Mother, soil, and people: The gendering of Bengali nationalism past and present

Harry Mace

Beginning this term’s Gender and Sexuality workshop, we welcomed Marie Curie Global India fellow of Dublin City University, Proma Ray Chaudhury. Her work focuses on gender and women’s political participation in contemporary India (more explicitly, political parties in West Bengal). A social scientist by training, Chaudhury’s paper began with some theoretical explanations on the gendering of Bengali nationalism. Her talk was a welcomed insight into her doctoral work, namely bringing a South Asian study of the state of Bengal into a field dominated by Western case studies. Her paper set out to examine late nineteenth and early twentieth-century nationalism and sought to explain how these were infused with discourses of gender. But the paper was just as much about contemporary Indian politics as it was of the past. Expecting the paper to focus namely on Bangladesh, the paper was instead about an Indian politician of Bengali descent. We heard how Mamata Banerjee, often referred to as the Didi (the older sister), navigated the gendered and racialised terrain of Bengali nationalism in Indian public life. Banerjee founded the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) party based in West Bengal. She is now the Chief Minister of the West Bengal state. Issues of caste, gender, sexuality and indeed nationhood infused her performances of public self. Bengali women had to connect with the masses, Chaudhury explained, in a way that male counterparts did not. Banerjee dressed in plain Bengali clothes, which reflected some of the caste and class sensitivities facing politicians. Qualities expected of such a politician were non-attachment to political power: a self-sacrificing, unabashed expression of emotions, that rendered her without career ambition. Concepts of the nation state had to be ‘motherly’ and ‘natural’.

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