A file photo of Amartya Sen | Commons
A file photo of Amartya Sen | Commons
Text Size:

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.


Also read: Just tell Didi, and she will change the subject from Jai Shri Ram to governance


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.


Also read: LSE’s Amartya Sen Chair to study global inequality but the lessons will be for India


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”.


Also read: West Bengal name change, central funds on agenda as Mamata set to meet Modi


A warning

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.

ThePrint is now on Telegram. For the best reports & opinion on politics, governance and more, subscribe to ThePrint on Telegram.

15 Comments Share Your Views

15 COMMENTS

  1. And Harvard is stupid paying him for his views while you are the smart cookie that is relevant and knows more than Harvard. We agree.

  2. Why an eminent stature poke his nose in petty matter advising Mamata Didi what to do & what not to do like his student? Entering himself such petty matter,he is discrediting himself. By entering & making biased comments on Politics in favor of his Political Party where he has taken favor in early days of his life. He has lost his respect already.

  3. Shall Sen said to desolve the boundary of union of India with Bangladesh,Pakistan,Nepal & embress all community. Is it possible to loose his Indian identity as boundaries abolished.Is it not fair to drive out illegal settlers from India ? Does he approves illegal immigrants are legal due to similar language only ? I think his brain is reterded.

    • Amartya Sen should put his money where his mouth is. Instead of preaching from a distance he should come back to live among his Bangla brethren and show them how its done. Easier to live in luxury in the West and pontificate from there.

  4. Power mongers don’t care about Tagore or Amartya Sen or such like. They look up to Chanakya or Machiavelli for inspiration. With some exceptions, power mostly comes out of inciting the public, generating fear and hatred against others in them.

  5. Bengalis are a third rate effeminate people, so full of themselves. Bengal is a poverty ridden state today, makes nothing of value and demands its state debt be taken on by the Indian union, and records show that Malaria, Dengue and Cholera and Naxalism was Bengals gift to India. Bengalis can only dream of becoming as rich , prosperous and high tax payers like the Marathis of Maharashtra. Right wing politics and consciousness only comes with rising prosperity. Using British colonialism and British Capital, Bengal was the first to be colonised and the first to become British stooges. When the British tired of the effeminate Bengali Baboo, they decided to shift the political and administration to Delhi. That is when Bengals decline began. It was artificially propped up by British capital for a long time

    • I would like to request you to go through the struggle of Indian Independence and fight for Independence against the British. You will definitely find that BENGALIS AND PUNJABIS had maximum contribution towards India’s Independence from the British Raj.

      Don’t level all the Bengalis in line with Sen’s remarks. Many Bengalis do not support Sen’s views. As because Sen hardly live in Bengal and probably out of wind with the present state and likings/dislikes of the people of Bengal.

      Bengal is a state where all the Indians are welcome from any state unlike MAHARASHTRA where regional parties like Shivsena demands reservation in job and education for Marathees .
      Notwithstanding your comments regarding infiltrators, I would like to point out that BENGAL AND PUNJAB are the two states that had to bear the population influx from East Pakistan and Pakistan respectively post Independence. Lot of people became refugees loosing their home and agricultural land. This is one of the reason of Bengal’s proverty. But there are other reasons too.

      Violent left political movements from 1970 to 2011 , illogical unionism and political strikes in Indutries and educational institutions led Bengal to today’s situations.
      In 2011 assembly election people mandated a change in government in Bengal with TRINOMOOL CONGRESS. But much to the despair and frustrations of Bengalees it became worse.

      You better go to the history page and read how Bengal became British Capital of India. Actually East India Company ( British company) came to the then ” KOLIKATA, SUTANUTI through river Ganges to conduct Business at KOLIKATA.

      After that slowly they conquired and captured Kolkata and established British Raj in Bengal by defeating Nawab Sirajdullah at battle of Palashi.

      So before passing any harsh comments towards any community first educate yourself .

      • Amaritya Sen’s family is from east Bengal. It is surprising that many staunch secularists in India, who are fighting BJP/RSS are from Sindh, West Punjab & East Bengal. I wonder why they did not fight for secularism there, when Jinnah had declared his intention to create secular Pakistan, where a person is Pakistani first & Muslim, Hindu or Sikh later.

        If people like Amartiya Sen, Ram Puniyani, Harsh Mander. Tarun Tejpal etc. had stayed in Pakistan and fought for secularism there South India would have been better place to live. I hope that India offers these people opportunity to move to Pakistan and promise them that if they die fighting for secularism in Pakistan India will build memorial for them and Commission Teesta Setalvad in building that memorial.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here