Historically, the idea of Bengali renaissance and anti-colonial struggles dominated the folklores of Indian intellectual awakening, political consciousness, and social reforms led by upper caste and upper-class Hindus. “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow” reflects Eurocentric propaganda based on narrow nationalist glory. Such ideological narrative is based on singularity of Bengali renaissance, which dominated, destroyed, and marginalised the representation of regional culture, language, local history and literature. It undermined multiple progressive modernities in different parts of colonial Bengal province. The Bengali colonial collaborators and reactionary nationalists were also responsible for creating internal and dual colonialism in Bihar, Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand. At the same time, Bengali progressive culture and revolutionary politics has not only influenced the region but also shaped my own thinking.
As a child, growing up in a remote village during 1980s Odisha, I looked up to Bengal and Calcutta in awe and envious admiration. My childhood stories were dominated by my neighbours, who used to be jute mill workers, ancillary factory workers, and cooks in elite Bengali households in Calcutta. They used to bring Calcutta candies, chocolates and garments. Odisha markets were flooded with Calcutta products from pen and paper to bicycles, cars, and other household items. The wonderful educational infrastructure in Calcutta used to be another attraction for Odias. The deindustrialisation of Calcutta ruined the Odias love affairs with the city. Kolkata is no longer a place of fascination for Odias.
I first visited Calcutta as a member of the Student Federation of India in 1994 immediately after my high school days. My first visit to Calcutta formed everlasting comradeships and lifelong friendships. Since then, I am in love with Bengali cuisine, and developed lifelong bond with Bengali films, literature and music. Class politics, internationalist family outlook, personal sensibilities, and accommodating Odia progressive culture resolved the narrow silo of nationalist dilemmas in spite of occasional experience of Bengali elite’s supercilious behaviour towards Odias even within Odisha; particularly in the tourist town of Puri. I continue to visit Kolkata but miss passionate spark of radicalism in the city. The invincible red slogans are invisible in city walls today. It is replaced by populism of blue and white colour in the city of joy. Peace and prosperity are becoming distant dreams in Bengal. There is a growing sense of hopelessness in the city and in the state as well. The fall of Bengali renaissance and its politics of radical development promises need adequate interrogation. As deindustrialisation and disinvestment looms large and Bengal lags behind its erstwhile poor neighbour Odisha.
Odisha is one of the fastest growing investment destination in India today in spite of regular occurrences of natural calamities in the state. Odisha’s economy, its infrastructure and people are battered by super cyclones, storms and floods in regular intervals. It destroys lives and livelihoods of many but Odisha continues to grow and shows its resilience and capabilities in handling natural crisis and disasters. As the world is struggling to fight the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic; Odisha shows its early success and commitment in containing the spread of the deadly coronavirus in the state. The experience of disaster management helped the Naveen Patnaik government in Odisha, in its approach to fight COVID-19. Odisha can mobilise its own resources and invest in health, education and public infrastructure with a long-term vision. There is no alternative to state led development. Odisha’s commitment to sports is unparalleled in the history of Indian sports. It brings international laurels to the state. The times are changing to showcase Odisha and its culture as an alternative in national and international horizons. It is important to continue the momentum in strengthening the state and its capabilities for the welfare of the people.
Many contemporary historians ignored the fact that the nation-state in Odisha is older than the Westphalian nation states in Europe. The secular culture in the state is as old as the state itself. The art and architecture in the Sun temple in Konark and Jagannath temple in Puri, Khandagiri and Udayagiri cave inscriptions are some of the classic examples, that reflect iconic history, heritage and progressive culture in the state. The Jagannath cult, Buddhism, Jainism, Bhakti movements and non-conformist spiritual movements define the diversity and inclusivity of Odia culture. The history of mercantile trade shows the history of Odia capabilities and its internationalist sense and sensibilities as well.
These lineages of progressive ideological treasures of Odisha became the foundational principles of the state and inspiration for the Naveen Patnaik government to start a campaign called “Odisha for All”. This pluriversalistic, inclusive and secular campaign was launched in Odisha in the backdrop of anti-Muslim propaganda and bigotry spread by ruling Hindutva forces in the country. It saved Odisha from the toxicity of hate and lynching of religious minorities in the state.
The hidden beauty of Odisha is in its classical languages, dance forms, music, cuisine, progressive history, heritage, culture and inclusive society. It is little known in and outside India. The state of Odisha was represented by national media as underdeveloped state with most inward-looking lazy people in India. The national political classes marginalised the state in terms of its share from national economic development processes. The natural resources of the state were exploited by mining led industrial capitalist class. The central governments in New Delhi continue to act like rent seeking landlords in Odisha. The politics in the state continues to be controlled by the erstwhile kings, landlords and few higher caste and class propertied families. These forces continue to work like political clients of national political parties and capitalist classes. The consolidation of caste and class combined power structure which denied its people, any agency to express their desire, and claim their rightful position in the national and international discourses.
What can Odisha and Odia’s offer? Odisha can offer peace and prosperity. Odias can offer the ways to achieve resilience to face crisis and successfully overcome it. The world needs Odisha as much as Odisha needs the world. It is time to break narrow silos and learn from each other. It is time for Odisha to rise like phoenix and spread the pluriversal, inclusive and internationalist hubris of Odia renaissance.
Bhabani Shankar Nayak, Coventry University, UK