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Choice of State Anthem Reflects Mamata Banerjee’s Dilemma Over Adopting Bengali Ethnic Politics 

Bengali identity politics could alienate and even destabilise Darjeeling, something that TMC cannot ignore.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Photo: Facebook/Mamata Banerjee

Kolkata: On Tuesday, West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee gave a rather surprising proposal – Rabindranath Tagore’s Banglar Mati Banglar Jol (Bengal’s soil, Bengal’s water), which he penned protesting the colonial bifurcation of Bengal in 1905, may be adopted as the ‘state anthem’ with changed lyrics. The usage of ‘Bengali’ in the song can be replaced with ‘Bengal’, she suggested.

The first two stanzas of the four-stanza song seek blessings and satiety for Bengal’s soil, water, air, fruits, homes, markets, fields and forests. The next two stanzas seek fulfilment of the resolve, hope, action and language of Bengalis and, unity of the Bengalis’ souls and minds and of all the brothers and sisters in Bengali households.

The Tuesday meeting was held in the conference room of the state secretariat, Nabanna, to discuss choosing a day to be celebrated as Poschimbanga Dibos, or West Bengal Day. Apart from political parties, the government had invited members of civil society, religious groups, industry and major sporting clubs. The Bharatiya Janata Party, Left Front parties and the Congress did not send any representatives, but leaders of leftist parties Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist) or SUCI(C) and CPI(ML)(Liberation) attended the meeting.

SUCI(C)’s Amitava Chatterjee, a central committee member of the party, promptly objected to the chief minister’s proposal, saying that tinkering with Tagore’s lyrics would cause an unnecessary controversy and should not be attempted.

The chief minister seemed to agree and asked if Dwijendralal Ray’s Dhano Dhanyo Pushpo Bhora could be considered. Not many agreed, possibly because the song is an ode to the country – as “the greatest of all countries”. No decision was arrived at during the meeting and Banerjee said it would be further discussed in the assembly on September 7.

Though Banerjee was quick to bury the topic of changing the Tagore song’s lyrics, the very reason the idea of replacing ‘Bengali’ in the song with ‘Bengal’ came to her in the first place is her dilemma over adopting a Bengali identity-based politics to counter the BJP’s Hindu nationalism.

This has been plaguing her since 2017 when the Sangh parivar – the group of organisations belonging to the BJP’s ideological-organisation parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – first made its presence felt in the state by organising massive Ram Navami processions in every district. She had asked why the BJP was imposing an alien festival on the day of Bengal’s own Annapurna Puja. She adopted the Joy Bangla (Victory to Bengal) of Bangladesh Liberation War fame as one of her party’s slogans soon after.

However, she had toned down on her Bengali identity pitch by the end of 2019, reportedly on the advice of political strategist Prashant Kishor, who is understood to have told the party that excluding the Hindi-speaking population from the party’s outreach initiatives would be wrong.

Yet, the 2021 assembly election saw the party riding on anti-outsider sentiments with slogans like Bangla Nijer Meyeke Chay (Bengal wants her own daughter). The famous Khela Hobe song had wordings like Baire Theke Borgi Asey/ Niyom Korey Proti Masey (The Borgi outsiders keep paying their monthly visits), which eventually found its place in wall graffiti across the state.

While the word Borgi originally referred to the Maratha raiders of the 18th century who earned notoriety in Bengal, the term in recent years was also tacitly used to refer to Kailash Vijayvargiya (pronounced Bijoyborgiyo in Bengali), the BJP’s then Bengal in-charge who is from Madhya Pradesh. “Bengal won’t bow before outsiders,” Banerjee thundered in rally after rally.

At the same time, the government and the party have also tried to address the interests of the Hindi-speaking population, from the government announcing a Hindi university to the party opening a Hindi cell.

“She has frequently been tempted by the prospect of countering Hindu nationalism with Bengali ethnic politics but has also been dissuaded by the prospect of alienating speakers of other languages, who make up nearly 14% of the state’s population,” said a TMC Lok Sabha MP, who did not want to be named in a comment involving the party chief.

Another leader had a different opinion: “It’s not really the Hindi-speaking people of south Bengal that deter Mamata Banerjee from adopting a DMK-like ethnic political line, it’s the Nepali-speaking people of Darjeeling.”

The making of a map 

These recent developments over choosing a Poschimbango Dibos and a state song arose after West Bengal governor C.V. Ananda Bose decided to celebrate June 20 as state foundation day. This was the day, in 1947, when the undivided Bengal assembly decided that the state would be bifurcated when India partitions and the eastern part would go to Pakistan.

The BJP’s Bengal unit had long been celebrating June 20 as the ‘foundation day’ of West Bengal, which they claim was conceived as a ‘homeland for Bengali Hindus’. Triggering the bitter memories of the Partition and pre-Partition riots has topped the Sangh parivar’s agenda in West Bengal.

It is precisely to keep this memory alive that the Union home ministry had not consented to the state government’s proposal for renaming West Bengal as Bangla, Bongo or Bongodesh. Senior BJP leaders have repeatedly alleged that the attempt to remove the ‘West’ from the state’s name was part of the TMC’s conspiracy to ‘erase the memories of Partition’.

Mamata Banerjee objected to the governor’s choice of the date, saying it rekindled unpleasant memories, and subsequently proposed Poila Boishakh, the first day of the Bengali calendar, usually on April 14/15. The government is taking public opinion and asked people interested to send their suggestions to former bureaucrat Alapan Bandyopadhyay, currently the chief advisor to the chief minister, by September 5.

Bangla Pokkho, a Bengali ethnic rights group, has objected to both proposed dates. They argue that the map of West Bengal decided on June 20 did not include Purulia district, which was then part of Bihar. “West Bengal got its present shape and map on November 1, 1956, with the inclusion of Purulia. That should be the state’s foundation day,” Garga Chatterjee, the general secretary of the organisation, said.

Chatterjee also alleged that by proposing change in the lyrics of the Tagore song, the chief minister was indulging in ‘appeasement politics’. He did not clarify who Banerjee was appeasing. “It’s clear she was not appeasing the Bengalis,” he told The Wire.

There, indeed, are several differences in how West Bengal’s map was perceived on June 20, 1947, and how it actually came to be. The June 20 decision meant Hindu-majority districts of Bengal would stay with India but West Bengal’s new map was still not clear, especially over the fate of districts like Khulna, Nadia, Dinajpur, Malda, Murshidabad and Jessore.

In August 1947, Nadia district was bifurcated, with its Muslim-majority areas, Kushtia, Chuadanga and Meherpur, going to East Pakistan. The Bongan sub-division of Jessore district came to West Bengal. Malda was part of either the Bhagalpur division of Bihar or Rajshahi division of Eastern Bengal and Radcliffe’s boundary commission report provisionally gave it to Pakistan. It was formally awarded to India on August 17. While Muslim-majority Murshidabad came to India, Hindu-majority Khulna went to Pakistan.

Cooch Behar, which was a princely state, became part of West Bengal on January 1, 1950.

Besides, West Bengal’s southern part was disconnected from its northern districts by a stretch of Bihar – made up mostly of the Kishanganj sub-division of Purnea district – which was added to Malda district only on November 1, 1956, to give the state’s landscape continuity. Purulia was added to Bengal on the same day, following protests in the Bengali-dominated areas of Bihar’s Manbhum district. 

Banerjee’s dilemma 

Most Indian states celebrate their foundation day – Bihar on March 22 marking its separation from colonial Bengal province in 1912, Odisha on April 1 marking its separation from the colonial Bihar and Orissa province in 1936, Maharashtra and Gujarat on May 1 marking the curving out of the states from the erstwhile Bombay province in 1960, Madhya Pradesh on November 1 marking the formation of the state by reorganisation in 1956, and Assam on December 2 marking the foundation of the Ahom Kingdom in the 13th century.

In recent years, several states have also adopted their own state anthem – including AssamGujaratOdishaTamil NaduKarnataka and Maharashtra, among others.

West Bengal neither celebrated any foundation day nor had a state anthem. But the BJP’s push for a foundation day has brought Banerjee into action.

According to Chatterjee, their organisation already treats Banglar Mati Banglar Jol as their state song and welcomed the chief minister’s proposal. “Even if the government adopts the song with changed lyrics, we will continue with the original. It’s the most deserving to be our state song,” he said.

Over the past couple of years, the government has taken a number of steps that Bangla Pokkho and other Bengali ethnic rights groups like Jatiyo Bangla Sammelan had demanded. These included making Bengali or Nepali mandatory in West Bengal Civil Service (WBCS) exams and in the recruitment of police constables, besides introducing a domicile quota in for admission in the engineering department of Jadavpur University and BTech course of Calcutta University.

Another veteran TMC leader, however, claimed that the key reason Banerjee did not want the word Bengali in the song is that it could trigger fresh trouble in the Darjeeling hills, which have remained largely peaceful over the past few years after months of violence, destruction and bandhs in 2017, the wounds of which are yet to heal.

It was, in fact, Banerjee’s attempt with Bengali identity politics that triggered the 2017 Darjeeling violence. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s then helmsman, Bimal Gurung, found a weapon to revive the Gorkhaland statehood agitation the moment Banerjee announced that teaching Bengali would be mandatory in every school in the state.

She was quick to announce that this decision would not be implemented in and around Darjeeling hills, where Nepali would be the language mandatory in every school, but the fire started spreading quicker than the government and political satraps estimated.

“We shouldn’t do anything that would isolate the Gorkhas of Darjeeling and revive the statehood movement. Darjeeling is Bengal’s integral part, the situation there has only just tried to normalise followed sustained efforts, and we should act responsibly, keeping their sentiments in mind, while taking decisions involving the whole state,” said a minister in the Banerjee government.

Md Salim, the CPI(M)’s state secretary, said that they did not attend the meeting because they consider state foundation day and state anthem as non-issues. “As opposition parties are uniting under the banner of the INDIA platform, the Sangh parivar is trying to divide people. The TMC is playing into their hands. The government has never called all-party meetings on issues like unemployment, price rise and communal harmony,” Salim told The Wire.

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