Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen does not want the Bengalis to have a knee-jerk reaction to the growing Hindutva politics of the BJP in West Bengal. Ever since the final NRC came out in Assam, the Bengali identity is the centre of bhadralok conversations in Kolkata. Who are we, and who can be called a Bengali today?
With the BJP’s aggressive politics in the state, there is a risk of parochialism replacing quintessential Bengali pluralism.
Bengal’s residents are wary that their state’s fragile and organic social coalitions should not come undone or become a mirror image of Shiv Sena and MNS’ Maharashtra. They quote Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora and Rammohan Roy and recall the ominous slogans of ‘Amra Bangali’, even as the bhadralok vs bhumiputra binaries rage around them.
Many are now saying that Bengal, a once-Renaissance land, shouldn’t allow itself to be defined by stagnant ideas of citizenship.
Falling in the same trap
In two recent public lectures in Kolkata, (titled ‘Calcutta after Independence: a Personal Memoir’, 5 July and ‘On Being a Bengali’, 27 August), economist Amartya Sen stressed on the essence of ‘Bengaliness’. He also cautioned that a narrow Bengali identity will not be able to thwart the danger of polarisation.
Achin Chakraborty, the director of the Institute of Development Studies, told me that Sen wanted to warn us lest we make the blunder of trying to confront the BJP’s communal menace with another equally narrow and hate-filled politics built around the identity of Bengaliness. On social media, there is already a visible rise in hate campaign against non-Bengali communities in Bengal. Facebook posts refer to “forced imposition on Hindi” and north Indian-culture on Bengalis.
Referring to his grandfather Khsitimohan Sen’s seminal work Hinduism, Amartya Sen said that one of the important points made by Khsitimohan was that it was not the mere mutual tolerance and harmonious cohabitation between the Hindus and Muslims that made the Bengali society richer; rather there was a long tradition of active cooperation between the two communities.
Outing the ‘outsiders’
Politics in Bengal, however, seems to have kicked Sen’s advice to the curb. This isn’t the first time that people here have grappled with questions of identity.
In the 1960s, Left-wing politics, including the more radical Naxalite movement, was soaked in internationalism. By then, the broader Bengali society had already been initiated into the international outlook of Rammohan Roy, Rabindranath Tagore and the stalwarts of the Bengal Renaissance.
So, when the movement ‘Amra Bangali (We, the Bengalis)’ tried to raise its head with virulent anti-Bengali slogans, it was rejected downright by the ‘bhadralok’ culture of middle-class Bengali society and Leftists alike.
After more than 50 years, this trend is reappearing in Bengal.
There are demands on social media to protect the bhumiputras (sons of the soil) in jobs and other areas. A certain victimhood is taking shape in regard to jobs, culture and language. The NRC in neighbouring Assam is only fuelling that sentiment.
And Mamata Banerjee is playing directly into that binary. The TMC has started drum beating Bengali identity politics.
Banerjee said that whoever dwells in Bengal should be considered a Bengali, irrespective of ethnic, linguistic or religious distinctness. But she also publicly condemned the BJP for ‘importing’ hired goons from neighbouring Hindi-speaking states to create ruckus in West Bengal. Banerjee had also said that whoever lives in Bengal, will have to speak Bengali. For her and her party, any disruption or violence in Bengal must be blamed on ‘bohiragotos’ or outsiders.
“They brought miscreants on hire from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Jharkhand, specifically to go on the rampage here and destroy heritage in Bengal…,” accused Mamata Banerjee after a statue of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar was destroyed during a ruckus during Amit Shah’s roadshow in Kolkata before the 2019 elections. The TMC labelled the BJP as a party “of outsiders” alien to the state’s “Bengali culture and ethos”.
Now, Mamata Banerjee is daring the Modi government to start the NRC process in Bengal. The reiteration of the Hindutvabadi aspiration to unite the country under ‘One Country, One Language (Hindi)’ by BJP president Amit Shah has made the atmosphere tense and is being vehemently opposed.
Emanul Haque, president of Bhasa O Chetana Samiti (an organisation that upholds languages) is apprehensive that the ire against the imposition of one language (which is associated with one particular religion) might get channelised in a very parochial way. He asks, “While trying to resist the aggression of the RSS in Bengal, can we take away the rights of more than two crore non-Bengali people who have been living in the state for years?” If that happens, then Bengal politics will become a mirror image of the politics of Shiv Sena, he laments.
Bengali identity politics must not devolve into a hate campaign against non-Bengali speaking people.
Amartya Sen reminded us of Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic histories of Bengal. He also reminded us of the bloody communal riots (like the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946). But locking our identity within ‘narrow domestic walls’, as Rabindranath Tagore would say, will not help us defeat communal forces.
Instead, Sen reminds us of how Tagore, who claimed that he was a product of the confluence of three distinct cultures-Hindu, Islamic and British-, dealt with the question of identity at length. In his novel ‘Gora’, the protagonist sincerely believes and upholds the values of conservative Hindu society. This assertive young man, who is also steadfast in supporting the Indian cause against the British rule, got confused when he came to know of his Irish ancestry. Finally, Gora resolves the dilemma by rejecting his racial and religious identities and opting for his Indian identity.
Sen’s comment that slogans like “Jai Sri Ram” are not associated with Bengali culture, and “are used as pretexts to beat up people” was lapped up by the audience. Posters of Amartya Sen with his remarks on Jai Shri Ram surfaced all over Kolkata.
With the BJP and the TMC at loggerheads to define Bengaliness, it is up to the people of West Bengal to make sure that we do not become characters in an Albert Camus book – The Outsiders – as we fight to define ourselves.
The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.