Your Mother Tongue May Not Be Mine – And That’s Fine

I’m a millennial Bengali with maternal roots in the beautiful state of Assam, a state that I also like to call home.

My mother migrated to Kolkata at the peak of the Assam Agitation that, in theory at least, envisaged the expulsion of illegal immigrants from the state. The same movement, however, went on to target Bengali residents solely on the basis of their linguistic identity. It has finally culminated today in the National Register of Citizens that has made Bengalis foreigners in their own land and driven many to take their own lives.

That is why, today, I am worried.

I am worried when our Union home minister pitches for greater use of ‘our’ mother tongue Hindi, as he believes that it is the only language which is representative of India’s identity. I am equally worried when the chief minister of West Bengal threatens the residents of West Bengal to learn Bengali if they wish to continue living in the state while vehemently opposing the NRC at the same time.

Why does one language have to be representative of all citizens living inside the territorial borders of a state or nation?

Why do we emphasise on the homogeneity of a population as a pre-condition for national integration when our constitution recognises multiple official languages in the Eight Schedule?

Isn’t India supposed to be the land which celebrates pluralist unity in all its glory?

And what about the human cost of linguistic politics?

The subcontinent has a chequered history when it comes to linguistic chauvinism. When we celebrate International Mother Language Day on February 21, most of us recall the perils of forceful ethnic assimilation in erstwhile East Pakistan and how language became the vehicle of a movement for self-determination of Bengalis.

However, UNESCO does not recognise the fateful day to celebrate Bengali nationhood. The international agency commemorates the sacrifice of the young martyrs to foster tolerance for diverse languages and cultures across the world.

It is heart warming that netizens have taken strong exception to the statement of the home minister. However, we would do well to remember that assertion of our linguistic identities must not take an exclusionary form. If we do so, we will only reinforce the Hindutva project of majoritarian hegemony.

Contrary to what our ruling classes may like to preach, the time has come to shun reactionary politics. It’s time that we embrace linguistic diversity and celebrate it as the hallmark of India.

Rongeet Poddar is  a final year law student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty