Behind West Bengal's Identity Battles: Rising Population & Economic Pressure
Rival political forces in West Bengal are using decades-old demographic data to fuel identity-based contests. Our story examines how all sides' arguments are on flimsy ground, and how economic issues are exacerbating divisions.
Kolkata: The question of what poses a greater danger for the people of West Bengal--'infiltration' of Muslims from Bangladesh or migration of Hindi-speaking people from north India--is dominating the state's political discourse ahead of the state assembly election.
Even as both sides cite demographic data from the decade-old Census of 2011, the numbers do not corroborate either stance. Both sides are misinterpreting the decade-old data to create a volatile political atmosphere, as our analysis shows.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is seeking a third consecutive term in polls that will be held in a record eight phases from March 27 to April 29. Her party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), won 211 seats in the 294-seat assembly in 2016. It is being challenged by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won three seats--its best performance ever in the state. While the BJP has never held power in Bengal, the party won 18 of 42 seats in the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, while the TMC won 22. Extrapolated for assembly segments, the BJP was leading in 121 segments and the TMC in 164.
West Bengal had a population of 91.3 million as per census 2011 data, an addition of 11 million people compared to that recorded in census 2001. The state is wrestling with economic pressure due to increasing population density, which increased 2.47 times, from 296 persons per sq km in 1951 to 1,028 persons per sq km in 2011. India's average population density increased similarly by 2.3 times, but from 117 in 1951 to 382 in 2011--much lower absolute numbers.
This population surge is striking given that West Bengal has one of the lowest total fertility rates among major states. The state's total fertility rate is lower than the national average, and has declined from 4.2 in 1981 (national average 4.5), 3.2 in 1991 (national average 3.6), 2.4 in 2001 (national average 3.1) and 1.7 in 2011 (national average 2.4) to 1.6 (national average 2.2) in 2017.
Even though the available population data are a decade old, the demographic numbers are finding an echo in the election campaign. The state is witnessing two broad narratives on ethnic lines, turning this election into a battle of Hindu khatrey mein hain (Hindus are in danger) versus Bangalir bipod asonno (Bengalis are in danger).
Claims and counter-claims
The BJP-led Hindu nationalists claim there are "one crore Hindu refugees" and "one crore infiltrators" in West Bengal, and that the party wants to "prevent West Bengal from turning into West Bangladesh".
It was on May 4, 2014, that the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, had distinguished Bangladeshi Hindu migrants from the Muslim ones by using the word 'refugee' for the former--"those who celebrate Durgashtami"--and 'infiltrators' for the latter, "who are pouring in due to vote-bank politics". The former must be honoured and given protection and the latter driven out, he had said.
The BJP cites data from Census 2011 to point to the increase in the state's Muslim population share from 19.85% in 1947 to 27.01% in 2011, attributing it to 'infiltration' from Bangladesh. It projects that this share will be around 30% in the next census. It also claims that the TMC government has allowed rampant infiltration since 2011 and turned infiltrators into voters. A senior BJP leader dubbed the Mamata Banerjee government as "tees pratishat ki sarkar (a government that works for the benefit of the 30%)".
"All the infiltrators from Bangladesh are sitting here and harming the interests of the country. Didi has turned them into voters. There is a conspiracy to turn West Bengal into West Bangladesh," the BJP's Bengal unit president Dilip Ghosh had said in December 2020.
In the absence of more recent data, changes in the demographic pattern during the Mamata Banerjee rule since 2011 can only be known after the publication of the census of 2021.
The Bengali nativist organisations, on their part, also cite numbers from Census 2011: Since native Muslims and Hindus of Bangladesh are predominantly Bengali-speaking, they question why the purported influx of migrants from Bangladesh has not increased the state's Bengali-speaking population. The 2011 census data show that 85.62% (78.15 million) of the state's population speaks Bengali, marginally higher than the 84.51% (67.76 million) in the 2001 census, 84.2% (29.4 million) in the 1961 census and 85.83% (58.43 million) in the 1991 census.
Both sides are using decade-old data and misinterpreting the same to create a volatile political atmosphere, said political activist Prasenjit Bose. "Those who talk about the in-migration of Hindi-speaking people do not mention the out-migration of Bengali-speaking people who have settled in other states ," he said, adding, "[This] is the key reason for Bengali-speaking population not recording any significant increase."
Bengali nativist personality Garga Chatterjee is one of the most vocal activists questioning the Hindu nationalists' Muslim infiltration theory by citing no significant increase in Bengali-speaking population. "The question is how massive is the migration of Hindi-speaking people [into West Bengal] who are eating into our resources?" he said
The nativists say there is an influx of Hindi-speaking peoples into Bengal from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and are calling for "preventing West Bengal's transformation into East Bihar" and "Amar mati amar maa/Uttar Pradesh hobey naa (My land, my mother will not become Uttar Pradesh)".
The state's share of speakers of Hindi language groups--all Hindi dialects taken together, including Bhojpuri, Khotta, Kurmali Thar, Marwari, Rajasthani and Sadan/Sadri--has been increasing since 1961, except for in 2011. The share was 6.3 million (6.96%) in the 2011 census; 5.7 million (7.16%) in the 2001 census; 4.5 million (6.57%) in the 1991 census. In 1961, 5.95% people in the state spoke Hindi or one of the language's dialects.
The TMC has endorsed this strand in a diluted form. It has, without targeting the Hindi-speaking people in the state, called for resisting 'Borgi Hana' (the Bargi invasion), comparing the BJP's mobilisation of leaders and organisers from other states to the Maratha invasion of the 18th century. Banerjee has repeatedly said that "Gujarat will not rule Bengal".
On March 25, two days before the state was to go to the first phase of the Assembly polls, Mamata Banerjee alleged that "Goons from UP donning saffron clothes, chewing Pan Bahar destroying Bengal's culture."
As for the BJP's projection of 30% Muslim share in population, data show that between 2001 and 2011, the Muslim population's share in the state rose from 25.25% to 27.01%. Some research explains the increase as due to the higher growth rate among Muslims compared to Hindus. Recent trends show the Muslim growth rate is declining significantly, Bose told IndiaSpend, adding, "Going by these trends, the Muslim population in Bengal is very unlikely to cross the 30% mark for several decades because the difference in growth rate among the Muslims and Hindus is narrowing".
The year 2017 witnessed a turning point in the state's politics in some respects. In March, the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the BJP's parent organisation, passed a resolution at its annual meeting expressing "grave concern over the violence by Jehadi elements in West Bengal".
It said large numbers of Hindus were forced to seek refuge in West Bengal "due to the continuous persecution and atrocities in East Pakistan, present Bangladesh". Despite this large Hindu influx, West Bengal's Hindu population has declined from 78.45% in 1951 to 70.54% in 2011, it said--implying that a Muslim influx had dwarfed the Hindu one. "This is a matter of serious concern to the unity and integrity of the country."
A few weeks after the RSS' resolution, the state witnessed massive Ram Navami processions, in which bike-riding youngsters, wearing saffron bandanas chanted 'Jai Shri Ram'. The processions triggered a backlash from Bengalis, who alleged that the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella term referring to the RSS' numerous affiliates, was trying to impose 'north Indian culture' on Bengal.
Enter 'Bengali nationalists', who vowed to save Bengal from the aggression of "Hindi imperialists". The first such organisation was the Garga Chatterjee-led Bangla Pokkho, which takes inspiration from Bangladesh's anti-Urdu and Tamil Nadu's anti-Hindi movements. Chatterjee has also revived the 'Joy Bangla' slogan--the war cry of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971--in an effort to counter the Sangh Parivaar's 'Jai Shri Ram' slogan. 'Joy Bangla' proved so popular that Mamata Banerjee formally adopted it in 2019 as one of her party's three slogans, in addition to 'Jai Hind' and 'Bande Mataram'.
Two other organisations, the Bangla Sanskriti Mancha and the Jayito Bangla Sammelan, were launched in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The Bengali nativists have clarified that when they say 'north India', they do not refer to the Punjabi, Garhwali or Kashmiri people; they refer to the people from the 'Hindi heartland'.
A vortex of hatred has unfolded since. If the Hindu nationalists frequently refer to Muslims as "jihadi", the Bengali nativists refer to the Hindi-speaking people as "gutkha animal" and "cow belt people".
These references have gradually moved from the fringe to the mainstream. "Shut up, you gutkha-eater! Who will respond to one who chews gutkha?" TMC's Birbhum district unit president Anubrata Mandal told BJP parliamentarian Arjun Singh during a live debate on a Bengali news channel in March.
And contents from the campaign of the Bengali nativist groups, such as the slogan "Amar Mati Amar Maa/ Uttar Pradesh Hobey Na" (My land, my mother will not become Uttar Pradesh), have slipped into the TMC's vocabulary.
Religion, language and economics
"They are coming, all guns blazing, to take control of Bengal's politics, economy and culture," said Anirban Banerjee, a leader of Jatiyo Bangla Sammelan. "Most of our industrial towns have already turned into mini-Bihars." Bengal's Hindi-speaking population is largely confined to industrial towns and trading hubs, such as Asansol, Durgapur, Bhatpara, Barrackpore, Kharagpur, Howrah, Kolkata and Siliguri, census data show.
West Bengal has traditionally been a state with more inward migration from northern Indian states than outbound, pointed out Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, a professor of political science at Kolkata's Rabindra Bharati University and an expert on migration. "However, trends since the 1991 census show more out-bound migration from the state than in-bound. Therefore, rise of Bengali nativism appears to be more of a cultural backlash against the Hindu nationalists' propaganda on Muslim infiltration than being an impact of inward migration," he said.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than one million migrant workers returned to the state, triggering debates around migration.
A recent viral visualisation depicted in-bound and out-bound migrations across Indian states, based on railway inflow and outflow from data provided by the Economic Survey of India 2017-18. The map showed West Bengal as an in-flow state with more than 300,000 people having moved in.
Among those who shared the map was Bharatiya Bigyan O Yuktibadi Samiti (Science and Rationalists' Association of India). The text accompanying the map in their post is headlined: "Why domicile reservation is necessary in West Bengal". The three Bengali nativist groups too have been pressing for this demand.
The TMC's 2021 election manifesto, however, does not mention domicile reservation and its leaders refuse to talk about it. The party has always believed in the tenet of harmony in diversity, and wants all languages, ethnicities, religion and culture to prosper, Partha Chatterjee, the state's outgoing education minister and the TMC's secretary-general told IndiaSpend. "Our government introduced Hindi, Nepali, Urdu, Santhali, Odiya, Punjabi, Kamtapuri, Rajbanshi and Kurmali as official languages in the state."
These languages can be used for official purposes in areas where the speaker strength exceeds 10% of the population.
The TMC cannot take a direct stance against the people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, a Lok Sabha parliamentarian told IndiaSpend on condition of anonymity. "It's wrong to construe all Hindi-speaking people as BJP voters. Besides, we have good relations with Bihar's Rashtriya Janata Dal and Uttar Pradesh's Samajwadi Party for national-level coordination against the BJP."
(Editing by Marisha Karwa)
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