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West Bengal Elections: Politics of Language and Legacy

Image Credits: India Today

West Bengal has turned into a political hotbed, it always does, just before elections. This time there’s a new fierce contender in the arena, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is not to say that BJP hasn’t been around in the political scene of West Bengal before, but only recently they have gained this new found momentum in the state. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when India was swept by a pro-Modi wave, BJP managed to secure only 2 out of 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in West Bengal. Five years later, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, to the surprise of many political analysts, BJP won 18 seats and secured 40.25% of the vote share. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) was ahead in the race by just 3% at 43.3%. According to many analysts, this proved the disaffection of people for the TMC and gave a clear mandate to BJP to take over Mamta Banerjee in the 2021 state elections. This increased voter confidence is one of the reasons why the Union Home Minister of India believes BJP will win 200 seats out of 294 in the upcoming state elections.

Hindi all Days, Bengali on Election Days

At the surface level, this claim might seem to be a genuine one given the kind of aggressive campaigning BJP has indulged in over the past few months. What is particularly interesting about their campaigning is the appropriation of Bengali cultural figures and organisations, whose views are often at odds with the core ideology of the party. Such a narrative is being spun by the BJP in order to counter TMC’s allegations that it is an 'outsider party’ or that it's a ‘party of the Hindi heartland’. This has led to many BJP campaigners addressing large gatherings in Bengali, including PM Modi and Union Minister Smriti Irani. Behind this garb of embracing Bengali language lies a long history of the BJP trying to impose the Hindi language in all states of India. In 2019, on Hindi Diwas, Union Home Minister Amit Shah sparked controversy by saying that Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India, and is thus capable of uniting the whole country. He appealed to the citizens to realise Gandhi and Sardar Patel’s dream of ‘one language for one country’. Amit Shah indeed faced severe backlash not only from the non-Hindi speaking states but also from the party’s regional units in those states.

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Though in West Bengal Mamata Banerjee surprisingly gave a lukewarm response, which was considered very unlike her. She tweeted, “My best wishes to all on Hindi Diwas. We should respect all languages and cultures equally. We may learn many languages but we should never forget our mother-language.” It was expected that TMC would turn the language conflict into a real political issue, but clearly it did not do so. Nevertheless, about 50 eminent personalities issued a statement which asked the people of Bengal to give "due respect to all languages" and "resist attempts to impose just one". Further it said that "a day may come in the foreseeable future when our own language, our mother tongue, our dearest Bengali language will become threatened", and went on to ask the citizenry to resist any such imposition. A few months before this controversy, proposed recommendations for the National Education Policy drew similar criticism since it sought to introduce a three language policy in non-Hindi speaking states which mandated Hindi, English and local language of the particular non-Hindi speaking state.

Nevertheless, to appeal to the Bengali public, BJP has now been frequently using Bengali slogans such as ‘Asol Parivartan’ and ‘Sonar Bangla’ meaning real development and Golden Bengal respectively. Entire speeches were delivered in Bengali by Smriti Irani and Narendra Modi in order to counter the outsider tag which is always associated with them. Prime Minister Modi while addressing a crowd in Bengali, in East Midnapore district reminded the crowd about the legacy of Midnapore born icons like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Khudiram Bose.

Swami Vivekananda and Hindutva Politics

Eminent figures such as Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore have also made an appearance in the speeches of BJP leaders. BJP, RSS and ABVP have considered Swami Vivekananda as their icon since long. In November 2020, Prime Minister Modi unveiled a statue of Swami Vivekananda at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Many BJP leaders demanded that the University be renamed after Swami Vivekananda.

Swami Vivekananda’s birth anniversary is celebrated on 12th January every year. This year was marked by fervent celebrations by both the BJP and the TMC to commemorate the Hindu monk. Road shows and foot marches were organised, and leaders of both the parties visited Swami’s ancestral house in Kolkata. During this time, TMC did not back down from pointing out the irony in BJP’s appropriation of the Swami. Abhishek Banerjee, the youth wing President of TMC while addressing a rally that day commented that Swami Vivekananda never stood for communalism and divisive politics. State Minister Bratya Basu also lashed out at BJP saying that their party does not believe in the teachings of Swami Vivekananda or Ramakrishna.

It becomes all the more important in such a context to dive deeper into the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and his guru Ramakrishna to understand whether the accusations levelled by the TMC have any truth to them. Swami Vivekananda is considered to be a patriotic saint, and credited with popularising Hinduism in the West. He was fiercely proud of Hinduism, but it's regressive practices. He rather advocated that its goal is in self-realisation and in being and becoming. He was also one of the major faces of the Hindu reform movement which aimed to modernise and democratise the religion. The Hindu reform movement and Swami Vivekananda himself advocated for the Vedanta tradition which espoused liberation and knowledge.

His guru Ramakrishna, under whom he trained since he was a young student, had declared that all revealed religions such as Christianity and Islam were true and valid. The Swami’s own approach is considered to be that of religious pluralism. He is known for his contribution to the nationalist movement and his teachings focused on human development above all. These teachings influenced nationalist leaders of diverse ideologies and drew praise from B.R. Ambedkar, Shubhash Chandra Bose, Mahatma Gandhi among others. When you contrast his contributions and philosophies to the Hindutva ideology of the ruling party, it becomes starkly clear that they are at odds. Ramakrishna Mission, a spiritual organisation founded by Swami Vivekanda in order to propagate his guru’s teachings also calls itself a non-sectarian and non-political organization. A glance through Belur Math’s website reveals that the organisation believes in the spirit of harmony and friendship among all faiths.

Even though BJP’s own values might not align with that of the Mission, they have been making consistent efforts to build their relationship with the saffron clad monks. In January 2021, on the occasion of Swami Vivekananda’s birth anniversary, PM Modi visited Belur Math and addressed the gathering there. He reiterated government’s decision to go ahead with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the backdrop of anti-CAA protests of that time. Such political statements were unwelcomed by the members of the mission. In fact, before the Prime Minister’s visit, disciples of the mission had sent a letter to Belur Math authorities requesting them to cancel his visit because they believed that the place of Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda “should not invite a person who created problem[s] for people''. Nevertheless, the links between BJP and Ramakrishna Mission have only grown thereon. For instance, soil from Belur Math was sent for the foundation laying ceremony of the Ram Ayodhya temple in August 2020.