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Mamata Banerjee's proposal to rename West Bengal 'Bangla' may stir hornet's nest in the Darjeeling, Kalimpong hills

Mamata Banerjee’s government in West Bengal has been widely credited with the restoration of calm in the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts after months of political strife last year. However, it may have somewhat unwittingly stepped into a situation of its own making which is fraught with the potential of stirring afresh a hornet’s nest in the region, over its move to rename the state as 'Bangla'?

Considering that the new endonym proposed through a resolution, unanimously passed at its bidding in the state Assembly earlier this week, is also the locally accepted term for the Bengali language, it gives rise to apprehensions that the move might not go down well in the hills, where political sensibilities have over the past years revolved around issues of language and identity.
It is these very issues – linguistic and socio-cultural – and the ethnic passions they inspire, that had been the propellants of the movement for a separate “Gorkhaland” state to be carved out of the hills and its contiguous areas. And though the campaign has seemingly been consigned to the background at least for now — yet far from being jettisoned — it might be worth bearing in mind that a somewhat injudicious announcement of introducing Bangla/Bengali as a compulsory subject in schools across the state was the trigger for widespread unrest in the region last year.

Notwithstanding the chief minister’s subsequent efforts to allay fears with the assurance that the region would be exempted from the move, normal life lay paralysed there for three months and more from June 2017. The damage had been done and it took another few months for it to be repaired.

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Twitter/@MamataOfficial

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Twitter/@MamataOfficial

The question is whether the state government had factored in the sensitivities surrounding the identity issue — so intertwined with that of language — and which runs deep in the collective psyche of people of the hills, when opting for the proposed new nomenclature for West Bengal. The administration might have retrieved its writ in the region, order might have been restored, but there can be little denying that in matters pertaining to the socio-cultural aspects which define perceptions, the hills-plains dichotomy creeps up to the surface. This dichotomy often spills over into the political domain which has reverberated in the past with, what some would describe as hyperbolic, cries like “linguistic imperialism”.

It is true that the state government was left with few options on the subject of renaming West Bengal after the Centre had rejected an earlier proposal for three separate names in English, Bengali and Hindi, as had been decided by the Cabinet some time back. New Delhi instead insisted on one. Banerjee herself admitted as much in the state Assembly on Thursday, reportedly adding that the three-name formula was the one she would have still preferred. What had been mooted then was ‘Bengal’ in English, ‘Bangla’ in Bengali and ‘Bangal’ in Hindi. The name that was finally settled for and ratified by the House later in the day, however, had, according to a senior CPM leader and legislator, Sujan Chakraborty, been the one suggested by the Jyoti Basu government in 1999 but which, according to him, had then been opposed by Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress.

West Bengal, like some other states, has had its share of name changing over the past years, a particularly noteworthy one being Calcutta being renamed Kolkata in January 2001 when the Left Front was in power with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at the helm. But, unlike the renaming of the state’s capital, the proposed change concerning the state – which, of course, will finally have to be cleared by the Centre – could for reasons of semantics, have unsettling ramifications in the hills, itself beset with the linguistic duality of Gorkha and Nepali. The separate etymologies and sometimes overlapping connotations of names associated with West Bengal as well as the hills is, of course, another subject altogether.

Not till the call for a separate state of Gorkhaland lodged itself in the collective imagination of the public in the hills back in the mid-1980s had the distinction between Gorkha and Nepali found a place in popular discourse. It was accompanied then with the burning of copies in 1986 of the Indo-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1950 under the stewardship of Subash Ghisingh, founder of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and to whom was largely attributed the adoption of ‘Gorkha’ as a linguist identity, as distinct from Nepali, the language of neighbouring Nepal. The bone of contention was Clause 7 of the treaty which allows citizens of that country and India to travel, work and live in either country. This, he and his acolytes contended, had contributed to the controversy centred around Nepali-Indians who might have little to do with Nepal being regarded as citizens of that country: hence the need for a separate identity for Nepali-Indians. Thus entered “Gorkha” in the lexicon in a way it had never before.

Against such a backdrop, the question of language has evolved in the hills to becoming a very sensitive issue. This also makes it incumbent on the West Bengal government to walk the extra distance towards assuaging any anxieties that its move to rename the state as ‘Bangla’ might have caused. It might be imperative, given that ‘Bangla’ too could go some distance in reinforcing the Bengali identity. Clearly the professed purpose is to rechristen a geographical identity but the paradox is that the name opted for has also undeniably a distinctly linguistic connotation.


Updated Date: Jul 28, 2018 15:59 PM

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