On Feb. 24, India’s education minister Smriti Irani mounted a spirited defence of her government’s recent actions at the Hyderabad Central University and New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
In an attempt to justify the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s heavy-handed response to protests at JNU, a strident Irani listed out a number of “anti-national” statements that were made by students earlier this year and in the past.
About 30 minutes into her speech in the Lok Sabha, Irani also made mention of “Mahishasura Martyrdom Day” from a pamphlet issued on Oct. 04, 2014, which was purportedly observed by scheduled tribe, scheduled caste, other backward caste and minority students of JNU.
“And may my god forgive me for reading this,” the education minister said, before reading out from the pamphlet.
“Durga Puja”—a major celebration in eastern India— “is the most controversial racial festival, where a fair skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasura,” Irani read out.
“Mahishasura, a brave self-respecting leader, tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durga, who enticed Mahishasura into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning, during sleep.”
“Freedom of speech, ladies and gentlemen,” Irani declared after reading out the pamphlet, “Who wants to have this discussion in the streets of Kolkata? I want to know.”
“What is this depraved mentality?” she asked. “I have no answers for it.”
Without doubt, the version of Durga Puja that so disturbed Irani is not the mainstream narrative of the festival, which typically marks the goddess’s return to her ancestral home. It is also a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, depicted by Durga’s slaying of the dark-skinned, buffalo-riding demon, Mahishasura.
But this isn’t the only version.
The “depraved mentality” that Irani so vociferously railed against in parliament actually has a place in the traditions of eastern India’s Asur tribe, for whom the festival has a very different connotation.
The tribe of over 10,000 members (pdf) is classified as a “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group” by the Indian government, and their language—spoken by some 7,000 individuals—is described by UNESCO as “definitely endangered.”
The Asurs, who claim ancestry from Mahishasura himself, have a very different story:
The Asurs believe that the Devi Mahatmya story of the Markandeya Purana, which describes the birth of Durga and her nine-day long battle with Mahishasura, is biased. According to the Asurs, the birth of Durga from the conjoined powers of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was a “crooked conspiracy” hatched because their king Mahishasura was blessed with a boon by Brahma that no man or god could kill him.
“The devas are the invaders who came to earth and killed our ancestors. We don’t like to see the Durga Puja. We have a separate puja ceremony remembering and mourning our forefathers on Mahalaya, Sashthi, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Dashami [the six days of Durga Puja],” a member of the tribe from northern West Bengal explained in an interview in 2011.
Hence, the more traditionally-inclined members of Asurs sometimes even choose to completely isolate themselves and mourn Mahishasura’s death during the period of the Durga Puja.
Although the practice is slowly fading away, a group of activists have tried to keep the subaltern version alive by mourning the slaying of Mahishasura.
The first Mahishasur Diwas, according to the Indian Express newspaper, was held at JNU sometime in 2011. In subsequent years, the celebrations have reportedly been held across the tribal belts in 15 districts of five Indian states. The stories told by these activists closely mirror the one read out by Irani in parliament, although the former don’t depict Durga as a “sex worker.”
Also, India’s cleanest city under the prime minister’s Swachh Bharat initiative, Mysuru, is named after Mahishasura. It is actually Mahishasurana Ooru (Mahishasura’s Country). The temple of the city’s guardian deity—Chamundi—has a giant statue of Mahishasura.
Perhaps not discussed frequently on the streets of Kolkata and not in the form presented at JNU, the version of Durga’s story that unsettled India’s education minister is indeed told in the country’s hinterlands. So, does that make these ancient tribes depraved and anti-national?