“Are you the Shiv Sena of Bengal?” Garga Chatterjee goes livid when pluralist Bengalis liken his ‘movement’ to the anti-Madrasi and then anti-Bhaiya movement by the Shiv Sena followed by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Launching a counter-offensive, he says, “This is a sign Bengalis are cornered. A Bengali organisation is being identified as a non-Bengali grouping.”
Whatever Chatterjee may say, the political circles in West Bengal are increasingly turning wary of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) professor, as they need the support of all constituents of the local demography for sustenance. Such intolerance for non-Bengalis was seen last in certain pockets of the State in the 1980s, led by a fringe group Amra Bangali (We are Bengalis), which hardly translated to anything more than black-brushing the names of railway stations written in Devanagari and Roman scripts while keeping the name in the Bangla Brahmi script intact.
In the late 1960s, Balasaheb Thackeray, who had laid the foundation for the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra by provoking a fierce “Marathi asmita“, seems to have inspired Garga Chatterjee’s outfit Bangla Paksha (or Bangla Pokkho as pronounced and sometimes spelt on social media). Politicians of both BJP and CPI(M) point at the similarity in the logo of Bangla Paksha, which shows a tiger’s face.
Garga had started by demanding land, capital, jobs and business for Bengalis in West Bengal. That was the initial agenda of Bangla Paksha under the leadership of Garga Chatterjee. They then put stickers on buses and trains that read: “If you are in Bengal, you must learn the Bengali language.”
It verges on the ridiculous when the group pastes the town with posters that lecture people how to pronounce the name for Indian fried bread: “Parota, not paratha!” They also coax Hindi-speakers in the State to get the phonetic interpretation of Bengal’s former star cricketer Sourav Ganguly’s name right: “Sou-robh, not Sau-rabh!”
But things remained no longer innocuously funny when they began heckling whoever in the State was not a native Bengali. Several disturbing videos showing people of Bihari and UP nativity being manhandled in public places in the State are doing the rounds of social media. In some of them, Garga Chatterjee is himself seen leading the hate campaign.
Of course, there is some provocation for these lumpen acts, much as that is hardly a justification for the crass hooliganism Garga Chatterjee represents now. It so happened that a Hindi-speaking youth made some derogatory remarks on social media about Bengali women. But then, the police took action against him immediately, slapping him with charges under the cyber law. That did not, however, pacify the men of Bangla Paksha; they do not trust the police.
They dragged the young man, along with his mother and father, out of their house. They asked him to read the objectionable words he had written on social media aloud before a curious yet intimidated crowd of the neighbourhood. Then they asked the youth to explain his act of indiscretion. While the man apologised for the act, Bangla Paksha activists continue to threaten the family. Interestingly, the video of this hegemonic act was not posted by some curious onlooker; Bangla Paksha activists themselves uploaded it on Facebook, ostensibly to send across a message.
A few days ago, protests broke out at the Kalighat metro station. A Hindi-speaking constable of the RPF — Kolkata Metro is still under Indian Railways — was accused of harassing a Bengali passenger.
Nobody in the bullied crowd dared ask whether the passenger was at fault. Columns in local newspapers like Anandabazar Patrika (ABP) have asked what the fuss was all about: that a Bangali passenger was harassed, or that the constable did not happen to be a Bengali? This video made it to social media, too.
Then there is a video featuring Garga Chattopadhyay, showing him, accompanied by a bunch of his activist-friends, hazing a Hindi-speaker inside the coach of a Purulia-to-Kolkata train. The targeted man is heard apologising; he was accused of making derogatory remarks about Bengalis.
Then the RPF intervenes and the activists disperse.
There is no scope for doubt over the intentions of Bangla Paksha. An associate of Garga says, “It is a struggle to establish Bengalis’ rights. The struggle to persuade that the invasion of Hindi will not prevail in Bengal.” But the manner in which this ‘struggle’ is unfolding raises questions of moral and legal legitimacy of an activist group of this nature.
In the words of lawyer Jayantanarayan Chatterjee who practises at the Kolkata High Court, as published in ABP, “If there is any allegation against anybody, or if anyone says anything abusive about some caste, religion or community on Facebook or in public, the law provides for his punishment. They must go to the police. The police will take action. If some anybody is accused of making abusive remarks against women, they may go to the women’s commission additionally. No one has the right to extract apologies through intimidation or coercion. They are being a law unto themselves.”
Garga tries to defend himself, “We’re not beating anyone. Where is the question of taking the law in our hands?” Jayantanarayan but says, “Of course, this amounts to taking the reins of the law in one’s hands and also violating the law.” No individual or organisation can become a self-styled judge or court, the lawyer says. “They surround a man, force him to apologise, and then released the photo on Facebook. There should be a case against those who are doing this. It is illegal to defame someone in this way,” Jayantanarayan says.
Political parties are now waking up to the menace that Garga is turning out to be. West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh has strongly condemned the activities of the Bangla Paksha. But Ghosh alleges that the ruling Trinamool Congress is behind the activities of the outfit. In the words of the State BJP head, “We know all this is Trinamool politics. A division between Bengalis and non-Bengalis might help salvage the ruling party’s increasing unpopularity. They are trying to provoke the Bengalis against the BJP for the way Assam NRC has panned out,” the BJP president alleged.
Ghosh says sarcastically, “They could not hurt the Bengalis of Assam. But for some political mileage in Bengal, they allege whoever commits suicide is a victim of the NRC!” Dilip alleges that the TMC coerces such families to put the blame on the NRC and, if they yield, they are paid Rs 2 lakh as compensation (for defaming the BJP).”
The TMC, as expected, denies the allegations. According to Subrata Mukherjee, a senior leader of the ruling party of the State and also Panchayat minister, Ghosh’s allegation is “ridiculous”. Mukherjee claims that the TMC has nothing to do with the activities of the Bangla Paksha. He says, “Such a provocation can never work. You cannot provoke Bengali sub-nationalism like this. I do not have to say anything in response to those who think that such a provocation would benefit them.” However, Mukherjee stops short of condemning Bangla Paksha.
The CPI(M) is but no less critical of the Bangla Paksha than the BJP. They claim, however, that both TMC and BJP are hand-in-glove with the fringe outfit. In the words of party Politburo member Mohammad Selim, “It is not difficult to understand who is doing this. All those who do the politics of Partition behind it.” This time, he says, the division has started on the basis of language, too.”
Garga Chattopadhyay dismisses Selim’s allegations. In his words, “BJP is trying to impose the NIA on us. And Selim says we keep in touch with the BJP! We have been the first to protest the long holiday for Chhath Puja. And the CPM says we are the B-team of Trinamool?” The Mamata Banerjee government had announced a four-day holiday for State government offices for Chhath.
CPM MLA Tanmay Bhattacharya finds Garga’s defence unsound. He says, “The Bangla Paksha targets a non-Bengali by accusing him of insulting Bengalis. What do they do when some Bengalis insult Bengal? If Chhath holidays was a problem, those who barged into the conserved lake of Rabindra Sarobar to observe Chhath Puja were wrong, too. Did Garga Chatterjee and his men question the Mamata Banerjee government for the police inaction in that case?”
Garga offers a feeble counter to Bhattacharya’s allegation: “How do we gherao people? We do not have a large organisation.”
The head of Bangla Paksha then pins the blame on the CPM. He says, “If the Tanmay babu thinks what is going on in the name of Chhath is wrong, let the CPM gherao the offenders or take the State government to task. They are a big party. If I had a thousand workers with me, I would have cordoned off the office of Mamata Banerjee.”
But Garga is not a headache for political parties alone. They are creating a dangerous situation for Bengalis living outside West Bengal. Comparing his ideology with that of the RSS-BJP, Bhattacharya says, “The ilk of Garga is misleading people. Rash provincialism cannot be an answer to extreme nationalism or fanaticism. What the Bangla Paksha is doing to the non-Bengalis in West Bengal may endanger the Bengalis in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh or Bihar any day. If they are attacked tomorrow, will Garga or his Bangla Paksha come to their rescue?”
The outfit says in its defence, “Bangla Paksha is not responsible if a Bengali in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Assam makes a derogatory comment about the girls of that State, if a Bengali rapes, if he commits a crime, if he is involved in illegal activities, etc.”
Does Garga mean the non-Bengalis in West Bengal, all or most of them, are criminals? Garga Chattopadhyay replies, “I am not talking about anyone. Keep an eye on Howrah Station or Sealdah Station area. Understand what kind of activities are going on. You will understand.”
With inputs from Anandabazar Patrika