One of the widely prevalent and long surviving narratives among the Bengali bhadralok is that West Bengal including its politics is ‘casteless’ and therefore ‘exceptional’ in comparison to other states. This sense of distinctiveness and departure from the rest of India constitutes an important aspect of the self-definition and popular conceptualization of Bengali identity. The dominant public discourse has also delegitimized the lexicon of caste. Taking about caste in polite urban conversation is considered offensive to bhadralok gentility that is supposed to be rigidly adhered to as an accepted norm of public behaviour.
A great deal of scholarly efforts have been undertaken in recent times to show that, this claim of exceptionalism is a myth, since caste far from being withered away remains a reality in everyday life. It is undeniably true that West Bengal’s exceptionalism is over-emphasized and grossly exaggerated. Still, there is no denying the fact that the politics of West Bengal has pursued a trajectory markedly different from that followed by the rest of the country. The unchallenged sway of the Left politics for an exceedingly long period managed to establish a pattern of political mobilization, where caste and identity concerns are subsumed under the dominant category of ‘class’. Therefore, from a scholarly point of view we are faced with a tricky and paradoxical situation. On one hand, we find that caste remains present as an important organizing principle of social life and continues to reproduce socio-economic inequalities and political hierarchies. On the other hand, we also see that caste as a political category does not enjoy much prominence and visibility unlike in other parts of the country.
The standard explanation offered in this regard is that the monopolization of all domains of public life by the higher caste Bengali bhadralok has ousted caste from public discourse and political agenda despite its presence in social life. Therefore, the augment goes that West Bengal is not much different from other states, where caste is a more visible political category. But this begs the question as to why West Bengal has not seen large-scale Dalit resistance against higher caste supremacy as witnessed in other parts of the country in the form of collective mobilization by various lower caste groups. It is obvious that we can’t satisfactorily engage with this question if we debunk the exceptionality of West Bengal as a complete myth. Therefore, rather than fully rejecting the exceptionality of West Bengal, a qualified acceptance of the same should be the starting point of any discussion relating to the political trajectory of caste in West Bengal.
At the same time, it also needs to be asked in view of the steady decline of the organized Left in West Bengal’s politics as to whether exceptionality of West Bengal’s politics is on retreat. There has been a growing feeling in recent years that something radically new is emerging with regard to the operation of caste dynamics in political process. This feeling has emerged in response to the political assertion of the Matua-Namasudra community since 2009 and Mamata Banerjee’s so-called ‘post bhadralok’ style of politics that is not averse to overt patronization of caste and communal sentiments in contrast to the political style of her ultra-secularists Communist counterparts.
It is in this backdrop that the caste question in West Bengal politics has been analysed in this book. The political assertion of the Matuas has drawn a great deal of scholarly attention, raising anticipation about the rise of caste as a determining factor in the mainstream institutional politics of the state. However, not much efforts have been directed towards decoding the nature of the Matua mobilization and also its changing character. A close investigation reveals that the efforts by the TMC to mobilize the Matua-Namasudra community along the lines of caste have remained quite sporadic.
Absence of a dominant caste, fragmentation of intermediate castes, limited geographic spread of lower and intermediate castes and comparable demographic strength of major lower caste groups having different and even divergent demands are some of the prominent demographic factors which inhibit political articulation of caste identity and political aggregation of socio-economic interests of different caste groups. The absence of Dalit politics also has a material basis. Bengali landholders have always belonged to diverse caste backgrounds. The lack of homogeneity in the caste identities of the landholding class has prevented their conversion into a cohesive political bloc, which is potentially capable of being mobilized in favour of any political party. Further, compared to other states the lower castes in West Bengal suffer from relatively lower level of relative deprivation vis-à-vis the caste Hindus. For instance, dalits and non-dalits are, more or less, similarly placed in terms of possession of landholding in West Bengal.
Several other economic indicators also suggest that the relative economic deprivation faced by the lower castes in West Bengal is not very substantial. It is quite likely that the low level of relative economic deprivation faced by the lower castes has not augured well for the conscious deployment of caste as a political vocabulary of socio-economic marginalisation in West Bengal. Political aggregation of lower caste interests has also been hampered by their uneven economic development. Development indicators suggest high level of disparity in the economic conditions of major lower caste groups. Due to wide mismatch in the economic situation of various lower caste groups, their needs and priorities are vastly different. Such a situation provides little incentive to the lower castes to come together and build a common agenda of socio-economic demands for collective political action.
Thus, the structure of political economy has played a role in configuring the field of political contestation in a manner that has thwarted crystallization of caste as a key organizing principle of political mobilization. Another significant factor that has not been adequately studied despite wide awareness of its importance is the role of political culture. The politics of West Bengal is deeply associated with what is generally known as bhadralok culture, which has put in place a template of legitimate political behaviour. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s the bhadralok culture came to be gradually absorb a class centric Left-wing political discourse. It is this marriage between bhadralok culture and Marxism that has greatly contributed towards the ideological subsumption of the discourse of caste by that of class.
This excerpt from The Curious Trajectory of Caste in West Bengal Politics: Chronicling Continuity and Change, by Ayan Guha, has been published with permission from Brill. Copyright by Brill, 2022.