Durga Puja has always arrived in East and West Bengal with the blessings of the goddess sought by all, across communities, caste, class and religion. In that sense, the festivity, which arrives with a chill in the air in the early hours of ‘Mahalaya’, whereby the magical renditions by Birendra Krishna Bhadra resonates in All India Radio Kolkata, with the same old favourite songs hailing the goddess, unfolds as a deeply felt and shared cultural and social festival.
It is almost like a new beginning of life, with new clothes, new songs created by singers and musicians, delicacies, music and theatre. And shared food and ‘bhog proshad’ by communities. Indeed, the puja pandals itself often become a theatre of unique and innovative themes: from the films of Satyajit Ray, to awareness about climate change and global warming, and lately, the suffering and long journey on foot by tens of thousands of migrant workers. Indeed, in one particular pandal last year, a migrant worker mother was depicted as Goddess Durga trekking with her little children and little belongings – as a tribute to the migrant workers who walked thousands of miles under the scorching sun on the highway, hungry and thirsty, after a sudden lockdown was declared on the night of March 24, 2020 by the prime minister.
In Bangladesh, which celebrates Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, songs and dance dramas, or Kazi Nazrul Islam’s passionate and revolutionary songs, with equal intensity and love as in West Bengal, Durga Puja is celebrated with great joy and collective festivity. Across the districts of Bangladesh, pandals are erected and both Hindus and Muslims participate in the festival with a shared passion. Muslim mothers take their children to see the goddess, and food and prasad is eaten in the pandal with special joy. In Dhaka, the capital, more than 230 Durga Puja pandals were erected this year alone, including at the famous Dhakeshwari temple.
In the summer of 2018, this reporter met several Hindus and Muslims in Khulna in Bangladesh. They all shared great camaraderie and said that all festivals are celebrated together. A Hindu sweet shop owner was surrounded by several Bengali Muslims while they enjoyed his delicacies. They all nodded in agreement when he said that he does a puja in the morning every day and Durga Puja is celebrated in a grand manner and all his Muslim friends and neighbours join the festivity. There has never been a single moment of conflict or strife.
Indeed, across both the borders, over decades, Bengalis are united with a shared synthesis of culture, cuisine, food, arts and crafts, social rituals, music, theatre and cinema. Language, which changes its delicate dialects and features across the many rivers in this beautiful landscape, too, deeply unites the two Bengals. Even after Partition, many Hindu Bengalis thereby chose to stay back in Bangladesh, while those who came to India leaving their original homeland, cherished and nourished deep longing and fond memories of the ‘Shonar Bangla’ and its many rivers and people.
Great filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s films depicted the angst and longing of the people divided by new maps and borders, whereby railway lines suddenly ended in dead-ends, while literature and poetry narrated the tales of the two Bengals, and the deep sorrow of Partition. The national anthem of Bangladesh is written by Rabindranath Tagore.
Indeed, the liberation of Bangladesh in the liberation war of 1971 led by the guerillas of the Mukti Bahini in alliance with the Indian army on the ground was celebrated with great intensity in West Bengal and the rest of India. The thousands of refugees who landed up in West Bengal were welcomed with open doors and open hearts and it did not matter if they were Hindus or Muslims. Even the influx of people from Bangladesh in the 1980s was never treated with hostility in West Bengal.
That is the reason why communal forces of Hindutva were not able to polarize on the ground during the recent assembly elections in West Bengal despite their best efforts, and money and muscle power, nor did people accept their tirade against ‘outsiders and infiltrators’ implying those refugees who came from Bangladesh. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee has categorically stated that both NRC and CAA will not be implemented in Bengal, come what may.
Undoubtedly, therefore, Durga Puja, the biggest festival for Bengalis across both the border, is celebrated with a sense of collective unity and passion. That is why, the violence which has rocked Bangladesh during this festive season is shocking and surprising.
The Bangladesh government has categorically said that those who violently and vehemently opposed the liberation of the country are behind this communal violence. This basically implies that Islamic fundamentalists are behind the arson and violence inflicted on Durga Puja pandals across several districts of the country.
In several locations all over the country, including in Noakhali, Chittagong and Comilla, there have been cases of violence against the Hindu community during the Durga Puja celebrations. This was clearly master-minded by individuals and groups who have been decisively isolated in recent years by the secular government of the Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the liberation war of Bangladesh. After Bangladesh was formed, Mujibur Rahman, a towering secular and democratic icon, was murdered along with most of his family by a section of the army in a military coup.
It must be remembered that even during the pangs of its birth, Bangladesh witnessed huge sorrow and injustice. The Pakistani army, even before surrendering to the Indian army, butchered and killed intellectuals, students, civil society luminaries and others, while scores of women were assaulted and tortured. Islamic fundamentalists even now owe their allegiance to the Pakistani establishment.
Surely, the Bangladesh government has reacted and acted with speed and highly effectively, moving in decisively by first, restoring the sanctity of the festivity by providing security, and second, by going after the fundamentalists who have master-minded the arson and violence, and the lumpen foot-soldiers who were deployed on the ground. Sheikh Hasina has categorically stated that investigations are seriously on, that the miscreants have been identified, that all those who tried to attack Hindus will be hunted down and punished. In a virtual speech addressed to the worshippers at the famous Dhakeshwari temple in Dhaka she assured the Hindus of total safety and security in a secular Bangladesh. Her home minister has been highly effective and hands on through the crisis.
Both have appealed to the people to do fact-checking and not succumb to hate politics and fake news on social media, warning that those who are doing this kind of communal propaganda will not be spared. Her party leaders are out in public saying that we will take on the communal elements on the streets. Her party leaders have called upon the ‘Hindu brothers and sisters’ to feel totally safe in their own country, even while the Hindu community has whole-heartedly welcomed the government’s prompt action and assurances of security and safety. The Indian external affairs ministry has appreciated the actions taken by the Bangladesh government to stop the arsonists and restore the festivity yet again.
The man who committed an act of sacrilege in district Comilla in a pandal has been identified. He is on the run.
Indeed, despite the violence and the tragedies, the manner in which the Bangladesh government and the entire civil society has responded in a concerted gesture of secular pluralism, organizing peace and harmony processions, and reassuring the 10 per cent Hindus of Bangladesh of their safety and security, is a lesson for the subcontinent, especially India. Certainly, Goddess Durga, has united the country, yet again.