Trinamool Congress to Organise Rally of Hindu Priests

The first of its kind in Bengal, the TMC's new and controversial strategy aims to counter the BJP's increasing influence in Birbhum district.

Devotees participate in a procession to celebrate Ram Navami in Kolkata in April, 2017. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: In an apparent bid to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party’s allegations of minority appeasement, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has planned a rally of over 5,000 Hindu priests in West Bengal’s Birbhum district on January 8.

Given that political parties other than the BJP in Bengal are traditionally known to organise rallies around economic and political issues, the TMC’s decision seems to marks a significant shift in political and electoral strategy.

Birbhum’s TMC president Anubrata Mondal has asked party workers to conduct a “census” of Hindu priests in the 19 blocks of the district to ensure maximum attendance at the rally, reported the Telegraph.

The decision was taken on December 18, when the BJP won the assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

Since the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the BJP has made inroads in Birbhum. West Bengal goes to panchayat polls in the beginning of 2018, which is billed as a precursor to the 2019 assembly elections. In 2014, the BJP won two of the 44 Lok Sabha seats in the state. According to party leaders, the BJP hopes to win at least 22 seats in 2019.

“We will give the priests a namabali, a Gita, books on Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda and photographs of Sri Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi. BJP leaders are shaking at the thought of the event,” Mondal said.

Recently, reports suggest huge crowds at BJP-sponsored rallies in Birbhum. Some reportedly were attended by over 15,000 people. This seems to have become a matter of concern for Mondal.

The rally is being seen as an attempt to test the waters for forming a Trinamool-backed organisation of Hindu priests, along the line of trade unions. Sources told the Telegraph that forming such an organisation would help Hindu priests access government facilities and handouts.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee is scheduled to visit Birbhum next week. “We have already set up several gates in Bolpur to spread the news among lakhs of visits to the Poush Mela… The gates will be retained for the chief minister to see when she visits the district next week,” a district leader said.

Mondal however said that the TMC was “not bothered about who has made inroads in any particular spot”. He maintained that the Hindu priests’ conference was just one of the party’s regular activities for the month.

West Bengal’s BJP leaders have dismissed the event as “desperate drama” in response to the BJP altering the political discourse in the state.

“In different areas such as Mayureswar, Parui, Ilambazar, parts of Nalhati and Murarui, BJP has made inroads. Through the conference of the priests of the district, we will be able to send a message to the common people as well as the opposition that we don’t appease any particular community,” a TMC leader had earlier told the Hindustan Times on the condition of anonymity. He added, “Though the BJP presence is not much in the district that has 19 blocks, 11 assembly constituencies and more than 3,000 booths, the party leaders don’t want to be complacent.”

Mondal had organised a yagna conducted by 11 priests from Assam’s Kamakshya temple at the Kankalitala temple in Birbhum earlier this year as a counter to the Sangh parivar’s programmes on Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti.

Banerjee’s earlier announcement of  honorariums for imams and muezzins, and homestead land for imams, had drawn sharp criticism from the BJP which accused the chief minister of appeasing the minority community.

According to census 2011, Muslims form 27.01% of West Bengal’s population. Minorities form 35% of voters in Birbhum district.

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