Supporters of the Ram Navami Udjapon Samiti take out a procession carrying weapons in Birbhum. (Dwijodas Ghosh)
April 5: Bengal today gaped at the unfamiliar sight of sword-brandishing, saffron-clad men, women and children marching down the streets to celebrate Ram Navami, prompting chief minister Mamata Banerjee to warn against the appropriation of religious festivals and symbols.
The RSS claimed "peaceful" participation of at least six lakh people in 200 processions - a display of might without saffron precedent in the state.
From processions with swords, spears and bows and arrows to bike rallies festooned with saffron flags, the shows of strength ruled the roads in numerous pockets of Birbhum, Burdwan, Nadia, East and West Midnapore, Darjeeling and Malda.
In Calcutta, the Sangh parivar outfits took out 22 rallies. Slogans of Jai Shri Ram and Har Har Mahadev rent the air as the processions wound their way through Bhowanipore, Dunlop, Garia, Kidderpore and New Town.
The RSS, which deployed pracharaks to power almost all rallies organised by outfits such as the Hindu Jagran Manch and the Ram Navami Udjapon Samiti, expressed "overwhelming happiness" at the "spontaneity" with which people stepped forward to celebrate the occasion.
"Despite stiff resistance from police and the authorities, the people made it happen. Over this Ram Navami, a popular awakening has taken place in Bengal," said Bidyut Mukherjee, RSS prant pracharak (regional in-charge) for south Bengal and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Asked why the awakening had not taken place till last year, Mukherjee attributed the change to growing "frustration" among sections of the people because of the Trinamul regime's alleged politics of appeasement.
Although the RSS denied it, sources in the BJP state committee said the show was also the logical fallout of the electoral sweep in Uttar Pradesh, which has revitalised efforts to widen the presence of the Sangh in Bengal ahead of the panchayat polls next year.
Mamata did take note.
The chief minister, who began her day by extending Ram Navami greetings on social media, started her address at a public meeting in Bankura with best wishes for the occasion but went on to attack the BJP for trying to take ownership of the occasion.
"India is a land of 33 crore gods. Someone worships Ram, someone else worships Rahim. Basanti Puja was always celebrated in Bengal. The BJP must not try to appropriate festivals," she said.
Mamata said Bengal had been for centuries celebrating festivals of all religions with equal enthusiasm and spoke about the 40-year-old Kali Puja at her home. "Ram Navami is not your exclusive possession. For thousands of years, countless religious organisations have been conducting Ram Navami rallies," she said.
Today, in several places such as Birbhum, Burdwan and Nadia, the local Trinamul leadership conducted Hanuman puja.
At the Bankura meeting, Mamata said the festival had "no connection" with the BJP and it had no right to plant flags with the "Om" symbol.
"Om belongs to everybody. Is Om your zamindari? Is it your party's symbol? Who has given you the right to insult Om? Go to the Election Commission and apply for the symbol then.... This is unforgivable, using God's name in party rallies," she said.
The Trinamul chief accused the BJP of promoting divisive politics in Bengal.
"They want to divide the Hindus and the Muslims, the Sikhs and the Christians.... One day if the Banerjees say that they will have no relations with the Chatterjees.... If tribals say 'we will not live with Hindus'.... What will happen? The country will be shattered to pieces," she said.
"Comrades (the CPM) by day are BJP activists by night nowadays. Everyone is hand in glove," she added.
CPM leader Surjya Kanta Mishra posted two photographs of children carrying weapons in the processions, and tweeted: "Mothers and daughters never carried arms in Bengal publicly in the name of religious processions. No religion must promote it. Impermissible."
Dilip Ghosh, current BJP state president and a former pracharak who was seen among those holding swords in Kharagpur today, said: "In two days, we have heard their supreme leader take the name of Lord Ram more than we have in six years. It is a sign."
HOW BENGAL USED TO CELEBRATE
Falling on the ninth day of the bright (waxing) half of the lunar month of Chaitra (March-April), Ram Navami is celebrated as the birthday of Ram, the seventh avatar of Vishnu. This festival also ends the spring Navaratri festival of Goddess Durga.
The oldest extant celebration of Ram Navami in Bengal is possibly the Ramraja mela in Ramrajatala, 7km from Howrah station. It lasts four months from Ram Navami in Chaitra till the last Sunday of Sravana (July-August.
According to the book Paschimbanger Puja-Parbon O Mela, which quotes a 1961 article in the Anandabazar Patrika newspaper, the biggest attraction of the fair was a 23-foot idol of Ram and Sita, lording over 24 other figures from the Ramayan. The fair is supposed to have started two centuries earlier at the initiative of the local zamindar, Ayodhyaram Chowdhury. The fair was known for religio-cultural forms of entertainment like theatre, jatra and kirtan on weekends.
Since the Santragachhi area was earlier known for a grand Saraswati puja celebration, which this festival brought to a stop, the article describes how, as a placatory move, it was decided that the Ramraja iconography would include Saraswati and the making of the idol would start on the day of Saraswati Puja.
Shriram Tiwary, the librarian of Calcutta’s only Ram Temple on Central Avenue for 46 years now, said on Wednesday:
“Traditionally Ram Navami is known for the reading of Ramcharitmanas over nine days, starting on the first day of shukla Chaitra (the bright half of the lunar month) and ending on this day. There will be a purnaahuti or havan on Thursday at the temple.
“While we had 11 scholars reading at the temple, devotees did the same or read Durgasaptasati at home for these nine days. The poor are fed. This year, about 150 people came for the meal at the temple. In some places, fairs are held and bhajan-kirtan sung. Processions are taken out, like we do every year, with the idol of Ram Lalla (infant Ram) in a chariot fanned with a chamor (yak tail whisk), singing of bhajans and laddu prasad being distributed among devotees along the way.
“This is the first time in Calcutta I am seeing a procession with people in red and gerua (saffron), wielding swords, shouting and on motorbikes. The feeling of bhakti was missing.... It was so different.... It was not something we are used to.”