Conch shells to Ma Durga: How Mamata Banerjee replies to Hindutva

Ravik Bhattacharya
At Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's rally in Bankura, Tuesday. Partha Paul

From the blowing of Conch shells to the "uludhwani" (ululation at Hindu rituals); from invoking Ma Durga to targeting the BJP over tax notices sent to community puja clubs in Kolkata - and, the chanting of mantras.

In rural West Bengal, TMC supremo and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee have unleashed a counter to the BJP's Hindutva narrative in the last two phases of the Lok Sabha polls: Her own version, one that invokes the culture and traditions that are unique to the state.

As she rushes through three public meetings a day, Banerjee continues to highlight her government's "pro-people" initiatives and target Prime Minister Narendra Modi over demonetisation, farmer suicides and job losses. But now, her speeches are also sprinkled with frequent references to the way Hinduism is practised in Bengal - Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, tolerance - with symbols that appeal to the rural Hindu identity.

In between, she takes care to underscore her secular credentials: In Bankura Tuesday, she read out a few lines from the Quran and conveyed her wishes for the month of Ramzan.

This campaign pitch, which is a refrain across Banerjee's rallies, comes at a time when Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah has targeted her over alleged appeasement of Muslim voters, referring to her confrontation with a group that chanted "Jai Shri Ram" during her campaign trail. BJP leaders in Bengal have also been leading rallies and processions on Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti wielding swords and clubs.

Addressing a large gathering at a football ground in Bankura's Borjora, which falls under the Bishnupur constituency, Banerjee said: "When we gave a grant of Rs 10,000 to clubs organising community pujas, the BJP went to court and stalled it. Income-Tax notices were sent to 40 clubs that organise Durga Pujas. Don't you (Modi) have any shame? The Prime Minister never does his homework before coming to Bengal. He is saying Durga Puja is not allowed here. He is a liar. Here, we celebrate Durga Puja, Kali Puja, Rash Mela, Lakshmi Puja." Then, she asked the crowd: "Don't you celebrate them?" The response was a loud "Yes".

The subtext of her poll pitch is clear: The BJP's Hindutva doesn't resonate with the way the religion is practised in Bengal.

"We celebrate Durga Puja, Chatt Puja, Holi, Christmas and Eid. We have a Durga Puja carnival in Kolkata. This is our culture. We belong to the land of Ramakrishna. Bengal is the only state which can preserve this culture, when BJP plays pisive politics across India," said Banerjee.

She went on to target the BJP over Hindutva and Lord Ram. "During polls, he (Modi) invokes Lord Ram and rest of the time they are silent. They are making Sri Ramachandra as their election agent. Sita maiya is asking Lord Ram, 'Why is BJP calling you now?' Lord Ram answers, 'It is because the elections are on'," she said.

"I ask them please go and see Tarapith, please go and see Dakshineshwar. Please go and see Gangasagar and how we have beautified it. Go and see Furfura Sharif. And Modi could not even make a small 'Ram Murti' in the last five years," said Banerjee, as the "uludhwani" rose among the gathering to the blowing of Conch shells.

"What do they (BJP) know about Ma Durga. Do they know how many hands she has got and how many weapons she is carrying?" she asked.

"I will not learn nationalism from them (BJP). Remember Mahatma Gandhi was in Kolkata while we got our Independence. Bengal is the birth place of the Independence movement. Bengal is the birthplace of culture and humanity. Everyone is scared of Modi. But I am not. I will speak against him. Bengal will bell the cat, when no one else does," she said.

Raising the pitch, the Chief Minister reminded the crowd that these elections are not for the assembly or panchayat but for "removing Modi from Delhi".

"They (BJP) only play pisive politics. They spread riots. They make Hindus fight with Muslims. They make Hindus fight with Hindus. Here in Bengal, they are bringing in outsiders and trying to spark riots," she said.

Wrapping up her speech to the chanting of mantras, before reading from the Quran, Banerjee said: "We have Ma Durga, Ma Lakshmi, Ma Kali in every household. Jago Durga, Jago Durga. I want my Hindu mothers and sisters to do the 'uludhwani'. I want my Muslim mothers and sisters to seek the blessings of Allah. I want my youth to clap."