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Mamata plays Bengali card to push back a surging BJP and its ‘divisive politics’

Facing a tough contest against BJP in 2021, Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress appear to be fuelling an outsider-vs-local divide in Bengal.

Mamata Banerjee
File image of Mamata Banerjee | PTI

Kolkata: A warning straight from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that outsiders should learn Bengali. Threats from a fringe group believed to enjoy patronage of ruling Trinamool Congress that says learning Bengali is the “first condition” to live in West Bengal. Banerjee expressing regret earlier this year that local residents had chosen an “outsider” — a Gorkha candidate from Manipur — as Darjeeling MP.

Facing a tough electoral contest against an ascendant BJP in 2021, Banerjee appears to be fuelling an outsider-vs-local divide in West Bengal. 

It’s Bengal’s second brush with identity politics in less than a decade — in 2016, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made inroads in Bengal on the back of a campaign that criticised Banerjee’s “minority appeasement” and sought to raise the issue of Hindu marginalisation here. 

The campaign seems to be still working for the BJP, which won 18 seats in this year’s Lok Sabha polls — up from two in 2014. 

And Banerjee appears to have taken note, making serial appeals to Bengali pride for different matters, from the BJP’s proposed national register of citizens (NRC) for the state to the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) for IIT admissions.

According to the 2011 Census, at least 15 per cent of the state’s population is non-Bengali, but government officials claim the number could be up to almost 20 per cent. 

While the BJP has labelled the rhetoric “divisive”, Bengali intellectuals describe it as “needless”. The Trinamool Congress (TMC), however, dismisses the allegations as “baseless” and “childish”.

Also read: Amartya Sen has a message for Mamata: Don’t define Bengalis narrowly like BJP does

‘Champion of Bengali pride’

Banerjee’s transition as a self-styled champion of Bengali pride has been quite evident of late. Before the general elections this April-May, Banerjee started tweeting in three languages — English, Hindi and Bengali. On some occasions, she posted in regional languages too. Over the past few months, Hindi is all but absent from her posts, with the Trinamool chief sticking to English and Bengali. 

The issue of the state’s name change — Trinamool Congress wants West Bengal officially renamed as Bangla — has been framed in the mould of identity as well.

The most recent instance of Banerjee’s bid to invoke Bengali identity is her attack on the central government for not making Bengali a medium for JEE, which can currently be taken in English, Hindi and Gujarati. 

On Thursday, Banerjee demanded that the paper be conducted in other languages too, including Bengali. The issue was also raised in a tweet posted Tuesday by Trinamool MP Abhishek Banerjee, the chief minister’s nephew. 

“Constitution mandates equality for all. Why only options of English, Hindi & Gujarati ? JEE (Mains) 2020 must be conducted in all regional languages including  Bengali, Oriya, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi. Any linguistic discrimination is unconstitutional,” he tweeted. 

Following Banerjee’s statement, the Trinamool Congress hit the streets in protest, demanding Bengali and other regional languages as mediums for JEE (Mains). 

The National Testing Agency (NTA), which conducts JEE, clarified Friday that Gujarat is the only state that uses the exam for admissions to state engineering colleges and had thus sought sought JEE (Mains) in Gujarati. 

However, the Trinamool stuck to its guns.

After the clarification, Banerjee said she did not have a problem with the exam being conducted in Gujarati. “I love all languages and understand Gujarati as well,” she claimed at a press conference in Kolkata. “All regional languages should be added to the JEE. Our education minister had also written to the National Testing Agency on the issue to conduct the test in Bengali.”

Leaders of her party claimed the central government was totally “biased” towards the eastern states, especially West Bengal. 

“Why should any state approach the NTA for this? Why should there not be a central policy?” said Subrata Mukherjee, a senior minister in Banerjee’s cabinet. 

“The question papers should be translated in all regional languages,” he added. Asked about allegations that the Trinamool is being divisive, he said, “The central ministers are speaking like school kids. All sorts of trivial comments are coming from them.” 

The party has also described the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as an assault against Bengalis.

The Trinamool Congress has labelled plans for an NRC in Bengal a part of the BJP’s “divisive politics”, while saying that the Assam exercise was anti-Bengali on the grounds that several Bengalis were reportedly excluded from the final list.

Apart from the ongoing JEE stir, the Trinamool Congress is now also planning major demonstrations in Kolkata, on 11 November, on the NRC issue. 

Also read: Bengaluru police crackdown on illegal Bangladeshis is creating job problems for Bengalis

‘Respect Bengal or leave’

Meanwhile, the Bangla Pokkho, an independent group believed to be backed by the Trinamool, has been going all out with “pro-Bengali sloganeering” and “inflammatory” posts on social media, where it is trying to intimidate non-Bengalis, especially the Hindi-speaking residents of Bengal. 


The group’s founder members include Garga Chatterjee, a Trinamool Congress supporter who often defends the party on TV debates.

They have put up posters in Kolkata’s IT hub that bear such messages as “First Condition to live in Bengal: Learn Bengali” and “Respect Bengal or Leave”. 

In August, a complaint was registered against a member of the organisation with police for alleged intimidation, but no arrests have been made so far. 

BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said these tactics were “mean attempts” by the Trinamool Congress to get people’s attention. 

“These are all mean ways to get its support base back. But people have already seen her real face,” he told ThePrint. 

He said, “She started dividing people in Bengal by appeasing a particular community. We are only trying to send a message that no community should be treated especially, and rules should be uniform for all.” 

Asked about the TMC’s NRC stance, “We always maintained that we will throw the infiltrators out of the country. The refugees will be a part of us. Mamataji is misleading people and creating a fear psychosis for electoral gain.” 

He accused the Trinamool Congress of misleading people on the JEE issue too. “She has approached the NTA now. Was she asleep all these years? This cheap politics of dividing Bengalis and non-Bengalis will not work anymore,” he added. 

Intellectuals see this “polarisation” over language as “needless”. 

“We have seen how the BJP has been dividing and polarising people over religion. The state has already been polarised by them,” said writer and actor Kaushik Sen. 

“Now the ruling party is dividing people over language to fight the BJP. This looks like polarisation to fight polarisation,” he added. “The Trinamool Congress is not very innovative in terms of ideas to stop the BJP. They are following the path of the BJP.” 

Also read: Mamata Banerjee’s only Bangla in Bengal won’t get her votes. Left did same & failed