This year, on our (India’s) Independence Day, a group of my friends were talking about the celebrations when one of them mentioned that he feels that Bengalis are the most patriotic of all in India. I had never really given this a lot of thought before but the comment got me thinking: do we Bengalis really put our country before everything? Do we put India before Bengal?
I have always lived in the state of West Bengal, India. Now that I am studying in Goa with people of different backgrounds and from different states, I see a lot of differences between our culture and that of the rest of the country. While we do share similar sentiments of pride towards our culture as the other Indian states, the way our love for our traditions and heritage finds manifestation is wildly different from anywhere else, possibly in the whole world. For the longest time, India has taken pride in its diversity. The country seeks unity in acknowledging, respecting and preserving the diversity in culture, lineage and heritage. When politicians come up with ideas involving linguistic homogenization of the country, India and her people respond with passionate protests.
Language, an integral part of an ethnic group’s culture and an essence of their non-material heritage, is a powerful political tool. It has the power to unify nations like it did for Italy and Germany and on the other hand, create conflicts like Catalonia and Spain. Language has been a central factor in the demarcation of states in India. The ethno-linguistic divisions are definitely not perfect for there exists over a hundred languages and more of their dialects in the country. As a result, the political map of India is forever changing with Telangana being born in 2014 and the fight for the Nepali majority Darjeeling district of West Bengal’s fight for a separate state, Gorkhaland, still being on.
The way Bengalis feel about their language is slightly different though. They have never been afraid of giving up their lives to preserve their mother-language, Bangla (or Bangali as non-Bengalis would call it). Unlike France and groups of Gandhian ideologues, Bengalis do not seek to elevate their mother-tongue to a higher pedestal only to counter the supremacy of English (colonial language for the Indians). It is our love for our language, literature, art and so on and so forth that make us do so, all thanks to the Bangali Renaissance of the 1700s-1900s.
In 1947, when British India was partitioned into the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan right before their independence from colonial rule, East Bengal became East Pakistan, solely because of the fact that it was home to a majority of the Muslim population. Besides, the 200 years of the British colonial policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ had proven to be remarkably efficacious, resulting in alienating and pitting the Hindus and Muslims against each other in the erstwhile state of Bengal. This helped in the Partition of Bengal into East and West Bengal by the then British viceroy, Lord Curzon in 1905. Various movements sprung up against the partition. Famous freedom fighter and future Nobel-laureate, Rabindranath Tagore encouraged the celebration of Raksha-Bandhan, a Hindu festival to honour the bond between a brother and a sister, between Hindus and Muslims instead. Songs celebrating the unity between the two religions found popularity as battle-cries of the energetic protests against the actions of the English. However, Indians failed to stop what in my personal opinion has been one of the most strategic ways to destroy Bengal’s unity and a future as a unified state. The Partition of Bengal was later annulled in 1911 but the province was never to be the same again.
India was similarly partitioned, yet again, right before the transfer of power in 1947. East Bengal was handed over to Prime Minister Jinnah’s Pakistan in a platter that year. 55% of Pakistan’s population resided in East Pakistan and yet, the distant minority residing in West Pakistan was to rule over them. This lead to a great deal of resentment and problems, and they were not just limited to the communication issues resulting from the uncomfortable fact that the two halves of the country were separated by the state of India. Urdu was to be given the status of the national language, effectively making it a language superior to East Pakistan’s beloved mother-tongue Bangla. The Bangladesh Liberation Movement, which finally concluded with the birth of yet another country, Bangladesh in 1971, found momentum because of the Bangali population’s love for their Bangaliayana- the Bangali culture.
Dhaka University played a central role in this movement. No wonder it had to see blood spilt multiple times. One of the most shocking incidents of this movement, fuelled by the love for Bangla also happens to be one of those incidents that Bangalis, across borders, hold very close to heart. It took place on February 21st, 1952, when 4 students of Dhaka University were killed by the Pakistani forces for opposing the sole use of Urdu in educational institutions across the Bangali majority region. Today, the UN commemorates this day (21st of February) as the International Mother Language Day every year. Every Bangali looks back at this massacre with pride and respect because it symbolises the fact that their love for their language is stronger than anything else can ever be.
Historically, Bangalis have always been a very politically active culture. They have never shied away from a revolution. The fact that most revolutionaries of the Independence Movement were Bangali bears testimony to this fact. Even today, West Bengal finds itself amidst protests and revolutions against what it considers wrong throughout the year. It has already witnessed the Doctor’s Revolution and the protest against ABVP and RSS’s Hindutva-centric actions in Jadavpur University this year itself. People of West Bengal’s love for revolutions, change and socialism lies in stark contrast to the political compass of most of the other parts of India.
Sentimental views of how Bangladesh and the Bangali majority regions of India ought to be a single country has existed for quite some time now. In fact, Prime Minister Clement Attlee of UK predicted that Bengal would want to be united under a single banner- it would want to rise above the religious demarcations that virtually defined the rest of the country and unify for the love of Bangla in 1946. HS Suhrawardy, the then premier of Bengal explained his stance in support of an ‘independent, undivided and sovereign Bengal’ and appealed to the masses on April 27th of 1947:
“Let us pause for a moment to consider what Bengal can be if it remains united. It will be a great country, indeed the richest and the most prosperous in India capable of giving to its people a high standard of living, where a great people will be able to rise to the fullest height of their stature, a land that will truly be plentiful. It will be rich in agriculture, rich in industry and commerce and in the course of time it will be one of the most powerful and progressive states of the world. If Bengal remains united this will be no dream, no fantasy.”
Besides the appeal to the Bangali exceptionalism, left-wingers supported this cause, blaming all of Bengal’s ills on the non-Bangali capitalists. GD Birla was quoted saying: “I am in favour of separation, and I do not think it is impracticable or against the interest of Hindus” as early as 1942, on behalf of the Marwari business community in Kolkata. If only the plan for Bengal unification had been all about catering to the sole interests of Hindus.
Even MA Jinnah supported the cause instead of wanting Bengal for Pakistan although he had a slightly different reasoning, stating: “what is the use of Bengal without Calcutta?” The most influential supporter of the plan to make Bengal a separate nation was Sarat Chandra Bose, a popular congressman and the elder brother of the celebrated freedom fighter, Subhash Chandra Bose. The proposal for United Bengal involved equal quotas for Hindus and Muslims in the military and the police, which were to be indigenised and ‘manned by Bangalis’. The plan that was eventually made public on May 24th of 1947, 10 days before the final Partition plan was announced, provided for a Hindu-Muslim coalition Government in Unified Bengal. The Prime Minister was to be a Muslim and the Home Minister a Hindu. However, the Hindu-Muslim riots in Kolkata around the same time and the open opposition to the unification of Bengal by Sardar Vallabhai Patil, Jawaharlal Nehru and later even Gandhiji, eventually led to this plan being discarded.
The reason why most non-Bangali Indian leaders failed to support the idea of the formation of a third country is because they thought that it would lay down a precedent for other states to follow and demand independence. On May 27th, 1947, Nehru made a formal declaration that he would support the unification only if Bengal was to remain as a part of the Indian Union. This sparked a response from the last British Governor of Bengal, Sir Frederick Burrows: “Bengal will be sacrificed at the altar of Nehru’s all-India outlook.”
The sentiments did not, however, die with the failure of the plan to unify Bengal in 1947. The Brihot Bangla or Bishal Bangla Movement (Greater Bengal Movement) is a nationalist political ideology which seeks to unite all bangali speaking regions of today’s India, Bangladesh and Myanmar into a single nation. If I am to draw an analogy (although it is very difficult to find one for it is as unique as it can possibly get), I would say that it is like Kurdistan. The Kurds are a nation without a state. The Bangalis too are unified by their language but not by land. bangali literature has always referred to their country as ‘Bangla’, the same word as they use to refer to their language. However, Bangla does not refer to either India or Bangladesh, it refers to the Unified Bengal. So yes, Bangalis are patriotic. But, they are patriotic towards Bangla before any country.
While Nehru thought Bengal was just like other Indian states and that the unification of Bengal and a consequent separate state would result in similar sentiments in other states like Tamil Nadu, I disagree. The sentiments are stronger among Bangalis because half of our own state (or country, for a Bangladeshi) is a separate country. People from West Bengal have grown up with stories of Bangla and how some of our ancestors had to cross borders during the Partition and how they still long to go back.
The nostalgia, the resentment of the Hindu-Muslim divide and the love for Bangla, both the language and the motherland keeps the emotions and nationalist sentiments alive even today. For every Bangali, half of their identity lies in West Bengal and the remaining half lies in Bangladesh. For every Bangali, language is the identity- not religion, not dialects but Bangla. Whether or not we are destined to ever be unified is a question yet to be answered. What doesn’t change is the fact that even though we do not have a separate country of Bangla, we are still unified as Bangalis.
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