Division of Bengal redux: When political battlelines are drawn on linguistic and religious lines

Abhishek Law Kolkata | Updated on November 26, 2019

Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister, West Bengal

West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Mamata Banerjee seems to have picked up a lesson or two from the BJP’s strategy of relying on the Ram Mandir and National Security when there is little else to rally public opinion. In her case, regional pride is the new political plank.

While the BJP has been working assiduously to cultivate Hindu votes in the State, Banerjee, over the last few months, beginning with the last phase of the Lok Sabha polls, has started harping on “Bengali pride” to contain the BJP surge.

From “inclusive politics” where “Bengal welcomes everyone” to “you have to know Bengali if you live in Bengal”, these lines reflect her party’s changing approach to the State’s politics.

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For instance, when the statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a noted Bengali educationist and social reformer, was desecrated, Banerjee was quick to blame the BJP and “its outsiders” who did not “value for the culture of Bengal”.

The Chief Minister immediately set up a committee, headed by now city police commissioner Anuj Sharma, to look into the alleged vandalism.

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The Lok Sabha elections 2019 came as a shock to everyone, including Banerjee, with the BJP making major inroads in the State. With 18 seats, the saffron party was breathing down the Trinamool’s neck and emerged as the principal opposition with over 40 per cent vote share.

Since then, Banerjee has frequently invoked Bengali pride. She roped in poll strategist Prashant Kishor to plot her strategy and has been playing the ‘Bengali card’ at every opportunity.

New enemies, new strategies

Political analysts say Mamata Banerjee is trying to defend her turf ahead of the 2021 Assembly elections. The Trinamool Congress’s connect, and Banerjee’s connect, with the grassroots will be tested in the polls.

In the midst of the BJP-TMC tussle, Assaduddin Owaisi and his AIMIM have declared that they will field candidates in Bengal in the upcoming 2021 Assembly elections. This could split minority votes that would otherwise have gone to the Trinamool.

With Banerjee being openly critical of Owaisi in a recent public meeting (where she did not name the leader), the threat the minority leader poses cannot be overlooked.

In such a scenario, where even minority votes can be split, Banerjee has to ensure a division of Hindu votes too, and that, too, on linguistic lines.

“The strategy is to divide the BJP’s Hindu votes on linguistic lines and prevent any further consolidation of Hindu votes,” said a Trinamool Congress leader, requesting anonymity.

New normal

Verbal attacks on non-Bengali MPs such as the BJP’s Arjun Singh have sharpened; she also regularly highlights the accomplishments of luminaries from the State and their national contributions; for instance, Banerjee was quick to highlight Sourav Ganguly’s ascension as BCCI President and Abhijit Banerjee winning the Nobel Prize in Economics as new highs in Bengali pride. She even raised the issue of people in Darjeeling choosing an “outsider” over their own.

Amidst all this, she has continuously reiterated the fact that NRC (National Register of Citizens) will never be implemented in Bengal, as long as she was heading it.

Banerjee also keeps referring to the draft NRC list in Assam, pointing out that Bengali names are missing and stating that the BJP was “specifically targeting Bengalis” and that it is an “anti-Bengali party”. Posters saying “Anti-Bengali BJP go back” were also put up across Kolkata.

Her most recent diatribe against the Centre was when the latter said joint entrance exams will have a set of questions in Gujarati. "Our country is India, which is home to so many religions, cultures, languages, creeds and communities. However, maligning all regions and regional languages is the intention of the government at the centre," she wrote on Twitter.

Banerjee maintained that Joint Entrance Exams were conducted in English and Hindi. “Surprisingly, now only the Gujarati language has been added. Such a move is not praiseworthy. Why have other regional languages been ignored? Why injustice is being meted out to them? If Gujarati has to be there, then all regional languages, including Bengali, must be there,” the CM further added.

The National Testing Agency (NTA), which conducts the JEE, clarified that Gujarat is the only State that uses the exam for admissions to State engineering colleges and had thus sought permission to hold the JEE (Mains) in Gujarati.

However, the Trinamool stuck to its guns and carried out protests across Kolkata and the State.

Sudden Change

Political observers say that there has been a sudden and distinct change in Mamata Banerjee’s politics. When the Bengal Chief Minister harboured ambitions of playing a key role in Central politics, she projected herself as a champion of “inclusive politics”. She criticised regionalism, mob lynching and raised the cause of minorities and all communities.

West Bengal was mini-India, it was being said then, where people from all parts of the country are welcome.

The change in tack after the BJP’s success in the Lok Sabha election is worrying some observers. Her repeated references to non-Bengali residents of the State as “outsiders” is being seen as a dangerous and divisive political tactic, especially when there are attempts to divide the voter on communal lines.

Fringe group on the rise

Meanwhile, what comes as a parallel development is the rise of a fringe Bengali nationalist group, an organisation called ‘Bangla Pokkho’ (On Bengal’s Side)

Founded by Garga Chatterjee, a known Trinamool Congress sympathiser, who has often defended the party on national television, the organisation claims to be a “non-partisan Bengali nationalist” entity that champions the cause of Bengal and Bengali speaking people over others.

The Trinamool Congress is not officially associated with the group.

Incidentally, as is happening in other States, including Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, the Bangla Pokkho group has demanded that locals be given first right over jobs and business in Bengal. The party has put up a 30-point charter of demands on its Facebook page.

In fact, the group has also put up pamphlets and posters across Kolkata’s IT hub that bear such messages as “First Condition to live in Bengal: Learn Bengali” and “Respect Bengal or Leave”.

Recently, members of Bangla Pokkho arrived at the residence of a Rajput youth and demanded that he apologise for making offensive remarks against Bengali women on social media. Related videos were posted on social media too and covered in regional dailies in the State.

“Bangla Pokkho enjoys tacit backing of some leaders of the Trinamool,” a senior police official alleged, speaking on condition of anonymity.

BJP response

BJP Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta agrees that there is an attempt to divide voters on linguistic lines. He calls it a “sneaky ploy” that is being “experimented” in Bengal.

“Some section of the Trinamool Congress is promoting this regionalism as part of a larger attempt to create a vote division. Mercifully this has not picked up traction. It is a dangerous trend,” he told BusinessLine.

Dasgupta says it’s a political challenge that has to be taken up; but such divides are “bad for the country and for Bengal. You cannot just make a section of people feel unwanted,” he said.

As for the “outsider tag” being slapped on the BJP, Dasgupta said that right from its Jan Sangh days, the party has had an association with Bengal. In fact, the Jan Sangh was set up here, he said.

“It’s a canard that is being spread, and it has to be countered in every possible way. If you see the MPs, most of them are relatively new in Parliamentary democracy or in the Lok Sabha. So it may take them some time to get the hang of things and counter the campaigns,” he said.

Published on November 26, 2019

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