Puja, Politics and the Pandemic: Bengal's Three-Way Tug O' War

By: Sashwata Saha
14 Oct 2020 11:43:56 AM Journalist, Newshound India Desk

West Bengal is slated to go for the assembly polls in May next year. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise as the ruling Trinamool Congress’s principal opposition, the people of the state are expecting that this election will be fought along communal lines. The BJP’s only chance of toppling the liberal favourite Mamata Banerjee government is by polarising the public along religious fault lines and drawing Hindu votes in its favour.


Since the beginning of the lockdown, the state has seen over 16 murders of grassroots level politicians across some of the most polarised districts including the Bardhamans, the Midnapores and the 24 Parganas. The communal fissures have been drawn along the lines of not the Hindu vs Muslim narrative but also on tribal identities and, as of today, the Gorkhaland issue.


In these circumstances, the Chief Minister will be unlikely to go tough on the state’s – if not the country’s – biggest Hindu festival, even if from a public health perspective it is in her best interests to do so. A majority of her critique against her is that she is being pro-minority, so at the slightest opportunity, these critics are likely to pounce on her if she curbs Durga Puja in any way. As Banerjee said during her September 24 press conference at Nandan, “Vultures are sitting out there to blame us if we don’t allow the puja or if there is a spike in cases afterwards.”


But the critics are not wrong either, time and again Didi has proven that populism has been the very lifeblood of her politics. From her 2010 Chief Ministerial campaign when she promised to free all lower-caste and tribal political prisoners should she become CM to her party’s 2019 manifesto against the BJP’s rampant Islamophobic campaign, Banerjee has maintained a balance between backing the underdog while stoking populist sentiments at the same time. Thus, taken together, West Bengal seems poised to drop further on the rank-list of Indian states’ COVID-19 situation.


Newshound India Foundation spoke to three healthcare professionals to find out what sort of risks a street festival of this size entails at the present moment for the state, and how we can address some problems at the grassroots level. They are Dr. Kunal Sarkar, a cardiologist and senior vice-chairman, Medica Hospitals; Dr. Shreya Chatterjee, a former scientist at ICMR and a fellow at the Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School in London; and Dr. Satyajit Roy, a senior lung specialist at the Sanaka COVID Specialty Hospital, Durgapur. All three said public health should come before political opportunism.


Dr. Sarkar also said the six days of the puja could be the most crucial in the state’s history. “Durga Puja is potentially catastrophic because its hallmark is the crowd. And at this moment, a large crowd inside confined spaces in a humid atmosphere shouting at the top of its voice is a recipe for absolute disaster,” he elaborated. Considering that the virus is airborne, Dr. Sarkar warned that this Puja might turn out to be “the super spreader event in eastern India.”


Durgapur’s Dr. Roy agreed with Dr. Sarkar’s concerns. “Just take a look at Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala. All four of these states celebrated major festivals in the middle of the pandemic and shortly after the festivals, the number of coronavirus cases and deaths increased multifold.”


According to a survey conducted by the State Bank of India, following the two-week-long Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, Maharashtra saw a 46.7% increase in cases and 9,589 deaths. Similarly, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which also celebrated the same festival, albeit for a shorter while, saw a 67.6% and a 49.8% increase in cases and 2,620 and 308 deaths, respectively. Meanwhile, after celebrating Onam, Kerala, which was leading the country in its battle against COVID-19, witnessed a 64.7% spike in cases and 497 deaths.


“Considering that Kerala and West Bengal are almost equal when it comes to population density,” said Dr. Sinha, “and the fact that we already have more COVID patients than Kerala, I shudder to think how the numbers will multiply post-Puja.”


Amid the increasing number of coronavirus cases, the people of Bengal are demanding that the number of COVID-19 beds in hospitals across the state be increased. Multiple letters to the editors of prominent Bengali dailies and reports say so. However, according to Charing Cross’s Dr. Chatterjee, it would be a “foolish move”.


“The state does not have enough medical professionals,” she said. “Even if the administration increases the number of beds, who will manage these beds?” Dr. Chatterjee feared that an increased number of beds could amount to “professional negligence” which could, in turn, reflect poorly on the administration. “It is not that I am underestimating our doctors and nurses, it is just that it would be logistically impossible for these already overworked to care for so many people.”


The West Bengal government has put up measures to ensure that the virus spread is low such as cancelling all kinds of social functions and events during the Puja week. All the traditional melas have been banned. The problem is that the Puja is also the chief source of income for lakhs of people and pulling such restrictions will not be remotely as smooth as it looks on paper.


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