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In West Bengal, Bhadralok Dominant Politics Neglected The Caste Issue

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Caste-based patronage networks and mobilisation strategies have increasingly defined party politics in India. West Bengal remains a noted exception as there are no caste-based political parties.

This paper critiques the assumption that Bengal has remained a casteless society and polity. The paper posits that caste has ailed Bengal since CPI(M) days but brushed aside from the public gaze. TMC is trying to re-constitute all the caste-based mobilisations through its populist policies.

CPIM flags in West Bengal
The Left downplayed caste in West Bengal. (Source: flickr)

Caste, the paper suggests, is not merely about economic discrimination and the consequent backwardness but also lack of representation in various spheres of public life like the state and its apparatus.

Through the analysis of politics in West Bengal, this paper engages with the growing body of literature within the field of anthropology of the state and narrates that the state and society overlap with each other, at least in its actual functioning.

The paper concludes by arguing for a case of revisiting the premises of political theory, which separates the state from society through the impenetrable boundary.

The Question Of Caste In West Bengal

Talking of politics in West Bengal, the question of caste has always seemed to be a latent factor whereas, in the political scenario, it has evident effects till today. Caste is considered to be antagonistic to modern politics and wasn’t considered a real determinant factor for long in the politics of this province.

The irrelevance of caste in West Bengal derives its potency from the apparent lack of aggregation of caste interests in state elections (Sinharay 2012: 26) and the ostensible “depth of class feeling” and strength of the Left parties “cutting across divisions of caste and community” (Chatterjee 1997).

West Bengal, especially rural West Bengal, differs from other Indian states in terms of caste is answered by the long-held national-political myth that caste does not matter in West Bengal, especially an image created during the Marxist rule with the liberal Bhadraloks in focus.

Sarbani Bandyopadhay (2012) has also argued that the irrelevance of caste in the struggles of the downtrodden has made the language of caste illegitimate in the political discourse of West Bengal.

However, she is silent on Hinduism and caste endogamy as practised by Bhodrolok’s in cities, towns and even villages.

Why Is Bengal’s Politics Different?

political rally in west bengal
A political rally in West Bengal. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Left never believed that caste mattered during its rule of 34 years in Bengal. Even the Left intellectuals never theorised caste-based endogamy among themselves. Only class, defined by economics, did as if all poor marry within the same and all middle class marry across castes.

In 2007, the government reported data on how land redistribution had helped SC and ST households. Across India, 2.1 million SC families had got land; of this, half was in Bengal alone. Among pan-India ST beneficiaries, nearly 63% were Bengali. This is one of the sole reasons for the non-development of caste-based parties in Bengal. (Economic Times)

As Dwaipayan Bhattacharya notes in his work (2016), the Left defanged the rural elite, which took every decision in baithak-khana (drawing room) gatherings, where poor and lower caste were not allowed entry.

Caste has existed institutionally, socially and affected people from the lower castes unequally and continues to do so to date.

Demography Of SC Population In Bengal

Among the SC population of India, West Bengal shares 12.88% (2,14,63,270 out of 16,66,35,700 in India in 2011), 23.49% of the state’s population. The SCs in West Bengal are not homogeneous in their population composition and are diverse, unequally distributed throughout the state.

TMCs Formation Of “Party Society”

Mamata Banerjee supporters
Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool started identity politics in the state.

To overthrow the Left Front government, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool started identity politics in the state—hobnobbing with a member of the Thakurbari, the custodian of the Matua community, a depressed Class Hindus who are Namashudras, a Scheduled Caste group.

Banerjee met Binapani Devi (popularly known as Boro Maa), the matriarch of Matua Mahasangha, and sought her support. After coming to power in 2011, the TMC appointed Manjul Krishna Thakur, Boro Ma’s younger son, as minister for micro, small and medium enterprises.

Binapani Devi’s eldest son, Kapil Krishna Thakur, joined the TMC and contested the 2014 general election from the Bongaon constituency. When Kapil Krishna died in 2015, his widow won the seat in a by-election on behalf of the TMC.

The party’s identity politics lost steam, but the “party society” model of politics remained and thrived under the new flag and symbol. The TMC focused more on breaking the opposition, mainly the CPI(M) and the Congress.

“As a consequence, the party acted as the fundamental institution, monopolising the autonomous functioning of every social body and community” (Guha 2016).

Caste In Electoral Politics

Historically, Dalit support for mainstream political parties in Bengal had always been strategic rather than unconditional. One must remember that India has evaded electoral reforms since its Independence in 1950. One major hurdle was the Poona Pact, where separate electorates were given to the Untouchables along the lines of other religious minorities (Ambedkar, States and Minorities 1947).

Since 2009, the Matuas have been articulating their grievances against the citizenship act of 2003, as Dalit refugees faced continuous harassment, some of them even facing prosecution.

While the TMC-led state government could not offer them any reprieve in such matters, BJP offered them CAA 2019 as a final solution for their citizenship-related woes. Hence, from the 2019 parliamentary election, Matua support began to shift to the BJP.

In the current election, the citizenship issue is also expected to influence outcomes in about 30 seats. Due to memories of post-partition violence, Dalit-Muslim relations are already at a low point in these border districts.

But there is another issue. The Matua Mahasangha is actually an oppositional religious movement that is against Brahmin domination and Vedic Hinduism. So, one would suspect that they would find it difficult to support the Hindutva ideology.

west bengal modi supporters
The BJP is working to assimilate the Matua identity into the Hindutva identity. (Representational image)

But not all of them position themselves firmly within a Matua-Hindu binary in everyday life. And Modi’s symbolic gesture to visit Orakandi in Bangladesh, the birthplace of Guruchand Thakur, may appeal to the emotions of Matua pracharaks and gosains with grassroots level networks tilting the balance for BJP.

The Matuas are no longer a united house. The Thakur family which leads this movement is divided. There are now many Ambedkarites in the community. Many of them know that the proposed CAA-NRC regime is unlikely to ease their problems.

A radical Dalit literary movement has emerged in recent years and it certainly has a following among the educated Dalit refugees. But their votes will possibly be split between TMC and the Left-Congress alliance. (The Indian Express)

The BJP is working to assimilate the Matua identity into the Hindutva identity. The TMC is trying to project their identity as that of the Bengali refugee aspiring for citizenship.

As it has happened with other communities—when a community has political aspirations and rival political parties try to get its support, the community gets infected with internal strife—the Matuas too are witnessing a split.

Unlike other states in India, where caste, religion, and ethnicity have been analysed to determine the “vote banks” of political parties, West Bengal has a unique history of affiliation to political parties and polarisation along party lines.

Subhasish Ray (2017) described the extraordinarily dense party organisation of the CPI(M), which penetrated every aspect of life in rural West Bengal (where a majority of the state lives) as the “core instrument” of the party’s hegemony.

On the other hand, the recent rise of populist forces has somehow taken advantage of identitarian fault lines without creating space for democratic political mobilisation of marginalised sections.

Surfacing Of Caste Issue In 2021 Elections: The Battle To Dominate And The Usage Of “Caste Card”

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee breached the Left’s Raaj in 2011, commencing a new age in Bengal politics. Her TMC rode to power with the backing of social groups such as Matuas, Rajbonshis, Kamtapuris, Gorkhas, Santhals, Lodha Shabars, Mundas, Bagdis and Bauris, among others. Her government has delivered caste certificates as part of the flagship “Duare Sarkar” (government at the doorstep) programme.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2016 assembly polls, the TMC got the support of the leaders of these groups, including Binapani Devi Thakur, the influential Matua leader who died in 2019.

West Bengal Election
Banerjee’s first target this election was the Dalits. (Representational image)

Seeing BJP’s major sweep-out in the 2019 elections, Banerjee’s first target this election was the Dalits since they formed a sizeable vote bank. So she campaigned massively in the heavily populated lower caste regions and announced several welfare schemes and boards to woo them.

Banerjee has also reached out to the Bauris and Bagdis (Barga Kshatriyas), who are said to have voted for BJP in 2019. With nearly 19% of the state’s vote share, they are under the spotlight, with the chief minister announcing several schemes for their welfare, including a university in the name of Gobardhan Dikpati (a Bauri fighter who was hanged by the British during the Chuar rebellion).

Both BJP and TMC have brought to light the caste card to secure their dominance and, thus, there had been a shift of caste as a highlight this 2021 election.

Dr Ashish Thakur, a well-known Matua leader, says, “There has been an undercurrent among people belonging to lower caste communities in Bengal for decades. They wanted to be empowered but were finding it difficult in a society dominated by upper-caste elites.”

Bengalis prefer silence on the issue because if they say they believe in caste, they will lose the progressive image in society.

Thakur says people have begun discussing caste out of frustration because the Mandal Commission recommendations were not implemented logically in Bengal. He adds that there are deep divisions even among the lower castes based on their economic status. This discrimination is also there.

Rather than open discrimination, upper-caste discriminate against people, but at the ground level, they actually discriminate based on a person being a Shudra. (News18)

However, the political scenario has changed with transformations in Bengal’s socioeconomic and demographic structure since 2016. TMCs subaltern pleasing outlook, although there has hardly been any improvement in the representation of the Dalit community in Bengal’s politics. Even no caste-based parties have found their way to the sates mainstream politics.

Although it has been claimed that caste operates among the subaltern masses and rural sections of society, in actuality, it is deeply rooted in the duality between land reforms and development, as Ritanjan Das has noticed in his study of the dispossessed and casteless in Rajarhat, West Bengal.

The field of political contestation was structured and configured in a manner that caste possibilities were robbed of its political relations in Bengal. With West Bengal politics witnessing a class-to-caste paradigm shift, the TMC and BJP are engaged in a bitter fight to woo Dalit communities, a deciding factor in the last assembly elections.

 

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Also, the near-invisibility of the politicisation of caste is due to a combination of factors:

  1. The discontinuity of the Dalit movement in post-independence West Bengal due to partition.
  2. The class politics espoused by the Left movement and the inadequate address of caste issue by the long-term Left regime.
  3. Dismantling of other social institutions by the penetration of “party society” at the grassroots level.
  4. The failure of forging broader Dalit solidarity due to fragmented Dalit constituencies in the state.

Caste Assertion And Bengal’s Political Realm

In West Bengal, Dalits comprise 23.51% of the total population, the third highest Dalit population among Indian states. As much as 10.66% of the entire Dalit population of India lives in West Bengal, the second-highest on a pan-­India level.

Despite one of the largest Dalit populations in India and a significant experience of Dalit mobilisation in the late colonial period (Sen 2018: 22), caste was never a determinant political category in the electoral realm.

The Untouchables or Dalits are minority groups and none of the major political parties championed the cause of any caste groups (Chandra et al. 2015). Caste was never an electoral issue for the two dominant political parties, the Congress and the Left Front (Chatterjee 2012).

Dalit assertion against caste discrimination started in the 1870s and was spearheaded by two distinct caste groups, the Rajbanshis of North Bengal and Namasudra of erstwhile East Bengal (Bandyopadhyay 2009). But this organised Dalit movement was ruptured by the physical dispersal and displacement of a large section of SCs due to the traumatic event of the partition (Bandyopadhyay and Ray Chaudhury 2014; Chatterjee 2015).

west bengal CPIM flags
With the decline of the Left Front government, many people hoped that identity politics would emerge as the marker of local social institutions. (Representational image via flickr)

After partition, it was difficult to organise them as their estrangement from their familiar physical space led to the gradual decline of their consolidated mass base. The removal of principal political challenges through partition was a remarkable accomplishment of the upper castes, which helped them consolidate their hegemony (Chatterjee 2012).

As the struggle for resettlement and rehabilitation after partition were also mobilised by the urban upper-caste leaders of the communist parties, they channelised Dalit grievances into class inequalities (Chatterjee 2012). Even the vocabulary of caste was deliberately purged from the discourse of movements for the greater interest of united struggle (Bandyopadhyay and Ray Chaudhury 2017).

After partition, the question of caste was subsumed under “partition victim” or “refugees”, which were more easily absorbed into the left-liberal ideologies under the dominant discourse of class.

The autonomous political existence of Dalits in West Bengal has been prevented by the hegemony of the upper-caste Bhadralok. But that does not mean that the caste question is declining in West Bengal.

With the decline of the Left Front government and the inauguration of the TMC-led state government in 2011, many people hoped that identity politics would emerge as the marker of local social institutions, away from the regressive “party society” of the left regime (Guha 2019).

Protests Against CAA And NRC In Kolkata
Mamata Banerjee and her supporters attend a protest against India’s new citizenship law. (Photo by Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It was expected that Mamata Banerjee’s overt patronisation of caste and communal sentiment and her “post Bhadralok” style of politics would open up a new space for identity politics. But there was no fundamental change in the post-left West Bengal political configuration as it adopted the Left Front model of politics where party machinery dominates the functioning of social institutions.

TMCs minority appeasement outlook might affect gaining vote banks, but whether it mobilises the Dalit masses remains a matter of ambiguity.

Once again, caste-based identity politics, while resurgent, lost its hope for an autonomous existence in the political terrain of West Bengal.

Despite noting the revival of the political assertion of the Matua Mahasangha over the issue of the NRC in 2018 and the subsequent announcement of development measures for the Matua community by the TMC government, Ayan Guha (2019) expressed his hope for a second wave of Dalit upsurge in West Bengal.

But he concluded that it was premature to pass a verdict on the future trajectory of Dalit politics in the state. A negligible percentage of SC candidates of the three major political parties of the state have contested from general seats. This reflects that a caste-based social engineering strategy is still not a political reality in West Bengal.

Thus, since 2008–09 when the organised Left in West Bengal started to decline, there has not been any escalation in the political representation of the lower castes. It is imperative to see whether, in the near future, the current sporadic activism of the Matuas translates into the increased political representation of the untouchables in West Bengal. (EPW)

The Casteist State And Society

As Dwaipayan Sen rightly pointed out in his essay, there has been an absent-minded casteism existing in Bengal. The distinction between Chotolok and Bhodrolok still exists in Bengal, along with the practice of untouchability in certain parts. This is one of the major indicators of social discrimination, physical violence that’s meted out to the Dalit population.

There are fewer instances of inter-caste marriage, though it is recently getting momentum in the urban areas of West Bengal. There have been various examples, especially of women facing discrimination and blatant remarks in their workplace due to their neechu jaat, which makes them feel they don’t belong among the mainstream UC population.

Chatterjee has also pointed out, “For decades, matrimonial pages of vernacular dailies in Bengal have silently spoken about the caste factor in this cultural capital of India. The caste factor was always there in Bengal, but they (the Left) mobilised socially oppressed people cleverly, in a different way.”

Parties to date chalk out strategies to woo them openly and gain the vote banks of the Dalit population in the state. The episode of Smt Chuni Kotal’s (a tribal woman) death, precisely murder, brings back the gut-wrenching institutionalised caste discrimination and reckless cover-ups by the state. This impacted caste scholars all around the world.

Manoranjan Byapari documents the tragedy he had to go through belonging to the categorisation of lower caste Namashudra or Chandal. Byapari tends to articulate the ultimate excruciating pain of being both a Dalit and poor, where caste and poverty become the prime movers in deciding his tragic fate at every step of life.

ambedkar poster in dalit protest
Being a Dalit can affect every aspect of life. (Representational image)

His work, Interrogating My Chandal Life, unfolds the tendency while depicting the hitherto suppressed and alternative history of marginalisation of Bengal. He plays multiple roles as a Rickshaw-wallah, a Naxalite, a criminal, a cook and a writer in the circle of his Chandal life.

Byapari strips off the veil of romantic aestheticism to present the crude reality of Dalit life. His work portrays how being a Dalit can affect every aspect of life.

This is the case with academia as well, which shows how modern education has failed to evolve Bhodroloks from the blinkered vision of the caste world. Media is another section where casteism is rampant.

There have been instances of state-sponsored violence like the Marichjhapi incident, complete insensitivity in the lower judiciary against the Dalits in various pockets of Bengal. It showcases the institutionalised discrimination and disrespect of the reservation policy that goes around.

There have been instances of state-sponsored violence, complete insensitivity in the lower judiciary against the Dalits in various pockets of Bengal. The popular upper-caste ideals heavily influence local state bodies and there is economic, social and political unfairness dispensed out to the Dalits.

Cases of atrocities, violence, harassment towards the lower caste people get long-drawn and rarely is justice delivered. There has been a paucity of Dalit literary work and studies till the last decade scholars gained recognition.

Conclusion

State and society as two distinct entities do not hold water. We see that both overlap at a considerable level. We see here how relevant the work of CJ Fuller and Veronique Bénéï (2001) on the overlap between state and society is. The divide between Bhodrolok and Chotolok mars every section of the state, be it legislature or executive or academics.

The state remains overpowered by anti-Dalit, anti-Muslim and anti-women sentiments of the majority of the citizens. Modern education has evaded Bhadraloks, and we see newer ways of casteism evolving.

The state has failed to modernise its citizens; rather, citizens have twisted the state for their selfish purpose. The current rise of Hindutva is about those structural constraints which have been sustained for at least the past 70 years of Independence.

As Dr B.R Ambedkar said, “A nation is not merely a group of people living together, but a group with shared feelings.”

References:

  1. Caste, Politics, Casteism And Dalit Discourse: The Scheduled Castes of West Bengal by Rup Kumar Barman.
  2. Caste in West Bengal Politics by Buddhadeb Ghosh, 2014.
  3. The politics of caste in West Bengal by Chandra, Uday Heierstad, Geir Nielsen, Kenneth Bo Nielsen.
  4. West Bengal Assembly Elections 2021: Does a ‘Party Society’ Really Subsume the Politics of ‘Identity’ and Development’? – EPW Engage.
  5. The Subaltern Shift: Why Bengal is Talking About Castes This Election Season – News18.
  6. The Persistence of Caste in Indian Politics by Ronojoy Sen.
  7. Political Future of Caste in West Bengal by Arvind Kumar, Ayan Guha.
  8. The Everyday State and Society in Modern India by C J Fuller and Veronique Benei.
  9. An absent-minded casteism? – Dwaipayan Sen.
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