For decades, West Bengal was an anomaly on identity politics. As the rest of India mobilised around caste, religion and language, West Bengal’s left-oriented politics meant that identity was rarely mentioned as an explicit political framework.

Over the past few years, though, this has crumbled.

The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party as the principal opposition has resulted in Hindu nationalism becoming an explicit political pitch. To counter this, the incumbent Trinamool Congress has pushed hard on another identitarian button: Bengali nationalism.

Outsiders vs sons of the soil

As the state heads into assembly elections this summer, pitched battles have already been fought over the issue of Bengaliness. The Trinamool has now for months been calling the BJP a party of “bohiragotos” – outsiders.

“Bengal will be run by the people of Bengal, not by outsiders,” Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said in July at her party’s massive martyr’s day commemoration. Since then, she and her party have repeated this message frequently.

“There is no place for outsiders in Bengal,” Banerjee said in November. “Those who come to the state only during elections and try to disturb the peace of the state are not at all welcome.”

While using the term “bohiragoto” itself represents an unprecedented escalation, the Trinamool has even gone further, using the term “borgi” to describe the BJP. Borgis were Maratha raiders whose brutal 18th-century invasions of Bengal had a profound impact, the effects of which still exist in the state’s popular culture.

“You have heard about borgis,” Banerjee said, speaking at a rally in December. “You have to save Bengal from these outsiders.”

Mamata Banerjee with a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore in December. Credit:PTI

‘Gujaratis are outsiders?’

The intensity of this attack has sparked pushbacks by the BJP. “I do not understand with which vision an Indian citizen is being called an outsider,” said the state governor Jagdeep Dhankar, who has made little attempt to hide his support for the saffron party that appointed him.

In December, state party president Dilip Ghosh pushed back against the “bohiragoto” tag: “Mother Teresa, Sister Nivedita came from abroad but became ours – but Gujaratis are outsiders? You have to be mad to speak like this.”

On Thursday, Union Home Minister Amit Shah responded to Banerjee’s attacks by clarifying that “Gujaratis will not contest” and “only Bengalis will contest and from the government”.

This isn’t the only instance of Trinamool raising the issue of Bengali identity in an attempt to corner the BJP. In December, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, TMC MP from Barasat, accused Amit Shah of insulting Rabindranath Tagore by sitting in the poet’s chair at the university founded by the icon – a charge that Shah refuted while speaking in Parliament on Tuesday.

In January, a controversy erupted when BJP workers started to heckle Chief Minister Banerjee with chants of “Jai Shri Ram” at a function to mark the birth anniversary of freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose. An angry Banerjee refused to speak, later characterising the heckling as an insult to Bose – a serious charge, given the near-hallowed status he has in West Bengali memory.

The event eventually led to a rare rebuke of the BJP by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which agreed with Banerjee and asked for the people who shouted the slogans to be “identified”.

BJP pushback

Given the intensity of the Trinamool attack and the media attention it has received, the BJP has attempted to counter the criticism that it is a party not native to Bengal. On January 27, state president Dilip Ghosh tweeted out the charge that the Trinamool was using a “Bangladeshi slogan”. This proved, Ghosh argued, that Banerjee’s aim is “Greater Bangladesh”.

The slogan – Joy Bangla – or hail Bengal is now being vigorously used by all levels of the Trinamool as a salutation in much the same way as Jai Hind.

Given how common the slogan Joy Bangla is in West Bengal – along with equivalents across the country such as Jai Maharashtra – it remains to be seen if the BJP’s branding of it as seditious will work in the public perception.

Raising the pitch

While Mamata has raised her Bengali nationalistic pitch in the run up to the 2021 Assembly elections, she has been pushing on this issue since the time time the BJP became a major player in the state.

She drew attention to the alleged desecration of the statue of Vidyasagar – another Bengali icon – by BJP workers during the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign. While the BJP did rather well overall in that election, it drew a blank in the final phase of the elections, voting for which took place after the Vidyasagar incident. Many in the Trinamool saw that outcome as a bright portent towards placing more emphasis on Bengali identity.

Just after the election in June, Banerjee made her strongest nativist pitch yet, declaring that anyone living in Bengal must speak Bengali: “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.”

Will it succeed?

Linguistic politics is not new to India. States such as Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and most recently Karnataka have seen strong movements around it. However, it has seen little prominence in West Bengal’s history.

While communal identity and class have both played major roles since the creation of West Bengal in 1947, language has not. Consequently, for most of its own existence, the Trinamool has had no ideological bent towards Bengali identity.

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.

To add to this, as Rajat Roy, a political scientist at Presidency University, points out is the crumbling of the influence of the bhadralok middle class in West Bengal, which identifies most closely with Bengali identity. “People don’t look up to buddhuijibis, intellectuals anymore,” he said. “So it is unclear what the impact of this Bengali push will be.”

Contrast this with the BJP’s emphasis on communal identity. Not only has the larger Sangh Parivar family championed it for a century, communal antagonism has played a key role in Bengal’s modern history. Till now, the BJP has seen significant success alleging not only modern-day appeasement of Muslims by the Trinamool but also historical wrongs such as the plight of East Bengali refugees due to the Bengal Partition.

The Trinamool’s invocation of Bengali identity might have captured the media’s attention – but can it break this communal pull?