The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The wise men who govern West Bengal keep haring off in divergent directions in their attempts to create a better image for their state. The mayor of Calcutta, Mr Subrata Mukherjee, proposed in the Banga Sanskriti Utsav that the use of Bengali should be made mandatory on advertisements in other languages, on banners and hoardings. He is not the sole progenitor of the suggestion, the proposal has come to him also from some members of the intelligentsia. The mayor is so earnest in the pursuit of linguistic loyalty that he thinks the chief minister should make a law to enforce Bengali in advertisements. The ways of the great are always mysterious, as in this case it is almost impossible to work out the kind of reasoning that has led to the desire for linguistic assertion. It is true that the knowledge of Bengali among native speakers is at an all-time low. There is not only something faulty in the language teaching system itself — it must not be forgotten that for years the learning of English in schools has been accorded very low priority — but also immense pressure in the larger society to deprive the learning of Bengali of all incentive. The cultural bankruptcy has clearly discernible pedagogic and socio-economic sources. Pasting the language on advertisements is a puerile way to assert its cultural importance — or, at worst, presence. Apart from increasing the general sense of crowding, it is unlikely to do very much.

The proud public presence of a regional language is the sign of a healthy and thriving economy and dynamic cultural ascendancy. Then there is both a need for it and a pride in claiming it. When enforced under these very different circumstances, it suggests fractiousness and a sterile linguistic chauvinism. The idea is plain silly. Particularly so at this juncture, when West Bengal is frantic for investments from non-resident Indians, foreigners, anyone and everyone. If West Bengal is to show itself off as an investor-friendly state, what it must sell among other features is the impression of a cosmopolitan culture. Mr Mukherjee and his friends do not seem to have seen that enforcing the presence of Bengali in advertisements in other languages would be a sign of entrenched chauvinism, since the advertisers have not thought Bengali to be necessary. Policing languages, at the cost of a law and other expenditures, is not what they should be worrying about. The need and respect for a language will evolve naturally, as the society of its native speakers thrives and grows more confident. Pushing it down other people’s gullets is a sign of weakness, not strength.

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