It is a truth universally acknowledged that one Bengali spotting a fellow Bengali in a place outside Bengal is likely to erupt into joyous shrieks of recognition. They may have never met before and their paths may be unlikely to cross ever again, but what they have in that precious moment is a rare comfort: a language that is able to express the most ineffable feelings of their hearts.
This scenario is far-too-common and a source of annoyance to the rest of the non-Bengali-speaking world. Last year, one of my colleagues spotted a thread on Quora about 'Why Bengalis are so proud of Kolkata?' — and the long and short of it relates to Bengalis' inordinate fondness for their language, at the expense of remembering the basic decorum of not speaking it around those who don't understand it.
But so intense and abject is this Bengali-philia that the government of West Bengal has now mandated the study of Bengali in every school in the state. Students from Classes I-X will have to opt for three languages now, one of which must be Bengali. Because, when in Bengal, etc.
The need to find more teaching staff (in a state where primary education is in a humongous mess) equipped to teach a language to those who may not know a word of it.
The terrifying truth about public policy in India is that the more ludicrous it sounds on paper, the more dire its implications in real life. Parents and school-going students across the state may already be experiencing palpitations over a range of alarming repercussions of this policy in years to come. But the slightest refusal to obey the rules appears to leave people with only one option: go elsewhere.
Let's quickly look at what it means to enforce such a blanket rule: the need to find more teaching staff (in a state where primary education is in a humongous mess) equipped to teach a language to those who may not know a word of it; expecting children aged 6-15, who come from outside the state, to pick up, and get up to speed, in a language that many of their classmates speak since infancy as their mother tongue; and depriving young people of other linguistic options that may come in more handy to them later in life. Yes, there do exist more useful languages than Bengali, that's the hard truth. (The Telegraph breaks it all down here.)
Linguistic politics, especially as a resistance to the hegemony of Hindi as India's national language, has a long and important history. The southern states, for instance, have fought tooth and nail for decades to claim their distinctive linguistic identities. But even in Karnataka, where Kannadiga pride is ascendant for many years now, it is possible to send children to schools without forcing them to take compulsory Kannada classes. For Bengal to disregard the havoc its draconian decision will unleash on young people is to appear not only unthinkingly blasé but also shockingly provincial and insecure.
One of the most damning legacies of the Left Front government that ruled West Bengal for over 30 years before Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress came to power was its move to abolish the teaching of English in schools at the primary level. Generations of students suffered for it, facing difficulties during higher studies or in finding employment outside the state. The current dispensation, which was supposed to be the antidote to all that was wrong with the previous one, seems to be only enforcing its own prejudices.
But none of this is too surprising. Since she assumed office, Banerjee has been busily pursuing her agenda of giving her state its unique identity. From the cacophony of Tagore songs at traffic lights to renaming Kolkata's metro stations after the state's heroes to bursting into Tagore songs (what else?) at the Vatican for Mother Teresa's canonisation, Banerjee has spared no effort to build Brand Bangla. And, of course, the most colossal of all her achievements till date is the actual renaming of the state as Bangla.
Ironically, the more regional identities are cemented, the less attractive a place looks to investors as worth putting their money into. If Banerjee really means to undo the faux-socialist, anti-industry image foisted on Bengal by the Left, she cannot hope to do so by alienating non-Bengalis or those not interested in either learning or admiring the Bengali language.
But then, sound reasoning and good sense often come to some only when it's too late — or never.
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