Kolkata, Aug 16 (PTI) After a heavy doze of communal polarisation over the last three years, Bengali subnationalism is slowly emerging as a rallying cry in West Bengal ahead of the assembly elections due next year.
Narratives themed around 'Bengali pride' and 'natives versus outsiders' are slowly gaining momentum, with various outfits raising the pitch for reservation for domicile Bengalis in jobs and education in the state, where, until a few years ago, cultural subnationalism was an alien concept.
After the electoral reverses in the Lok Sabha poll last year and the rise of the BJP as a prime contender for power, TMC supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has often invoked Bengali subnationalism, and called the BJP a party of 'outsiders'.
She has gone to the extent of saying that West Bengal should not be ruled by 'Gujaratis and outsiders', apparently targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who belong to the western state.
The saffron party has termed it a 'desperate attempt' by the TMC to stave off an 'imminent' defeat in the assembly elections and divide the majority community along ethnic lines.
In an attempt to project itself as a party which respects Bengali sensitivities, the BJP is propping up Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee as its icon, and has been steadfast in observing the anniversaries of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.
The politicisation of ethnic sentiments in the state has coicided with the ascent of the BJP and increased activities of far right Hindu outfits, which organised rallies and other events on religious occasions such as Ram Navami a festival not very popular in West Bengal- unlike states in north India.
Clashes have occurred during Ram Navami processions which the BJP claimed was the handiwork of Muslim fundamentalists.
Several outfits like Bangla Pokkho, Jatiyo Bangla Sammelan and Bangla Sanskriti Mancha that pander to Bengali sentiments have emerged on the state's political landscape, and accused the saffrom camp of trying to 'impose' Hindi and 'north Indian culture' on Bengal.
'Ram Navami celebrations in the name of Hindutva were the first signs of trouble. The way Bengalis are being demographically threatened by non-Bengalis, the day is not far when they will turn into a minority in their own land, not just in terms of population but also culturally,' Kaushik Maiti, a senior leader of Bangla Pokkho, told PTI.
Maiti, however, denied the charge that it bore allegiance to the TMC, and said the outfit had long been demanding reservation in jobs and education for Bengali natives.
Anirban Banerjee of Jatiyo Bangla Sammelan said its programmes and demands are aimed at securing the economic and social rights of Bengalis in West Bengal.
'Why can't we bask in Bengali pride? If Gujaratis can boast of their identity, Tamilians can do the same in Tamil Nadu, why not Bengalis? Many states have domicile reservation, so why can't Bengal have it?' he asked.
Such outfits first came into limelight when they protested against the attempt to include Hindi and Urdu as mediums for an examination to recruit police constables in 2017, following which the decision was withdrawn.
The desecration of the bust of social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar during a BJP procession in the last phase of the Lok Sabha polls, followed by the publication of the final NRC list in Assam in August, which was claimed to have left out around 12 lakh Hindus including many Bengalis, gave the TMC a stick to beat the BJP with.
The latest to add fuel to the fire was the alleged online vilification of Bengali women, with many fans of deceased actor Sushant Singh Rajput calling her rumoured girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty and others from the community 'gold diggers' and 'witches'.
Many in the state have also expressed displeasure over the exclusion of Bengali as a classical language from the Centre's National Education Policy (NEP) 2020.
'Why are Bengali women being trolled and abused online as witches who use black magic to control men? Why was Bengali, the fifth most-spoken language in the world, not included in the list of classical languages in the NEP? The answer is bias and hatred towards Bengalis,' Banerjee claimed.
The TMC, somewhat diffident after the BJP made deep inroads into the state in the Lok Sabha polls, clinching 18 seats against 22 that Banerjee's party won, is now on the offensive, as it seeks to capitalise on the exclusion of Bengalis from the National Register of Citizens and Bengali language from the list of classical languages.
'The rise of the saffron camp in Bengal has instilled fear in a large section of Bengalis. This is mostly due to activities such as the NRC exercise, and the attempt to impose Hindi. We believe in secularism and inclusiveness, unlike the BJP,' senior TMC leader and spokesperson Saugato Roy said.
Another TMC leader, who did not wish to be named, acknowledged that the issue of Bengali subnationalism has helped the party in countering the BJP, but it's a 'dual- edged sword', which, in the long run, could also harm the regional party.
'So far the issue of Bengali pride has helped us, especially during the last phase of Lok Sabha polls when we swept all nine seats or after the NRC exercise. It has helped us to cut into BJP's Hindu vote bank. But it has its pitfalls, too.
'In many areas, we have a strong non-Bengali support base. So, it is not so easy for us to identify with the cause openly,' the TMC leader said.
Swapan Dasgupta, a prominent member of the BJP's think tank, feels stoking subnationalism will not take the TMC far.
'She (Banerjee) has been propping up the issue since last year, but it won't yield any result in assembly polls,' the Rajya Sabha MP told PTI.
BJP state president Dilip Ghosh said the TMC and its 'frontal organisations' like the Bangla Pokkho are trying to 'mislead' the masses.
'The BJP is in power in so many states but we never tried to impose any language. Political parties bereft of any ideology are bringing up such issues,' he said.
Senior Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury slammed both the TMC and the BJP for 'dividing people' on communal and ethnic lines.
'Both these policies are detrimental to the interest of Bengal, which has a long history of brotherhood and harmony. The BJP should shun its policy of HindiHindu Hindustan, or it will face backlash in Bengal,' he said. PTI PNT RMS SK SK