To the Shudras, Dalits and Tribals of West Bengal, Durga Puja is a yearly reminder of who is in power and who is not. Whether it was the East India Company, the British government or the Congress, the Communists or the Trinamool Congress, in the Pandals, the fair-skinned Durga has always been seen overpowering and killing the darker Mahishasur. The closer you are to the seat of power, that is Kolkata, the louder the euphoria over this mythologized “victory”.
Samudra Biswas grew up in Kolkata. The comfort of a regular salary appeared to be within his reach when he was picked to be an Indian Railways ticket examiner. Then he came to know of the plight of the so-called low-caste ticket examiners (TTEs). His friends and relatives told him that their sons and brothers had been working for months without being paid. He never reported for work. That was early 1990s. But he would soon find his calling while visiting rural Bengal during Durga Puja.
During this visit, he came across Tribals mourning the death of their king, Mahishasur, while people back in Kolkata celebrated Durga’s victory. Back in Kolkata, those in power had denied young men like him their salaries but that was the economic manifestation of something that lay deeper – cultural subjugation and vilification. He returned to the city, gathered a few likeminded people, and began organizing Mahishasur Day every year. Over the past two decades and more, only two years have gone by without Mahishasur Day being held and that too because the participants were too few and the opposition stronger. Now, he has written a book called Durga Puja Aantru (The inside story of Durga Puja) and edits the fortnightly Nirbheek Samvad and the literary fortnightly Janman. He regularly writes on issues related to Mahishasur.
Palash Biswas, a veteran journalist, claims Mahishasur Diwas is being held at about 700 different venues across the state. Chariyan Mahto, the organizer of the event in Purulia, says there are around 300 events taking place in the neighbouring areas alone.
Saradindu Biswas, a social worker, has been attending Mahishasur Day events since the early 1990s. According to him, the news about Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal University hosting Mahishasur Day events perked up the organizers. Now, the social worker says, “the occasion has forged a Dalitbahujan unity”.
This unity was evident in Salboni, West Medinipur, when about 2000 people attended the inauguration of the Mahishasur Day celebrations on October 8 morning. Two Trinamool Congress MLAs, including Srikanta Mahato, and professors from universities were present. Among the audience and participants were the Chandals, Kurmis, Santhals, Oraons and Mahalis. Tribal sports events were held till late afternoon. There were races, archery, and pot-breaking and sal-leaf-stitching competitions. The speeches and discussion followed and then the dances, including khanti, sadpa, and dasai, which went on through the night until early morning.
Earlier, on October 1 and 2, the Mahishasur Swaran Sabha Committee organized a Sarbojanin Dharmasabha in Bira, West Bengal. “We named it ‘Sarbojanin Dharmasabha’, because people still are not ready to accept the word ‘Asur’,” said Susenjit Vairagi, one the organizers. They had a banner with pictures of Phule, Ambedkar, Buddha and other heroes, which formed the backdrop of the stage. Intellectuals shared their thoughts, children took part in a drawing competition and a medical camp provided some much-needed healthcare. About 700 attended the programme. “We have a statue of Mahishasur that we had gotten made last year. Neither do we immerse the statue nor do we engage in idol worship. It’s merely symbolic,” Susenjit said.
As Mahishasur Day events draw large crowds and begin to create ripples in the media, it has angered some people. After all, it has turned an established narrative on its head. As an event was about to get underway in Habra, in North 24 Parganas, on 1 October a group of people appeared and disconnected the speakers and then they stepped on the stage and removed the microphone cords. The organizers cancelled the event.
On 8 October, Samudra Biswas attended Mahishasur Day event in Basirhat, North 24 Parganas. While some of the locals protested outside the venue, the event went on for about two hours. However, they wound up before dark fearing that the hostile atmosphere would give rise to violence. Another event planned at Sandeshkhali, North 24 Parganas could not be held because, as Samudra Biswas explains, “The locals took issue with the word ‘Asur’. We tried to tell them that the Asur aren’t bad people but they wouldn’t listen.” If only they had known the origins of the word “asur”. Rajendra Prasad Singh writes in his essay “Mahishasur: A linguistic view”, which is part of the newly published book Mahishasur: A People’s Hero:
The old, correct meaning of “Asur” is not demon. The Vedic Kosh says, “Asurati dadati iti asurah”, meaning one who gives “asu” (life) is “Asur” (life-giver). Famous Sanskrit lexicologist V.S. Apte has also translated the word “asu” as “pran” or “life”. Well-known Hindi lexicologist Ramchandra Verma concurs with this view. In both Hindi and Sanskrit, the word “Asur” has its origins in the word “Asu”. “Asur” is thus “asu + r”. Some people have the misconception that it is the combination “a + sur” and that it therefore means “a” (non-) + “sur” (god), ie non-god or demon… The word “sur” (god) was created out of ignorance. “Asur” is the original word. It is not derived from “sur”. In ancient times, the word “sur” did not exist. That is why the Vedas use the word “Asur” for Indra. Taking “Asur” to mean demon was a later development and was misleading. The word “asur” in “Mahishasur” doesn’t refer to demon but to life.
It is this life, a new life, that the Mahishasur Day organizers hope to infuse into the long-oppressed masses. Most of the events are held close to the local railway stations so that even the commuters and travellers have an opportunity to free themselves from this tyranny of a myth.
For more information on Mahishasur, see Mahishasur: A People’s Hero. The book is available both in English and Hindi. Contact The Marginalised, Delhi (Phone: 9968527911).