KOLKATA (VSK): The Left Government in West Bengal has imposed an all-time high tax on voluntary social organisations (VSOs) this year for using its land at the Gangasagar Mela ground for distributing food, offering free shelter and medicine to several lakhs of Hindu pilgrims who assembled on the auspicious Makar Sankranti day to take a holy dip at the confluence of the river Ganga and the Bay of Bengal. The State Government has also sharply increased fares of buses and motor launches taking pilgrims from Kolkata to Sagar Island. The enhanced tax and increased fares on Hindu pilgrims are similar to the hated jizya (pilgrimage tax on Hindus) reintroduced by Aurangzeb to draw a communal divide between the Hindus and the Muslims.
In protest against the anti-Hindu religion taxation policy of the CPI(M)-led government, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and several other voluntary social organisations have jointly opposed the State Government’sdecision as it encroached upon religious freedom of the people. The public outcry followed by the voluntary social organisations? threat to boycott the Gangasagar Mela this year forced the State Government to reduce its high rental charges levied on VSOs for the construction of temporary shelters and gruel kitchens for Hindu pilgrims at Babughat on the bank of the Ganga in Kolkata as well as at the Sagar Island. Earlier, the State Government in a circular demanded Rs. 8 per sq. ft. of land used by the VSOs against Rs. 4 last year. Now the State Government compromised and reduced the rental charges from Rs. 8 to Rs. 6 per sq.ft. However, enhanced bus and launch fares remained unchanged. Gangasagar pilgrims had to pay double fare for single journey from Kolkata to Sagar this year. The Government’scontention is that fares for buses are doubled as the vehicles return empty after leaving the pilgrims at Namkhana, the gateway to Sagar.
South Bengal general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Ajay Nandi, in a statement said that while voluntary social orgnaisations accepted reluctantly the reduced rental charge of Rs 6 per sq ft for using Government land, they would never accept the enhanced fares imposed on Sagar pilgrims for travelling to Gangasagar. The VHP’sSouth Bengal general Secretary said that his organisation would organise strong protest agitations against the State Government’sunilateral decision to collect high travelling fares from Sagar pilgrims. “This is a clear case of religious discrimination. Pilgrims to Muslim shrine at Phurphura Sharif in Hooghly district and other places in West Bengal have never been subjected to any religious tax so far. Why have only the Hindu pilgrims visiting Sagar Tirtha to pay high pilgrimage tax to the Government every year?” Nandi asked.
Several lakhs of Hindu pilgrims come from different parts of the country and overseas to take a holy dip in Gangasagar on Makar Sankranti every year. They are taken care of by voluntary orgnaisations that arrange their stay, food and medical services free of charge. The Government of West Bengal allots land to the voluntary organisations to set up their camps for extending free social services to the pilgrims. Before the communists took over the reins of the Government in West Bengal, the land at Gangasagar was allotted to voluntary organisations free of cost. After assuming power in the State in 1977, the Left Front Government first imposed a nominal charge of 25 paisa per sq ft of land occupied temporarily by voluntary social organisations. Last year, the Government had unilaterally hiked the charge to Rs 4 per sq.ft.
This year, the State Government has hiked the charge from Rs 4 to Rs 6. Moreover, all voluntary orgnaisations were asked to pay enhanced rates for the supply of drinking water to pilgrims by them. In fact, shelter, food and drinking water provided by voluntary orgaisations at the Gangasagar Mela are the responsibility of the State Government. This was acknowledged by the former district magistrate of South 24 Parganas, Alapan Bandopadhyaya, who was the in-charge of organising the Mela till 2003. Profusely thanking voluntary organisations for extending free services to over 3 lakh pilgrims assembled at the Gangasagar last year, he said, “It would have been simply impossible for the Government administration to manage the whole show without the help from voluntary organisations. We could pay microscopic attention to the pilgrims? need only because these voluntary organisations gave us such phenomenal support.”
The seventy-odd registered voluntary social organisations that set up makeshift offices on the Gangasagar beach includes wellknown names like the Bharat Sevashram Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Ramakrishna Mission, Gouriya Math, Marwari Relief Society, Kashi Vishwanath Seva Samiti, and Anandamoyee Seva Samiti.
Volunteers of the VHP and Bharat Sevashram Sangh (BSS) not only feed several lakhs of pilgrims daily, they also look after the safety of the pilgrims taking a holy dip. The VHP and the BSS volunteers stand guard in waist deep ice-cold water early in the morning for hours together along the beach to save the lives of pilgrims from drowning till the religious bathing is over at Gangasagar.
In exchange of their great services, the Communist Government has slapped high tax on voluntary social organisations for helping Hindu pilgrims. Is it not an encroachment on the religious freedom guaranteed by the Indian Constitution? Is it not a religious discrimination when the people belonging to other religious faiths are not asked to pay any pilgrimage tax? The only way to preserve religious freedom and equality is to declare the Gangasagar Mela a National Festival by the Centre.