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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Bengali Hindu – Rising from the ashes

“Ekbar biday de Maa ghure aashi
Hashi hashi porbo fanshi dekhbe bharot bashi…”

[Bharat Mata bid me farewell once, I will be back soon.
whole of Bharatvasi will watch me while I wear the noose, smiling.]

It was yet another warm August day in Muzaffarpur (in Bihar). But 11th August, 1908 witnessed something incredible, which would leave a far-reaching impact on Bharat’s struggle for independence in the years to come. An eighteen year old revolutionary, Khudiram Bose (the youngest martyr in Bharat’s freedom struggle) strutted to the gallows, mouthing Vande Mataram and carrying a copy of the Bhagavad Gita along with. 

I wonder what the proponents of militant secularism would have to say about that. But the role of Hindu scriptures and the idea of Hindu nationalism was no alien to the Swadeshi movement in Bengal. The idea of nation as a mother figure was first propounded in modern time by a Bengali, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, in his pathbreaking novel Anandamath, which laid the foundation of nationalist awakening. 

The conflict of ethnic versus religious identity in the context of Bengal is far from straightforward. The Hindu identity and nationalistic fervour has historically been an integral part of Bengali identity. In fact, the two are deeply intertwined. Hence allegiance to one should not be seen as a desertion of the other. The crude practice of divorcing the two is largely an aftermath of the 34 years of communist regime. 

Now the question is that of inclusivity and language being the common thread. That’s a possibility only when there are no even wider cleavages or fault lines along other dimensions of the identity. Otherwise the entire fabric collapses, and language is no longer sufficient to serve as an unifying force. And the partition of Bengal bears testimony to the existence of a non-linguistic social fault line – namely religion.

This hushing up of the socio-political reality and using language as a unifier has happened in West Bengal in the last four decades. There has been a systematic annihilation of the idea of cultural nationalism, which formed the heart of the Bengali identity, in lieu of class conflict politics. What exacerbated the matter was misconstrued inclusivity.

Firstly, minority appeasement in the garb of harmonious co-existence, has indeed hurt the Bhadralok (Educated Bengali Hindu Middle Class) psyche. Secondly, the sense of inclusivity that prevailed during the Swadeshi movement, did undergo an evolution, post the horrors of partition. All the above-mentioned factors added up and this combined with the rise of a strong Hindu nationalistic sentiment led to the “surprising results” in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The forces trying to alienate the Bengali masses in West Bengal from this surge of Cultural Nationalism, on linguistic grounds have rather flawed perceptions about “Bengaliness”.  Many linguistic jingoists would cite the Bhasha Andolan to drive their point home. But we must understand things in contexts.

Bhasha Andolan, though it apparently looks like a conflict along the linguistic fault line, had other dimensions too. Let us look at Latin America for example. Though Spanish is the official language in almost all Latin American countries, does it act as an overarching unifying force? Then the countries would probably cease to exist separately. Latin America has witnessed four major conflicts in the last 100 years, the most recent being the Cenepa War in 1994-95 between Ecuador and Peru, over the territorial control between the Cordillera del Cóndor and Río Cenepa, and for the differentiated interpretation of the peace treaty “Protocol of Rio de Janeiro” signed after the war of both countries in 1941. No points for guessing that Spanish is the most widely spoken language in both the countries.

Another facet which needs to be accounted for is economics in a globalised world. Post 1991, once globalization hit Bharat’ shores, the quintessential features of what defined ethnic identities started getting blurred.  Bengali weddings started having Sangeet and Hindu couples go for pre-wedding photoshoots in fancy locations, which was unimaginable till a couple of decades back.

The fluidity of cultural boundaries should be accepted as a natural progression. Puritans opposing it, or political activists trying to leverage this puritanism, by vilifying the cultural imports, are not likely to succeed in today’s world. Hence, fringe elements tagging BJP as a flag bearer of Hindi hegemony have not found significant acceptance amongst the Bengali masses.

In fact ironically, this is where cultural inclusivity of the Bangali bhadralok has been on display for ages. Satyajit Ray did not have to forsake his tobacco pipe and British accent to assert his “bangaliyana”, neither did people frown upon a nightgown clad Kamal Mitra in the 60s. One can’t  deny the fact that the Bhadralok was a little circumspect in embracing the Hindi speaking Marwaris or Gujaratis, as opposed to the British. The advent of the Hindusthan Club in Kolkata bears testimony to the social ostracization the “non Bengalis” faced once upon a time in Bengal.

But with time, several factors including Bollywood have managed to bring the wall of alienation down. It has by no means undermined the importance of Bengali as a language or as a medium of literature, art and entertainment. Had it not been so, Srijit Mukherjee wouldn’t be giving the Bollywood Goliaths a run for their money at the Box Office. Hence, political parties or fringe groups backed by political parties, who are attempting to leverage “bangaliyana” to their advantage, and wish to antagonize the “bhadralok” against the “Hindi-speaking outsiders” need to understand the subtle nuances of the Bengali identity more carefully. Otherwise the misreading of the Bangali-sentiment at large will only yield “surprises”.

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Dripto Bakshi
Dripto Bakshi
A PhD in Quantitative Economics, working as a Data Scientist in a multi-national bank.


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