What does it mean to celebrate Durga Puja in Rome? It means to be humiliated, harassed and hounded by city officials who happen to be pious Christians. Alright, I could be utterly wrong in presuming they are pious since I have no independent confirmation of their piety or otherwise. But let's get back to the question with which I began. Late Thursday night I was at the park near my house where the local Bengalis organise Durga Puja every year. It's a raucous celebration of faith and culture. The food stalls are invariably hugely popular and there I was with my nine-year-old daughter, standing in a queue for kathi rolls. After what seemed like an interminable wait, it was our turn to be served. Just then my BlackBerry beeped. Balancing the piping hot rolls, dripping oil, tomato ketchup, green chilli sauce and lemon juice, in one hand, I tried to read the e-mail on my handset.
No luck. I got shoved around, nearly dropped both rolls and my phone, and decided to let the e-mail wait. Later, away from the crowd, I checked the e-mail and it was a fascinating story. Since the identity of the person who had sent the mail is not really relevant, let me reproduce the text: "The Municipal Police authorities of Rome have today withdrawn permission, granted three weeks ago, to celebrate Durga Puja in Rome. The cancellation came a few hours before the Ambassador of India was scheduled to inaugurate the Puja at 8 pm local time. No acceptable explanation has been given. This has caused the local Indian community the loss of thousands of Euros spent in preparatory arrangements. The same thing was done in the same manner in 2008 also. Please monitor developments."
Now that's awful, I told myself, here I am having kathi rolls and there they can't even celebrate their own festival. On Friday, I called a friend in Rome who provided me with the latest details. Our Ambassador, Mr Arif Shahid Khan, a feisty man who has in the past taken up the issue of Sikhs being forced to take off their turbans at Italian airports, campaigned throughout the day, calling up officials, including the Mayor of Rome, and contacting members of the 'Friends of India' group in the Italian Parliament, arguing with them why permission for the Puja should be restored. By evening, the authorities had reversed their order and permission was granted to celebrate Durga Puja, which will now begin on Saturday, Ashtami — a full 48 hours behind schedule. Provided, of course, there is no last minute cancellation, as it happened on Thursday. Mr Khan will inaugurate the Puja, an honour he richly deserves.
The story behind the cancellation needs to be told, if only to point out that Christian countries in the West, whose Governments so blithely criticise the 'lack' of 'religious freedom' in India, have no compunctions about trampling on Hindu sentiments at home. After last year's experience, when permission for celebrating Durga Puja in Rome was abruptly withdrawn by officials who cited specious reasons to justify their grossly unfair decision, the organisers, led by Mr Rajesh Sahani, a Sindhi from Kolkata who speaks flawless Bengali, took ample precautions this year. They were given permission to organise the Puja at Parko Centocelle, a public park on Via Cailina, Torpignattara. Three weeks ago, permission was granted for the Puja at the park and necessary formalities were completed.
Early this past week, the Puja organisers were told they could not use the park as a crime had been committed there and the location posed security-related problems. The organisers agreed to change the venue. Another park was selected, permission was given to celebrate Durga Puja there, and the preparations began all over again in right earnest. Then, like a bolt from the blue, at 4 pm on Thursday came the withdrawal of permission by the Municipal Police. The organisers were bluntly told to pack up and leave hours before Durga Puja was scheduled to begin with Akal Bodhon in the evening. Why? No reason was proffered.
Some officials are believed to have told the organisers that the cancellation of permission at the eleventh hour, both last year and this year, was meant to be "retaliatory action against the persecution of Christians in India". It may be recalled that the President of Italy, Mr Giorgio Napoletano, has been vociferous in demanding that Europe should do more in support of Christians in India and to help them 'affirm their right to religious freedom'. The Government of Italy has in the past summoned the Ambassador of India to convey to him that it has "deep concern and sensitivity for the ongoing inter-religious violence... that has caused the death of many Christians." The Pope has been no less harsh in denouncing India.
There could be another reason, apart from its "deep concern" about the welfare of Christians in India, for Italy's callous disregard of the sentiments of Hindus in that country. Although the Italian Constitution guarantees religious freedom, under the Lateran Treaty with the Vatican, Italy recognises only the three religions of Semitic origin — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All other religions are no more than paganism and are to be shamed and shunned. The Vatican would not countenance any open breach of the Lateran Treaty; Italy would not want to be seen as recognising Hinduism.
"It's only natural that Italy should have a surfeit of churches. But it's the rejection of any other faith than Christianity, Judaism and Islam that explains why there are so many mosques but virtually no temples in Italy although this country has a large Hindu expatriate population," my friend told me while regretting the attitude of the Government and the local authorities. According to him, there are only three temples in Italy: One in a garage in Venice; another at Frescolo and the third at Reggio Emilia. These survive at the mercy of local zoning officials.
But for Mr Arif Shahid Khan's pro-active involvement — most Ambassadors tend to stay aloof from community affairs — this year too there would have been no Durga Puja in Rome. Indians in Italy owe him a debt of gratitude. So do Bangladeshis who are equal participants in this annual celebration of dharma's victory over adharma, of the triumph of good over evil. Cultural and linguistic affinities unite Bengalis, irrespective of whether they are from the west or east of Padma, during this autumnal festival celebrated around the world.
Meanwhile, let's not get carried away by the West's bilious and bogus criticism of religious freedom in India and indulge in self-flagellation. Let the West look at its own ugly, septic warts. If Christians can celebrate Christmas in New Delhi, Hindus have the right to celebrate Durga Puja in Rome. This is non-negotiable.
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