Can clashes over religious events be prevented?

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By Sandeep Sahu

The clashes involving a turf battle over territory in Cuttack on Wednesday that left three people injured have brought the spotlight back on religious ceremonies as a perennial source of conflict in our society. Just last week, we had three different cities/towns in three different parts of the state – Rourkela, Soro and Pattamundai – under prohibitory orders for prolonged periods after clashes over the immersion of Ganesh/Viswakarma idols. These clashes are not always between two religious communities, but also between groups of people belonging to the same community but different localities – as was the clash between Nuapada and Darakhapatna in the Millennium City today.

Of course, the biggest source of concern for the authorities is a clash involving members of two religious communities – as happened in Rourkela. A procession of a Hindu god passing through an area inhabited by members of the minority community or a Tazia procession passing through a predominantly Hindu area is the ultimate security nightmare.

But as the Cuttack incident on Wednesday shows, Sahi Pujas (community puja pandals) are not a lesser danger. They no doubt foster camaraderie and fellow feeling among residents of an area. (That was perhaps the idea they were conceived in the first place for). But they also spawn enmity between sahis (localities) inevitably leading to clashes that frequently turn violent. The one-up-manship (“My pandal is better than yours”) accentuates existing fault lines between sahis and often ends up in clashes. ‘Encroachment’ into each other’s territory is another cause of friction, as was the case in the Nuapada-Darakhapatna clash on Wednesday. The way sahi elders talked about ‘our area’ and ‘their area’ would have been laughable had it not been such a serious matter.

If clashes can break out when the Durga Puja is still a good two weeks away, it’s only natural that the danger increases manifold during the Puja and its aftermath. A puja procession of one sahi winding its way through another sahi is a virtual ticking bomb. All it needs to get ignited is a mere slogan or a comment by some mischievous, hot-headed youth, who may belong to either side. Even the loud music and frenzied dancing by the processionists often is enough provocation for the other side to go berserk. The consumption of alcohol, which has become such an integral part of religious procession these days, ensures that the participants are on a short fuse all the way, ready to pounce on anyone who dares to come in their way.

So, what real options does the administration have to ensure that such situation does not arise at all? None, to be honest.

Banning religious processions of any kind is out of question because it ‘would hurt the religious sentiments’ of people. Limiting the number of puja pandals is not an option either because it would be quickly dubbed trampling on the religious freedom and ‘sahi pride’ of the people. Given that local politicians are invariably patrons of such events, they would be the first to oppose any such move. Imposing restrictions on the consumption of alcohol, often the major reason for clashes, is not a viable option either because the drunk crowd could turn its ire on the cops, making things more unmanageable than they already are. Use of force too could boomerang because it could create more problems than it solves.

In the circumstances, just about the only sensible course open to the law and order machinery is to keep a strict vigil on the activities of habitual mischief-mongers – before, during and after religious events – and banking on the good sense of sahi elders and in their ability to rein in potential trouble-makers.

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