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Language spat takes roots in Mamata Banerjee’s culture clan

CM says if (Indian) Bengalis are to suddenly become conservative with language, they will never be open to new developments

Meghdeep Bhattacharyya Calcutta Published 25.02.23, 03:19 AM

Shuvaprasanna. File picture

A public disagreement of a rather pedagogical nature — rooted in how inclusive the Bengali language ought to remain — between three of Mamata Banerjee’s culture clan stalwarts has refused to die in four days, surprising and embarrassing even several seniors in the Trinamul Congress.

The spat that began on the dais of the International Mother Language Day commemoration by the state government at Deshapriya Park on Tuesday — between artist Shuvaprasanna on one side, and Indologist Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri and poet Subodh Sarkar on the other — should have concluded there, with the chief minister throwing her weight firmly behind the latter side. But it did not.


“It is outrageously obscene what Shuvaprasanna has been doing, with repeated critical statements in public against the other two, despite knowing her (Mamata’s) views,” said a Trinamul MP.

“That he is doing this despite his awareness of the subject’s sensitivity and how this helps the ever-ravenous saffron hyenas to utilise its polarisation potential is what we find befuddling,” he added, referring to voices of communally-stained support from the saffron ecosystem that has emerged in favour of Shuvaprasanna over the past couple of days. “Deep and wide faultlines within, not exclusive to the culture clan, have forever been a problem in the Trinamul family. But that should not help the divisive agenda of the BJP or land our party in a spot of bother.”

Subodh Sarkar.

Subodh Sarkar. File picture

On Tuesday, the artist had advocated for a closed-door, exclusionary rigidity in terms of the Bengali language, on the Deshapriya Park dais, expressing his distaste for some loanwords such as “paani” (water, with Sanskrit roots) or “daawat” (invitation, with Arabic roots) – both commonly used in various dialects of Bengali spoken in Bangladesh.

“Some words that we do not consider Bengali are entering the language now. We never say ‘paani’ or ‘daawat’ in our language. We have to think which language is ours. There is no communalism in our language, or anything else… which we must maintain,” Shuvaprasanna had said on February 21. Bhaduri and Sarkar had opposed him, with the view that languages that thrive are the ones that remain flexible, ever-flowing rivers, accepting external influences and loanwords.

As a matter of fact, Bengali has forever been that open and cosmopolitan over centuries, with countless loanwords — from languages as wide-ranging as Arabic and Farsi to Portuguese and English — in everyday use.

Mamata had said if (Indian) Bengalis are to suddenly become conservative with the language, they would never be open to new developments.

“Keeping intact the heritage and our foundation, let us all expand the Bengali language…. I have great respect for Shuvada, but I will tell him this…. We have to accept the fact that some of us use ‘paani’ or ‘daawat’. Similarly for mother… we have countless ways of calling our mothers, and we must remain open to all of them,” she had said on the dais.

Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri.

Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri. File picture

“Language should be such that we can understand it easily. Language means communication. Thus, languages with better communication skills will prosper more,” the Trinamul chief had added, while the artist was seen smiling at her.

However, since then, Shuvaprasanna issued several public statements, asserting he was right and slinging mud at Bhaduri and Sarkar, suggesting they could dare not agree with him as they are “teylbaaj (obsequious)”. He even issued counter-statements to the media after the party’s spokespersons came forward to mitigate.

Now, sources in Trinamul said, there is a section that is willing to “expose the opportunism” of the artist – whose loyalty to Mamata has often been put to question in the past – with the blessings of 30B Harish Chatterjee Street.

“He has persisted, trying to prove her wrong, implying that her statement emerged from the need for (communal) appeasement arising out of electoral compulsions,” said Trinamul state general-secretary Kunal Ghosh, who has also come under Shuvaprasanna’s fire over the past few days.

“This is me saying this personally, Shuvaprasanna, I think, is a batty opportunist… a bad human being,” he said, adding that the artist might be doing this out of the need to get some new benefits from the state government.

Bhaduri and Sarkar have largely refrained from adding fuel to this avoidable fire over the past few days, but sources in the party said they expressed their “legitimate indignation” to Mamata in private conversations with her. The sources said she was empathetic towards them and suggested that the artist would be “cut to size”. Furthermore, they said she was yet to ascertain Shuvaprasanna’s motive, as he currently has nothing political going on elsewhere.

Speaking to this newspaper on Friday, Sarkar said that she agreed with him and Bhaduri in her public address — and later, off-mic, on the dais again — was enough for him.

“As a teacher of English and a writer in Bengali who has remained a lifelong student of languages, I will say that only those languages survive and prosper… the ones that remain alive by accepting loanwords from others...” said the poet.

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