Mamata’s Bangla Push: Linguistic Chauvinism Imperils Idea of India
At a press conference on Monday evening, West Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee declared that henceforth, students from Class I to X in all schools in the state would have to study Bengali. This is irrespective of which board a school is affiliated to or what a student’s mother tongue is.
“From now on, it will be compulsory for students to learn Bengali in schools. English medium schools will have to make Bengali an optional subject from Class I so that the students can study it either as a second or third language,” Chatterjee said.
Problem with Didi’s Diktat
In other words, Chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s government has ordained that you can no longer grow up in Bengal without having Bengali as part of your school curriculum. Your mother tongue may be Oriya, Assamese, Tamil, or any other Indian language; and you might want to opt for languages other than Bengali at school. Well, sorry, says the Bengal government – you aren’t free to do so anymore.
She might declare a holiday for Chhat Puja – a festival observed by Biharis – and put up banners wishing people a happy Pongal or Holi. She might speak passionately about her commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. But by making Bengali compulsory in schools, Mamata is clearly throwing her weight behind the militant aamra Bangali (We are Bengalis) sentiment that worships Bengali pride above all else.
Mandatory Exposure to Bengali Culture
Mamata has never made a secret of her Bengali pride, of course. She introduced the practice of blaring Rabindrasangeet at Kolkata’s traffic signals soon after she came to power in 2011.
It was revolting to hear the wondrous strains of Tagore’s songs mauled by horrendous acoustics and muffled by incessant honking. But for many years Didi
persisted in subjecting citizens to this mandatory – and bizarre – exposure to Bengali culture.
That said, there is a context to the WB government’s decision to make Bengali compulsory in schools. On 17 April this year the President approved the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on Official Language, giving a huge fillip to the use of Hindi in public life. This includes the delivery of all official speeches in Hindi and the move to make Hindi compulsory from Class I to X in CBSE schools.
Counter Move Against Making Hindi Compulsory
Needless to say, the proposal has been vigorously opposed by non-Hindi speaking states. Making Hindi compulsory in CBSE schools would mean that a student who might otherwise have studied English, his mother tongue, and perhaps a foreign language such as French or German, would have to forgo the latter for the sake of Hindi.
Many states see this as an attempt to extend Hindi’s hegemony throughout the country while suppressing other regional languages. Indeed, the DMK in Tamil Nadu has even threatened to launch anti-Hindi protests similar to those that shook the state in the 1960s.
Does that make it right? No, it doesn’t. Because two wrongs do not make a right. The West Bengal government’s sudden desire to force-feed students with Bengali is as wrong-headed as the Centre’s attempt to ram Hindi down the throat of every student studying under CBSE. (Incidentally, last month the Kerala government promulgated an ordinance making Malayalam mandatory in all schools in the state.)
Against the Idea of India
India is stunningly multi-lingual. The Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution lists 22 “official languages”, including Hindi. According to the People’s Linguistic Survey, the country has as many as 780 languages, though the last Census mentions 122.
According to latest figures, about 60 percent of the population speak in a language other than Hindi. The framers of our Constitution knew that it would be sheer folly to try and impose any single language on such a terrific linguistic smorgasbord. Which is why the Constitution stops short of naming Hindi as the “national language”.
In truth, be it Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam or any other – any exercise to make the study of a particular language mandatory is completely at odds with the pluralism on which the idea of India is built. In 2015 then HRD minister Smriti Irani had tried to replace German with Sanskrit as the third language in the Kendriya Vidyalayas. It was Irani’s stab at trying to mainstream the ancient language – a longstanding demand of Hindu right-wing groups.
The point is that if democracy is all about choices, such cultural diktats smack of the opposite, which is fascism.
Thrust Towards Bangla
In the case of Bengal, Mamata’s government is not the first to push Bangla above other languages. In 1984 the Left Front government abolished English in the primary sections of state-run schools. It brought English back in a phased manner from 1992 and eventually scrapped the policy in 2003. But by then generations of pupils had
been left with a weak foundation in English, severely affecting their job prospects.
This time though, the thrust towards Bangla is more sophisticated, extending as it does to every school in the state – public and private – no matter which board it belongs to or what the medium of instruction is. It is, without doubt, Mamata’s most bald-headed attempt to impose Bengali language and culture on the people who live
in the state.
Unfortunately, that makes her as much of a cultural chauvinist as those who are seeking to smother the motherland with Hindi.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached @ShumaRaha. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)