Call for Gorkhaland: Collateral damage of Mamata-BJP's grim battle of identities in West Bengal

At the height of their colonial expansion, the cross-continental Roman Empire or the British Empire's fiat was primarily political but also cultural. And the tool of their cultural dominance was language. 'Linguistic imperialism', a term used by scholar and linguist Robert Phillipson in his seminal work in 1992, denotes translation of political power into cultural dominance through language.

Phillipson chose English to press his point, arguing that behind the meteoric rise of the British Empire which ruled over a quarter of the world subsuming local cultures in its wake, lay "the dominance asserted and retained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages." (Linguistic Imperialism by Robert Phillipson, Page 47, Oxford University Press).

File image Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporters waving black flags in Darjeeling. PTI

File image Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporters waving black flags in Darjeeling. PTI

In his paper, 'British Colonialism and Its Linguistic Consequences', Walid M Rihane of Arab Open University points out how "the Roman Empire was able to expand Latin to every culture it conquered even though they were less in population that others. The case is similar to the British Empire. From the Kingdom of England, passing through the British Isles, reaching North America, South Asia, West and South Africa, and Oceania, the British succeeded in ruling almost quarter of the globe, and to leave their effect on language that is still taking place up to day."

Language formed the basis, therefore, of a political dominance that sought to iron out ethnic and cultural cleavages. If the competing cultural and sub-cultural mores, customs, traditions and traits can be straitjacketed and subordinated by the dominant culture, it results in unquestioned political hegemony.

This behaviour was of course not restricted to colonial powers. The Bhasha Andolon in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) had its germination in a 1948 decree by the Pakistan government to impose Urdu as the national language on a primarily Bengali-speaking populace. The root of that movement lay in Pakistan's two-nation theory and its effort to make Urdu the vehicle of linguistic nationalism. The resultant protests that culminated in a massacre of Dhaka University students in 1952 ultimately led to the Pakistan government relenting to give Bengali the official language status.

We find examples of such behaviour even within the democratic setup of India, where time to time political parties in power have tried to take the lexical imposition route to electoral dominance. Among recent examples, the NDA government has been accused of trying to impose Hindi as a tool for linguistic nationalism. Parties in the south of Vindhyas have mounted a spirited protest against this 'cultural chauvinism'. DMK working president MK Stalin called Centre's move to "promote Hindi" an attack on India's ethno-cultural diversity. "By forcing Hindi onto its citizens – from primary school students to Parliament – the BJP government is betraying all non-Hindi speaking residents of the country including future generations," he was recently quoted, as saying.

The Kerala government has fallen into a similar trap. It brought an ordinance in April this year to ensure that Malayalam is made mandatory in all schools across boards till Class X. This, despite the fact that there are more than six lakh Tamil-speakers in the state and a significant Kannadiga population, who have raised their voice against the move.

As The Hindu notes in a 23 May report, nearly 10,000 protesters, including Kannada medium teachers, women, and children picketed the Collectorate in protest against the Left Democratic Front government's decision. According to Kannada Samanwaya Samithi president B Purushotham, the decision to make Malayalam compulsory would make Kannada lose its stature among the linguistic minorities.

The recent crisis in the Darjeeling Hills — that made disparate Hill-based parties come together to renew the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state carving out West Bengal — has sprung out of a similar effort by the Mamata Banerjee government to make Bengali the compulsory subject in all state schools till Class X. In a Facebook post, the chief minister said: "If the student chooses Bengali, Hindi, English, Urdu , Gurmukhi, Nepali, Alchiki as a first language, he/she may opt for two other languages of their choice. One of the three languages would have to be Bengali."

Mamata's move is a limited, regional application of the theory of linguistic imperialism.

Alarmed by BJP's rise — which has proposed an alternate cultural paradigm rooted in muscular Hindi chauvinism — Mamata is trying to use language as the counter-culture to stymie BJP's agenda. It is identity politics in its purest form. Mamata's move to make Bengali mandatory in school is aimed towards evoking Bengal's cultural identity which she hopes will be enough to resist the BJP which is trying a larger consolidation of Hindu votes. It is cultural identity pitted against religious identity.

The collateral damage of this cultural war is the rekindling of Gorkhaland movement. The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration has noticed with alarm Trinamool Congress' growing clout in the Hills and in the language imposition has found the immediate spark to reignite their political movement, although they have been careful to cast it in the framework of linguistic and cultural identities.

For Mamata, who has hurried to clarify that her Bengali language decree does not extend to the Hills, this is a grim battle for survival. She sees in BJP's slow but steady rise the distant drumbeats of a political Hegemon eyeing her turf, and has decided to use Bengali as the lingua franca to extend her political dominance.

Updated Date: Jun 14, 2017 16:59 PM

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