In West Bengal, there was a disjunction between the social and the political.
Growing up Muslim in West Bengal under the Left regime, the political space was always sanitised of any traces of identity politics. The caste and religious markers were relegated to the social, while the political space wove the myth of a secular, democratic, rational polity. It’s an altogether different debate that most of Left’s foot soldiers were poor Muslims and lower castes, while their ideologues were (and are) always upper castes.
The caste blindness in Bengal normalized the upper caste bhadralok identity as desirable and challenged all other segments of society to aspire to bhadralok values, which entailed some amount of fluency in Rabindra Sangeet, an ability to discuss Sunil Ganguly’s writings, and knowledge of Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray’s films. The aspiring folks in small towns and villages inevitably bought into this middle-class bhadralok civilizing mission.
The small town/village folks travelled to cities – Kolkata, for all practical purposes – and came back to infuse the local communities with upper caste bhadralok ethos. In other cases, the provinces were brought under the purview of Left cultural agenda, which organized (and still does) cultural programs on a regular basis. To put it tersely, the socio-cultural ethos promoted a particular Bengali imaginary which was upper caste Hindu.
Where did we – as a Muslim family in Bengal – fit into this schema?
We occupied an intermediate position, I suppose. My sisters diligently learnt Rabindra Sangeet and Rabindra Dance until they finished schooling. At a young age, I started playing the harmonium and tabla with my mama (maternal uncle), who was quite a singer and lived with us at the time.
Yet, however much we tried to emulate their values, it was not difficult for me to discern that we never really belonged to the upper caste. We remained stranded between our desire to identify as upper caste and in our scorn for the lower caste. That we could get along easily with the Brahmins, who were regular visitors to our house, was a matter of pride, while it pained us when the lower castes refused to eat in our house. The lower caste refusal was an obvious reminder of our unsure place in the social hierarchy.
Alienated from the general Bengali surroundings, we clung to our Muslim identity, despite underplaying it in the public sphere. We differentiated ourselves from other Bengali Muslims by virtue of calling ourselves Pathans. This identity was cemented, to a great extent, by our ability to mark other Bengali Muslims as lower castes. I’m still not sure what made our family feel the way we did. In our extended family, we had shades of light skin to brown skin to dark skin, complemented with green eyes, grey eyes, brown eyes, and dark eyes. In this spectrum of physical features, some of our extended family members did sometimes stand out but most often were indistinguishable from other Bengalis.
As we became unsure of our status vis-a-vis the upper caste Bengali bhadralok, we fell back on our supposed superiority as Pathans. Never did we question how we could claim to be Pathans in a remote corner of Bengal, far away from the actual Pashtun land. Our family routinely displayed their disdain for both lower caste Bengalis and other Bengali Muslims. ‘Nichu jaat’ (lower caste) was how they were often dismissed. This is one way our family aspired to be like the upper caste bhadralok, while remaining suspended in an intermediate status in society.
While I encountered the word, ‘Dalit’, in my textbooks, it didn’t really mean much to us. In Bengali, ‘Dalit’ always denoted ‘the oppressed’ and never signified a caste status. As I mentioned earlier, our sanitised political sphere in Bengal erased caste and religion. However, when in one of my classes at the University of Hyderabad, our teacher wrote the word, ‘Dalit’, on the board and asked us its meaning, the world suddenly changed. I blurted out ‘the oppressed’ and saw the grave faces of some of my classmates. While the teacher explained the nuances of the term, the reality of Dalit discourse took on a different meaning outside the classroom.
If anything defined the Dalit identity for me outside the classroom, it was an awareness of a group of students always hanging out together. They ate together, socialized together, drank together, and discussed together. I was sometimes lucky to be part of those gatherings because of one of my classmates. The University of Hyderabad taught me to bridge the gap between the social and the political. For the first time, I became aware of how the Dalits banded together socially and took that social cohesiveness to the political sphere to demand their rights. This was something the Left politics in Bengal had completely missed.
As Rohith Vemula passed on with a severe indictment to our educational institutions and social structures, I am grateful to him, along with his comrades, for showing us that a meaningful politics can be never built by suppressing our caste or religious identities. The political must always reflect and embrace the social and seek succour from it. A politics built on abstract secular ethos is a form of empty manifestation of foreign ideologies without any home-grown particularity.
The University of Hyderabad taught me my first lessons in caste politics. Rohith’s death has once again reiterated that we must take this tradition forward for a meaningful social transformation in India.