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Bengali nationalism fights back

  • Published at 01:38 pm November 30th, 2018
West Bengal in an identity crisis?
West Bengal in an identity crisis? / BIGSTOCK

What sentiments can Mamata inculcate in the people of West Bengal? 

The Bengal Renaissance in 19th century Kolkata and its momentum in early 20th century, which also had a good sway over the solvent Bengali Hindus across Bengal Presidency of the British Raj, created an intellectual over-development among the educated Bengali Hindus. The contrast became starker in the Indian state of West Bengal when, after the partition of 1947, it gradually lost its economic strength. 

This intellectual overgrowth and partition-related setback, where the Bengali Hindus lost the bigger part of their domain of influence and source of economic strength, have resulted in some strange phenomena in the following decades in West Bengal. Despite the communal strife around 1947, the powerful Bengali Hindu middle-class of WB, by and large, maintained their relatively liberal approach to life, society, and politics. 

The sizable Bengali Muslims of West Bengal were, and still are, ultra backward, and are in no position to extract themselves out of that situation without state help. But there are also resistances and mismanagement of their desires. That’s the story of another paradox. 

One implicit and inadvertent reason of this relatively liberal outlook of the dominating West Bengali Hindus was probably to do away with the caste divide as much as they could among themselves. But it also had other liberal symptoms. 

Embracing a province-level variant of social-democracy under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that has meaningful presence only in West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura is another unexpected outcome of intellectual overgrowth. But, this customized Marxist ideology has also contributed immensely to quell tensions along social issues, ie caste, religion, etc. 

However, economic stagnation of West Bengal during the Left rule eventually exhausted its political potential in recent years. Socially, the economic dullness of WB resulted in the migration of a big number of Bengali talents and quality professionals to the West and other prosperous Indian states.   Populist Mamata Banerjee emerged as the new political strongman, funnily without any clear ideology.

It’s like a great and ironic fall from the so called high ideology of the Marxists to almost “no ideology” of Mamata’s Trinamool Congress. At one stage, it was thought she would stick to a hard line Bengali nationalism or sub-nationalism. Apparently, she gave that up for several tactical and strategic reasons of local and national political ambitions, and lost some bargaining tools with the centre in the process. 

There are perception conflicts within the wider Indian society. Hindi speakers are little less than 40% of the Indian population. The elites and middle class of the Hindi speakers hold a notion of superiority as the first claimant over India, its resource, and territory. They consider North India as the heartland, and Delhi as the sole power centre of India, and look down to non-Hindi states and their people as the periphery, in spite of the higher levels of revenue generation by some of these states. 

It resulted in a backlash in the form of the rise of some provincial ethno-linguistic nationalism eg Telegu Desam Party, Dravid Munnetra Kazagam among others. Emergence of largely north India-based Hindu nationalist BJP, and resistance to it especially in the Non-Hindi areas, have further complicated the situation. It vindicates the artificiality of relative over-centralization of the Indian Republic or Union. 

Also, the outcome of such contradictory political development is that some Indian states are almost perpetually ruled by central governments who they hardly vote for. In India, the centre has about two-thirds of the budgetary allotment authority, as opposed to the one-third of the states/provinces. 

The centre–state relation and bargain is another important facet of Indian domestic politics. There are biases in the central resource redistribution pattern, and that is skewed more towards north and western India -- the regular voting regions of national parties.

Meanwhile, separatism (Tamil Nadu in the 1960s and Indian North Eastern states and Kashmir), quasi-separatism (Shiv Sena, MNS), or demand for further devolution of power to the states had been a lingering factor in Indian politics, though highly undesired by Delhi. New and loose political rearrangement is a nightmare for Delhi hegemons. 

Non-Hindi states leveraged this bargaining tool to extract good economic and developmental packages from the centre for their people, and offset their relative disadvantage in comparison to Hindi speakers.

West Bengali political elite are one of the few political groups that failed to make use of this bargaining chip due to the discussed intellectual overgrowth. Influential West Bengali liberals of all political identity, despite being in the periphery, inadvertently take this onus of liberal self-inflicting “Indianness” that serves central power upon themselves over the well-being of the vast poor of West Bengal.

This psyche is another kind of “false consciousness” -- a Marxist concept, ironically, of Frederick Engels.  This is already engendering, as backlash, some growth of Bengali Nationalism in West Bengal among the aspiring underprivileged. 

It is not clear how much Bengali nationalism Mamata can inculcate to the effect of solidarity within her state, and get long overdue economic packages from Delhi. It’s not clear either, whether she, or her party, has the capacity to theorize an effective Bengali nationalism which won’t be too counterproductive. 

It’s also to be seen whether she can invoke that level of political nuance within her impulsive self. Surely, there are interesting times ahead in West Bengali politics. 

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a contributor to Dhaka Tribune.