Whose Bengal is it anyway?

It was a sign of things to come. Dilip Ghosh, Bengal’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief, chattered away in Hindi on national television to an interviewer who was as much a home-grown fish-eating Bengali as he. She opened in English but since she needed her story, and Ghosh was clearly determined to establish what I can only call his cow-belt credentials, she tamely followed suit in such Hindi as she could muster.

In another age and at another level, Tagore responded with “a volley of Sanskrit” to Oxford’s Latin citation when it honoured him with an honorary doctorate. Perhaps he was influenced by the first Lord Sinha, Britain’s only non-white hereditary peer, who must have caused eyebrows to rise way back in 1919 when he introduced Sanskrit (his motto Jata Dharma Stata Jaya) to the College of Heralds and House of Lords. It was the first BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who established Hindi’s international status in the UN.

Bengalis don’t usually speak Hindi, and do it badly when forced to. The underlying principle of Zhou Enlai’s comment after his education in Japan that language is an instrument of colonialism finds resonance in the state. West Bengal did not respond with angry protests to what Tamils called “Hindi imperialism” but East Bengal more than made up for it with a war of liberation in which India intervened. In fact, Bangladeshis were contemptuous that Indian Bengalis left it to the Tamils to resist Hindi.

But despite the outward calm, Bengal’s last Congress chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, was criticised for “surrendering” to Sanjay Gandhi’s Hindi imperialism. Two ironies can’t however be overlooked. First, Bengali resistance to Hindi was never seriously extended to the English language. Second, although Kolkata is the citadel of Bengali nationalism, not everyone regards it as a Bengali city.

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, undivided Bengal’s last premier, wasn’t of Bengali origin. He traced his name to Suhraward in Iraq and his lineage to the Prophet as he dreamt of an independent Bengal governed from Calcutta. He called it a city that had been “built up largely by the resources of foreigners, inhabited largely by people from other provinces who have no roots in the soil and who come here to earn their livelihood, designated in another context as exploitation”. For Lord Curzon, Kolkata was “a European city set down upon Asiatic soil”. A local newspaper, The Englishman, declared more bluntly, “Calcutta is a purely English city. The city belongs and has always belonged to the English, and the native community in it is simply a foreign and parasitical community that would cease to exist if the English were to abandon it.”

It was gratifying that Kumbakonam-born Sir Henry Cotton, a Civilian from 1867 to 1902, and the son, grandson and father of ICS officers, did all his work except correspondence in Bengali “and for weeks and months together spoke no other language while in office.” But Bengalis weren’t put out because Michael Carritt, also of the ICS, who served just before the Second World War, “could speak or understand no Bengali at all”. He had another string to his bow. Apart from the heaven-born service, he was the Communist Party of Great Britain’s secret emissary to the Communist Party of India and hobnobbed with the likes of PC Joshi.

The Brits have gone; Marwaris are the new Brits. Drawn by lucrative trading opportunities, the Bania influx from Rajasthan spiralled by 400 per cent between 1890 and 1920. Two local grandees, Maharajadhiraja Bijay Chand Mahtab of Burdwan and Nawab Khwaja Salimullah of Dacca, joked that “Marwari” was “More-worry”. They probably meant the great 1917 scandal of adulterated ghee, a trade Marwaris monopolised. As frenzied rumours swept Bengal, tests showed that only seven out of 67 samples were pure cow’s milk ghee. One sample had only 5 per cent ghee, another not a drop. Much of it was untouchable fat that would horrify any self-respecting gaurakshak. Pundits from Benares prescribed costly and elaborate purification ceremonies, and Lord Ronaldshay, Bengal’s governor, noted the “electrifying” spectacle of nearly 5,000 Brahmins desperately cleansing themselves by the Hooghly.

Despite their jest, neither Bijay Chand nor Khwaja Salimullah was Bengali. The first Mahtab was a Punjabi Hindu. Dacca’s nawabs were Kashmiri Muslim. R.P. Goenka, the leading Marwari industrialist, claimed to be an indigene: he wore a dhoti and spoke Bengali but his consciousness remained Marwari. As the BJP raced neck and neck with the Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee must have regretted the cosmopolitan liberalism that allows Bengal to embrace outsiders as favourite sons.

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