On Monday (September 14), West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 and free housing for 8,000 poor Sanatan Brahmin priests in the state. The priests are likely to start getting their allowance during Durga Puja, the biggest festival in Bengal, Banerjee said.
The move to extend financial assistance to Brahmin purohits comes ahead of 2021 state Assembly elections, and at a time when the ruling Trinamool Congress is facing a huge challenge from the BJP.
Accusations of Muslim ‘appeasement’
In April 2012, a little less than a year after coming to power, the Chief Minister had announced an allowance of Rs 2,500 each for Imams and Rs 1,500 each for muezzins who give the aazaan, or call to prayer. The Opposition, especially the BJP, had criticised the state government’s move and accused it of indulging in minority appeasement.
Then state BJP general secretary Asim Sarkar had challenged that decision in Calcutta High Court which, in September 2013, rejected the allowance as unconstitutional and against the public interest. The monthly allowances had subsequently been routed through the state Wakf Board.
However, no such provisions were made for Hindu priests, which left scope for a political campaign targeting the Trinamool’s alleged anti-Hindu bias. Mamata chose not to directly address the demands of the Brahmin priests, and instead moved her focus to Gangasagar Mela and pushed for its overall development. Thousands of pilgrims gather at Sagar Island during Makar Sankranti every year to take a dip at the point at which the Hooghly falls into the Bay of Bengal, and to offer prayers at the Kapil Muni Ashram.
Politically, the Trinamool continued to criticise the BJP for celebrating Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti across the state, further widening the gap between the party and a hardcore section of the Hindu electorate, many of whom were North Indians settled in Bengal. In 2017, Mamata announced that the immersion of Durga idols would be halted for Muharram – a step taken to ensure there were no law and order situations, but which did not go down well with a section of Hindus, and gave the BJP fresh political ammunition against her government.
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After 2019 elections, a change
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections marked a paradigm shift in the state’s politics. The BJP did exceptionally well, winning 18 seats and receiving 40.3 per cent of the vote. During the campaign and afterward, it carried out sustained attacks against the Trinamool, accusing it of appeasing Muslims and neglecting the sentiments of the Hindu community. The TMC did badly in seats with considerable SC and ST votes, and in seats with a significant number of Hindi-speaking people.
Under fire from the saffron brigade, the TMC government took note of the unhappiness of Hindu voters.
In August 2019, a first-of-its-kind rally was organised by the Paschim Banga Rajya Sanatan Brahmin Trust in the heart of Kolkata, where thousands of Brahmin purohits gathered to press for a nine-point charter of demands.
The demands included a stipend for purohits who were senior citizens, monthly stipends for working purohits, houses for homeless Brahmins, identity proof for the community, providing Sanskrit education in schools from Class 5, and setting up of ‘tols’ or educational institutes for children of Brahmins.
The event was attended by state Minister Rajib Banerjee, who promised stipends, houses, and health insurance to Brahmin purohits.
Also in August last year, the TMC government had announced a financial assistance of Rs 10,000 for each of the 28,000 Durga Puja committees spread across the state, and a 25 per cent reduction in the power tariffs of puja pandals.
There were also efforts to break the BJP’s claim to be the sole representative of Hindu interests, and to reclaim traditional Hinduism. In January this year, the Birbhum district TMC led by Anubrata Mondal organised a first-ever daylong “Brahmin Purohit Sammelan” (Brahmin Priests Convention) in Bolpur to highlight the misinterpretations of Hinduism by the BJP. Each one of the priests was felicitated with a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a shawl, and pictures of Sarada Ma and Sri Ramakrishna.
Mamata announced an insurance policy of Rs 5 lakh for all individuals visiting the Gangasagar Mela. She accused the Centre of not providing funds for the Mela, even as it was providing financial assistance for the Kumbh Mela.
During this year’s Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti festivals, TMC leaders took out rallies.
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A continuing tussle with the BJP
On August 5, the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Ayodhya for the bhoomi pujan ceremony of the Ram Temple, Mamata’s government announced a statewide lockdown as part of its ongoing efforts to arrest the spread of the novel coronavirus infection.
But the BJP seized the moment politically, accusing the TMC government of specifically choosing August 5 as the one of the lockdown days in order to stop the party and its supporters from celebrating the bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya. At a virtual conference, BJP national president J P Nadda recently accused the Mamata government of having an “anti-Hindu mindset” and of pursuing policies of minority appeasement.
Why do Brahmin priests matter?
The announcement comes in the backdrop of the BJP’s attacks. It is clear from the TMC government’s approach that it is taking the BJP seriously. As Assembly elections approach – the term of Mamata’s second government ends on May 30, 2021 – the party is seeking the support of the bulk of the Hindu community.
Brahmin priests as a group are seen to have influence in the larger Hindu community, and could potentially help swing towards the TMC a section of the Hindu vote that would otherwise go to the BJP. Through this measure, the state government is also seeking to shed its image of a government that appeases minorities for votes, and to send out a message of inclusiveness.
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The 2019 Lok Sabha elections showed a thin margin of just 3 percentage points between the vote shares of the TMC (43.3%) and BJP (40.3%). It is critical for the Trinamool Congress to put greater distance between the BJP and itself if it is to give itself a degree of comfort going into the Assembly elections. In the months after Durga Puja (in October) as the political battle heats up further, other similar signals to the Hindu community can be expected from the government.
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