West Bengal is perhaps the only state where somebody from another state is called a “non-Bengali”. One does not usually hear of a non-Oriya, non-Tamilian or non-Malayali. Individuals are entitled to their chauvinisms, however pointless or obnoxious, but it is a different matter when the state begins to endorse such provincial attitudes. The West Bengal government is introducing compulsory Bengali in schools for “non-Bengali” students from next year. The chief minister supports this move quite enthusiastically, as do his men in the education department. It was originally suggested by the state minorities commission, who had wanted a four-year compulsory course in Bengali from class VI to class X. But this has been reduced to a couple of years now, in classes VI and VII. The government seems to have made up its mind about this matter, although it is still officially “under consideration”.
This is an absurd proposition and might well irritate those students who will be forced to take on another subject of study out of no wish of their own. First, it is certainly not the government’s job to force students to learn languages which they are unlikely to need in their everyday and professional lives. The choice should be entirely that of the student and his guardians. Second, another compulsory subject will only add to the education department’s paraphernalia, from drawing up a syllabus to training teachers. This department is already struggling to discharge its normal duties, maintaining a minimum standard of efficiency. It could do without this new and entirely gratuitous task. Third, the government seems to think that the learning of Bengali is indispensable to living one’s daily life in Bengal, particularly after its bureaucrats have been encouraged to use more Bengali in their work. Here again, the government should restrain its officiousness. Bengal’s cosmopolitanism goes back a long way, and people have managed to communicate with one another perfectly well without being forced to learn the language by the state. Children are already burdened with a great deal of work at school, the experience of which is becoming more joyless by the day. Adding a third language to this mountain of learning would be ill-advised. The government should also dissociate itself from those Bengali chauvinists who have elevated their zeal for the promotion of the language to the level of a “movement”. Linguistic chauvinism — the sort of thing that Mr Bal Thackeray keeps up in Maharashtra — should not enter Bengal’s schools, disguised as helpfulness, and clutter up the education offered by them.