Welcome To Kolkata

Computer geek Shamit Khemka never figured he'd be on the front lines of a language-and-culture war. The entrepreneur is accused of hosting a Web site attacking Bengalis. The Web address itself is a colorful insult in the Bengali language meaning, roughly, "dumb fool." To Bengalis, Khemka, 25, who was born in Calcutta and lived there until last January, is an outsider. He's from a trading caste that owns most of Calcutta's businesses. When the Web site surfaced last year, police barged into his parents' plush apartment, seized his computers and arrested him. He was held in jail for 35 days on thin evidence of defaming political leaders and stoking communal tension -- charges he denies. He is now out on bail. He was beaten one day by outraged Bengalis as he entered the courthouse. "The authorities are just trying to scare me," says Khemka. "They want to make an example of me -- attack anyone speaking against Bengalis."

Bengalis are in a feisty mood these days. They have a proud history of accomplishment in the arts, science, professions and bureaucracy across India. Calcutta was for a long time the country's capital. But many Bengali leaders now say their culture is in decline -- overshadowed by Western habits and the Marwari business community (to which Khemka belongs) that moved in from Rajasthan decades ago. A recent survey showed that just 6 percent of Calcutta's businesses are controlled by Bengalis. What's more, only 56 percent of the city's inhabitants are ethnic Bengalis; many have been forced to move out of the city by rocketing property prices. The survey galvanized a movement -- led by one of the country's best-known poets, Sunil Gangopadhyay -- to revive Bengali culture. He persuaded the state's 23-year-old Marxist government to join the campaign. "We've done nothing for years. Now we're starting to demand our rightful place in Bengal," says Gangopadhyay. "We're not going to give up without a fight."

Language is the springboard for the Bengali crusaders. On Bengali New Year's Day last month, the West Bengal government began an effort to sideline English. From now on, most government business will be conducted in Bengali. All official forms are being changed to Bengali. Officials must respond to letters in Bengali, and police will write reports in Bengali. Computer software is being developed to cope with Bengali script. Bengali street signs are appearing. Plans are afoot to change Calcutta's name to the Bengali Kolkata, and West Bengal to Bangla. Critics, particularly in the liberal media, see the reversion to Bengali as a step backward into ethnic parochialism that could isolate the region's economy. "This linguistic nationalism is a way of casting off the colonial past," says John Thomas, an Indian Christian who is associate editor of the English-language Statesman newspaper. "It's also a subtle way of attacking the elite."

Bengalis trace their cultural slide to a loss of economic power. They blame the British Raj, which for decades valued them as mere employees, not partners. That, say Bengali leaders, stunted the development of entrepreneurial instincts. When the British departed, the Marwari, who had been trading for centuries, had the money to take over many businesses. Of 200 tea companies in West Bengal, for example, only 25 are owned by Bengalis; they own none of the jute mills. Gangopadhyay's group has persuaded Bengali business people to run seminars to promote entrepreneurism. "If you can rejuvenate economic life, cultural life will follow," he says.

Kshiti Goswami, the West Bengal minister for Public Works, argues that the language change is necessary because only 10 percent of the state's people speak English. Government critics assert that the language issue may be a ruse to win votes -- and distract people from West Bengal's economic woes. Crippling strikes, fueled by the socialist state government's onerous labor laws, have driven many multinational corporations out of the area. The new policy also could inflame simmering ethnic tensions between Bengalis and Marwaris.

Despite all the bickering, the people of West Bengal have mixed feelings about the language issue. While many support the government's move to drop English, voters have several times defeated attempts to eliminate English from state-run elementary schools. Parents realize that elsewhere in the country, English has helped India's legions of computer programmers reap rich rewards. Increasingly, people with money are enrolling their children in private "English medium" schools. "As India becomes more globalized, West Bengal can't be held back," says Rudrangshu Mukherjee, a columnist on the Calcutta-based English-language Telegraph newspaper. "I can't see [this campaign] working. There'll be a premium on learning English." Shamit Khemka didn't hang around to find out. He set up a business in Delhi, where he speaks English and doesn't have to think about ethnic problems. He may not be the last to leave.