Shikha Mukerjee, Firstpost: The clash of competing loyalties and contending identities is emerging as a side effect of the BJP’s territorialisation mission in West Bengal. It has pushed the Trinamool Congress to construct its own politics around the idea of what is Bengali.
As a definition, Bengali is elusive, because it describes the people, the culture, the cuisine and above all the language. Whereas the BJP’s ‘rashtra’ or nation is chauvinistic and all about defending, doing and making India great again, albeit in a Hindi-Hindu-Hindutva image, reflecting in many ways the persona of its leader Narendra Modi, the idea of Bengali is and has always been imagined as mother tongue-motherland. To fortify the motherland and cast BJP as an alien force, Mamata Banerjee has not only deployed loyalty to the language or mother tongue, but she has also made learning it compulsory in all schools in West Bengal from Class I to X. The tongue, therefore, is being taught to speak in the “sweetest language” of the world, a claim that the Trinamool Congress has made, reinforced by social media using an unconfirmed reference to a UNESCO index.
Perceiving the BJP as a political threat, Banerjee has decided to counter Hindi imperialism and invocation of unfamiliar Hindu gods by recalling Bengali’s ‘uniquely important’ heritage. She has done this in different ways. Each of these measures separately challenges the BJP’s encroachments into West Bengal’s political space and in their different ways are expected to build a bulwark constructed out of primordial attachments.
In the rest of West Bengal and among the diaspora, Bengali nationalism or as some would say parochialism, has ardent supporters. And Banerjee is clearly counting on it. She either overlooked or miscalculated the possibility that in one very sensitive part of the state – Darjeeling-Kalimpong-Kurseong – there would be opposition to the idea of Bengali.
In the Darjeeling hills, where Gorkha nationalism has powered the movement that finally succeeded in establishing the Gorkhas as a separate people, with a language, culture and identity that was not only distinctively different but deserving of an altogether different status, making Bengali a compulsory subject in schools has predictably provoked a backlash. The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) has described the decision as “language imperialism.” The eruption of organised protest by the GJM took a while to consolidate itself into direct action – of schools being shut, protest rallies and now, a ‘no lights’ night to convey the political as well as popular opposition to the decision of every child learning Bengali. Intriguingly, the idea of a black out or ‘arandhan’ that is unlit cooking fires is a throwback to 1905 and the Swadeshi movement in Bengal.
The time lapse in GJM’s reaction is intriguing, because Darjeeling should have been the first place to vehemently oppose the introduction of compulsory Bengali in schools. The turbulent history of the Gorkhaland movement and the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and its later avatar the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration began with the demand for Nepali being accepted as the official language of the hills. Added to the history of the politics of identity is the incontrovertible fact that GJM has been instrumental in making a space for the BJP in West Bengal by organising the party’s win from Darjeeling in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Darjeeling is, therefore, the most obvious battleground for the BJP to challenge Banerjee and indeed West Bengal’s entrenched political establishment. It can do so because the hegemony of successive formations – Gorkha National Liberation Front, Gorkha Janamukti Morcha – is rooted in the identity of the Gorkha and the aspiration for a separate homeland. Gorkha nationalism is not at loggerheads with Hindutva nationalism, because a political relationship has affirmed that the two can co-exist in a partnership, as the 2014 Lok Sabha elections proved. To break this stranglehold and create a political space which the Trinamool Congress could occupy, Banerjee first curated the revival other identities that had been subsumed within the overarching Gorkha one. And then she created separate boards for the Lepchas, the Tamangs, the Sherpas and finally the Bhutias. The avowed purpose was the development of these minority and marginalised communities.
Therefore, in Darjeeling, there are all the elements necessary for a big fight – Gorkha sub-nationalism versus Bengali nationalism or parochialism versus Hindi-Hindu-Hindutva chauvinism or as the BJP claims true nationalism since all these sentiments exist in uncomfortable and unstable proximity. While the Gorkha identity is constructed on markers that make it an ideal fit for the BJP-RSS’ purposes – religion, language and chauvinism, for the rest of West Bengal’s political establishment, conceding the justness of the Gorkha claim has not meant entirely withdrawing from the politics of the hill districts. However uneasy the parallel existence may be, no ‘plains’ political party has ever given up its right to work in the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration’s domain.
Darjeeling is therefore a proxy war between Bengali nationalism or parochialism and Gorkha sub-nationalism, which is by extension also the BJP’s fight. It has all the ingredients necessary to make it a crucial test for the Trinamool Congress. Loyalties will be questioned as much identity and Darjeeling could be one of the frontlines of the battle between the idea of a multicultural, plural, secular Bengal-India and the homogenising invention of a majority Hindu, Hindi speaking nation.
More so because Banerjee has belatedly stepped up to the BJP’s challenge – of capturing West Bengal and demolishing her, in every possible way. Quite apart from deploying language as a weapon that will both attack and defend her turf and politics of ma-mati-manush, which roughly translated is a set of ideas symbolised as mother-land-people, the creative chief minister has gone back to making herself popular again. The rumour is that Banerjee is in the final throes of composing a state anthem that captures the secular heritage of Bengal and its unique culture.
These are indications that Banerjee has stopped panicking and is working on a game plan to first contain the BJP’s encroachments on West Bengal turf and then reduce its influence. Chronologically, the first measure that the Trinamool Congress took to stalling the advance of the BJP-RSS brand of politics was a panic reaction to the coordinated mobilisation of communities through non-political associates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Jagaran Manch in Kolkata, Howrah, East and West Midnapore, Nadia, North Dinajpur, Birbhum, Burdwan around Ram Navami; it organised Hanuman celebrations. More to the point Banerjee declared that she was a born Hindu and did not indulge in Hindutva’s identity politics.
Using language as a part of the fight back against BJP-RSS’s construction of a homogeneous nation of majority Hindi speakers, Banerjee is hoping that Bengali pride will be stirred sufficiently to give it a momentum that would make it an autonomous project of self-assertion.
Bengali as the mother tongue has strong sentimental value and the symbolism of the mother connects the move to reintroduce Bengali as a compulsory subject in schools an iteration of Banerjee’s particular brand of politics. The only hitch is that ever since the CPM-led Left Front made Bengali the language of primary education in West Bengal, every Opposition party has accumulated a mountain of baggage critical of the move. Clearly the chief minister is hoping that public memory will be short and will allow her to use language to counter the BJP’s thrust into West Bengal.
Because along with the teaching of language, what most children will learn is a selective interpretation of the history and heritage of the people who speak the language. Therefore, Bengali nationalism and its history of leadership in the freedom movement, from the early social reformers to the formation of the Congress in a hall located on College Street, Kolkata, the terrorists and revolutionaries and the Swadeshi movement will be retold to capture the imagination and create a counterpoint to the RSS-BJP’s reinventions of nationalist narratives, which begin somewhere around the time of Syama Prasad Mookerjee and the formation of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.
The revival of primordial attachments via language and history is a long-term project to insulate West Bengal from the BJP-RSS’s territorialising imperative. A state anthem that can be used to counter the BJP’s appropriation of the National Anthem will be a more immediate touch point for gathering wandering Bengali attention. It could serve to divert attention away from the politics of cow slaughter and beef consumption to reconsidering the imaginary institution of being Bengali.