On March 4, 2020, Somanth Singh, a resident of Fatakgora area in Chandannagar town, about 40 km north of Kolkata, found some uninvited guests at his door. A group of 10 odd activists of Bangla Pokkho, which describes itself as the ‘national organisation of Bengalis in India’ had reached Singh’s house to teach him a lesson. They were armed with printouts of screenshots of comments Singh had posted on social media.
They asked Singh to clarify the comments he posted on Facebook days ago.
As it appeared, Singh had sent a message to the Facebook page of one of Bangla Pokkho’s district units, writing, “Ek Bangali Sow Bimari” (one Bengali is a hundred diseases).
Singh, who looked like a middle-aged man and not very well-off financialy, was asked to read aloud from the printouts.
“The lowest are the prostitutes, still lower are the Bengalis, I think…fathers are their daughter’s pimps,” Singh read out the comment he purportedly posted in response to an automated reply from the page.
As a crowd of locals started thickening around them, Bangla Pokkho activists were heard saying, “We aren’t here to thrash him… We came here to inform the locals. You should know about the Bengali-hater outsiders living among us…”
The Bangla Pokkho activists shot the entire proceeding on their mobile phones and later uploaded it on their Facebook page.
Amit Sen, who lives in Baranagar in the northern outskirts of Kolkata, was one of the Bangla Pokkho activists who had gone to Singh’s house.
“We looked up his Facebook profile and found he was from Chandannagar. Our activists in the neighbouring areas then traced down his exact address,” said Sen, a 41-year-old engaged in business in the transport sector.
This was not the first such programme Sen had participated in. In October 2019, Sen was part of a group of four Bangla Pokkho activists from three different districts who visited a residential complex at Mankundu in Hooghly district, carrying with them proof of ‘anti-Bengali’ comments made by one Anish Singh, a college student, on social media. The comments included describing Bengal as “the world’s largest brothel.”
According to Sen, since their activism had started drawing public attention, people had in turn started bringing to their notice “incidents of injustices against Bengalis.” This is how they came across Singh’s comments on Facebook. His Facebook profile gave away his locality and then Bangla Pokkho activists in the neighbouring areas identified the exact apartment.
On that day, as Sen and others narrated the development to the residents of the residential complex, a crowd formed. Most of the residents were Bengalis. Bangla Pokkho activists asked Singh to say aloud what he had written. He almost broke into tears.
Both of Singh’s parents are government school teachers. His mother was visibly upset, called him a ‘kulangar’ (disgrace to the family) and slapped him. Others asked him to do sit-ups holding his ears, a form of punishment used mostly in schools. Singh obliged. The video went viral.
“We have lodged many such protests but wherever we go, we clarify right at the beginning that we are against violence. Our sole purpose is to inform local residents about the bad elements. Building public awareness on anti-Bengali hatred being spread by outsiders has been our main focus,” said Sen, a member of the organisation’s highest decision-making body, called Sheersha Parishad.
Born in 2018, Bangla Pokkho (Translates to Bengali side) has ‘Hindi imperialism’ as its declared enemy. Preventing West Bengal’s transformation into ‘East Bihar’ or ‘East Jharkhand’, freeing Bengal from the ‘economic exploitation’ by ‘outsiders’, ensuring reservation in jobs in West Bengal for only those domiciled in the state are among their main demands.
However, their activism targeting Hindi-speaking individuals has divided Bengalis. On social media platforms, many came out in support and even demanded stronger measures, while others condemned such actions as “vigilantism” and suggested that Bangla Pokkho should have limited its role to lodging police complaints.
Garga Chatterjee, general secretary of the organisation, told Decode that a police complaint is the first step they usually take. “However, a lack of police action creates a scope for vigilantism. We do not want it. That’s why we want the police to act,” he said.
Chatterjee added that of all the videos their organisation and activists post on social media platforms, the ones involving such ‘confrontation over humiliation or insult to Bengalis’ and ‘exposing injustice to Bengalis’ are the most-watched ones.
In September, their video of a visit to a pub where a Hindi-speaking stand-up comedian allegedly made distasteful remarks on Bengali women had over 1 million views. A video showing alleged vandalism and loot of a Bengali-owned streetside shop by Hindi-speaking people outside Sealdah railway station had over 8.5 lakh views.
“This reflects people’s growing concerns about the spread of anti-Bengali hatred by outsiders. The comments the videos receive also show that our activism has made Bengalis feel assured and empowered that there is someone to stand by them, to rush to their localities in solidarity,” he said.
In one incident earlier this year, Mukesh Kumar Bhagat, a Hindi-speaking job aspirant from Raniganj in southwestern West Bengal, posted a video from his Facebook profile, narrating how Bangla Pokkho members harassed him and handed him over to the police for allegedly forging his domicile certificate. In the video he says that the police themselves released him at the exam centre and he had passed the medical test.
Bhagat then goes on to ask Bangla Pokkho to meet him in Raniganj — a coal belt where Hindi-speaking people dominate the demography.
A few days later, Bangla Pokkho’s Facebook page uploaded a video, in which Bhagat is seen apologising to Bangla Pokkho and “Chatterjee sir”.
When Decode asked Chatterjee what transpired between the two videos, he said, “Something must have happened that helped him realise.”
Decode could not reach out to Bhagat, as he seemed to have deleted his social media accounts.
An Otherisation Project
Through their social media posts, Bangla Pokkho activists have painted their own picture of the ‘Hindi belt’ – where everyone consumes Gutkha, is uncultured and regressive, are all vegetarians and BJP voters. They have termed the ‘Hindi/Urdu belt’ as ‘cow belt’, ‘baby factory belt’, ‘gutkha belt’ and ‘female foeticide belt’, among others.
The other phrases that the nationalist group have normalised using are— “gutkha criminal”, “Gutkha-terrorists”, “Gutkha-jihadi” or “gutkha jontu (animal)” to refer to the people from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
In August 2021, Chatterjee urged people to observe every single day as an ‘anti-Gutkha day’ in every locality, village, town and district. Three months later, their South 24-Parganas district unit took out a “gutkha-birodhi” or anti-Gutkha bike rally, seeking “Gutkha-mukto Bangla”, or a gutkha-free Bengal.
In September 2022, Chatterjee posted a rhyme that read: “Gutkha dhokla bhujia/ dite hobey muchhiya/rekhe diley ulcer/barte diley cancer.” Translated to English, it means gutkha, dhokla and bhujia need to be wiped out, as keeping them will give one ulcer and letting them grow will lead to cancer. They have criticised political parties for resorting to “gutkha appeasement” and cautioned Bengalis against “Gutkha population explosion.”
Sometimes they use Bhujia to refer to the Marwari and Dhokla for the Gujaratis. One frequent usage is ‘gutkha-bhujia-dhokla’ – referring to all. Back in 2017, Chatterjee had alleged that “Delhi’s Dhokla-Gutkha-Bhujia gang is conspiring to stop animal sacrifices at our Durga and Kali pujas. All Bengalis should protest.” The pitch continued to get higher with time.
Chatterjee holds a PhD degree from Harvard University and did his post-doctoral research at the Massachusetts University of Technology (MIT) – both on brain and cognitive sciences. He calls himself a linguistic activist and played an instrumental role behind bringing an ethnic dimention to Bengal politics around 2017-18.
Bangla Pokkho is spearheading a cultural and economic war on the side of the Bengalis against what they call north Indian aggression – essentially the ‘north Indian brand of Hinduism’, though they also keep targeting Urdu-speaking Muslims.
Social media has been one of their main platforms for spreading their ideology. Video statements, live streaming of protests and ‘investigations', case studies of harassment of Bengalis, and campaign reels are among their popular methods of spreading their narrative.
Chatterjee has shared videos of his confrontations with a range of Hindi-speaking people – from security personnel and immigration officials at Kolkata airport to Uber driver – for not speaking Bengali or English. So have other members of the group.
In August 2023, a video shot from a running train with commentary from Chatterjee in the background described how the Mallickpur locality in South 24-Parganas district had turned into “a den of criminals from UP and Bihar” over the past 10 years. It was shared over 5,000 times and had more than 45 lakh views.
The nationalist group is a product of a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s rise as India’s ruling force 2014 onwards triggered fears of ‘Hindi imposition’ in some of the southern states and West Bengal as well. In September 2015, Chatterjee attended the Language Rights Conference in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and was one of the signatories of the Chennai Declaration of Language Rights.
It was a time when the state also stood witness to an unprecedented trend of politicians – from the BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) backgrounds – publicly referring to Muslims as “jehadi”, “lungi terrorists”, and “lungi bahini (brigade)” and so on.
When the Hindutva organisers and supporters started talking about ‘Love Jihad’, Bangla Pokkho organisers spoke of ‘gutkha-jihad’.
When the BJP took up alleged infiltration from Bangladesh as one of their main political issues in West Bengal, Bangla Pokkho raised the issue of “infiltration” from the Hindi belt.
“You want to drive them away legally? There are three weapons: noncooperation, noncooperation and noncooperation,” said a March 2021 post by Bangla Pokkho.
Demography, Language and Economy
Census data does not reflect any significant change in the state’s Hindi, Marwari or Urdu-speaking population between 1961 and 2011. They, nevertheless, play a crucial role in the state’s economy.
Excluding languages like Sadri/Sadan, Surjapuri, Kurmali Thar, Bhojpuri, Khotta and Marwari that are now clubbed under the Hindi group of languages in census reports, about 19 lakh Hindi-speaking people formed 5.5% of West Bengal’s population in 1961, while 8.3 lakh Urdu-speaking people made up 2.4% of the population.
In 2011, 45.65 lakh Hindi-speaking people made up 5% of the population and the 16.63 lakh Urdu-speaking population made up 1.8% of the population. Marwari and Gujarati populations did not even double in these 50 years.
Despite the Marwaris being numerically few, their hold over the state’s economy has been significantly high – from owning most of Bengal’s two main labour-intensive industries, jute and tea, to dominating most of the state’s trade and industry bodies.
On the other hand, the majority of the workforce in jute, coal and other heavy industries sectors are Hindi and Urdu-speaking people from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. Most of the state’s old industrial towns in North 24-Parganas, Hooghly, Paschim Bardhaman and Howrah have a high Hindi-speaking population.
Bangla Pokkho has been propagating the Bengali takeover of both – the workforce and ownership.
“We want Bengal’s sons to work in Bengal’s industrial belts. Outsiders have captured all industrial towns. We are fighting for 90% domicile reservation in jobs,” said Bangla Pokkho organisational secretary Kaushik Maity in a November 4 video message.
They also call for the development of a ‘Bengali nationalist capital’. They often call for the boycott of business establishments owned by Hindi and Udru-speaking families and urge people to buy from Bengali establishments – be it Durga puja or Eid.
In recent months, they have intensified their vigil to identify people in service in the state, or job aspirants, who allegedly used fake domicile or caste certificates. In December, they identified in one merit list for police recruitment the name of one Niraj Kumar Yadav, who got selected under the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category. “How could a Yadav become an ST?” they asked in a Facebook post, adding that they have lodged a complaint with the sub-division officer seeking Yadav’s arrest and sacking.
They have highlighted the cases of several persons with surnames like Yadav, Prasad, Shaw and Kumar who got selected under the ST category. One Facebook post showing how they have lodged police complaints against two ‘outsiders’ for using fake domicile certificates had over 22,000 views. It, though, did not reveal how they were identified.
A December 29 Facebook post hints at how they might be gathering information. It said, “Do you know any outsider criminal who got a job in the state using fake domicile or casted certificate? Inbox us the information. We’ll protect the informer’s identity.” They made similar appeals before also.
The Misogyny In The Message
Some of their posts are misogynistic in nature similar to the ones by the Hindutva proponents of the ‘love jihad’ conspiracy theory. A YouTube video posted from Bangla Pokkho’s channel in March 2023 has the following title: “Gutkha-Jihad! How & Why Bengali girls are being trapped by Gutkhas?”
“The task of the Delhi board (schools) is to supply grown-up girls from educated Bengali families to the Hindi men in Haryana, Delhi and Gurgaon,” one social media post claims unabashedly.
They keep highlighting how Hindi-speaking men speak ill and lowly of Bengali women. In 2022, they announced on Facebook that Bengali youths inspired by Bangla Pokkho would impart “terrible lessons” if they spot “outsider Gutkha-khor criminals” looking at or touching Bengali women inappropriately. They were clearly not bothered about Bengali men acting improperly.
“They cannot be allowed to enter any locality where there is a girl in a Bengali house. Not in the name of friendship, party, religion or humanity. Under no pretext,” Chatterjee wrote on Facebook in a March 2023 post.
Bangla Pokkho has repeatedly said that they want to see more cases of Bengali husbands and Hindi/Urdu-speaking wives, criticised Bengali women’s love affairs with Hindi/Urdu-speaking men, and appealed to Bengali girls/women not to fall for “gutkha men.” No ‘outsider’ family is even half or quarter a Bengali until they have a Bengali son-in-law, they opined.
In November 2021, they streamed visuals of a demonstration outside a studio in northeastern Kolkata alleging that its “gutkha-bhujia owner” had instructed showing tele serials and web series themed on non-Bengali husband and Bengali wife. He was “insulting Bengali women” and spreading the “filthy culture of Gutkha belt.”
They also protested against the social media teaser of another Bengali serial episode that said: “You too deserve a cute non-Bengali husband like Adi.” Bangla Pokkho run a social media campaign demanding the post be taken down.
These sound eerily similar to the Hindutva concept of ‘Beti Bachao, Bahu Lao’ – the Hindutva ‘antidote’ to ‘Love Jihad’ which urges Hindu parents to save their daughters from getting married to Muslims and encourages Hindu parents to bring home Muslim daughter-in-laws.
Chatterjee rubbished the charge of misogyny or the comparison with the Hindutva campaign. “Bengal is the heartland of women’s empowerment and Bengali women enjoy way more independence than “Gutkhaland can imagine or tolerate,” he said.
“It is precisely because of the independence and progressive outlook of Bengali women that the Gutkha people run a character assasination campaign against Bengali women. We only warn Bengal’s daughters against the pitfalls of falling for someone from the female foeticide belt, where the regressive culture will ruin their lives forever,” said Chatterjee.