Rita Mae Brown once said, “Language is the roadmap of a culture”. She could not have been truer, given the important role languages have played in defining not only cultural heritage of people but also their socio-political realities. Languages have been important in international history and politics since time immemorial. Geo-political demarcations and units have been largely co-terminus with a people mostly sharing a language and culture. In India, we have come a long way since the writings using the Indus script were emblazoned on seals of the Indus Valley Civilization [1, 2] and the early days when diacritical symbols were used to associate vowels with consonants, a characteristic feature still seen in modern languages such as Hindi, in the Brahmi script [3, 4].
Post-independence, languages were used as the major basis for reorganizing states in the new Republic of India [5-7]. The States Reorganisation Act (1956) was a major reform of the boundaries of India’s states and territories, organizing them along linguistic lines . Since then, we have had everything from the anti-Hindi agitations of Tamil Nadu in 1965 [9, 10] and the Official Languages Act that was eventually amended in 1967 that ensured the current “virtual indefinite policy of bilingualism” of the Indian Republic . The linguistic diversity in the country has flourished over the years, albeit brief spells of political turbulence based on it, from time to time. As per the 2011 census, 43.63% spoke Hindi, 8.03% Bengali, 6.86% Marathi, 6.70% Telugu and 5.70% Tamil, while the remaining 29.08% spoke various other languages .
West Bengal is the one state where the interplay of the two languages with the largest number of speakers – Hindi and Bengali – is most visible. Lately, there have been certain developments that have perturbed the dynamics of linguistic influences on the politics of the state. In this article, I would like to focus on the same and highlight the major points regarding this topic of relevance. I would conclude the article with a perspective on languages in contemporary Indian politics, in general, and a possible way forward.
Sanskrit was spoken in Bengal since the first millenium BCE, besides the Middle Indo-Aryan dialects called Magadhi Prakrit that later evolved into Ardha Magadhi and Apabhramsa in what was then a Magadhan realm, and Bengal subsequently became a hub of Sanskrit literature during the Gupta period [13-16]. Bengali evolved from Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakrit in about the turn of the first millenium CE, with a strand of Apabhramsa evolving into local dialects and subsequently into three major groups: Bihari, Odia and Bengali-Assamese languages [17, 18]. While proto-Bengali was the court language of the Pala and Sena dynasties, Bengali itself was promoted by the Bengal Sultanate as the official court language and as the most widely spoken vernacular language.
The irony of our times is that a government that claims to be more close to ‘Ma, Mati, Maanush’ than most others is doing much less for the language than was done previously by trying to do a lot more. The kind of linguistic chauvinism that was displayed in Mamata Banerjee’s push for the compulsory teaching of Bengali from Class I to X was deplorable. This is irrespective of which board a school is affiliated to or what a student’s mother tongue is. It did more harm to the idea of Bengal, which has always been tolerant and inclusive, than good. She also jeopardized talks with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, in the process. Bengal has never had divisions along linguistic, communal or caste-based lines as much as in other parts of the country. In this context, such an imposition is unwise.
Even with all of Mamata Di’s fervor on this policy and front, she has not established more comprehensive measures for tackling the rot in the system, beyond just school education. Cultural hubs are on the down slide  and majority of the youth in Bengal, who graduate from the universities in the state, year after year, cannot write correct Bengali. The deterioration in Bengali studies in the state worsened after the collapse of the mother-tongue medium school system that had been around since the time of Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, who, in the process of developing the Bengali language, had promoted Sanskrit and English too. But unfortunately, perhaps since English is no longer taught in these schools, the the middle class no longer prefers such institutions. Yet, there is a ray of hope still for the Bengali people to maintain their pride in their language and its associated heritage: the Banga Sanskriti Utsab has recently been revived after a long gap, Banga Sammelans are being organised  and the ‘Little Magazine’ culture of Bengal is also stable .
To understand the pride of the Bengali people in their language one needs to briefly look at the post-Independence history regarding the same. After the Congress’ collapse in the state, with the heydays of Siddharth Shankar Roy and Bidhan Chandra Roy well behind, the Communists under Jyoti Basu made a major push to recognize the linguistic heritage of the state. Reading Jyoti Basu’s memoirs gives an interesting perspective on this front:
On December 6, the Communist leader Ranen Sen said that the Congress government had always promised to reorganise the states on the basis of language, but had adopted double standards. The report of the commission had only toed the Congress government’s line by pushing the question of cultural and language in the background. I told the Assembly, “The Congress is entirely responsible for the poisonous atmosphere that has been created by the report. A solution can be reached only on the basis of language and regional affinity. We must not forget that India is one. This is not a question of limiting boundaries of states but a question of our national security and unity. The Centre has not done any scientific research though during the British Raj it was a same Congress which had earned the people’s mandate by promising states on the basis of language. Just setting up commissions will not do”.
I said that the commission’s report was opportunistic and the Centre was entirely responsible for its irrelevance. In fact, the Centre and the Congress government in West Bengal were at odds over the question of West Bengal’s boundary. The logic that the limits of the state be extended because of the refugee and unemployment problems did not hold water; I said that it would be impossible to solve these problems by just getting that extra mile from Bihar.
I demanded that necessary steps be taken to ensure local self-government in the Nepali areas of Darjeeling. This was our party’s stand. Naturally the Congress government had to reject this demand. At that point of time, our demand was dubbed as “anti-national”. After four decades, the Congress government has had finally to give in to this original demand of the Leftists. The Left Front government has successfully ensured this.
On December 10, Dr. Roy told journalists, “It is necessary to make some amendments to the recommendations of the States Re-organisation Committee keeping in mind the security and stability of West Bengal and aspirations of the people of neighbouring Bihar.”
Subsequently in 1956, Dr Roy and his Bihar counterpart Sri Krishna Sinha issued a joint statement advocating the merger of West Bengal and Bihar. This created a major stir in the state.
Though the idea of the merger of the states did not last, the continuous campaigning by the Bengali leaders led to the moving of some parts of Bihar into Bengal:
Bihar and West Bengal (Transfer of territories) Act, 1956
(1) As from the appointed day, there shall be added to the State of West Bengal the territories which on the 1st day of March 1956, were comprised in—
(a) that portion of Kishanganj sub-division of Purnea district which lies to the east of the boundary line demarcated in accordance with the provisions of sub-section (2) by an authority appointed in this behalf by the Central Government and that portion of Gopalpur thana of the said district which lies to the east or north, as the case may be, of the said boundary line; and
(b) Purulia sub-division of Manbhum district, excluding Chas thana, Chandil thana and Patamda police station of Barabhum thana;
and the said territories shall thereupon cease to form part of the State of Bihar.
(2) The boundary line referred to in sub-section (1) shall be so demarcated as to be generally two hundred yards to the west of the highway in Purnea district connecting Dalkola, Kishanganj and Chopra with Siliguri in Darjeeling district and two hundred yards to the south or south-west of the highway in Purnea district connecting Dalkola and Karandighi with Raiganj in west Dinajpur district; Provided that the boundary line shall be so demarcated as not to cut across any village or town; Provided further that from the point where the first -mentioned highway meets the southern boundary of Kishanganj municipality to the point where it leaves the northern boundary of that municipality, the boundary line shall be the same as the boundary of that municipality on the east.
(3) The territory specified in clause (a) of sub-section (1) shall be included in, and from part of Darjeeling district, and the territory specified in clause (b) of that sub-section shall form a separate district to be known as Purulia district within Burdwan division of the State of West Bengal.
(4) Nothing in sub-section (3) shall be deemed to affect the power of the State Government to alter after the appointed day the name, extent and boundaries of any district or division in the State of West Bengal.
An amendment was introduced in the First Schedule to the Constitution. The fervor and intensity of Bengali (language) activism was more on the other side of the border. On February 21, 1952 five students and political activists were killed during protests near the campus of the University of Dhaka. Eventually, even though Bengali became an official language of Pakistan in 1956, the subjugation of the interests of the Bengali people led to the formation of Bangladesh. The day of February 21 has since been observed as Language Movement Day in Bangladesh and was proclaimed the International Mother Language Day by UNESCO in 1999, making Bengali the only language in the world to be known for its language movements and people sacrificing their lives for their mother language! In this context, the pride of the Bengali people in their language is understandable. And yet the people have an inherent sense of inclusivity and justice to their brethren who reside in the state.
Today, as per the West Bengal government, the official languages of the state are Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, Odia, Santali, Punjabi, Kamtapuri, Rajbanshi and Kurmali. One also has Nepali has an official status in the three subdivisions of the Darjeeling district. One must nurture and provide for the teaching of all of these in the state to truly keep the nature of the society that resides in Bengal. Haphazard band-aid treatments like the one that led to the clashes in Islampur, where language teachers were sent to a school where apparently the need of the hour was for teachers in the sciences and literature, reeks of a politics of convenience. The District Inspector may have been suspended but the bigger question still remains: what is Mamata Banerjee’s vision and plan to safeguard the unity of, and diversity within, Bengali society, particularly along linguistic lines? Notwithstanding the terrible law and order situation that prevails in the state, one must not get swayed by the rhetorical game-play and political manoeuvring being done by quite a few of the parties in Bengal today. It is a grave matter that needs to be handled with utmost sincerity and urgency.
Mamata Banerjee did start her term with a lot of zeal on this front. Just after assuming office, she declared that though English and Bengali would be the official languages of the state, it would also have six “second official” languages: Urdu, Gurmukhi, Nepali, Ol-Chiki, Oriya and Hindi. This policy and its implementation was as poorly thought-out as it was (or atleast seemed to be) whimsical. For one, this would make government offices a virtual tower of Babel, with the bureaucrats being possibly forced to learn these languages. Secondly, someone needs to tell Mamata Di that Gurmukhi is not a language but a script, while the people of Nepali descent in Bengal’s hill districts speak Gorkhali not Nepali. Also, Urdu, which superficially might be assumed to be spoken by the state’s large Muslim population, is spoken by less than 5% of the 2,30,00,000 Muslims residing in the state. If this isn’t tokenism for appeasement, then what is? And that too misplaced, uninformed tokenism! There has to be a more comprehensive reform in the way that the state’s languages are considered and promoted. Just by changing the status of some languages, are we addressing the key issues that are plaguing these languages? Are we not writing off a proverbial blank cheque for a deficit of ideas on how to handle the treasure trove of languages that Bengal has and the negligence that that trove has faced? These are all hard-hitting questions Mamata Di must answer!
Since the times of the anti-Hindi movement in Tamil Nadu, one of the key points of debate and discussion has been the use of Hindi in various parts of the country. One must understand that Hindi was never the natural language of many parts of the country. Their cultures and history remained independent of the Hind-speaking areas in India. Given this background, the earnestness to teach and use Hindi and Sanskrit is good only up to the point it does not infringe on the interests and identities of the various other languages that exist in India today. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has had a proclivity to use Hindi probably due to the historical emergence of the party from within the Hindi-speaking belt. While I appreciate the attention given to the language, having enjoyed reading various literary pieces in the language, be it of Premchand or Hazari Prasad Dvivedi, one just cannot try to do that in all parts of India. Narendra Modi’s recent attempt at saying a few lines in Bengali was appreciable and something his party should learn from. There needs to be that one state leader who can stir people’s hearts with his/her oratory in Bengali and/or other state languages.
Recently, a Bengali rights group Bangla Pokkho has been formed to stand up against “Hindi imperialism”. The group is gaining influence at a rapid pace in West Bengal and has had some early success in furthering its ideology. It highlights the influence of anti-Urdu movements in ertwhile East Pakistan as its inspiration. While some groups have tried to put up stickers of ‘Hindi hain hum, watan hai Hindustan humara’, Bangla Pokkhohas regularly removed them and tried to stand up against the mentality that underlies such statements. Even if we were to concede to the civilizational meaning of the term ‘Hindu’ rather than the religious one, the ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’ slogan is misplaced due to the placement of the language Hindi as the preferred language per se. The BJP and other parties must understand this and respect the wishes and interests of the people they wish to represent. The fallacy in the imposition of Hindi and Sanskrit across the country is that what is seen as a unifier of the country may lead to widespread discontent and anger among its constituents and thereby to fracturing instead. It is only with the acceptance of all the languages of the state that we can truly embody the idea of ‘unity in diversity’.
I do see the argument in saying that one needs a certain sense of unity, of one-ness in the country, and language can be a way to unify, as some people put it. Yes and no! Yes, it can unify if historically there has been a language of natural choice among the people and people openly accept it. And no, if it is imposed when both linguistics and history says otherwise. Tamil derives its roots from Brahmi as does Sanskrit. Forget Hindi, saying that Sanskrit should be the official language of India will be a statement either in ignorance of historical realities or one of political convenience. Does this mean that one cannot find a way out? One can. But it has to be through a politics of consensus. Not a politics of coercion. It has to be through dialogue, discussion and debate. One has to remember that one can take a horse to a pond but cannot make it drink water. Similarly, as much as one would like to unify the country using language, one has to understand the subtleties and dynamics of linguistics that prevail in the current demographics of the country. Language has been a powder-keg, ready to blow up at any point, simply because India is a country with many nationalities in it, based on socio-cultural aspects. To believe that one can homogenize the country based on language or race or religion or any other social identity is a futile pursuit, if the principles of democracy and free will are truly espoused and practised. It has to be consensus, consultation and camaraderie that can take us forward and make India a stronger country.
One of the major points of concern, for me, today, relate to the subject of dying languages in India. In one of the most tragic occurrences, the death of Boa Sr, the last person fluent in the Bo language of the Andaman Islands, broke a link with a 65,000-year-old culture! There are about a 100 different languages in India that the Ministry of Human Resource Development has identified that are endangered. Languages such as Koda and Kharia in Bengal are endangered as we speak. While the former had just 47,268 speakers as per the 2011 census, the latter has a slightly more respectable 297,614 speakers according to the same census. I have not heard one positive step suggested by Mamata Banerjee, while she goes on about Bengali and Urdu, which are spoken by the majority of the state. Clearly, a person who talks of minority interests does not quite either understand or want to act for the interests of those whose vote has little value in the grander scheme of things.
Without the political will and government support, a major section of our heritage may vanish forever. Unfortunately, because of the dearth of numbers of speakers of these languages, there cannot be mass movements or political electioneering based on the representation of these languages. Much like the problems faced by minorities based on other social identities such as caste and religion, linguistic minorities are facing an existential threat today. I would suggest the constitution of state and national assessment committees to see the state of these various languages and the appropriate steps that need be taken as soon as possible. Be it the introduction of the option of these dialects in modules or promotion of media, either printed or electronic, that can put forth content in these languages are some of the ways this can be tackled.
As a proud Bengali, and someone who was brought up with the works of Tagore and Bankimchandra as much as with those of western littérateurs like Tolstoy, Shelley and Shakespeare, I would like the current government in Bengal to introspect. To introspect what it means to be truly Bengali. If there is one state where after the years long rioting just after Independence in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there has been fairly less communal clashes and divisions along caste lines, it has been Bengal. If there is one state that has produced a number of liberal, progressive thinkers and public figures, it has been Bengal.
I stand for that Bengal where inclusivity is not tailored according to the convenience of vote-bank politics but is ingrained in the heart and soul of each and everyone who is a part of the state, and one front where we need to do more is on the language front. I hope Mamata Di hears the laments of those whose voices cannot shake the corridors of powers as much as she hears the rhetoric of those whose does.
I hope to see a day when I can truly say: Amar Shonar Bangla (my golden Bengal), as can the Gorkha, the Nepali, the Oriya, the Kharia and the various others in the state, in their own languages.
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