West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s recent decision to increase the honorarium to puja committees organising community Durga Pujas has once again triggered a debate on the relationship between state and religion. Since 2018, when the Trinamool Congress government started giving ₹10,000 to each community Durga Puja club, the honorarium has increased to ₹60,000. The number of clubs receiving the cash benefit has risen from 18,000 in 2018 to 43,000 today. Ms. Banerjee’s initiative will cost the State exchequer ₹258 crore. This is besides the 60% subsidy the government hands out to puja pandals on electricity tariff. The controversial decision comes at a time when the State is reeling under a financial crunch, physical infrastructure is crumbling, and the government is unable to pay dearness allowance dues to State government employees.
Durga Puja is a week-long festival organised with unparalleled pomp and splendour in West Bengal. It also provides a great opportunity for political mobilisation. For the last 11 years, Ms. Banerjee has used the opportunity well by inaugurating hundreds of community pujas weeks before the actual festival and instituting State government awards to honour community pujas. The new culture of providing political patronage to big-ticket Durga Pujas has helped the Trinamool to extend its influence.
The pujas contribute significantly to the State’s economy. A study by the British Council in 2019 had estimated that the economic worth of the creative industries around Durga Puja in West Bengal is about ₹32,377 crore and the festival contributes 2.58% to the State’s GDP. ‘Durga Puja in Kolkata’ got an important international recognition in December 2021 by making it to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The State government is well within its rights to promote Durga Puja, which is a grand spectacle. It has a duty to provide logistical support, ensure safety and security, and maintain law and order as well as traffic during the festival. But providing cash incentives to community Durga Pujas raises troubling questions.
But first, what led to cash offers to community Durga Pujas? In April 2012, less than a year after being voted to power, Ms. Banerjee announced a monthly honorarium to imams and muezzins. After the Calcutta High Court struck down the decision in 2013, honoraria given to imams and muezzins were routed through the State Wakf Board. Just as no imam approached the State government seeking money for performing religious duties, no community puja organiser sought an honorarium from the State. This was purely a ‘balancing act’ by the Trinamool government. Like most State government schemes, the move was populist and drew loud applause. By providing honoraria to puja committees, the Trinamool government was also aiming to counter allegations made by the BJP, of “Muslim appeasement”. Over the last few years, the Trinamool has gained politically by giving money to community puja organisers.
However, by promoting religion, the government is venturing into uncharted territory from where there might be no turning back. Despite changes over the last few years in designs, decorations and themes, community Durga Pujas in West Bengal have remained secular affairs as people from all walks of life and communities participate. With these cash incentives, the pujas could become dependent on the State government. The initiative also allows the government to interfere in community affairs. Above all, providing an honorarium could prevent the natural evolution of a religious and cultural practice that has spanned centuries.