Around the globe, identity politics is gaining ground with surprising force. In the United States, White nationalism has resurfaced. Across the Atlantic, the swell of identitarianism is worrying the European Union.
In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party swept the 2019 general election by pushing a muscular nationalism based largely on Hindu identity. The BJP’s surge had its greatest impact on West Bengal, where the saffron party went from being a minor player to gaining nearly as many votes as the ruling Trinamool Congress.
Faced with this onslaught of exclusionary identity politics, the Trinamool Congress has decided to join a tide it could not beat. Since its Lok Sabha election setback, it has decided to push an ever-hardening variety of Bengali nationalism, which it desperately hopes will be able to counter the BJP’s Hindutva platform.
Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee first turned towards Bengali identity in order to try and counter the BJP’s rise in 2017, as the Hindutva party made it clear that it intended to conquer West Bengal, a state that has always eluded it.
Mimicking the politics of South India, the Trinamool made it compulsory for students in state-run schools to study Bengali. Banerjee also attacked the Union government over the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test for medical institutions, describing it as a device to “deprive West Bengal at the national level”.
To counter the BJP’s use of the Hindu god Ram for political mobilisation during the general elections, Banerjee’s emphasised the symbols of Hinduism popular in Bengal, as she tried to paint the saffron party as outsiders to the state. Her speeches frequently refer to Durga, the most popular deity in Bengal. “Do you [BJP] know what Durga Puja looks like?” she asked during the campaign. “Do you know how many weapons Ma Durga carries?”
Her rallies regularly featured the very Hindu-Bengali practice of women ululating.
When BJP president Amit Shah incorrectly identified the birthplace of Rabindranth Tagore during an election speech, the Trinamool immediately seized on his error to claim that that the BJP was “clueless about Bengal” and “insults Bengalis”. A Trinamool campaign song asked first time voters if they would “vote for or against Bengal”.
An inflection point came during the last phase of the elections, as clashes broke out alongside a rally by Amit Shah on May 14 in which a statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a key icon of the 19th century Bengal Renaissance, was smashed inside a Kolkata college.
The Trinamool alleged that BJP supporters had smashed the statue. The Trinamool used this as an opportunity to project itself as a Bengali party that was protecting the legacy of Vidyasagar, reiterating that the BJP was an organisation of outsiders, inimical to Bengal.
While the BJP made significant inroads into West Bengal overall, it drew a blank in the final phase of the elections, voting for which took place after the Vidyasagar incident. The Trinamool swept all nine seats in that phase. Significant sections of the Trinamool attribute this success to the strategy of emphasising Bengali nationalism in the aftermath of the incident.
Pushed by crisis
However, this strategic change was accompanied by the state government falling into a deep crisis, as West Bengal was gripped by disorder in the wake of the results. Several deaths have been reported in post-election clashes between BJP and Trinamool workers. In addition, government doctors went on strike across the state last week, crippling health services, protesting the attack on a colleague in a Kolkata hospital on June 10. These crises pushed the Trinamool to declare its Bengali nativist line even more vociferously, hoping that this new narrative will break the party’s free fall.
Within a week of the election results, the Trinamool-controlled Kolkata Municipal Corporation took the decision to scrap city signage in Hindi and Urdu and use only Bengali and English. On June 11, the chief minister held an elaborate ceremony to reinstall the bust of Vidyasagar. To counter the rise of the BJP, the Trinamool also set up two cultural organisation, along the lines of the Bajrang Dal: the Banga Janani Bahini (Mother Bengal Army) and the Jay Hind Bahini (Hail India Army).
After a couple of incidents of BJP workers accosting Banerjee shouting “Jai Shree Ram”, causing the chief minister to lose her cool, the party decided to adopt a new slogan to take on the BJP’s invocation. Replacing its earlier, vague “Maa, Maati, Manush” (mother, soil and man) slogan, the Trinamool decided to choose one that identified its roots as a Bengali party: Jay Hind, Jay Bangla. Hail India and Hail Bengal.
Upping the ante
As the doctor’s strike snowballed into a huge crisis for the Trinamool administration, Banerjee again turned to nativist politics. The chief minister went to a major Kolkata hospital on Thursday, the third day of the strike, and claimed that the agitation had been instigated by outsiders. (This only angered the doctors further). As part of the same speech, the chief minister also announced that students from other states would not be allowed to study medicine in government-run colleges in the state.
The next day, speaking in Barrackpore, Banerjee made her most radical Bengali nationalist pitch yet, declaring that anyone living in Bengal must speak Bengali. “When I go to Bihar, I speak Hindi since it is the state language. When I go to Uttar Pradesh, I speak Hindi,” said the chief minister. “You must speak Bengali if you live in Bengal. You can speak Hindi, English, Urdu, no one will have a problem. But you will also have to speak Bengali.”
Banerjee’s comments also had a specific local context. The Barrackpore Lok Sabha seat has seen almost continuous violence since the BJP won it on May 23. Given the area is a part of a colonial-era industrial belt close to Kolkata, it has a large number of people with origins in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Trinamool has blamed the violence on them, with the Kolkata mayor even claiming that Bengalis were “endangered” in that area due to the activities of the “Bihar army and Jharkhand Army”.
Banerjee kept up this line of attack on Friday, making sure to highlight the linguistic faultlines of the political violence that had gripped the area. “You will stay in Bengal but come on a bike and heckle Bengalis, behave like a goonda and speed away, I will not tolerate this criminal activity,” she said, to cheers. “The temerity – they want to remove Bengalis from Bengal. Can this ever happen?”
The politics of linguistic identity has been tried in other states and has seen its greatest success in Tamil Nadu. Most recently, there was a successful mass agitation in 2017 to remove Hindi from public signage in Bengaluru.
However, this ideology is completely new to West Bengal. Neither the previous Congress nor the Left administrations used the politics of linguistic identity as a major plank in the state.
Following this template, the Trinmool Congress has, until now, actually been extremely accommodative of minority languages as part of its catch-all, welfare populism. In fact, Banerjee’s first decision as chief minister in 2011 was to significantly expand the list of West Bengal’s official languages. Until then, English and Bengali were the only two languages used officially. The Trinamool administration added as many as six new ones – Punjabi, Nepali, Santhali, Oriya, Hindi and Urdu, making West Bengal’s the most polyglot state government in the country. Banerjee’s own letterhead carries her name in as many as four languages.
A long shot
While West Bengal is fairly linguistically uniform state in practice – more than 86% have their mother tongue as Bengali – the capital city of Kolkata, as eminent linguist SK Chatterji noted in 1931, is essentially a bilingual city with “Bengali and Calcutta Hindustani its two predominant languages”.
Given how much Kolkata affects the politics and culture of West Bengal and the fact that the state – unlike many other such as Tamil Nadu – has no history of language identity politics, Banerjee’s attempt to push a Bengali nationalist line in order to arrest her party’s decline and combat the BJP’s Hindutva might be a long shot.