Udayan Chattopadhyay: Mind your language

Mind your language: “Too Much Bengali Spoken in Tower Hamlets (Council)”
by Udayan Chattopadhyay, for AlalODulal.org

Tower Hamlets is one of the most densely populated Bengali areas outside of the subcontinent. At its heart is Brick Lane, with its rich immigrant and activist history including being at the heart of many British political movements, including anti-slavery  in the 1800s, and anti-fascism in the 1930s. It is  known to the world primarily for the Tower of London and for being the eastern fringe of London’s financial district.

The gateway to British immigrants for well over 500 years, it is also a hot-bed of Bengali politics – both “mainstream” (e.g. Rushnara Ali and the controversial Tower Hamlets Mayor) and Bangladeshi, with seemingly innocent visits by AL and BNP VIPs often the front for behind-the-scenes intrigue and fundraising. It is not unknown for local candidates in British elections to adorn the area with Bengali posters that speak more to connections to home districts and desi political parties rather than to the British ones they claim to speak for. I remember, several years ago, watching in horror during a town hall debate between two candidates – one Labour and one Conservative – which effectively turned into a Mujib-Zia fight.

Image: East London Advertiser
Image: East London Advertiser

As Bengali representation in local government and institutions grows, a lot of serious issues are raised by the news – sent around the internet mostly in jest – that “too much Bengali” (and some of it not very polite) is spoken in Tower Hamlets council meetings.

Such news does little to comfort those worried about being overwhelmed by immigrants who will change the local culture irreversibly for the worse, particularly as even the UK does not seem immune to the rise and electoral success of right-wing anti-immigration politics. Nor does it reassure those who look to elected representatives from minority groups to push boundaries of progress further.

brick lane activisim

Personally,  I agree with Councillor Abdul Ullah as quoted in the article below that “only English should be used in council meetings” (in England), and there is a lot more to say here, about integration, education and pluralism.  But I couldn’t help chuckle when reading about this either.  Perhaps sending politicians from Bangladesh or West Bengal to the land that gave birth to the Westminster model to learn parliamentary skills is no longer such a good idea.

Too Much Bengali spoken in Council Meetings, Visitors Complain


Councillor Abdal Ullah claims he was insulted, but some of the English-speaking councillors and public visitors failed to realise what had happened. The Labour councillor claims he was called a “shurer batcha” – which means “Son of a pig” — by a rival councillor during a heated exchange last month.

Udayan Chattopadhyay is based in New York and originally from London. He is a contributor to AlalODulal.org

4 thoughts on “Udayan Chattopadhyay: Mind your language

  1. In this Sunday’s New York Times magazine – a section on immigrant enclaves in the city:

    ““I feel like I’m living in my own country,” said Mr. Lovlu, executive editor of Thikana, one of several Bengali newspapers published in the city. “You don’t have to learn English to live here. That’s a great thing!”

    1. “You don’t have to learn English to live here. That’s a great thing!”

      … Not to “live” here, but to thrive and move out of the ghetto, yes you do. The next generation will pay the price for this.

  2. The English are notoriously bad at learning other languages and so always get annoyed when languages are spoken in their hearing they don’t understand. It is always the assumption that something bad about them is being spoken.
    A fascinating article – I still haven’t been to Brick Lane and really must.

  3. I think this is a problematic article, though I appreciate your sintiment. The issue is, not everyone can speak English like the Queen! And they should not be expected to, it is a very elitist and classist expectation that our best educated (the richest) can only afford / have luxury to. But for most of our people, it is not a fair expectation. And it is natural that in an unfriendly or distant land they may cluster together for solidarity and often economic need (helping each other with business, loans, child care, bereavement, visa problems etc). I think this is universal among migrants. It is often a problem in our overseas communities that there is a big gulf between the upwardly mobile / socially integrated (who have the best jobs), and those who have to do less lucrative positions and ultimately belong to a different class – the two groups do not mix, and I don’t think the more affluent have any awareness of the problems facing the other group.

    So, why mock the people who are more comfortable speaking in their own language?

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