Durga Puja in West Bengal this time is about to turn into a political battle field. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has fired the first shot, attacking the BJP as anti-Hindu because the Centre's Income Tax department is trying to get the Durga Pujas into the tax net. She also says the BJP wants to turn Durga Puja into a mass contact programme and invite top leaders to the pandals to set the ball rolling.
Several Durga Puja organisers were summoned for a meeting by the Income Tax Department on July 16.
On Monday, when Ms Banerjee heard about it, she accused the BJP of doing politics with the Durga Pujas.
"Before elections, they talk about Hindu and Muslims or Sikhs, Christians, they talk of castes and even cross border divisions. After polls, they call puja panels for income tax," she said.
"This is an insult to the Pujas. What about the money spent by political parties on elections? Many parties have tax relief. Why shouldn't Pujas have income tax relief? What is the income of Puja committees? They take donations from people. They take ads and sponsors from companies who have paid GST," she added.
Bengal has around 28,000 Durga Pujas across the state each year. 2,200 of those are in Kolkata. Of that, 386 have formed an organisation called 'Forum for Durgotsav'.
Those who know say of the 2,200 in Kolkata, at best 25 pujas committees have budgets of around Rs 50 lakh. The rest spend just about Rs 15 lakh.
Those who met the IT officials said some of the top budget pujas do pay some tax, but insisting that all pujas should cough up would be impossible to comply with.
Saswata Bose, Secretary of the 'Forum For Durgotsav' admitted going to the Income Tax office is daunting for most people.
"We were told to cut TDS for payments of over Rs 30,000 to vendors, we were told to file returns. All this is a round the year task. We have to hire someone for it. Small puja committees cannot afford it," he said.
"Why is it that Income Tax is summoning us for the last 3-4 months?" Mr Bose wondered. "What happens to Ganesh Puja in Mumbai or Pongal down south? Are they also taxed? Why tax us? We don't do Durga Puja for profit," he said.
The BJP is reading politics into it all. Mamata Banerjee is protesting to protect party leaders, many of whom host the richest Durga Pujas in town, says BJP Bengal vice president Jaiprakash Majumdar.
Top ministers in Mamata Banerjee's government hold some of Kolkata's biggest Durga Puja budgets. Top of the list, minister Arup Biswas whose club Suruchi Sangha holds a mega puja in New Alipore, Sujit Bose hosts Sreebhoomi, Partha Chatterjee, Naktala and Subrata Mukherjee Ekdalia Evergreen.
The BJP is also eyeing a piece of the action. Party big wigs are being invited to join Bengal's biggest festival.
Jaiprakash Majumdar said, "Why Amit Shah or JP Nadda? Even the PM may come if time permits. It is Bengal's biggest festival. We want to be a part of it and not for political gain, like Mamata Banerjee." And no, he said, he was not kite flying.
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