History, memory and nostalgia didn’t stand a chance against the ignominy of being last on a list of 29 speakers, waiting endlessly to be heard, only to have your time cut short. Alphabetically, West Bengal comes last in the list of states and ends up at the bottom of the list at national-level meetings and functions. Most recently, Mamata Banerjee was the last speaker at the Inter-state Council meeting chaired by the prime minister. This has led to a renewed demand for the “West” to be dropped from West Bengal, first made when the CPI(M) was still in power in the state. West Bengal will now likely be known as “Banga” or “Bangla” in Bengali and “Bengal” in English.
On the face of it, this shouldn’t be an issue. There hasn’t been an East Bengal since Partition and there is only one Bengali-speaking state in India. Unfortunately, culture and collective memory are not so easily displaced by borders. Intra-Bengali rivalries are still very much rooted in an East-West identity. The best ilish maach still comes from the Padma in Bangladesh, but Bangals (migrants from the East) still take pride in its flavour, as though they caught the fish themselves. Both Ghotis (native west Bengalis) and Bangals claim their food is better, the former is too sweet and the latter too spicy. The divide lives on most in India’s greatest sporting rivalry — Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — Kolkata’s most iconic football clubs. This rather benign cultural conflict is rooted in real trauma. Generations of East Bengalis coming West, first during Partition and then fleeing communal violence in East Pakistan and later Bangladesh, came to a state that was not prepared for the influx, changing its character in many ways. The name West Bengal acknowledged that history.
But what is all that compared to being last in a list alphabetically. Most East Bengalis are now at least a generation removed from their forefathers’ migration. The memory of life in the east is fading. And regional pride forbids a chief minister from being the last speaker at a long meeting.