Wednesday, Aug 10, 2022
Eastern India

The Bengali Language Tale: From Dominant To Persecuted

In India’s East and Northeast, the fear of losing linguistic identity has often led to prolonged agitations and violence among communities which share many social and cultural affinities

Lord and master Ram Navami celebrations in Calcutta Photographs: Getty Images

In April 2017, a network of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated organisations exhibited an unprecedented strength across West Bengal on the occasion of Ram Navami, a hitherto-marginal festival in the state, with ‘DJ songs’ in Hindi playing out aloud in tableaus, accompanied by Hindi slogans praising Lord Ram by saffron-headband-wearing and flag- and sword-waving participants. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee dubbed the saffron camp’s display as an imposition of ‘alien’ north-Indian culture on Bengal’s soil and also announced that henceforth Bengali will be mandatory in every school, either as first, second or third language. “Students are free to choose two other languages of their preference but Bengali has to be one of the three,” she first said in mid-April, and then repeated the stance through May.

Her language move was widely seen as her att­empt to play with Bengali ethnic sentiments to counter attempted polarisation on religious lines. Cultural dominance is among the worst fears for a Bengali, a community proud of its sense of cultural excellence or superiority. Bengalis have laid down lives—three students in Dhaka in 1952 while protesting imposition of Urdu, 11 in Assam’s Silchar in 1961 while protesting imposition of Assamese on Bengali-majority Barak Valley, and in 1970-71, Bang­ladesh was born through a bloody war to thwart West Pakistan’s attempt to impose Urdu on the Bengali-speaking people of the East.