Why Mamata Banerjee's politics over Bengali language is a self goal

Soumyadipta Banerjee
Soumyadipta BanerjeeJul 17, 2019 | 11:01

Why Mamata Banerjee's politics over Bengali language is a self goal

Most of the non-Bengalis living and working in Bengal already know the language.

I started my full-time journalism career in Kolkata when I was 21 years old. I was still waiting for my Honours results when I started working as a trainee reporter with a leading English newspaper in Kolkata. That was the year 1999 and those were still the days of the mighty CPM in West Bengal.

As a rookie journalist, I frequently took time out of my staple journalistic beat (I used to cover 'crime') to attend press conferences where I could meet people from my fraternity and, as they say, "networked" with them.


In those press conferences, there was one marked feature that never ceased to amaze me. Any celebrity (if he/she knew Bengali) would invariably start speaking in Bengali even though the press conference was supposed to be held entirely in English.

It was sort of a routine affair.

The wall Mamata Banerjee wants to break down doesn't exist. (Photo: India Today)

More often than not, almost all press conferences would continue to happen in Bangla towards its closing hours even if we had a non-Bengali celebrity from Bengal. It is because all of them knew how to speak Bengali well.

If the celebrity (especially the ones from Bollywood) happened to be non-resident of Bengal or the proverbial "outsider", then he or she would invariably try speaking a few words in broken Bengali like "Haami Rosgulla khabo" (I will eat Rasgullas) or "Amu Tumaay Balobhaasi" (I love you).

More often than not, the journalists sitting in front of the celebrities would just smile and acknowledge the effort and try their best to shift the conversation into English or Hindi.

Did anybody force them to learn Bengali? Nope.

The Marwari community is Bengal's economic lifeline. From movie-making to retail business, from heavy industries to running schools and hospitals — it's the Marwaris who own most of the flourishing businesses Bengal.


If you are a Bengali then I urge you to go and meet any of these non-Bengali residents of Bengal who are living in Bengal for at least two generations. I bet that almost all of them will speak fluently in Bengali. The same cannot be said for cities like Bangalore or Chennai or Mumbai where many residents don't even comprehend the local language.

Did anybody force them to learn Bengali? Nope.

There are several students from other states who are studying in Bengal. It is common knowledge that many of them learn Bengali in less than a year and their language skills turn good enough to hold an entire conversation in Bengali.

Did anybody force them to learn Bengali? Nope.

Speak to the prominent industrialists like Harshvardhan Neotia or Sanjeev Goenka and I promise that you will be floored not only by their perfect Bengali pronunciation but also with their deep knowledge about the Bengali culture and heritage.

Go ahead and speak to the small trader in Howrah or the cloth merchant at Burrabazar and I promise that they will impress you too with their Bengali language skills.

Did anybody force them to learn Bengali? Nope.


The leading film heroines of Bengal — Koel Mullick, Srabanti and (Trinamul MP) Nusrat Jahan — are all married to non-Bengalis. One of the biggest film heroes of the Bengali film industry — Jeet — is also a Sindhi. His real name is Jeetendra Madnani.

Today, the city of joy has reached such a juncture when most of the Bengali movies that are coming out of Bengal are made with a non-Bengali's money (just look up the list of Bengali film producers and you will know).

And this has been achieved because Bengal has embraced the non-Bengalis who, in turn, have embraced the Bengalis even harder.

The non-Bengalis are patrons of a lot of things that are inherently Bangla culture, including some of the most prominent public Durga Pujas in Kolkata.

Can you say the same about any other city in India where every so-called outsider has embraced the city as one of their own and that too, so passionately?

I really doubt it.

This love for Bengal, this sense of belonging, this pure, unadulterated adulation for anything that is Bengali was recently negated by its current chief minister Mamata Banerjee when she declared that if "you want to stay in Bengal, then you will have to speak Bengali".

I was gobsmacked when I read that outrageous statement. I wondered what wall was Ms Banerjee trying to break down when it doesn't exist in the first place?

One of the leading actors of Bengali film industry, Jeet, is a Sindhi. (Photo: Facebook)

I saw my social media timeline erupt in protests with this intended "Bengali-must" policy. Some even compared this statement as the last resource of gaining some political mileage by playing the parochial card which has worked temporarily for political parties and their leaders in other states.

Since then, the chief minister of West Bengal hasn't clarified her statement or taken it back.

I am yet to come across anybody who is of the opinion that chief Mamata Banerjee is representing the people's wish because there was no such popular wish, to begin with.

Let me inform you at this juncture that this decision to impose Bengali is not entirely a new step from Ms Banerjee.

Two years ago, in the year 2017, the hills of Darjeeling had erupted in protests when the chief minister had hinted at making Bengali a compulsory language in the school curriculum in the hills where Nepali is the principal academic medium of instruction.

It was quickly clarified later that the government intended to make it only an optional language subject in the state school curriculum. 

That was the starting point of the Darjeeling crisis that boiled over and morphed into bigger protests after a series of other incidents. Peace was achieved in the hills with much difficulty and after sustained efforts.

Non-Bengali industrialists working in Bengal speak in fluent Bengali. Mamata Banerjee knows that. (Photo: Twitter) 

The Bengal government today has clearly learnt no lesson from what had happened in Darjeeling. We are again hearing hints of the same strategy that has already backfired massively on the state government just two years ago.

But I have a different question.

What will the chief minister achieve by imposing Bengali on the so-called "outsiders"? What is she actually gaining by banging her head against an imaginary wall?

When we have all the so-called "non-Bengalis" opening their arms wide and embracing the Bengali culture, what purpose will be achieved by telling the same people time and again that they need to speak in Bengali if they want to stay in Bengal?

Let me answer the question myself. This is a self-goal.

Imposing Bengali on the same people who have already embraced everything Bengali won't make them change the way they look at Bengal. But they might change the way they look at you, respected chief minister.

Last updated: July 17, 2019 | 11:07
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