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Mass Bhagavad Gita Recitation in Kolkata: What Does BJP Hope to Gain in Bengal?

Although PM Modi was expected to be the chief guest, Suvendu Adhikari has now confirmed he won't be able to attend.

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"Will it remain merely a religious event or will it become a political rally?" Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Joy Prakash Majumdar recently told the media, questioning a mass Bhagavad Gita recital programme slated to be held on 24 December in West Bengal's Kolkata.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associated bodies belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), however, are not at the forefront of the event.

The event – which will see 1 lakh people chant the holy book at Kolkata's iconic Brigade Parade Ground (popularly known as Maidan) – has been organised by the ‘Ek Lokho Konthe Geeta Path’ committee, comprising three 'apolitical' organisations, and many key organisers of the ‘Kumbh Mela’ in West Bengal’s Tribeni this year. The three organisations of the committee include Sanatan Sanskriti Sansad, Matilal Bharat Tirtha Seva Mission Ashram and Akhil Bharatiya Sanskrit Parishad.

"24 December is Christmas Eve. This is a special day for Christians. Doesn't the PM have any other issue for the 2024 polls?"
Joy Prakash Majumdar

In this article, we decode the significance of the event – and what does the BJP hope to gain from it in West Bengal.

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Is it a Religious or Political Event?

Denying that it is "a political event", vice-president of the organising committee of the programme, Srimant Nirgunanada Brahmachari, told PTI, "We invite all Sanatan Hindus to attend this spiritual awakening session irrespective of their political ideologies."

Overall, around 3,500 sadhus will be in attendance at the event. Apart from Shankaracharya Sadanand Saraswati of Dwarka and the prime minister, the list of invitees includes West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Governor CV Ananda Bose as well as the chief justice of the Calcutta High Court, MPs, MLAs, directors and vice-chancellors of educational institutions. However, Bengal BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari, on 20 December, said Modi will not be present at the event "due to unavoidable reasons".

Bengal BJP’s chief spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya, too, told PTI, that the mass recital is "neither a political event nor is the BJP organising it".

The organiser claimed to have selected Bangladeshi poet Nazrul’s song for the event to depict the West Bengal's inclusive culture.

"The programme will start with blowing the conch and a rendition of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s famous Bengali composition, 'Hey Partha Sarathi, bajao bajao Panchajanya shankh'. The BJP has nothing to do with the event. Many non-Hindus are also likely to attend the programme," Ek Lokho Konthe Geeta Path Committee president Kartik Maharaj told The Quint.

The organisers are also eyeing a Guinness World Record with this event. "We will distribute the Gita, and at least 4,000 volunteers will be helping us to conduct the programme smoothly," he added.

According to Adhikari, around 55,000 Bengali translations and 34,000 Hindi copies of the Bhagavad Gita have been sold in the last 10 days.

'Limits to Religious Polarisation in Bengal'

However, the political undertones of the event are evident – with the ruling TMC and the BJP engaging in a war of words ahead of the event, as well as in the run-up to next year's Lok Sabha elections.

Last week, Adhikari alleged that the TMC was trying to "disturb" the mass recital after a state teacher eligibility test, originally set for 10 December, was rescheduled to 24 December. "The question is about the need for transport for the one lakh people. This is to disturb the Gita recitation programme," he said in a press conference on 8 December.

He further added, "This government will also meet fate… like it happened in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, in the future, for practising politics of appeasement."

But experts, including Jadavpur University professor and political commentator Manojit Mandal, explained to The Quint why the BJP's form of Hindutva may not find takers in West Bengal.

Had the intention of the organisers been apolitical, "then they would not have tried to showboat a solemn ritual like Gita chanting – and that too on the eve of Christmas,” he opined.

"The form of Hindutva which may work in north India has a limited appeal in West Bengal. For example, banning meat sales in the open may draw cheers in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, but could prove politically disastrous in West Bengal where a large population's staple diet is fish and non-veg dishes."
Manojit Mandal, Jadavpur University professor and political commentator

He added that instead a soft Hindutva, dovetailed with a development agenda aimed at employment generation, may have a much wider appeal.

"Religious polarisation has its limitations in a state like Bengal due to two accounts. First is the sedimentary impact of the post-Independence politics, which has been dominated by the Left for decades, constricting the saffron party's space to maneuver. Second, the demography of the state gives a certain leg up to the anti-right wing political forces," he added.

"Unless the voting is completely polarised on religious lines, with 30 percent plus Muslims, TMC as the main repository of the minority votes needs to add just another 13 percent votes to its kitty to win in a first-past-the-post (where candidates with most votes in a constituency is declared elected) system. To achieve that target, the TMC needs to strike a fine balance in the political narrative to ensure that the BJP does not become the only receiver of Hindu votes," he said.

The History of the Tribeni Kumbh Mela and the Questions Around It

Another pertinent fact is that many of the key organisers of the event are those who were behind the controversial ‘Kumbh Mela’ in West Bengal’s Tribeni this year.

Earlier this year, PM Modi had praised the “revival” of Tribeni Kumbh Mela in Hooghly district “after 700 years” during his radio show 'Maan Ki Baat'.

“Friends, this month, ‘Tribeni Kumbho Mohotsav’ was organised in Bansberia of Hooghly district in West Bengal. More than 8 lakh devotees participated. But do you know why it is so special? It is special, since this practice has been revived after 700 years... unfortunately, this festival which used to take place in Tribeni, Bengal, was stopped 700 years ago. It should have been started after Independence, but that too could not happen,” PM Modi said on 26 February. 

In May, however, a retired Canadian anthropologist called the claims of "revival" to be based on "falsified research", further alleging that his research paper had been doctored by Hindutva supremacists.

Writing for The Telegraph, the said anthropologist, Alan Morinis, noted, “I say this with confidence since the source of this disinformation is a sentence in my doctoral dissertation at Oxford University that someone doctored and then circulated widely,” adding that the tampering of his thesis was intended to carry out a "communal campaign against Muslims".

Speaking of the Tribeni area, Modi had said, “Various historical documents suggest that this region was once a centre of Sanskrit, education and Indian culture. Many saints consider it a holy place for kumbh snan [holy bath] on Magh Sankranti [the last day of Bengali calendar month of Magh, in mid-January].” 

Pertinently, the venue of the ‘revived’ fair was barely a few hundred metres from 13th century Islamic structure – Zafar Khan Ghazi’s dargah. The 'Reclaim Temples' website (which in its own words seeks to reclaim the heritage of 'Bharat') listed the dargah as an Islamic structure that was allegedly built after destroying a temple. The website raises funds for so-called temples to be rebuilt at the same sites.  

As author and journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who has been following the Hindu right for over 30 years, told The Quint that the right-wing's effort to ‘revive’ Hindu festivals, whether they are fictitious or real, and near sites where Hindu temples were allegedly 'razed', is playing out in West Bengal now.

"There are stories of these 'revivals' from West Bengal and Kerala – and they perfectly fit the Babri Masjid–Ram Temple template."
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

The mosque and dargah, which are Archeological Survey of India (ASI)-protected sites, have stone carvings with Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain motifs. The ASI had noted that "in the construction of both the mosque and dargah profuse use of carved stone members of various religious affiliations are noticed.” 

"Finding stone carvings with Hindu motifs in a mosque does not necessarily prove the mosque was built after destroying a temple. In fact, using materials from existing rundown structures for building new structures was the norm then,” Mukhopadhyay added.

“The Hindu right-wing is following the same template and picking up stories that may or may not have occurred and then twisting it around to suit their narrative of Hindu victimhood. Earlier, they used to talk about Islamic invasions only in north and western India, but these developments show they have extended it to eastern and southern India as well.”
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

"The need for an alternative has made the saffron party join hands with a group of Hindu organisations to consider making the Bhagavad Gita a new fulcrum of the Hindutva project in the state," he concluded.

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