June 14, 2017

India: Douse language fires: Mamata has blundered in trying to impose Bengali in Darjeeling Hills (Edit, Times of India)

The Times of India - June 14, 2017


With protests and bandhs called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha the Darjeeling Hills are tense, and the Bengal government has a serious crisis on its hands. Violence has already broken out against government establishments – such as the torching of the Bijanbari block development office – forcing thousands of tourists to flee the picturesque holiday destination. The GJM stir started over the state government’s declaration last month to make Bengali compulsory in all schools, which has certainly backfired for chief minister Mamata Banerjee. It has breathed life into her political opponents and allowed them to accuse Kolkata of linguistic and cultural chauvinism.
That said, violence cannot be justified under any circumstances and those protesting in the Darjeeling Hills must do so peacefully. In fact, resorting to violence will only undermine the protesters’ valid cause: making Bengali compulsory in all schools in the state goes against the spirit of plurality on which Indian democracy rests. Unfortunately this isn’t the first time that a Bengal government has tried to force-feed the Bengali language. In 1984, the erstwhile Left Front regime had abolished English in the primary sections of state-run schools to give primacy to Bengali. That decision ended up negatively affecting the job prospects of a whole generation of Bengalis.
It’s welcome that Mamata has now reversed her position and clarified that Darjeeling schools will be exempt from the compulsory Bengali policy. Just as the NDA-led government at the Centre has been criticised for trying to impose Hindi on non-Hindi speaking states, the latter can’t justify imposing regional languages within their own jurisdictions. If the Centre is erring with moves that may see Hindi being made a compulsory subject in CBSE schools across the country, so is the Kerala government with its recent ordinance that makes Malayalam mandatory in all schools in that state.
In an increasingly globalised world languages have become closely linked with economic opportunities where parochial policies do more harm than good. India’s rich and diverse linguistic traditions must not be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Governments promoting a particular language at the cost of other languages is a recipe for disaster. The country has already seen its fair share of violence on this account. A better approach would be to allow schools and parents to decide what languages should be taught and promoted.