Debate: Saraswati Pujas should continue to be organized in schools across Bengal

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For the Motion: Mosarrap H Khan

First, the call for a stop to Saraswati Puja celebrations in schools (especially the public-funded ones) comes from a new-found religious assertion among Muslims, which was dormant during the thirty-four years of the Left regime but is now in ascendance with Mamata Banerjee’s rule. I am alarmed with the new assertion because it delinks religion from culture. I see Saraswati Puja as part of larger Bengali cultural identity (albeit, no doubt, undergirded by the Hindu majority identity). As Olivier Roy argues in the case of France, the new forms of fundamentalism and extremism among Muslims (and also among born-again Christians) are a result of de-culturalizing religion, which makes religion a transnational, ahistorical phenomenon. In India, too, such occurrences are common with the emergence of a new breed of Muslim tele-evangelists and internet preachers, who have been consistently trying to delink Islam from particular cultural moorings, for example, Islam in Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra, each one of which bears distinct cultural marks. In Bengal, Saraswati Puja is part of that cultural mooring for me, even if one doesn’t offer pushpanjali (actual worshipping of the goddess).

Second, I’m aware that culture can operate as hegemony and build barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Mathew Arnold does it in Culture and Anarchy: culture is something that comprises of the best knowledge and thought. Anything that falls outside this is philistine and must be brought under the purview of culture. However, when I say Saraswati Puja is part of Bengali culture, I want to take a view of culture which Edward Said posits: that is affiliative, instead of filiative. We are born into families, tribes, extended network of caste, etc. That’s a filiative bond, something related to filial feelings. An affiliative bond can occur between people who are not necessarily bound by filial bond, for example, people of different castes, languages, etc. Similarly, my idea of Bengali culture is affiliative, across divisions of religion (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc). If we can identify ourselves affiliatively as Bengalis, then I don’t see why we can’t take part in Saraswati Puja as Bengalis (the way we do in the case of Durga Puja) or Pujas to be organized in schools. An affiliative identification is an attempt to make our horizons of belonging larger, more expansive.

Third, I want to take a more pragmatic look at this debate about Saraswati Puja celebrations in schools. In the last decade and a half, Bengali Muslims in West Bengal have made remarkable progress in the field of education. There is an emerging middle-class of professionals, intellectuals, despite the overall poor indicators of Muslim progress in the state. I don’t want us to fritter away this development over issues of Saraswati Puja celebrations. This will be a wrong battle to pick for Muslims in Bengal at this time. This is the time to consolidate our strength, to forge ahead, to harness our talents. Saraswati Puja celebrations can continue in schools.

Fourth, this one is a personal reason. I have grown up attending Saraswati Puja in my local school and later in my Hindu missionary school. I even used to offer pushpanjali, which my sisters too did when they attended school. The other day, I asked my mother, what she thought about it. She said, she didn’t see any problem in that. She is a practicing Muslim. The point I’m making is Muslims are diverse in their life-experiences and sensibilities. We shouldn’t turn Saraswati Puja into another essentialist battle of religions.

[Anyone wishing to write against the motion, do send an email to infocafedissensus@gmail.com. A 500-600 word write-up would suffice.]

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