First in decades: Bengal ministers plunge into pujas

By Anurag Dey, IANS,

Kolkata : For the first time in three-and-a-half decades, West Bengal’s ministers have openly joined in organising Durga Puja celebrations, shedding the political diffidence of the previous leftist government, some of whose members were avowed atheists.

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Puja organising committees are witnessing the ministerial presence in a big way, with many legislators of the ruling Trinamool Congress giving them company.

The leaders say their association spreads a message of religious harmony.

Sports Minister Madan Mitra, who organises the Agradut and Uday Sangha Puja at Bhowanipore, said the festival was more of a social and cultural event than a religious one.

Mitra through his Puja hopes to convey the importance of agriculture and villages with the theme titled ‘Maa Maati Manush’, a pet slogan of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

So might ministerial participation lead to misuse of the pujas or weaken the secular fabric?

Public Health Engineering Minister Subrata Mukherjee, the guiding force of South Kolkata’s Ekdalia Evergreen Puja, told IANS: “I have been attached with this puja since my childhood and being a minister does not make any difference. When it comes to the committee I am just an ordinary member.”

It has a budget of Rs.40 lakh.

“It would also be wrong to say that my association goes against secularism. I am equally active when it comes to celebrating Eid or Christmas. Moreover Durga Puja is no more confined to Hindus.”

South Kolkata’s Chetla Agrani Club, which is endorsing communal harmony with its marquee shaped as a mosque and a temple, has Municipal Affairs Minister Firhad Hakim as president.

“What better example of secularism is possible than a Muslim hosting a Hindu Puja? For me and my people, the puja is not a religious occasion, but rather a festival which is celebrated by all, irrespective of religion,” said Hakim.

Industries Minister Partha Chatterjee is the patron of South Kolkata’s Naktala Udayan Sangha Puja, which has seemingly left many of its rivals behind in terms of grandeur.

Chatterjee, however, claims his ministerial duties have prevented him for helping the puja organisers.

“I am totally engrossed in my work. It would be unfair to the people if I spend time in the Puja rather than doing my job. But I do miss the time I used to spend in pandals, when young.”

New Alipore’s big bang Suruchi Sangha Puja may not boast of a ministerial organiser but in Arup Biswas, it does have a star legislator as president.

“Doesn’t secularism mean one has the right to practise and promote one’s own religion? Being a Hindu don’t I have the right to organise a puja? There is no harm is celebrating, so long as I am not harming anyone’s religious feelings,” reasoned Biswas.

Biswas too said his club did not enjoy any advantage by virtue of his being a lawmaker.

However, political analyst Sabyasachi Basu Roy feels the other way.

“In my opinion, a political personality should stay away from religious events in the public domain. It certainly goes against the secular fabric of the country. Of course, they have the right to follow and propagate their religion and belief but ideally as a leader they should not paint themselves in any particular religious colour.”

He also said with a leader on their side, the organisers may avail themselves of undue advantages. “They may tend to flout electricity norms or spatial guidelines or claim unjustified benefits which the authorities might refrain from challenging.”

Unlike the incumbents, the CPI-M leaders and ministers, who are officially atheists, seldom participated in any public religious ceremony, though there were instances of late maverick leader Subhas Chakraborty offering puja at the famous Shiva temple in Tarakeshwar.

Former housing minister and Communist Party of India leader Gautam Deb feels it is unbecoming of a minister to spend huge money on religion.

“In the name of religion, they are collecting and spending millions of rupees. It is most unbecoming of them. The money instead could be put to better use and welfare of the public.”

Five-day Durga Puja celebrations start Sunday. As per police estimates, the number of pujas organised this year in the city and the surroundings will be close to 2,500.

(Anurag Dey can be contacted at [email protected])