A 2008 article in The Telegraph offers some insights.

Bongs and others

When Raj Thackeray thunders “Marathi manasa jaga ho (Wake up Marathis)”, Mumbai burns and butchers. And India shakes.

When Aamra Bangali called “Bangali jago”, it was greeted with the riposte: “Kancha ghum bhangaiben na” (Do not disturb, our sleep is still light)”. Or, perhaps more tellingly, “Halum” (the tiger’s roar), from the cheeky Bengali who thought too much fuss was being made of waking up.

Calcutta and Mumbai share the feature of hosting a large number of migrants, but the eastern metropolis has never been riven in half by a movement like what Thackeray senior and junior have unleashed on the western tip.

“If someone tries to create this kind of trouble here, the people will drive him out of the city and throw him into the Bay of Bengal,” says Barry O’Brien, quizmaster and MLA, with a laugh.

It’s not just the high migrant population that Calcutta shares with Mumbai. Like the Marathi, the Bengali has no place at the high table of business. The money in Calcutta is in the hands of Marwaris and Gujaratis — and has been so traditionally.

Unlike Mumbai, however, Calcutta is very much an economically depressed city where opportunities are few and the competition that much harder. That should be an additional ground for a movement like Amra Bangali to strike roots in. Or for politicians of other parties to water, just as the Congress and Sharad Pawar’s outfit do in Mumbai by treating Raj with kid gloves for fear of losing Marathi votes.

Why is it then that Calcutta, with possibly more reasons for turning inward and intolerant, and Bengal have not produced a Bal or Raj Thackeray clone?

“Calcutta has a lot of practice in living with people from various communities. It was the capital of British India and was always looked upon as the gateway to the East. Historically, it has attracted people from various backgrounds in search of a living. And the situation hasn’t changed in the 20th century,” says Abhijit Gupta, who teaches English at Jadavpur University.

If Calcutta is seen as the gateway to the East, Mumbai is the Gateway to India. Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism is perhaps greater than any other Indian city’s — and it has a history longer than any other’s. More people have, and do so every day, set out for Mumbai in search of a living than they do for Calcutta.

But Calcutta has its benefits. “The city is so open. No one ever called us Bhaiya even when we arrived here. This city has made me what I am today,” says stage actress and director Usha Ganguli.

True. But Bengalis still call Marwaris Meros and Maarus, Oriyas Ures and BiharisKhottas. And all the people of the world outside Bengal “non-Bengalis”. Us and the rest.

The rest are funny

Does the key to Calcutta’s tolerance reside in this bubble of superiority? Some argue that there is no ill will in this posturing. “We may call a Marwari a Mero, but it’s done in jest,” says writer Nabarun Bhattacharya.

Many have faith in the nature of Bengali culture. “Bangaliana hasn’t developed by excluding other cultures. Our conception of the other is perhaps not that strong. It cannot be turned into hatred. Even as we make fun of a Khotta or an Ure, it looks more like an instance of humour based on a deep-seated sense of difference. Using this as humour and using it as a basis for antagonism are two completely different things,” says sociologist Prasanta Roy.

The argument is that it’s difficult to feel malice towards someone who’s the butt of your jokes. They’re inferior and, therefore, not fit to be the object of your anger or frustration.

Does it explain the surprise so-called outsiders express when confronted with the question: do you feel threatened in Calcutta?

“I have heard people from outside complain of the traffic and other things, but never of being made to feel like an outsider. The city grows on you,” says Jimmy Tangree, a radio professional.

It’s the city of preference for that very vulnerable community: Kashmiris, who feel unsafe in almost all of India outside their beautiful valley.

Abid, who’s been in Calcutta for 15 years, has a shop on Free School Street where he sells Kashmiri shawls.

“I can’t speak Bengali, but I can understand it very well. I have a business in Delhi too, but I prefer Calcutta. It’s not easy for Kashmiris to live in any part of the country. But Calcutta is so nice — my parents are also at ease when I’m here,” he says.

When a Kashmiri sells Kashmiri shawls in Calcutta, he’s not usurping a Bengali’s position and denying him of a livelihood opportunity. In other words, he has a competitive advantage that is difficult for a Bengali to achieve.

Isn’t it expected of Sudam Pyne, a driver in a private firm, to be resentful of his Bihari and UP-ite fellow workers who may be occupying a position his brother or cousin could take?

Silent disdain

“Why would I resent them? These people have come so far from their homes and work so hard,” says Pyne.

Does that mean that the Bengali is completely tolerant?

Of course not. Filmmaker and artist Devashish Makhija, whose family came to Calcutta from Pakistan and who is more than often not mistaken for a Bengali whose correctly spelt surname should be Mukherjee, remembers the silent disdain the Bengalis would direct at the Marwari boys at school. “They would form separate groups for football and I would shuttle between the two groups.”

The cultural divide was there to be exploited to suit political motives but was not.

“One reason the Aamra Bangali movement did not find acceptance was the presence of well-established political parties. The Communist movement was there since the 20s and many of the founding fathers of the Indian National Congress were Bengali. Thus they were firmly rooted and offered a secure, viable political option. Aamra Bangali’s level of small (narrow-minded) politics just did not have any political space to occupy,” says Roy.

In Calcutta and its outskirts, it was often the migrant Bihari jute mill worker who became a Communist convert earlier than the Bengali babu. The so-called urban underclass — that is Bal and Raj Thackeray’s Marathi army in Mumbai — was not only not always Bengali but had been integrated into mainline politics, irrespective of cultural/language differences.

The Congress, though its influence among the working class was undermined by the Communists fairly early in Bengal, has never behaved like a party of Bengalis. Both the main parties, and later Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress, have desisted from taking the path of wounded regionalism.

When they did — during much of Jyoti Basu’s time in power — it was more a cry of economic discrimination aimed at Delhi rather than an attack on the migrant population in Bengal.

“The fact that there is a socialist party in power has helped,” says interior designer Ajay Issar.

“Raj Thackeray’s politics wouldn’t survive in Bengal, where inclusive politics involving migrants is a better strategy, as the CPM has proved time and again by using the refugee community from Bangladesh. Vote banks in Bengal are formed along the lines of poverty,” he adds.

Even along the lines of affluence there were never any cracks. Although a majority of the business is owned by “non-Bengalis”, there has never been any organised political move to turn this into an “oust-so-and-so” movement. If businessmen earlier backed the Congress, now they have split loyalties.

The Bengali may feel jealous of the moneyed Marwari and the gilded Gujarati — and may even be as communal as anyone else — but at a subterranean level, he hasn’t been able to find a political mouthpiece.

Pankaj Parekh, a Gujarati jeweller who was born and brought up in Calcutta, says: “It (businesses) offers good job openings to the Bengalis and the Bengalis realise and accept that.”

Not being “money-minded”, which used to be the equivalent of “business-minded”, was — but no longer is — considered a mark of the Bengali’s “cultured, intellectual” self.

Roy, the sociologist, argues: “The son-of-the-soil movement finds acceptance in Maharashtra because it is manipulating the sentiments of the working class. This is the class that is economically vulnerable, facing what it perceives as a tangible threat and is thus easily motivated. Bengalis are not that easy to motivate.”

He should probably have added that the urban Bengali, who doesn’t aspire to working-class status anyway; is hard to motivate along parochial lines.

The CPM or Mamata has never found motivation a problem. But both have brought people out in the streets for political reasons, however disruptive.

Which is why not only did the Aamra Bangali effort fail but even celebrity author Sunil Ganguly’s suggestion to write billboards and signs in Bengali found little support, unlike in such “cosmopolitan” cities as Bangalore, not to speak of Hyderabad.

So if you don’t have Raj Thackeray here, thank Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Mamata Banerjee.

Nanos may come and go, but “non-Bengali” Ratan Tata is welcome to set up residence here if Raj Thackeray makes things too hot for him in Mumbai.

And this time, there won’t be any disputes, we can assure him.

Let’s say halum to that, in greeting. POULOMI BANERJEE AND MALINI BANERJEE

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Why Calcutta, a city of migrants, does not react like Mumbai

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s