I grew up in a respectable middle class South Calcutta (as it was called then) neighbourhood defined by Harish Mukherjee Road and the very well known SSKM Hospital. The big crossing near our ancestral home had a gurudwara and a mosque facing each other across a wide road.
Plus, police traffic restrictions willed that all immersion processions after any kind of Hindu puja take Harish Mukherjee Road so that the parallel main road carrying the tram lines and bus routes was left free for traffic. So we were at the crossroads of three religions. The great thing about living there was that we did not have to go pandal hopping to see all the South Calcutta pujas. All the images, bands and revellers had to pass by our house to go to the Ganga – which was not very far away – for immersion.
We always woke up to the sound of bhajans being sung at the gurudwara, followed through the day by short renditions of the azaan calling the faithful to prayer. The tea served at Balwant Singh’s dhaba, next to the gurudwara, was divine, forming a bridge between the temporal and the spiritual.
In all the decades when that corner of the city was our home, there was not a single instance of communal tension, not to mention any violence. Every time an immersion procession approached the mosque, the bands stopped. Then a hundred odd paces down the road they struck up again, with renewed gusto. The logic behind the courtesy was so obvious no one asked questions when the city police had laid down the rule in the distant past.
This year, it is painful to read in the papers that such an issue is being made of police restrictions introduced to take care of Muharram and Bijoya Dashami, the fourth and last day of the Durga puja when immersion takes place, falling on successive days. Had it not been for the newspapers, I would not have known there was a contested police order. Parts of the city where I now live and visit are routinely peaceful. The dominant issue discussed with animation is whether rain will cause disruptions to the pujas or not.
It is not as if festivals of different religions important in West Bengal have not fallen around the same time in the past. Once Eid and Bijoya Dashami fell around the same time. Then, and on other occasions when the need arose, the police have dealt with the situation successfully on their own, and that has been the end of the matter.
The answer to why the police are over cautious this time, lies in the way the whole thing has become controversial, to the extent of the matter being taken to the high court. The way in which communal trouble has flared up in recent times in West Bengal, and elsewhere, when some people have sought to take out a religious procession, offers enormous justification for the police to try and ensure that two religious groups, particularly processions, are kept physically as far apart as possible.
The issue is whether religious freedom is being hampered by the police ordering that immersion processions cannot be taken out the day after Bijoya Dashami day – on the day of Muharram. Durga puja stretches over four days and ends with Bijoya Dashami, when the idols are immersed in a river, pond or any water body is available for the purpose. The images from family pujas, in which the devotional content is high, are mostly immersed on the day of Bijoya Dashami.
It is the community pujas or baroari pujas, as they are called, which are immersed one or several days later. The reason for this is obvious. These pujas, mostly run by clubs run by local young men, offer the most important opportunity in the whole year for them to coerce money out of local residents and businesses so that they can organise a lavish puja and have fun.
Immersion is postponed by a day or more for two reasons: get as much of footfall for the stalls set up in and around the puja pandals and also extend the revelry for as long as possible. About what goes on under the rubric of having fun, the less said the better. It has nothing to do and is in fact antithetical to the piety and devotion that one would normally associate with a puja or any kind of religious occasion.
Some years ago, when, over time, community pujas began keeping the idols longer and longer and the immersion processions stretched over days, the police found they had too much on their hands for too long and ordered that all immersions must happen on Bijoya Dashami. There was enormous pressure on that one day but then the job was done with in one go. This rule for obvious reasons proved to be unpopular and was subsequently dispensed with.
Anything that happens after Bijoya Dashami has got nothing to do with religion, it is about boys having fun. In recent times religious processions have become fraught and have led to communal violence. A political administration determined to avoid communal tension and violence and getting the police to impose logical restrictions on public events needs to be congratulated for having the courage to do what is right, or, in fact, imperative.
Where Mamata Banerjee’s government – accused of pampering the minorities – may have erred, was in being excessively cautious. Initially it ordered that all immersions be completed by 6 pm on Bijoya Dashami. This would have created an enormous rush on that day and particularly inconvenienced the family pujas that have never delayed immersions. Now the deadline has been extended till 10 pm, and that should suffice.
It is important to note that immersions can resume after a one-day break and going by the way community pujas have taken their time over it in the past, there cannot be any serious religious sanction against it. In any case, Hindu pundits’ ability to give flexible rulings depending on the wishes of their patrons is legendary.
Durga puja, celebrated with much fanfare as a public event, began after a new rich babu class emerged during British rule. The most lavish Durga pujas, often involving performances by nautch girls, were organised by the new rich to impress and entertain their British masters. In the age of popular rule, the local clubs have taken over public or community pujas and consider it the topmost event of the year that they can lavishly celebrate. The social content of the festival predominates seriously performing the puja as a religious ritual, which is now confined to family pujas taking pride in tracing their origins. And they don’t want to postpone immersion beyond Bijoya Dashami.
Subir Roy is a senior journalist and the author of Made in India: A study of emerging competitiveness (Tata Mcgraw Hill, 2005) and the forthcoming Ujjivan: The microfinance frontrunner (OUP).