Amit Shah’s Hindi push will damage BJP in Bengal

Amit Shah’s Hindi push will damage BJP in Bengal

The TMC believes it will be able make Amit Shah's push for Hindi into issue during the next Bengal polls. (PTI Photo)

Mamata Banerjee’s reaction to Amit Shah’s ‘one nation, one language’ tweet on Hindi Day was rather muted, and not at all Mamata-like. The three sentences she tweeted read: “My best wishes to all on Hindi Diwas. We should respect all languages and cultures equally. We may learn many languages but we should never forget our mother-language.”

This same Mamata Banerjee had demanded in the recent past that the people from other states living in Bengal must speak in Bengali. She said, “We have to take Bangla forward. When we go to Delhi we speak in Hindi, when we go to Punjab we have to speak in Punjabi. I do it. So in the same way, if you are coming to Bengal, you have to speak in Bengali.” It generated a heated debate in Bengal. The Bengalis were unconcerned, but the others protested, and the sentiment found strong resonance on social media. So, Amit Shah’s words, that were tantamount to imposing Hindi as the only national language, should have been utilised by the Bengal chief minister to the hilt. But neither Mamata, nor her party, the Trinamool Congress (popularly known as TMC), has made it an issue. But, why?

By avoiding the issue, Mamata Banerjee and TMC have given it the chance become a ‘non-political’ issue for the whole of Bengal.

The TMC tactically resisted the urge to make it big issue right away knowing fully well that Bengali intellectuals will come forward and soon the issue could become one for all Bengalis. If this happens, there is no doubt that it will harm the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bengal. TMC leaders constantly characterise the BJP as ‘a party of the Hindi heartland’, and ‘a party that does not know Bengal’s culture’. Amit Shah’s sudden rant would help consolidate this perception. So, very cleverly, the chief minister restrained herself from making forays into the issue. The TMC believes, and rightly so, that it will be able to reap benefits by making it an issue during the next Bengal polls.

Meanwhile, as expected, Bengali intellectuals have come up in defence of the Bengali language. Shankha Ghosh, a venerated poet, reacted to Shah’s proposition. “Only those who do not know this country can think like this. Such comments can only be made if only there is a lack of clear conception about the characteristics and the character of this country,” he said. Pabitra Sarkar, a prominent linguist, was much more caustic in his comments. He recollected that while addressing the students in Dhaka on March 13, 948, Muhammad Ali Jinnah had said that only Urdu would be Pakistan’s language. Sarkar added that he found a similarity between Jinnah’s declaration and the comment of Amit Shah.

What he was obliquely referring to was a widespread agitation in East Pakistan on the language issue that made the relations between the East and West Pakistan tenuous. Several students involved in a pro-Bengali agitation in Dhaka died in police firing, and in commemoration of that day in 1952, February 21 is now observed as the International Mother Language Day.

The issue, however, is not only Bengal’s. Almost all states in the East and the North East (except Bihar and Jharkhand) speak separate languages. Most of these, like Assamese, Bengali and Odia have a common origin, a Prakrit language called Magadhi, while Hindi originated from another Prakrit language called Sauraseni. Even thirty years ago, Hindi was almost a foreign language to the people of the East. But in the natural course, Hindi has made inroads now, and people can understand it well. However, any attempt to impose it will face a rebellion from the Bengalis, Odias and the Assamese people.

To paper over the issue, Kiren Rijiju, an MP from Arunachal Pradesh and a union minister, shared a video of P Chidambaram’s speech on Hindi Day. Chidambaram is heard in the video saying that efforts to make Hindi as the country’s language will continue. BJP and RSS leaders are also busy telling the people that they have no intention of disturbing the status quo.

It is evident from Shah’s language tweets that his real intention is to curb English. There are not many politicians or intellectuals out there who would stand for English. But, if it is even Hindi versus English, Assam-Bengal-Odisha and the North-Eastern states will clearly favour English. The rapid growth of English medium schools in rural areas is a pointer to it. People may not mind learning Hindi as well, if three languages are taught. But Hindi at the cost of English will only face rejection.

Any push for Hindi by BJP leaders can only harm them in non-Hindi belts. Another Hindi Day will be observed, in 2020, just a few months before the Bengal assembly polls (due in March-April, 2021). The Bengalis will stay watchful of tweets from Shah on that day.

(Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of books including, A Naxal Story. He is a deputy editor at the Bengali daily, Aajkal)

(The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH)