Recently, a news flash showing a group of youths rallying the streets of the capital, Kolkata, and in other parts of West Bengal, triggered a host of reactions expressing alarm and surprise.
Many thought this sudden shift from the realm of ideas and debate -- despite the presence of its much celebrated ‘buddhijeebi’ or intelligentsia and an equally vibrant university culture -- to a spectacle of brazen muscle-and-weapon was some sort of a break from its liberal values.
All in all, the incident somehow broke the traditional image of Bengal as a ’non-violent’ and progressive region that is more inclusive because of its long affair with leftist ideals and ideology. Perceptions of course don’t exist in vacuum, but in our tendency to characterise regions and their residents in a single tone, are we sweeping some truths under the carpet?
Being Bengali is, of course, very important for a mass of people so sensitive and committed towards the state's culture and their identity as a group, but what else can a native of West Bengal be?
One of the major fixations of Bengal is football and its love of the sport is well-known across the country. Remember the rumours that made the rounds some years ago of the capital city being painted blue and white to express support for its favourite team, Argentina, during the World Cup?
However, what is interesting is that like every sport, football too is deeply rooted in the cultural and social context of our times and region. So, can we seek some answers about the core cultural values of Bengal from its much loved sport?
Let us take the example of the popular rivalry between its two most celebrated teams -- Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. For decades now, Bengalis have divided themselves and fought over the game. A match between these two teams is not less than an India vs Pakistan cricket match. So, why so serious?
Generally speaking, ‘ghoti’ or native Bengalis are Mohun Bagan supporters, while ‘Bangaal’ or immigrants from Bangladesh support East Bengal. Just when you think that the lines drawn here are pretty clear and deal with sympathies for different nations, the issue is complicated by a second identity. From the moment Bengal lost a chunk of its land to Pakistan first and then Bangladesh after 1971, the region has been mostly viewed as a land of Muslims. The notion of an authentic or real Bengali and a fake or at best an inferior one has been existence for some time now. Consequently, the ‘Mohammedan’ is perceived less of a Bengali because of his/her religious affiliation.
What this means is that for a major chunk of people from the state, ghoti Bengalis are considered somehow more authentic. Hence the constant reference of East Bengal supporters as ‘Mohammedan’ or ‘Bangaal’.
Religious background clearly plays a major role in defining who a real Bengali is and nationalism as a sentiment is pretty much valued by an average Bengali. Given these tendencies, is the rally really that surprising or is it simply the other side of Bengal that we have been ignoring all this while?
The so-called red ideology, as we know, led by the Bengali intelligentsia was after all critiqued for its Brahmanism in the past.