Union Home Minister Amit Shah during a roadshow in Nadia, West Bengal, 11 April 2021| PTI
Union Home Minister Amit Shah during a roadshow in Nadia, West Bengal | PTI
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The 2021 assembly election in West Bengal appears to mark a break from the past with several caste groups prominently figuring in the electoral calculations, possibly for the first time. The latest caste group to have forayed into the electoral calculus is the Mahishyas, a numerically significant intermediate caste accounting for almost 10 per cent of the state’s total population as per the 1931 Census. According to historian Anirban Bandyopadhyay, the Mahishyas are likely to number well above 1.5 crore now. While the political outreach to caste groups looks like caste politics, a closer engagement with the patterns of mobilisation reveals that Bengal is not witnessing conventional caste politics but possibly a variant of Hindutva politics or what political scientist Sajjan Kumar has recently termed as ‘Subaltern Hindutva’.

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC have promised OBC status to Hindu intermediate castes like the Mahishyas and Telis in their manifestos. However, this promise was first made by BJP president J.P. Nadda, prompting the TMC to follow suit. As a result, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s TMC seems to be on the back foot on this issue. The BJP’s rationale for the extension of OBC quota to these groups is to counter the TMC’s alleged politics of Muslim appeasement.


Also read: Bhadralok and the myth of casteless West Bengal politics


Politics of memory

Since 2011, the TMC government has made frequent additions to the OBC list by mostly including Muslim groups. In West Bengal, there are two OBC lists: OBC-A (which includes more backward groups) and OBC-B. The state government claims to haveincluded 99 per cent of Bengal’s Muslims in the OBC category. In many other states too, Muslims come under the OBC category, but backward sections of the community are typically provided reservation benefits through a sub-quota that entitles them to a fixed proportion of the total OBC quota. Currently, in West Bengal, 99 out of 177 communities included in the OBC list are Muslims, with Muslim groups figuring in both OBC-A and OBC-B lists.

The BJP is accusing the TMC of deliberately depriving Hindu backward groups like the Mahishyas and disproportionately favouring the Muslims. Its political strategy appears to be to mobilise the intermediate Hindu castes, particularly the numerically significant Mahishya community by facilitating the political ventilation of their sense of relative deprivation vis-à-vis the Muslims. This deviates from the conventional quota politics in which the Muslim factor is not that relevant because the tussle is mainly between the smaller and dominant Hindu OBC groups for fair apportionment of quota.

For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, smaller and more disadvantaged OBC groups resent that the powerful Yadav community disproportionately corners reservation benefits. Rajasthan has also witnessed tension between the Gujjars and Jats with regard to the share of OBC quota. Similarly, the recent announcement of 10.5 per cent internal quota for the Vanniyars in Tamil Nadu within the category of Most Backward Classes (MBC) has miffed the Thevars, who also come under the MBC category. But in Bengal, the inclusion of too many Muslim groups in the OBC list has now drawn even the Muslims into the vortex of quota politics by pitting them against Hindu intermediate and backward castes.

At the same time, by promising to grant citizenship to the Hindu refugees through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA, the BJP is attempting to mobilise the support of the lower-caste Matua-Namasudra community, who migrated to India mainly due to their religious persecution in Muslim-dominated Bangladesh. The CAA has brought the issue of religious persecution of Namasudras into mainstream public discourse, reopening the repressed wounds of Partition. This has resulted in a reawakening of the muffled memory of religious victimisation, which has allegedly been denied adequate space for articulation in the largely Left-minded mainstream political discourse of West Bengal. This ultimate outcome is the emergence of a ‘politics of memory’ that is facilitating incorporation of the lower-caste groups into the Hindutva fold by obscuring caste divisions and by supplanting Dalit consciousness with Hindu belongingness.


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


Not conventional caste politics

In the north Indian context, cultural anthropologist Badri Narayan has pointed out in his book Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisationthat the Hindutva outreach to the lower-caste groups in rural micro-politics has resorted to cultural construction of local Dalit heroes as Hindu avatars and crusaders against medieval Muslim invaders. While this approximates what renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm famously called ‘invention of tradition’, the ‘politics of memory’ that is being currently played out in West Bengal, far from being rooted in a distant and mythical micro-tradition draws upon a more real, tangible and subjectively felt collective experience.

More importantly, the current pattern of mobilisation of the Mahishyas and Namasudras does not fit into the traditional template of caste politics in which lower or backward castes are pitted against upper or dominant castes. In other words, in conventional caste politics both the unit of mobilisation and the unit of opposition are caste categories: Mahars versus Brahmins or Jatavs versus Yadavs. But in the emerging template, caste is relevant only as a unit of mobilisation while the feeling of exclusion and opposition fuelling such mobilisation is not directed towards any caste category (such as ‘upper caste’ or ‘dominant caste’) but towards the religious category of Muslims. As a result, the logic of caste-based mobilisation appears to be disconnected from caste consciousness. Therefore, though this seems like caste politics, it is primarily a more flexible variety of Hindutva politics, where caste identity only plays a supporting role that serves to strengthen and buttress the Hindu consciousness of the groups mobilised along caste lines for votes.

This also poses an analytical dilemma to scholars. In the existing scholarship, articulation of lower-caste identity in mainstream-macro politics is largely seen as an impediment to Hindu consolidation. The current political dynamics in West Bengal challenge this conventional notion. Therefore, we currently require new analytical frameworks capable of comprehending the emerging socio-political realities that hint towards a possible marriage between the politics of Mandal and the politics of Kamandal.

The author teaches Political Science at Jamia Hamdard (Deemed University), New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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13 COMMENTS

  1. This is a very balanced article. It shows with facts how appeasement politics is practised in the garb of reservation. It also mentions how the experience of religious persecution of the lower castes in Bangladesh is a real experience but was suppressed by the left in Bengal. These inconvenient facts are deliberately overlooked by left liberal media. Most importantly, this article calls out the left liberals in failing to assess the depth of Hinduness of the Dalits, which is overriding their caste consciousness.

  2. I think that this article is quite balanced. It presents facts showing how appeasement politics is practised in the garb of reservation. It also mentions that the experience of religious persecution of lower castes in Bangladesh is a real experience but its expression was suppressed by the left in Bengal. These facts are conveniently overlooked by the analyses given by the luteyns’ media. Most importantly, this article calls out the so called left liberals in failing to assess the depth of Hinduness of the Dalits, which is overriding their caste consciousness.

  3. Did I read acknowledgement that hindus fled to India after being persecuted by Muslims for being kaffirs!
    By an intellectual!
    In the Print!
    With Modi, all things are truly possible then.

  4. The power was inherited by English educated lot of the Doon School types mostly because their parents belonged to the ICS and other servants of the British Rule. The pain of the loss of that power is evident from the recent interview of some of the Doon School types, more so because the power seems to be going to non-English speaking, non-wine drinking and non-Golf plying types.
    For all their intellect, the first generation of rulers, remained stuck in the way and methods of the British for continuing to retain power, little realizing that power has to go in the hands of the majority in a democracy, this despite the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi. The policy of throwing crumbs to a few from majority to continue retain power was not sustainable.
    In implementing the ANTYODAY, the RSS/BJP created more like minded from amongst the majority instead of cornering the power for themselves. It took a few generations to have Modi, Yogi, Khatters and the likes who are neither Brahmins nor Baniyas.
    Just like the prosperity of US is mainly because of the waves of migrants. Mostly the third generation of migrants is not as productive as the first, the same applies to rulers, so instead of providing more of own children, it is better to build up more from the majority society.

  5. I think that the article is quite balanced unlike those written by so-called lutyens’ journalists. It clearly points out with facts appeasement politics practised in the garb of providing reservation. It also mentions the religious persecution of dalits in Bangladesh to be a real experience but suppressed by the left in Bengal. These inconvenient aspects are deliberately bypassed by the luteyns’ media in their analysis. Most importantly, it quite candidly calls out the so called left-liberals for failing to assess the depth of Hinduness of dalits, which is overriding their caste consciousness.

  6. To rule anywhere in India, the route is by getting caste equation right. This is applies to any party and can be fact checked.

    To read the phenomenon of caste politics with BJP tells us a few things – Journalist is puppet of an ideology. If caste politics is indulged by party of his choice it is secular. It is rule of game of politics to get caste equation right.
    It would be fair journalism if caste equations of competing parties are exposed.

    If BJP is winning it is polarising, any party winning on caste politics is polarising -this is reality. So there is a good victory and polarising victory.

    Prashant Kishor is very honest as compared to these narrative weaver’s

  7. I think that the article is quite balanced unlike those written by so-called lutyens’ journalists. It clearly points out with facts appeasement politics practised in the garb of providing reservation. It also mentions about religious persecution of dalits in Bangladesh to be a real experience but suppressed by the left in Bengal. These inconvenient aspects are deliberately overlooked by the luteyns’ media in their analysis. Most importantly, the article quite candidly calls out the so called left-liberals for failing to assess the depth of Hinduness of dalits, which is overriding their caste consciousness.

  8. SO? if other political parties use caste, it is okay? If BJP merges caste with religion, and makes it a great hindu community, it is not okay? WHY you left liberal pseudo intellects?????

  9. Unlike the dangerous woke species of india, aka early socialists who mostly are anglicized brahmins (Nehru gandhis to yechurys to mamatas to pv jayalalita most of lutyens ppl). The dalits and obcs have been the real protectors of the Hindu faith systems. And all that despite the oppression. Not just in independent india, though out the muslim invasions, it was these subaltern who protected the Hindu faith while the upper castes got in bed with invaders.

  10. Intellectual Yet Idiots: This article is a perfect example of this phrase. Stupid, idiot fools masquerading as ” Intellectuals” can only write this type of article. After BJP, particularly Amit Shah, runs away with the trophy, these idiots write tomes in dense English, quoting some obscure concepts, pronounced by some White, Christian names as great intellectuals, as to how BJP / Amit Shah ran away with Trophy.

    They have no idea , nor can they ever imagine, as to what strategy BJP / Amit Shah have got for Telangana or Kerala or even TN for next decade., But be sure, they will write as to how BJP won over these states in say 2031 or 2034, in a similar article as above.

  11. Basically, the author is lamenting: “Mera Sundar Sapna Beet Gaya”. Gone are the glorious days of caste polarisation, the wet dream of every social scientist studying India. Caste, Curry and Cow, is now Curry and Cow, sometimes requenced to “Cow Curry” to insult.

  12. As we heard in the Clubhouse Chat with Shri Prashant Kishore, our self certified liberal journalists don’t know much about the social and caste structure in West Bengal, beyond a few recently learnt words like “Matua”. Hence they are unlikely to have any knowledge of the fate suffered by Shri Jogendra Nath Mondal, the first Law and Labour minister of Pakistan and his fellow Dalits who reposed their faith in Muslims of East Pakistan. They had to flee their new country and the land of ancestors within a few years. Their story and their massacre at Marichjhapi in the the hands of Jyoti Basu’s “progressive” government has been carefully hidden away from public knowledge by these liberals. No more. Their story will be heard and the self certified liberal journalists and Left historian will have no place to hide.

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