Whispers of ‘Bengal for Bengalis’, but can it impact state polls | Opinion
A whisper is spreading across Bengal. It says Bengal for Bengalis, or Bengalis first. It’s spreading from social media to street corner meetings and tea stalls to public addresses.
For the ruling Trinamool Congress, identity politics can be a tool in trying times. Pushed on the backfoot by the Bharatiya Janata Party that sprung a surprise on her in the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls by bagging 40.25 per cent of the votes and 18 of the 42 seats in the state, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has dropped enough hints that identity politics is going to play an important role as the state inches closer to the crucial assembly elections due in 2021.
Trinamool Congress is in a precarious position, all political pundits agree. The forces of anti-incumbency that it has generated mainly by corruption and high-handedness of its leaders and denial of democratic rights of a large section of the electorate in the 2018 panchayat elections have cost it dear in the general elections.
To counter the emerging saffron tide, the Trinamool chief does not have many options but to indirectly apologise for the past acts of commission of her party. The only hope for Mamata Banerjee, according to some analysts, is that Mamata plays the identity card right.
This is where the importance of exploiting the Bengali identity crops up.
“The opposition to NRC (National Register of Citizens) is one opportunity for Mamata Banerjee to exploit the Bengali identity. Mamata would do all to highlight the Bengali identity and deliver the message that Bengal is a safe place for all communities,” says Rajat Roy, political commentator attached with Calcutta Research Group.
After the publication of the final list in Assam, the Trinamool chief has pointed out that Bengali Hindus constituted the largest group among the final list of 1.9 million in Assam.
Udayan Bandyopadhyay, professor of political science at Kolkata’s Bangabasi College thinks that the TMC chief is likely to utilise the Bengali sub-nationalism platform, but hastens to add that it is not going to be the an aggressive posture. His logic: Bengal is not conducive for strong sub-nationalism as was the case in Tamil Nadu.
“Such movements can take place if it rises from a bedrock of prolonged social movements as was seen in Tamil Nadu. Bengali intellectuals, too, don’t subscribe to aggressive sub-nationalism. Instead, they have traditionally settled for a more cosmopolitan attitude,” thinks Bandyopadhyay.
Some feel that Bengal is no longer the prosperous state that it was in the first half of the last century, when the cosmopolitan and liberal outlook struck roots. Educated Bengali youths are now compelled to migrate to other states and other countries in the absence of job opportunities in the state. Economic activities are not growing. Such a climate is conducive to sectarian appeals that the ruling party can easily adopt.
Roy points out that the current conditions are such that the state might become fertile for such brand of politics though in the past “Bengali first” sentiments have not been able to strike roots. In the 1960s and 70s Amra Bengali (We Are Bengalis), an outfit that campaigned for primacy to Bengalis failed to make a mark.
At the turn of the century, litterateur Sunil Ganguly led another campaign for using Bengali in signboards of Kolkata and urged Bengalis to use their mother tongue in shops and commercial establishments. However, it was narrower in scope compared to the Bengali first line that is being promoted by platforms such as Banglapokkho (On Bengal’s side) that is campaigning for the primacy of Bengalis in all spheres of life – economic, social and political.
Banglapokkho’s public face Garga Chatterjee says that they are growing rapidly and has units in all districts. Bengalis form 86 per cent of the state’s population and the platform wants at least a proportionate share for the community in jobs and education. “We want to emerge as a pressure group so that all parties are compelled to factor in the demands of the Bengalis in their agenda,” says Chatterjee, an assistant professor at ISI Kolkata.
Chatterjee, who asserts that they are out to play Test match and not a T20, admits that they are often labeled – falsely, he claims – as “a B team of TMC”.
Bengal became familiar with the ‘Bengali first’ theory closer to Independence, when the likes of Sarat Chandra Bose, freedom fighter and the elder brother of Netaji Subhas Chanda Bose, passionately spoke for a united Bengali-speaking nation and emphasised the unity of the Bengalis both in West Bengal and what is now Bangladesh.
Significantly, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) tore away from Pakistan after a historic fight for the primacy of Bengali language against the imposition of Urdu by Islamabad. The movement began in 1952 and stoked a freedom struggle that Pakistan failed to contain.