebrated festival in East Bengal is also Eid. The most widely celebrated festival in West Bengal however, is Durga Pujo. The festival most widely celebrated in Bengal compared to anywhere else in the world is also Durga Pujo. Now take your pick.
(The views expressed are personal.)