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Cover Story: Language Imperialism/West Bengal

West Bengal: Pushback against attempts of Hindi imposition likely

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
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Mamata Banerjee campaigning for the 2021 elections. The overwhelming mandate for her showed that the Bengal electorate was averse to the idea of a party upholding a culture alien to its own coming to power in the State.

The BJP’s debacle in West Bengal in the 2021 Assembly election is also proof that any attempt to impose Hindi will face stiff resistance in the State.

The 2021 Assembly election in West Bengal, in which a beleaguered Trinamool Congress fought off a strong anti-incumbency sentiment to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), can also be seen as a battle for the preservation of identity, culture and, most importantly, language. Among the several lessons that the BJP, which emerged as the main opposition in the State, ought to have learnt is that the people of the State are averse to the idea of an alien culture thrust on them. For all the promises of development made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and other central leaders of the BJP, who delivered their speeches mainly in Hindi, the State voted overwhelmingly for Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool’s politically astute election slogan emphasising Bengali identity and language— “ Bangla Nijer Meykei Chai ” (Bengal wants only its own daughter). It simply blew away the BJP’s promise to build a “Sonar Bangla” (golden Bengal).

The election result can also be viewed as a resounding rejection of the BJP’s continuous attempt to homogenise culture and language. Amit Shah’s latest remark on the subject of a common language across the country, suggesting that Hindi should be an alternative to English, reiterates the BJP’s longstanding agenda. However, such an imposition is not likely to go down well in political and social circles in the State, and it may even hamper the saffron party’s electoral prospects in the days to come.

Apart from the ‘Bangla Nijer Meye kei Chai ’ slogan, one of the Trinamool’s effective electoral ploys in the 2021 Assembly election was to apply the term “ Bahiragata ” (outsiders) to the BJP and, indirectly, its supporters. The fact that the saffron party’s main campaigning was done by its central leaders, who addressed the crowds in Hindi, and often made gaffes in their speeches while referring to Bengali culture, helped further establish the BJP’s disconnect with the essential culture of Bengal. While one may argue that using terms such as “outsiders” as an election strategy can have a detrimental and divisive impact on society, it nevertheless served its purpose in helping the Trinamool through what appeared to be a tight situation. The overwhelming mandate for Mamata Banerjee, with 213 of the 294 seats and 47.94 per cent of the votes, clearly indicated that the Bengal electorate, for all the promises of development, was averse to the idea of a party upholding a culture alien to its own coming to power in the State.

Responses to Amit Shah’s comment

On Amit Shah’s suggestion regarding the use of Hindi, the Trinamool Congress made it clear that it was against the proposal and wanted things to remain the way they are. Party spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said, “We love the Hindi language and those who speak it, but we strongly oppose this kind of thinking. We would prefer the existing system to continue…. He [Amit Shah] should not put pressure on us to accept Hindi to communicate across the country.”

Senior Trinamool leader and academic Om Prakash Mishra pointed out that the country could ill afford to “entertain yet another divisive issue”. Calling it an attempt at “linguistic subjugation”, he said India’s linguistic diversity “beautifies our democracy”. Said Mishra: “Imposition of Hindi would be counter-productive. Regional identities, aspirations and assertions have invariably prevailed when questions and issues are framed in divisive ink. Electorally too this has been demonstrated in many of the States, and particularly in West Bengal as we witnessed in the last elections.”

The BJP can expect resistance from the State’s non-BJP opposition parties too. According to Sujan Chakraborty, senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist),the BJP does not accept the concept that India as a union of States. He said: “This is a union of diversities, of languages and other things. But the BJP is trying to impose Hindi as if it is a unitary government, not a Union government. This is also an attempt to do away with the diversities that make up India. Moreover, it must be kept in mind that our Constitution talks of equality of the many; not uniformity. This very idea of the BJP is unconstitutional.”

Multilingual population

With 86 per cent of the people speaking Bengali, language has hardly ever been a political issue or a matter of contention among the State’s multilingual population. From time to time, politically insignificant pressure groups such as ‘Amra Bangali’ and ‘Bangla Pokkho’ have tried to make some noise, but their intolerant and narrow sectarian outlook has never found many takers. Many social scientists now believe that an imposition of Hindi can only strengthen the hands of such parochial groups, leading to further division in society.

According to the political observer and professor of sociology Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay, the Hindi “onslaught” has resulted in the neglect of many regional languages. “The so-called Hindi monolith is an illusion,” Mukhopadhyay told Frontline . “We have been witnessing a sort of ‘lingocide’ where for many years languages such as Maithili, Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Chhattisgarhi have been heading towards extinction because of the Hindi onslaught. That is because of the aggressive Hindi politics, and also the emergence of an aspirational elite class, who use the Hindi language as an instrument of social dominance to establish themselves as belonging to the elite. As a result, these languages have been relegated to dialects.”

He said thanks to Bengal renaissance, and the influence of Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and other literary giants, Hindi did not become the language of the elite in Bengal. Mukhopadhyay said: “Our first writer, Ram Mohun Roy, used to write in Persian or Arabic, and from there to Bengali. This difference in the historical development of Bengali culture is also reflected in Bengali politics. So, imposition of Hindi will not be taken kindly to by both the subaltern, who do not speak the language, and the elite, who take great pride in their Bengali. The Sanghis really do not understand the idea of a diverse nation. They think in monolithic terms—one language, one religion, one culture, and one history.” Social scientists are not ruling out the possibility of a clash between a diverse culture and a monolith culture in the days to come.

Political impact

The impact of trying to impose a uniform language will not only be sociological, but political as well. The most widely spoken languages in the State are Bengali (86 per cent), followed by Hindi (6.9 per cent), Santali (2.6 per cent), Urdu (1.8 per cent) and Nepali (1.2 per cent). However, the distribution of the linguistic minority across the State is not uniform. Nepalese- and Hindi-speaking people are more common in North Bengal and certain urban pockets of south Bengal such as Howrah, Kolkata, Asansol and Barrackpur. In tribal districts such as Bankura, Purulia, Paschim Medinipur and Jhargram, the Santali language is prominent. Certain parts of Malda, Murshidabad and Kolkata have a large number of Urdu-speaking people.

The well-known psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty pointed out that the BJP has a support base among the Nepalese, Rajbongshi and Adivasi population. “The BJP runs the risk of alienating some of its most important vote banks if it decides to impose Hindi. This will further ruin its electoral prospects in the future. Moreover, the Trinamool has successfully managed to project the BJP as an ‘outsider’ party to a large section of the State electorate. By forcibly imposing Hindi, the BJP will end up giving greater credence to the allegations made by its political opponents,” Chakraborty told Frontline .

Lessons from Darjeeling

The BJP could also learn from Trinamool’s experience in the Darjeeling hills in 2017 and realise that it is difficult to impose even Bengali in West Bengal. After six years of peace in the Darjeeling hills, which have been wracked by violence associated with a separatist movement since 1986, the State government sparked off a fresh round of unrest in June 2017 when it announced the introduction of Bengali in the school curriculum in the hills, where more than 80 per cent are of Gorkha origin and practically everyone speaks Nepali. In the violent protests that followed, 10 people died and the hills shut down completely for a record 104 days.

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