Invoking Goddess Durga, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday reaffirmed his government's irrevocable commitment to women's empowerment and safety.
Reaching out to the people of West Bengal during the state's biggest festival Durga Puja, the prime minister said though it was being celebrated on a limited scale due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the "enthusiasm is still unlimited".
Noting that Goddess Durga was worshipped as a symbol of ''Shakti'' (strength), Modi said his government was consistently working for the empowerment of women.
"From opening Jan Dhan accounts for 22 crore women, giving soft loans to them under the Mudra Yojana, to launching Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao initiative, granting permanent commission to women in the armed forces and extending maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks, we have taken a number of steps for their empowerment," he told a gathering at Durga Puja celebration organised by the BJP.
He also said anti-rape laws were made more stringent to include death penalty.
"We are alert towards the security of women. We have strengthened laws against rape. Now, there is even provision for death penalty to the perpetrators," he said in his virtual address to the people of the state.
In Bengal, Goddess Durga was also worshipped as a daughter, he said, adding women must be treated with respect.
The prime minister's remark came in the backdrop of a string of incidents of rape and murder of women, including the Hathras incident that shocked the nation and triggered outrage against the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh.
The prime minister recalled the contributions of reformers from Bengal like Ram Mohun Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, spiritual leaders Ramkrishna Paramhans and Swami Vivekananda, cultural giant Rabindranath Tagore, and revolutionaries like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Khudiram Bose in shaping India's national identity.
Durga Puja, he said, was the epitome of pluralism and reflected the collective strength of India.
I feel blessed to be a part of Durga puja celebration on Mahashashti...This time we are all celebrating Durga Puja amid the coronavirus crisis. Devotees of Maa Durga, organisers of pandals, all have shown amazing restraint. The numbers may have been affected, but the grandeur is the same, the divinity is the same," Modi said.
Beginning his address in Bengali, PM Modi shared his puja greetings and appealed to the people to adhere to social distancing norms (do gaz ki duri) and wear face masks while taking part in the festivities.
There is so much power in the devotion to Goddess Durga here that it seems I am not in Delhi but amongst you in Bengal, Modi said.
Speaking about the development schemes of his government for the people of the state, Modi said under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana pucca dwellings were built for about 30 lakh poor families.
"About 90 lakh poor women have been given free gas connections under the Ujjwala scheme. Bank accounts of about four crore poor of Bengal have been opened through Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana. Under the Jal Jeevan Mission Scheme, clean piped water will be delivered to about 4 lakh households," he said.
Listing out various developmental projects for the state, Modi said, Rs 8,500 crore has been approved for Kolkatas East-West Metro project.
Noting that the union government has adopted the mantra of Purvodaya for the development of eastern India, the prime minister said West Bengal has to play an important role in its success and reach the objective of Sonar Bangla (Bengal made of gold).
Atmanirbhar (self-reliant) Bharat is a key component of the government's growth plans, he said.
"For Bengal's infrastructure, continuous work is being done to improve connectivity. The Centre has adopted the mantra of Purvodaya- the rise of east. We have been taking decisions for the development of eastern India.
"West Bengal has to play an important role in Mission Purvodaya. I am confident that West Bengal will soon become the hub of this mission," he said.
We have to move forward with the mantra of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Viswas, the prime minister asserted.
The BJP had made elaborate arrangements for live viewing of the prime minister's virtual address from the national capital.
Apart from the event venue in Salt Lake, where the West Bengal BJP has organised Durga puja for the first time, his speech was streamed live across 10 selected pandals spread across districts.
The event was televised live at over 78,000 polling booths across the state's 294 assembly constituencies.
Assembly polls are likely in West Bengal around April-May next year.
After decades of its limited presence in the politically polarised state, BJP emerged as the main rival to the ruling Trinamool Congress winning 18 of the state's 42 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 general elections.
With the BJP's political clout growing manifold in the last few years in the state, where it has never been in power, its leaders have expressed confidence that the saffron party will end Mamata Banerjee's 10-year rule in the assembly polls.