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Monday, February 24, 2020

The colour of money

A stipend for priests, after one for imams. In divided West Bengal, all eyes on the other side of the coin.

Written by Sweety Kumari | Updated: June 30, 2019 4:23:39 am
kolkata, priests, imams, temples, mosques, stipends, west bengal government, trinamool congress, bjp, minority, government grants, mamata banerjee, bengalis, pandits, bihar, uttar pradesh, indian express news Both Mishra (left) and Gyasuddin say they don’t want their children to follow in their footsteps. (Express Photo by Sweety Kumari)

AMIDST accusations from a resurgent BJP of the Trinamool Congress being pro-minority, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) had announced a stipend for Hindu priests, to match a government grant for imams of mosques, soon after the Lok Sabha elections ended. While the state government had instituted the Rs 2,500 monthly stipend for imams in March 2012, the Trinamool-run KMC will soon start giving out Rs 380 to priests for every cremation that they preside over at the seven crematoria in the city. The beneficiaries have been identified and the KMC is in the process of drawing up a list.

The Sunday Express meets a purohit at Nimtala Ghat in Kolkata and an imam at Lal Masjid in the city’s Topsia area to find out what the government grant means for them:

Naresh Mishra, 60

The pandit who traces his roots back to Bihar says he has been carrying out last rites at the Nimtala Ghat since he was a child. This is the third generation of his family doing this work at the ghat, where the funeral pyres never go out due to the number of bodies that come every day.

With a family of seven, and earnings of around Rs 7,000 a month, Mishra says every additional paisa is welcome. The stipend could on paper surge his earnings to around Rs 34,000. “We get three to four cases a day on an average,” he says.

However, Mishra fears the fact that he is from Bihar may be a drawback. “Jajmans (clients) who are Bengali prefer a Bengali purohit while others come to us. I hope this stipend is for everyone and not just limited to Bengali pandits,” says the 60-year-old, adding, “She (Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee) is openly saying people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are outsiders. I doubt if we will benefit from this stipend.”

Calling it little more than a political gesture, Mishra also asks why the Mamata government waited till after the election results, which gave the BJP 18 seats, to announce the stipend. “They should have done this much before. They choose imams over pandits, now they will further divide and enrol Bengali pandits and not us. I am not too hopeful… When you are an administrator, you should be fair to everyone and refrain from appeasing a particular class.”

He is not surprised the BJP made such massive gains, the priest says. “Didi understood late. She did a lot for things without realising Hindus were feeling left out. The BJP understood the growing sentiments of the people and took advantage of that.”

About the BJP’s politics, he adds, “No political party is secular… Bhai, seedhi baat hai, humein do-chaar paise milen na milen, zaroorat padne par Pakistan ko to jawab degi ye sarkar (Plus, it is simple. Whether we get extra money or not, when time comes, this government at least has the guts to give a fit answer to Pakistan).”

Denying the accusation of bias, Kolkata Deputy Mayor Atin Ghosh says, “Purohits do not have regular income and are dependent on what the bereaved family members give them. To help them, we decided to give the stipend.” Officials, who refused to come on record, claimed that the decision had been taken much before the Lok Sabha elections but could not be announced due to the model code of conduct.

Mishra, who stays in a one-storey house close to Nimtala Ghat with other purohits but spends most nights at the ghat, says “a lot has changed” since he was a child and spent all his time around bodies with his late father. “Electric ovens have come up, chimneys which suck up the foul smell have been installed. The whole place now looks quite welcoming. Things are much more organised.” However, he wouldn’t want his children to follow in his footsteps. Walking between rows of little stalls selling flowers and other items needed for cremation, as well as soft drinks and samosas, he says, “Itna padhaya isiliye thodi na ki woh hamara wala kaam karen (I didn’t educate them just to see them become like me). Gone are the days when people used to see us with pride and respect. Now it’s all about completing the last rites in minimum time, at minimal rate. People don’t want to spend time and money on someone who has already died.”

Of his six children, including two sons and four daughters, the eldest is 34 and works as a taxi driver while the youngest (15) is in school. While worried about his eldest son’s “low earnings”, Mishra adds proudly that one of his sons is doing B.Com from Calcutta University.

Pointing to a young man dressed in pink kurta and dhoti, he says, “Look, that is my nephew Bablu Mishra. In his mid-20s, he couldn’t complete his schooling but knows English. He went from pillar to post to get a government unemployment card but failed. Now he has joined us and probably will be the last one from this generation of our family to work as purohit.”

kolkata, priests, imams, temples, mosques, stipends, west bengal government, trinamool congress, bjp, minority, government grants, mamata banerjee, bengalis, pandits, bihar, uttar pradesh, indian express news An imam for over 25 years at a mosque commonly referred to as Lal Masjid, Gyasuddin gets Rs 2,500 as stipend on the first day of every month. (Express Photo by Sweety Kumari)

Imam Hafiz Md Gyasuddin, 40

An imam for over 25 years at a mosque commonly referred to as Lal Masjid, Gyasuddin gets Rs 2,500 as stipend on the first day of every month.

“I remember the first time the money was credited into my account. I spent it on grocery,” the 40-year-old smiles, thanking the CM for “giving us a great sense of security”. His six-member family, which lives near the mosque, struggles to make do on his monthly income of around Rs 5,000, paid by the Waqf Board. Gyasuddin also sees in the measure the Mamata government’s commitment towards “everybody”. “All sections of society are being taken care of under Mamata Banerjee’s government, whether Hindu or Muslim,” he says. Pointing out that the money they receive as stipend isn’t much, he adds that what is more important is the government’s intention.

While four of Gyasuddin’s children are in college, one will finish school next year. He says the children meet their needs by taking private tuitions, and he doesn’t want any of his sons to become an imam like him. “My children are good academically, have studied in good colleges, one is also doing a computer course. Jo main karta hoon woh kamane ki liye nahin karta. Ye ek paak kaam hai aur mere bachchon ki duniya alag hai (What I do is not for earning money. It’s pious work and my children’s world is different).”

About the rise of the BJP and the changed fortunes of the Trinamool, Gyasuddin says, “All problems are being created by the BJP. Our Hindu brothers didn’t seem to have any problems before in Bengal.”

Which is why, Gyasuddin adds, though he hopes the Mamata government would increase their stipend, he dare not speak his mind.

“This will again give many an opportunity to create a new controversy.”

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