IN THE LATE 1960S, Bengali chauvinists floated a political party, starkly named Amra Bangali (We Are Bengalis), as a response to the rising tide of anti-Bengali sentiments in India’s Northeast, especially Assam. The party was founded on the ‘Progressive Utilisation Theory’, or ‘Prout’, propounded by its leader Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. The ‘Proutists’, as the members of Amra Bangali called themselves, struggled to find mention in public discourse or in the popular Bengali press. But they stuck around and met Assam’s ‘Bongal Kheda’ (Chase out Bengalis) rhetoric with matching rhetoric extolling the virtues of Bengali culture and language, fighting what they believed was a righteous battle for the ‘Bengali Nation’.
In the early 1980s, when we were in college, Amra Bangali graffiti would be noticeably prominent on Calcutta’s (Kolkata) walls, vying for attention with the lurid colours of Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) slogans calling for constant struggle against imperialist, capitalist and other such enemies of Jyoti Basu’s glorious revolution. For all their rhetoric aimed at unleashing Bengali nativism—they called for self-determination and the creation of ‘Bangalistan’—Amra Bangali could never put together a critical mass of Bengalis who subscribed to exclusivist Bengali chauvinism. This, despite the fact that a large mass of Bengalis has long nursed the grievance that Bengal has always got a raw deal from the Union Government—the Marxists who ruled for 34 years called it the “Centre’s step-motherly treatment”—and pinned the discrimination to ‘anti-Bengali bias’. Amra Bangali still exists as a political entity but it’s doubtful anybody takes serious note of it; the candle, its electoral symbol, sputtered for a while and then was extinguished by Bengalis’ disdain for mindless nativism.
Even as son-of-the-soil politics has gained traction in the east, West Bengal has remained free of ‘insider-outsider’ parochialism. The descendants of old and prominent Bengali families of Bhagalpur and other places in Bihar have felt compelled to relocate to West Bengal; Odisha has never been welcoming of Bengalis; Assam and other Northeastern states are openly hostile to the few Bengalis that remain there; and the once-large Bengali population of Jharkhand continues to dwindle with the passage of years. There has been no such migration by non-Bengalis from West Bengal—if anything, the number of immigrants has steadily increased and non-Bengalis can be now found across the state and not just in Kolkata or the rust belt of decaying or dead mills and factories. There are multiple Hindi-language newspapers published from Kolkata. The state’s capital city is barely, nominally Bengali.
How does one define ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’? Was the 15th century poet Krittibas Ojha who wrote the Krittivasi Ramayan—setting a tradition that was kept alive by Rabindranath Tagore and others—an ‘outsider’? Must we then airbrush all that has been written on Sri Ram and the Ramayan by Bengalis in Bengali? Is Tagore’s Kabuliwala an ‘outsider’ to be derided and shunned by the ‘insider’?
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Decrepit economies tend to witness a siege mentality with people seeking refuge in rank nativism. So does the fear that immigrants will grab a share of the pie that would otherwise have gone to the natives. The Shiv Sena built its politics on this fear of the ‘outsider’ and asserting the primacy of the ‘Marathi Manoos’. West Bengal never witnessed, nor did Bengalis ever countenance, such exclusionary politics. We occasionally heard the words ‘Khotta’ or ‘Hindustani’ when Bengalis referred to Hindi-speaking Biharis or immigrants from Uttar Pradesh. But even those casual references are no longer heard. ‘Mero’, a pejorative term for Marwaris, was restricted to a thin band of Amra Bangali-types. No self-respecting Bengali would use it. The ‘Sardarji’ taxi driver commanded respect and received affection. Bengal has had prominent non-Bengali legislators. The most well-known exponent of ‘Shyama Sangeet’, or devotional songs dedicated to Goddess Kali, was Amrik Singh Arora, a Sikh. Some of the talented exponents of Rabindrasangeet today are non-Bengalis, including from southern states.
Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle would regularly record songs in Bengali. The examples are endless.
Yet, in a glaring departure from previous elections, and marking a break with Bengal’s inclusivist socio-cultural tradition, this time round we are witnessing an outburst of provincialism with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) turning the contest into one between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, Bengalis and non-Bengalis, those of the soil and those from other places. In large measure this is a response to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters chanting “Jai Shri Ram”—a slogan that became popular as an expression of anger and disquiet over the state government’s minorityism to pander to West Bengal’s large Muslim population at the expense of Hindu sensitivities. Fighting a rearguard battle with BJP posing a serious challenge, TMC has sought to incite nativism among the masses, using ‘Bengali pride’ as a cover. Its election slogan, “Bangla nijer meye kei chay” (Bengal wants its daughter), captures this.
Fighting a rearguard battle with BJP posing a serious challenge, TMC has sought to incite nativism among the masses, using ‘Bengali pride’ as a cover. Ironically, the ‘Bengal for Bengalis’ politics has little or nothing to show by way of what has been done for West Bengal’s resident Bengalis
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Ironically, the ‘Bengal for Bengalis’ politics has little or nothing to show by way of what the government has done for West Bengal’s resident Bengalis. True, the exodus of young Bengalis looking for jobs and livelihoods outside West Bengal began during the twilight years of Left Front rule, by when India’s most industrialised state had been stripped of its industrial assets and the economy inspired little hope and lesser confidence. That exodus was expected to end with the fall of the Marxists and the advent of TMC. Quite the contrary happened: Over the past decade, the exodus has gathered speed with ablebodied men and women from rural Bengal joining the young and educated from urban Bengal in their search for jobs outside West Bengal.
In other words, the ‘insider’, faced with a bleak future, became an ‘outsider’ as the government resorted to populism that delivered little but kept the underclasses distracted and, in a strange way, even happy. Confident that West Bengal’s 30 per cent Muslim population would stay with them, TMC did not care what happened to the rest. In this scheme of power politics, the ‘outsider’ from Bangladesh, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants, became the ‘insider’, further consolidating the base.
Calcutta has historically been the entry point of India’s eastern hinterland. Over hundreds of years, people have come from other regions, provinces and countries to settle in Bengal. Calcutta even had a Chinese community with thriving businesses. Lashkars reached Calcutta by ships they worked on, stayed back and became a part of the vast melting pot. Jews set up home in Calcutta and built institutions, some of which still remain. So did many other communities. Marwaris came looking for trade, became industrialists, turned into new-age entrepreneurs and are now integrated in the larger Bengali identity. Many of them speak better Bengali, have done more for Bengali culture and the arts, and invested more in West Bengal than Bengalis.
Decrepit economies tend to witness a siege mentality with people seeking refuge in rank nativism. So does the fear that immigrants will grab a share of the pie that would otherwise have gone to the natives
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How, then, does one define ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’? Was the 15th century poet Krittibas Ojha who wrote the Krittivasi Ramayan—setting a tradition that was kept alive by Rabindranath Tagore and others—an ‘outsider’? Must we then airbrush all that has been written on Sri Ram and the Ramayan by Bengalis in Bengali? Is Tagore’s Kabuliwala an ‘outsider’ to be derided and shunned by the ‘insider’? Should the doors of Visva-Bharati, the only university of its kind in India, be shut to the world?
An interesting tale is told about the Brahmins of Bengal, based on their kulapanjikas or genealogical chronicles. The story goes that during the Sena dynasty, learned Brahmins were brought to Bengal from the central Gangetic plains, a region that would now correspond with Uttar Pradesh, to impart their knowledge of Hindu scripture, traditions and rituals. Five Brahmins, led by a certain Bhatta Narayan, came to Bengal. Later, when they tried to return, they were not accepted by their communities as they had lost their caste by travelling to ‘bhinn desh’. So they settled in Bengal and their descendants are today’s Bengali Brahmins. That would make ‘Banerjees’, if we pause to think, ‘outsiders’ too, as it would also deny Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay his Bengali identity. The Tagore family descended from Bhatta Narayan, from Kusharis they became Thakurs, or priests. By the TMC era’s reckoning, Rabindranath Tagore, as well as other notable Tagores, are also ‘outsiders’ in West Bengal. Who, then, is a true-blue Bengali?
Elections come, elections go. But the damage that is inflicted by thoughtless deeds like pitting ‘insiders’ versus ‘outsiders’ with no other purpose than winning votes, lingers for a long time after the last vote has been counted. ‘Bengal for Bengalis’ is a wretched idea, one that deserves unequivocal opprobrium and should be rejected by Bengalis, not the least because it imperils the livelihoods of the many Bengalis who live and work outside West Bengal. What if the people of those states were to turn on immigrant Bengalis and tell them to pack up and leave as they were ‘outsiders’?
West Bengal should learn from Bihar which has been historically intolerant of ‘outsiders’—‘Bihar for Biharis’ was officially proposed by Rajendra Prasad and accepted by Congress even before India became independent—and has consequently suffered hugely because of retaliatory ‘insider-outsider’ politics in other states, most notably Maharashtra. That lesson must not be lost on Bengalis, even if it is wasted on West Bengal’s populist politicians who skilfully use the weapon of divisive politics and polarisation in the garb of protecting regional pride. There is no pride in labelling the ‘other’. More so because in West Bengal, there is no ‘other’.