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Bhadralok and the myth of casteless West Bengal politics

Mamata Banerjee tried to mitigate the impact of Muslim marginalisation but it was resisted by the BJP, resulting in the communalisation of political discourse.

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The ongoing assembly election in West Bengal has been witnessing an unprecedented role of the ‘caste’, which will have a direct impact on the outcome of the polls. It is an interesting development since it was declared that unlike the north Indian states, caste did not have a significant role in the politics of West Bengal. It was argued that as a modern liberal state, West Bengal had risen above caste politics. But now, caste is back on the centre stage of political as well as academic debate.

I analyse how the caste question was back-seated in the politics of West Bengal and how it became salient in recent elections.

The caste conundrum of West Bengal can be explained by understanding the construction of ‘Bhadralok’ and deconstructing its political narratives. I list seven ways through which the myth of casteless politics was created in West Bengal but now stands exposed.

Also read: Namasudras are getting closer to BJP in West Bengal. There is a tradeoff

Partition and elimination of Muslim elites

The politics and public sphere of the state has been upper caste dominated, which is an outcome of the Partition of India and East Pakistan. The Partition was supported by the Indian National Congress, the Hindu Mahasabha, and the Communist Party of India; but it was opposed by the Bengal Scheduled Castes Federation, the All Bengal Depressed Classes Association and the Bengal Muslim League. Why did the upper caste dominated parties and organisations support Partition? The question is important because the same upper caste elites had carried out an unprecedented mobilisation for annulment of the partition of Bengal in 1905. The real reason behind this change in stance was the introduction of limited representative governments through the Indian Councils Act 1909 and the Government of India Act 1919.

The upper caste leadership of Bengal quickly realised that they could not form a government because of their lower numerical strength, whereas Muslims and Dalits could. This demographic disadvantage had led to a fear among the upper castes of having to live permanently under the rule of Muslim leadership, which prompted them to support the Partition. However, the Partition resulted in the migration of Muslim elites — the main political competitor of the upper caste or the Bhadraloks — to East Pakistan. This also became one of the reasons for the marginalisation of Muslims in West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee tried to mitigate the impact of this marginalisation but it has been resisted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), resulting in the communalisation of political discourse in the state.

Also read: Can a Dalit man and an upper-caste woman be in love? Another thing Tandav gets wrong

Transfer of subaltern castes inhabited areas to East Pakistan

Colonial Bengal saw the emergence of strong anti-Brahmanical movements in the form of Matua Mahasangh (1860), Bangiya Jana Sangh (1922), Bengal Depressed Classes Association (1926) and Bengal Scheduled Castes Federation (1943). The cumulative outcome of socio-political mobilisation of these organisations meant electoral gains in Bengal assembly. During Partition, overruling the reservation of subaltern castes, the districts dominated by them such as Khulna, Bakarganj, and Barishal were transferred to East Pakistan. This broke the political power of the subaltern castes.

The letters of Governor General Lord Mountbatten to the British government, accessed by this author, reveal that the transfer of land was done to retain Kolkata. However, when the subaltern castes migrated from East Pakistan to West Bengal, they were sent to Dandakaranya and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, whereas upper castes were allowed to settle in Kolkata. When some of them tried to settle down in the Marichjhapi island in the Sunderbans, they were massacred by the West Bengal Police in 1979, under the Left Front government. The Marichjhapi massacre suggests that the political hegemony of Bhadralok in West Bengal is not through consent but through coercion.

Also read: Both upper caste and quota creamy layer cite merit. But their goals are different

Non-recognition of anti-caste reformers

Bengal is credited for initiating the Indian renaissance, in which the contribution of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Shri Aurobindo and Rabindranath Tagore have been well acknowledged. However, the contribution of anti-caste leaders such as Harichand Thakur, Guruchand Thakur, Manindranath Mandal and Jogendra Nath Mandal is barely mentioned.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his election rallies has started mentioning these names to mobilise subaltern caste voters.

Also read: ‘Making Muslims scapegoat for Mamata’s failure’: Owaisi hits out at Kishor ‘appeasement’ clip

Non-cooperation with Mandal Commission

The Communist regime of West Bengal remained dismissive about the caste question. As a result, when Jyoti Basu first became the chief minister in 1977, he did not include any Scheduled Caste minister in his council. However, ‘Kanti Biswas was later inducted when he and other SC members convinced the Communist Party of India (M) to include SCs in the cabinet’. Basu, in his reply to the Mandal Commission, had said that there were only two castes in West Bengal — the rich and the poor. This non-cooperation with the Mandal Commission resulted in the implementation of only seven per cent quota for the OBCs.

Also read: BJP changes Bengal campaign strategy, will now target Congress to ensure three-way contest

Exclusion of Hindu subaltern castes from OBC reservation

The claims of West Bengal elites were exposed with the release of reports of Sachar Committee and Rangnath Misra Committee. The former found that Muslims were a marginalised community in the public institution and denied educational opportunities. In 2010, the Left Front government decided to expand the OBC quota by adding 10 per cent reservation for the most backward. But out of 56, 49 communities included in the ‘most backward’ list were Muslim castes. Four Muslim castes were already included in the list of 52 castes who were given seven per cent quota. The Mamata Banerjee government has further expanded the OBC list in the state. Now, 177 communities are in the OBC list of West Bengal, out of which 99 are Muslim. Due to this expansion, the Trinamool Congress often claims that 97 percent Muslims of West Bengal have been given the OBC quota.

The inclusion of Muslims disproportionately in the OBC quota has come at the cost of exclusion of Hindu backward castes such as Mahisyas and Telis. These caste groups have been demanding for their inclusion in the OBC category, and the BJP has echoed with them.  The party has already been able to make inroads in the Mahisyas dominated districts of Midnapore, Howrah, Hooghly, Nadia and 24 Parganas in the previous assembly election.

Also read: Caste was never a big issue in Bengal politics. This assembly election has changed that

Exclusion of subaltern castes from urbanisation

Kolkata — the social, economic and political power centre of the state — was a trade off with East Pakistan, by giving large regions dominated by the subaltern castes, particularly the Namashudras. But in post-colonial India, the subaltern castes could not settle in the West Bengal capital. According to a  research, “around 60 per cent of Kolkata’s localities do not have a single Dalit resident”.

Urbanisation creates inequality in any society, and hence, this exclusion would have reproduced social and economic inequality in West Bengal society.

Also read: Amit Shah, Bengal, Mukhtar Ansari — TV news channels push everything but vaccine shot

Extension of upper caste domination in rural Bengal

The data on urban settlement reveals the truth about the domination of the upper castes in the Bhadralok of Kolkata. This domination continues in public spaces, government institutions and party organisations.

Both the CPM and TMC have made attempts to expand their organisation to rural Bengal. However, instead of bringing inclusion of the subaltern castes, their expansion has resulted in extension of the upper castes network of the Bhadralok. The ongoing election can also be seen as an assertion of the subaltern castes against the Bhadralok.

Arvind Kumar (@arvind_kumar__), PhD at the Department of Politics & IR, Royal Holloway, University of London. Views are personal. 

Edited by Anurag Chaubey

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  1. We will find what we seek. it’s the cast division that was searched, that so was it found, with all appropriate supporting logic.
    Cast gap is there everywhere in India. And since e80’s it’s part of the every political narration (equation). we can’t ignore that. Real question is to what extent it divides the society. I can’t say I have studied/ researched, but I have lived across India. Let me give a different prospective to search … check how many intercaste marriages happened across the country… statewide. You will get a better sense of this division. I am sure Bengal will fair much much better than anywhere in India.
    I will repeat “We will get what we seek”.

  2. Namasudras are original Brahmins. They were made lower caste during Sen dynasty due to their inclination towards Buddhism. Due to their isolation in remote areas of Bangladesh they are carrying pure Brahmin DNA (Wikipedia).
    Shri Shri Haricha nd Thakur and Guruchand Thakur started movement to return Brahmin status to Namasudras and many Brahmin pundits signed the petition.

  3. If Bengal partition was all about caste politics then why did Jogendra Nath Mandal, who was Pakistan’s 1st Law and Labour minister resign (within 3 years after partition) and migrate to India? Because he realized that Hindus did not have a future in Pakistan. May be upper caste Hindus saw that writing on the wall (if we are to believe the author’s theory that partition was decided by caste equations).

    The theory that Mamta is trying to reverse marginalization of Muslims in WB is preposterous. They were always a powerful force in politics. Left Front govt also vied for Muslim vote bank (although they always projected themselves as secular). Remember how Tasleema Nasreen was forced to flee Kolkata?

  4. No one buys this. Blame only upper class Hindus, but not Christians and Muslims who ruled the state and committed genocides against the Hindus, primarily from lower classes. Only upper class Hindus to blame are the one’s who joined Communists.

  5. The article is well written but not well re searched. History of Bengal and Bengalis is a difficult subject and takes years to understand. Now about the subaltern history of Bengal the author has not been able to grasp the subject properly. The author has not touched about the tribal history in bengal and the caste based movements in bengal against the mughals. Many points are left uncovered.

  6. The article is well written but not well re searched. History of Bengal and Bengalis is a difficult subject and takes years to understand. Now about the subaltern history of Bengal the author has not been able to grasp the subject properly. The author has not touched about the tribal history in bengal and the caste based movements in bengal against the mughals. Many points are left uncovered.

  7. Hope that the Namasudras aren’t cheated by the Hindutwa party by their show of respectability to Hari Chand and Guru Chand Thakur.
    The Hindutwa party has forfeited their credibility, if any.

  8. Bengali bhadralok deny casteism occurs in W Bengal but quite cleverly they have denied political power to the OBC and SC in the state. Almost every major state in India has had an OBC ruling as chief minister at some point of time.

    If BJP wins, it will be interesting to know if the party is different from those is power earlier – when will this state ever have an OBC as chief minister? How many OBC or SC/ST BJP will they represent in the ministries – let’s see.

  9. Why-o-why do we have scholars from foreign universities pontificating on the caste issue? By definition these are well-to-do people who reached abroad, and through whichever process began to research the question. And if you start with an agenda or a thesis if you will, there is plenty of dirt you can discover. I bet if you go to a french university and try to find out how scottish nobles were ill-treated in Harrow and Eaton, you will find enough to fill a PhD thesis. {And the world have some new ammo on how the UK nobles were not really noble.}
    So there!

  10. This article has some glaring factual errors. The migration of partition should not be conflated with Marichjjhapi massacre. Marichjjhapi happened due to the second migration during bangladesh war in 1971 and under pressure to act from the international community as the settlements encroached deep into the Sunderbans.
    And a simple visit to the southern and northern extremities of Kolkata or North/South 24 Parganas can reveal that all sorts of migrants settled in Kolkata and surrounding areas, no one was checking their caste tags (unlike today). All these settlement plans, like every other plan in India, were only on paper, they were barely implemented.
    I guess there are many ways to interpret history, but at least we should make an effort to get the geography and chronology correct.

  11. In fact BJP who is providing justice to the marginalized Hindu communities. This is the announced aim of rss/bjp. The so called ‘secular’ parties are busy dividing Hindus to maintain the so called ‘secularist’ characteristics of our constitution.

  12. Observations about pre Independence and after independence is good. However, neither the leftists nor the Congress/ TMC did casteless or secular politics in West Bengal. It’s a biased view not a neutral or correct view.
    Left did appease minorities in their locality, which became more blalant during current regime.
    Caste always counted though not overly, like in other States.
    Even in social affairs caste still matters. Though camouflaged by the Bhadralok.
    Expected a far more in-depth study.

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