Indian Catholic News

West Bengal stokes unrest by funding Puja Hindu festival

Even pro-Hindu critics blast local leaders for 'blowing' public funds to appease religious voters.

A woman adds ornaments to an idol of the goddess Durga on the sixth day of the nine-day Durga Puaj festival at a temple in Kolkata, India on Oct. 15. (Photo by IANS)
New Delhi: 

The Supreme Court on Oct. 12 allowed the state of West Bengal in eastern India to provide funding for the most popular Hindu festival in the region, despite Muslims blasting the move as a form of "religious appeasement."

The state's decision to sponsor the Durga Puja, the biggest annual festival for Bengali-speaking people in the area, has been creating tension since the government announced it on Oct. 3.

The state government, run by the local Trinamol (grassroots) Congress Party, announced it was setting aside 280 million rupees (US$4 million) with the aim of distributing 10,000 rupees each to local groups that plan to celebrate the Oct. 15-19 festival.

Muslim leaders say state chief minister Mamata Banerjee aims to woo Hindus to her party and steer them away from the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the national election next May.

"We are living in India, and it is a secular country. No government in any state should appease one community by sponsoring its festivals using public funds," Mohammad Kamarujjaman from the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation (ABMYF) told reporters.

The controversial decision was placed on the shoulders of the Supreme Court after a local High Court refused to get involved.

Lawyer Saurav Dutta, who appealed the case, said the Supreme Court's decision to offer funding ran counter to established principles of law.

The court decided to grant the state's request after lawyers said funds would be given to 28,000 festival committees to improve a road safety program.

The court has asked the state government to explain the matter in a detailed affidavit by the end of December.

During the Puja people across the world spend 10 days celebrating Durga, a symbol of divine femininity. Activities reach a crescendo in the last five days as local families form festival committees, pitch makeshift tents, and install expensive decorative idols of the goddess in her various forms.

All-night prayers, processions, songs and dances mark most of the festival, while the final day culminates in a special performance during which Durga defeats the demonic Mahishasura in a mythical battle symbolizing the victory of good over evil.

However fears have risen this year that Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a terrorist outfit banned in neighboring Bangladesh, might use the festival as a pretext to attack Durga Puja pandals in West Bengal, according to reports from intelligence agencies.

Hindus make up about 70 percent of West Bengal's 91 million people whereas Muslims account for about 27 percent of the population. This makes the local Muslim population about double the national average.

Recently even the BJP has begun to accuse Banerjee of unfairly pandering to Hindus by flouting secular principles.

Party leader Dilip Gosh said Banerjee is trying to pacify Hindus as anger mounts against the government for failing to deliver on a series of promises.

Influential religious cleric Taha Siddiqui, an exiled journalist who has served as the Islamabad-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, organized a large rally in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, criticizing the state's chief minister.

"Banerjee's party is scaring the state's Muslims with the sectarian principles of the BJP and urging us to vote against it," Kolkata-based social worker Arindam Banerjee (no relation to the minister) told

"The reality is it's her party [Trinamol Congress] that is indulging in sectarian politics," he said while addressing those who had gathered for the demonstration.

He said the party was attempting an "image makeover" in the wake of accusations that it was too pro-Muslim.

Tasleema Rahman, another local activist, said the announcement is "already creating a rift between Hindus and Muslims."

"We can only pray the festival passes peacefully," she said.

Maya Gosh, who hews to the policies of the Communist Party of India, said religious-based appeasement must stop.

The communists led the state government for 34 years until Banerjee came to power in 2011.

"Government coffers are for all, as every one is equal before the law," Gosh said. "No one [with an Indian ID card] can claim to be more Indian than anyone else."

Source: UCAN

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