Bengal’s iconic figures and political hostility


Political controversy regarding chanting of “Jai Shri Ram” refuses to die down in West Bengal. However, my concern is somewhere else. On January 23, 2021, it erupted because of chants during a commemoration event on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s 125th birth anniversary at Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial, where bitter rivals – PM Narendra Modi and West Bengal CM Mamta Banerjee shared the dais. However, this apparent truce ran into troubled waters almost immediately when Ms. Banerjee was greeted with “Jai Shri Ram” chants as she was about to speak. Was it to antagonize her? Probably yes. Did she overreact? I don’t know. I also want to leave it to the readers’ guesswork whether those people who were chanting “Jai Shri Ram” even had respect for Shri Ram. Nevertheless, I am confident that those people did not have any respect for our Netaji and I am ashamed that they would call them Bengalis. So, did their unbecoming act inflict greater harm? I am afraid – YES.

I want to share an experience. I am outside West Bengal for almost two decades now, staying in various parts of this country both for the purpose of studies and jobs. Once while conversing with me, a college student was surprised to know that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was a Bengali! That’s a sin! Let’s not crucify him for his poor knowledge regarding a famous personality like Netaji. When people are predominantly fed with Delhi-oriented North Indian history for decades, it is quite natural that we will remain oblivious about regional histories or personalities.

However, his reasoning for holding such a belief was quite amusing to me. He was surprised to know that Netaji was a Bengali because Netaji’s story is of sacrifice and valour. He was a brave and bold character who called for a war against the British Raj and that was something which appeared quite “un-Bengali” to him. He thought Netaji was either a Jat or Punjabi! On further inquiry, he replied that Bengalis are more into literature, music, art, etc., and that he considered Bengalis as a very educated and cultured community. To him Subhash Chandra Bose was a misfit in the clan! Netaji and his words resembled more like a person from a warrior class like the Jats and Punjabis.

Well, I didn’t want to dig more and lecture him on Subhas Chandra’s academic accomplishments as well as numerous stories of brave revolutionaries from Bengal. What is relevant for me is not the lack of his knowledge about the background of Subhas Bose but the characterization of the Bengalis as an ethnolinguistic group. It is not very uncommon for Bengalis like me, living outside Bengal, to come across people who think that all of us are either writers, singers or artists, or at least bookworms. Nobody gets surprised with the large collection of books in my drawing room or that my 11-year son composes poems. That’s quite Bengali in nature. In others words, Bengalis are commonly characterized as an educated and cultured class. Well, I wish such a belief system is not threatened but signs are not very encouraging both in political and social spaces.

While the political analysts will continue arguing and counter-arguing on Ms Banerjee’s reaction, meanwhile I would like to recall another such unfortunate incident of 2019 where a statue of the 19th century great social reformer and a key figure of the Bengali Renaissance Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s statue at Vidyasagar College was desecrated. TMC and BJP blamed each other for that regrettable incident. I am really not interested in playing Byomkesh Bakshi to find out who actually chanted Jai Shri Ram during Netaji’s function or vandalised the statue of Vidyasagar. What I am pained about is the insensitivity and ignorance of the youth political cadre in Bengal. Members of so-called shikhito Bangali samaj (educated Bengali society) did not hesitate to bring down one of the pioneers of educational reforms! Had that young college student known this, he would have pitied me instead.

I remember during our younger days, besides the statues of God, we always had photographs of Vidyasagar, Netaji, Vivekananda, so on and so forth. We treated those iconic figures as demi-gods. Parents used to remind us that we need to be as courageous as Netaji and as industrious as Vidyasagar. We used to celebrate Netaji Jayanti or Rabindra Jayanti with pomp and show. I am aghast to note that these larger-than-life figures have been disrespected to the core for settling cheap political scores. It really doesn’t matter which party they belong to, but needless to say that they are oblivious about Bengali culture and history. By their irresponsible acts, they haven’t shamed their political opponents but showed utter disrespect to those extraordinary personalities. Have the parents also abdicated their responsibilities to their wards in instilling the pride and prestige of Bengali culture?

Politicians will come and go but Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Vidyasagar, Netaji, Sharat Chandra, are rare gifts to the society. We are fortunate that they were born in Bengal. Both the incidents not only magnified the degradation of Bengal politics but also of “Bangaliana” (characteristic of being a Bengali) – self-esteem and pride of being a Bengali bhadro-lok (gentleman). What’s happened to that bhadro shikhito Bangali?

These disgraceful souls are either ignorant or have forgotten or never told that those iconic figures orchestrated Bengali Renaissance from the 19th century to the early 20th century whose fruits we are enjoying even today. Thanks to the enormous contribution of those great men that Bengal is still considered as a cultured and educated society. We can have different political choices but Netaji, Vidyasagar, Tagore et al. are non-negotiable pride for us. Let’s not trade them for some cheap activities. Otherwise, we will degenerate our group identity.

Am I espousing regionalism? Absolutely not! In a diverse country like India there are regional identities, which makes each group unique and special. Eventually they merge into the national identity. Netaji and Vidyasagar are not only pride of Bengal but also of India. But if we demean them, then how can we expect other groups to revere them?

As the state readies for the elections, an acrimonious battle for power will soon follow. It is desirable for the party cadre to keep those icons of Bengal away from electoral politics. Can the leaders at least ensure that? The onus is also on all Bengalis to introspect.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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