Why Amartya Sen is wrong about Bengali, or any, culture on religious slogans
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, in his desire to counter a BJP surge in Bengal, unfortunately took recourse to the idea that cultures ought to privilege the "mainstream"
Eminent economist Amartya Sen has said at Jadavpur University that "Jai Shri Ram" is not part of Bengali culture, which is associated with Goddess Durga. He added that he had never heard of Ram Navami in Bengal in the past and the same was being used as a pretext to “beat up people”.
In this, the Nobel Laureate is not alone. He is voicing the view that many other liberals from Bengal have articulated in recent months.
While many have indeed been concerned over the spiralling violence amid the rising political tension between the ruling All-India Trinamool Congress and the BJP, the Nobel Laureate may have just breached a fine diving line between “cultures” and the modern need to not essentialise them.
In 2008, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray had called the Chhath Puja in Mumbai by migrant, Bihari, workers a “drama”, adding that it was done by north Indians to “show their strength”. He had also challenged Lalu Prasad to dare to come to Mumbai and perform the Chhath Puja in front of his house.
The central problem here is the “ownership” of this nebulous thing called culture in times of global and national migrations of the poor as also the rich. It is often on grounds of dilution of cultures – apart from the taking away of jobs – that migrants are reduced to a secondary status.
What constitutes the “core” of cities like Delhi or Kolkata or Mumbai?
If Delhi was a Mughal city till the 19th century, it saw a huge influx of Punjabi migrants at Partition – its population increased in the process – and became “Saadi Dilli”, a Punjabi city. As it expanded, bringing nearby villages in its urban fold, it acquired a powerful Jat and Gujjar element, particularly in what is called Outer Delhi. In the last few decades, with large-scale migrations from UP and Bihar, it has acquired a large Poorvanchal population, reflected in the choice of Manoj Tiwari as Delhi state BJP president.
The fact is that there is no “core” of Delhi. No great urban centre can afford a core. With migrant populations matching and sometimes exceeding those who are “indigenous” – often meaning from within the modern boundaries, often recently constructed, of the province where a city is situated – assertion of a “pure”, “pristine”, “core” culture is just a means of asserting hierarchies and “othering” migrants.
What applies to Delhi applies to Mumbai and Kolkata too. Is it any surprise that the Hindi film industry is situated not in Allahabad but in Mumbai, which has a strong, regional, Marathi politics? Or is it a surprise that migrant labour from Bihar is found in large numbers in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata? Or that the Marwaris, originally from Rajasthan, have been the core of the economy of Kolkata and a powerful element – alongside Gujaratis – in Mumbai too?
Be that as it may, the BJP did use the symbol of Ram, a deity most popular in north India, to spread its wings in Bengal. And with polarisation around armed Ram Navami processions and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill to problematically distinguish “illegal” Muslim and Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh – coupled with the boost it got from an opposition vacuum in a context where many have found the Mamata Banerjee government authoritarian – the BJP was able to place itself as the prime opposition, coming very close to the ruling TMC.
However, even if one were to counter the rise of the BJP democratically, saying “Jai Shri Ram” is alien to Bengal does not work.
Indeed, the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” is recent everywhere. Even in Uttar Pradesh, the hub of Ram worship, villagers would say “Ram Ram” and “Jai Siya Ram” till a few decades back, rather than “Jai Shri Ram”, which was popularised during the Ram Janmabhumi agitation.
However, to say that Ram is alien to Bengal is to make invisible the large chunks of migrants from Bihar, east UP and Rajasthan, who stay in Bengal for decades, even a century in some cases. For them, Ram has been a deity they worship. To argue that they do not belong to the “core” of Bengal is to argue in ways that are distinctively right-wing and reminiscent of the politics of the Shiv Sena and MNS, even if sans the violence the latter have engaged in. Have we not asserted that if Ganesh Chaturthi is part and parcel of the culture of Mumbai, Chhath Puja also reflects a vibrant city attracting people from all over? It is in fact a test of its cosmopolitanism – the hallmark of a great city.
It is impossible to argue in a modern, inclusive, society that Chhath Puja or Durga Puja are not part of Delhi’s culture. For, Delhi isn’t frozen in 1857, when the couplets of Mirza Ghalib, Zauk and Bahadur Shah Zafar would be what its culture was known for. It is another matter that the Urdu couplets of these literary giants were historically a composite mix of Persian words on the structural base of Khadi Boli, the local dialect of Delhi.
As historian Salil Misra has brought out in his research on Urdu and Hindi, the two were historically one language that branched into two in the 18th and 19th centuries, as Muslim and Hindu elites sought “cultural purity” by making them Persianised and Sanskritised, respectively.
In other words, the literary culture of Delhi in the 19th century was also “composite”. Later, it was replaced by rich infusions from many parts of India. The south Indian temples of RK Puram are as much part of Delhi culture as the Hanuman temples of nearby Jat-dominated villages or the famous Durga Puja of CR Park, a Bengali locality, which brings traffic to a halt for kilometres on end.
Even in Chennai, where celebrating Holi is not part of Tamil religious practice, one can find gulaal in shops run by Punjabi and Marwari traders. People from the north do celebrate Holi even there, thus marking the city as much more than its “core” cultural past.
What Bengal should be careful about is that it does not even have a discourse of “historical justice” associated with the Dravidian movement that Chennai has: the Bhadralok is the hegemonic group of Bengal and should ideally not look at pushing to the periphery all those who migrated to Bengal from other states just because the BJP is on the rise.
There are far more pluralistic ways of being anti-BJP – a democratic right of every citizen, just like being anti-Congress is – than to come across as claiming that Bengal belongs only to Bengali speakers who lived in West Bengal or migrated from east Bengal, or east-Pakistan, post-Partition.
Prof Sen would perhaps not disagree with what all has been said above. Bengal is not just about Bengali speakers – it is also about Marwaris, Biharis and those coming from eastern UP. Kolkata all the more so brings out the diversity of Bengal more clearly.
Despite his reputation as an ace economist, Prof Sen seems to have got the argument wrong, even if he is well within his right to disagree with and ideologically reject the BJP, something many liberals and those on the left do for far more cogent reasons than protecting “core” cultures in a diverse world seeking justice for all.
Bengal has had a Krishna worship tradition – an overlap with north India – since the times of Chaitanya, but that is beside the point. Some well-known names like Ram Mohun Roy and Ramkrishna Paramhansa are also beside the point. For that matter, the Durga Chalisa is read in many parts of north India, people fast during navratras and pandals are put up for Bhagwati Jagrans, where people stay up in the night to worship the Goddess. This, too, however, is beside the point. The point is the place of the religious and linguistic minorities in a diverse world.
Liberals in Bengal should pause and think: if Ram is alien to Bengal and Durga to Delhi, just because they do not represent the “mainstream”, what argument will you employ when the Sangh Parivar says Hinduism is at the core of India?
If you talk about composite culture and the rights of minorities, find ways of attacking the BJP without falling in its ideological trap of “hegemonic cultures” claiming to be the culture of a land, with a capital “C”.