It is not the first time that the West Bengal Chief Minister lost her cool at being greeted with chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. On May 5, 2019, she had expressed her anger at a group of people who had shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ while her convoy was passing through West Midnapore district’s Chandrakona area.
A video clip circulated on social media showed Didi stepping out of her vehicle to confront them. “Palachhis keno? Ay ay. Haridas sob. Galagali sikheche. (Come here, why are you running away? Who do you think you are, using slang,” the TMC supremo is heard saying in the video by ANI.
Last Saturday, she again expressed her displeasure at the same chant at the Victoria Memorial event in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying, “I think the government’s programme should have dignity. This is not a political programme. It doesn’t suit you to insult someone after inviting them. As a protest, I won’t speak anything,” she was quoted as saying.
On the face of it, as most analysts on several TV channels in Kolkata said, the chant was not relevant, given the content and intent of the programme. However, it is also being said that Mamata could have ignored the slogans and as an astute politician, she could have countered the sloganeers with a ‘Netaji Zindabad’ slogan. By venting her ire, all she did was to create a buzz among the gossipmongers.
To see how the issue actually “erupted”, one needs to go back a few years. In Bengal, since 2016, the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan has crossed religious boundaries and is now a political one. This was the year the BJP and its associates organised Ramnavami celebrations in Bengal. Didi was quick to order the state administration to obstruct the celebrations, especially the processions, which are an integral part of Ramnavami rituals.
Acting at the behest of the CM, the administration denied permission to the religious celebrations at several places. Strict restrictions were also clamped on these rallies, by reducing the scale and duration of the events. This sparked allegations that Didi was restricting, or even banning (at some places), Ramnavami celebrations to appease “that 30 per cent vote bank”.
Ever since, ‘Jai Shri Ram’ became a cry of defiance, as many started believing that the state was bowing to appease “that 30 per cent vote bank”, especially on the instructions from the supremo in Nabanna.
In 2017, the Calcutta High Court criticised the TMC government for not allowing immersion of idols after Durga Puja, on the same day as the Muslim festival of Muharram. The BJP termed the incident as an attempt at appeasement. The BJP and Trinamool Congress have locked horns on the issue of allowing ‘armed’ rallies to mark Ramnavami. In 2018, major communal clashes broke out in Raniganj over Ramnavami celebrations. The TMC government also reportedly tried to impose other restrictions, like not allowing participants in (Ramnavami) processions to carry ‘weapons’ (tridents).
On the flip side, seeing the BJP gaining ground through these Ramnavami celebrations, the TMC also organised similar rallies, with ministers and senior partymen participating! But by then, the die had been cast and “they” started believing that the TMC supremo’s narrative had been cast, too: Mamata apparently tries to prevent Hindu religious celebrations in order to appease “that 30 per cent vote bank”.
According to Didi, the BJP was using Ramnavami to bolster its hold on West Bengal, hence her reported ‘abomination’ of Jai Shri Ram slogans. While it might be true that the saffron party is using Ram for political gains, Mamata’s reaction to counter this perception didn’t go down quite well. What made matters worse and messy is that it is an attempt to say that Ram is alien to Bengal and all his devotees are ‘outsiders’.
More appeasement? The traditional name for rainbow in Bengali is ‘Ramdhenu’, which also means Ram's bow. In an attempt to ‘secularise’ the word, the West Bengal Council for Higher Education had replaced the word with ‘Rongdhenu’ or bow of colours.
While Bangladesh had long replaced the word ‘Ramdhenu’ with ‘Rongdhenu’, the toeing of the line by West Bengal had created a huge ruckus in academia and on social media circles, with some calling it ‘language terror’ and others saying it was in line with the alleged appeasement policies of Mamata.
Also, language honchos were of the opinion the new word has no mention in the Bengali dictionary or grammar. In the Class VII book on Environment and Science, in one of the chapters, there is reference to one of the colours of the rainbow as ‘Aasmani’, the Urdu word for sky blue that is widely used in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, instead of ‘Akaashi’ that is used in West Bengal. Social media at once went berserk over the alleged appeasement stand.
It may be recalled that after Pakistan was formed, under the orders of that government, a committee headed by Md Sahidullah gave several suggestions to change ‘Hindu-influenced’ words in the Bengali of East Pakistan (currently Bangladesh) with Islamised words.
Tradition of Ram worship
To get back to the Ram imbroglio, the latest version doing the rounds is that Ram is an “outsider” and doesn’t belong to Bengal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before the Gaurio Vaishnavism of Sri Chaitanya (1486–1533) it was the Ramayat form of Vaishnavism that prevailed in Bengal. The family of the biographer of Sri Chaitanya, Jayanand, worshipped Ram as their ‘kul devta’ (family deity).
In 1112 CE (common era), Shovanath Chandra in Sribati set up a Raghunath Jeur temple (they built three terracotta temples). They were a family of Gujarati traders, and their puja still continues. Two more names crop up from West India - Ramanand Tewari and Madhav Rao - who settled in Bengal and started Ramchandra puja. Innumerable Bengali names come up too, including the families of Sri Ramakrishnadev, Mahakavi Chandidas, among others. So terming Ram as an outsider in West Bengal is not only a gross historical distortion, it’s a blatant lie with clear political motives.
So, what actually happened in Bengal? Ramayat Vaishnavism got mixed with Gaurio Vaishnavism, and the latter took control. Lord Krishna took precedence over Ram, because of the immense popularity of Sri Chaitanya and Gopal was preferred over Sitanath, but the latter never entirely disappeared. Visit Gohogram village in east Bardhaman, to understand how Ram is still a living tradition in West Bengal. On Ramnavami, the entire village is coloured with gulal. This village has the Bhattacharya family who are Rama-sevayats, and they have a black stone murti of Rama with a statue of Sita in ashtadhatu. Ram and Sita are worshipped thrice a day, and Ramnavami is a huge festival.
Bengal is the confluence of all faiths and religions. It is time, Ram is given his rightful due, at least in the correct perspective.
The writer is Senior Associate Editor, Free Press, Indore.