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Amartya Sen’s remark fans ‘battle of cultures’ in Bengal

In mid-May, when a bust of Bengal renaissance icon Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was desecrated during a clash between supporters of the TMC’s student wing and BJP in Vidyasagar College, similar hoardings were put up across the city.

india Updated: Jul 14, 2019 06:40 IST
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Amartya Sen,Bengal battle,battle of cultures
Poster depicting Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's comment on 'Jay Shri Ram' contoversy on various part of Kolkata street in Kolkata, , on Thursday. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)

The Bengali versus nonBengali “battle of cultures” seems to be intensifying in Bengal. Billboards have appeared across Kolkata highlighting economist Amartya Sen’s recent remarks on Lord Ram and Ma Durga to explain the difference between the cultures of Bengal and north India.

These hoardings and placards have been put up “on behalf of civil society”.

In mid-May, when a bust of Bengal renaissance icon Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was desecrated during a clash between supporters of the Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s student wing and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Vidyasagar College, similar hoardings were put up across the city. Those hoardings carried a photo of the broken bust accompanied by the Bengali word “chhih” (shame).

On the billboards that have sprung up in the city now, there is a photo of Amartya Sen beside his comment: “I never heard the ‘Jai Sri Ram’ slogan earlier. It is of recent import and used as a pretext to beat up people. Of late, it is being used to thrash people. I do not think this slogan has any association with Bengali culture at all. I had asked my four-yearold granddaughter who her favourite deity was. She said ‘Ma Durga’. Ram Navami can never be compared with Durga Puja.”

Sen, 85, who holds Harvard University’s distinguished post of University Professor, said this at an interaction with students in Jadavpur University on July 5. He spoke in Bengali.

While the BJP, Congress and the Left parties suspect the ruling Trinamool’s hand behind these billboards (both of Vidyasagar and Amartya Sen), TMC leaders did not agree. “We have no role in putting up these hoardings, but we fully support the initiative,” said Subhasis Chakraborty, Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP and South 24-Parganas district unit chief. A state-level TMC leader said such hoardings may soon spring up in various district headquarters.

The development comes in the wake of a war of words between the TMC and BJP over saffron party supporters chanting “Jai Shri Ram”.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has begun highlighting the purported difference in cultures as a political strategy to counter the BJP in the state.

According to the 2011 census, Bengalis comprise 86.22% of Bengal’s 9.13 crore population. Hindispeaking people constitute 6.96%.

In mid-June, Banerjee told a gathering of TMC workers in Kanchrapara in North 24 Parganas district, “..If you stay in Bengal, you have to speak in Bengali and respect Bengal’s culture.”

BJP leaders have slammed the move to put up the billboards. Dilip Ghosh, BJP Bengal chief and Lok Sabha MP, said, “Amartya Sen spent most of his life outside India. He does not know Bengali culture. People, too, are not listening to the likes of Sen.”

Left leaders were critical too. Political analysts too critcised the step. “There is every reason to suspect TMC’s hand behind these hoardings. This benefits none but the ruling party, said Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay, former principal of Presidency College.

First Published: Jul 14, 2019 06:40 IST