Why Are Modi and His Cohort Paranoid About Diversity?

Home Minister Amit Shah of the BJP now bats for Hindi as the unifying language that India requires.

In India, several decades ago, the uncritical reversion to fundamentalism and the attempt to create a “unified” political identity in the wake of right-wing nationalist movements led to the erosion of unique and distinctive cultural identities. In the post-Partition era, this threat led to Bengalis of the Indian state of West Bengal and people of the same ethnicity in East Pakistan to challenge deeply entrenched political structures. In India and Pakistan, these structures were responsible for the concentration of power in Delhi and West Pakistan, respectively, which both tended to administer foreign aid and other revenues to themselves, even though West Bengal and East Pakistan had large populations and sustained the agrarian economy in the two countries. The result of this highly centralized federation was a marginalizing of outlying states.

The feeling of alienation among Bengalis was augmented by the proclamation of Hindi as the official language in North India and Urdu as the official language in Pakistan. According to the Census of India, 1951, 84.62 % of the inhabitants of West Bengal had Bengali as the native language (52). The Census of Pakistan, 1951, stated that 98 % of the inhabitants of East Bengal had Bengali as their mother tongue and they represented 55 % of the total population of Pakistan (68).

As was reported in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn in 1948, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, responded to the suggestion that Bengali be permitted in the assembly in the following words:

“Pakistan is a Muslim state, and it must have as its lingua franca a language of the Muslim nation. The mover should realize that Pakistan has been created because    of the demand of a hundred million Muslims in this subcontinent, and the language of a hundred million Muslims is Urdu. It is necessary for a nation to have one language and that language can only be Urdu and no other language.” (qtd. in Ahmad 112)

In a similar move in India, the founding father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, and the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, declared that a community should be forged between Hindus and Muslims by creating by creating a link language that was colloquial and based on the spoken vernacular. So Hindustani was adopted as the language to transcend the pernicious Hindi-Urdu controversy. Here, too, the consequent marginalization of the Bengali language was a blow to Bengali self-definition.

These cultural and socioeconomic inequities were re-emphasized in independent India by the launching of a far-reaching affirmative action program that ensured quotas in academic and government institutions for “scheduled” castes or tribes. In the opinion of those who opposed this program, by ensuring quotas for members of scheduled castes and tribes, the nationalist government eroded the establishment of a meritocracy. Having traditionally belonged to the educated elite, Bengalis, particularly Bengali Muslims, felt aggrieved by this perceived erosion. The situation was worsened by the slow growth of the Indian economy, which limited the expansion of openings in public and private sectors, thus preventing the majority of educated people from availing themselves of job opportunities.

The resulting cultural conflict was exacerbated by the political conflict among the Muslims communities of East and West Pakistan. The people of Bengali descent in the feudally dominated state of West Bengal and East Pakistan prided themselves on their unique cultural heritage and intellectual prowess. But Bengali Muslims in the Indian state of West Bengal and in East Pakistan were indignant because of the perceived refusal to negotiate their demands.

The general perception among Bengali Muslims was that the concentration of power in Delhi, with its wealthy Punjabi industrialists, had relegated their distinct Bengali culture to the background, and they had been denied adequate political representation by both Delhi and Islamabad. The feeling of resentment was exacerbated tenfold by the division of the state of Bengal into Hindu-dominated West Bengal and Muslim-dominated East Pakistan.

The result was a demand for a separate nation for Bengali Muslims. The demand of nationhood was made a reality by the Indian military incursion into Pakistan in 1971. The foray of India into its neighboring country was a well-planned and strategic operation.

The imposition of cultural, religious, and linguistic homogeneity in India is likely to increase the assertion of regional identities.

Prime Minister Modi and his cohort do not recognize their ethical and moral responsibilities toward the peoples of the States in federal India. The country is now in the hands of thuggish politicians, who have no clue what independence of the judiciary, integrity of the electoral process, and sovereignty of the Constitution mean.


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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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