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HomeIndiaCaste was never a big issue in Bengal politics. This assembly election...

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

Banerjee sowed seeds of caste-based politics, starting with pursuing the Matua clan comprising Hindu refugees. Now BJP has promised them citizenship. Other SC/ST votes also being eyed.

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Kolkata: “Your last name is Biswas. Does that make you a Matua, or a Namasudra? Usually Matuas have Biswas as their last names, don’t they? But what about Sahas and Dases?” A Trinamool leader was heard perplexedly asking a block leader with Biswas surname, at a party office in North 24 Paraganas.

The question on caste is not specific to Matuas or Namasudras — both Scheduled Castes — or restricted to areas with a predominantly backward castes population. It is one that is being debated at tea shops, at street corners and chowk bazaars across the state this election.

While the issue of caste has not been completely irrelevant in Bengal — both pre- and post-Partition — it’s importance has been subdued post-Independence. This is probably the first time that the subject has played such a prominent part in state politics.

Many would credit BJP’s aggressive wooing of splintered Hindu communities, such as the Namasudras, Matuas, Mahatos, Rajbanshis and Koch — all part of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) — for this.

In 2019, the BJP began its experiments with caste politics in Bengal as it attempted to woo the Namasudra community, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioning them in his speech in North Bengal. The PM also referred to the Matuas while addressing people in the southern part of the state.

He promised them permanent citizenship — many Namasudras (the Matuas are a sub-sect within this caste) are Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. The BJP-pushed Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), passed by Parliament in 2019, is targeted at groups like this one — Hindu refugees from neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, who have been living in India for the past six-seven decades.

The party extended its caste-based politics in the state in March by announcing that Mahishyas, Telis (as yet not included in the SC/OBC category) and other low-caste Hindus will be included in the OBC list.

Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, however, cannot escape blame for the growth of caste-based politics in the state, either. It was in fact she who had started wooing the Matuas for political gains in 2009, even pursuing the community’s spiritual leader, popularly known as Boro Ma, in her attempts. Banerjee would meet ‘Boro Ma’ frequently and also helped Matuas become members of assembly and parliament (MLAs and MPs) and even ministers in her government.

The Matuas are divided in their support — there is also a BJP camp within the caste now, who are drawn to the party in their hope of getting citizenship.

“Caste politics in Bengal is complementary for both political parties — the ruling and the opposition. Hindus have been fragmented and Muslims have also been broken into a new group, Dalit Muslims. The Trinamool initiated this and the rivals responded to it. It is a rebound effect. Now as both the parties have brought the caste segments to the fore, these different communities have got a bargaining power,” said Samir Das, social scientist and professor at Calcutta University.

“The caste issue will not remain limited to elections or manifestos. It has a larger ramification. People are discussing surnames as they want to know what privileges or benefits they would get if they belong to a particular caste. Earlier it was only about reservation in education and employment,” added Das.

In 2009, it was Banerjee who brought in caste-based politics in the state. Now, the BJP has turned the tables on her by promising citizenship for the Matuas, who constitute almost 20 per cent of the population in the state. The Matua vote will be a deciding factor across 40-45 assembly constituencies this election. The Bengal chief minister’s once well-calculated move to ensure vote banks for her party, now threatens to dislodge her in Bengal.


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When Mamata brought in caste politics

While it’s only in this election that the issue of caste has assumed such exaggerated importance, its beginnings can be traced to much earlier.

Since 2012, the chief minister has formed over two dozen development and cultural boards for different castes. The state’s Backward Classes Welfare Department lists 11 different development and cultural boards formed for communities across north and south Bengal districts. This includes development and cultural boards for the Khambu Rais, Mangars, Kamis , Sarkis, Damais, Bhujels, Newars, Gurungs, Rajbanshis, Kurmis and many others.

The state also has several cash schemes for specific castes and communities, including Dalit groups, such as the Namasudras and Matuas in eastern Bengal, Rajbansis, Koch, Kamtapuri and hill tribes (Gurungs, Lepchas, Mangars and Bhujel) in the north and Mahatos or Kurmis, Mahishyas and Telis in the west. The geographical divide is in keeping with areas where these communities are mostly concentrated.

In 2012, Banerjee also announced a monthly financial assistance scheme for Muslim clerics. Seven years later, after the 2019 general elections, the state government initiated a monthly allowance for Hindu priests. Caste-specific cash schemes introduced by the Mamata Banerjee government include the Jai Johar scheme for STs and Bandhu Prakalpa for SCs. The beneficiaries get Rs 1,000 per month.

According to social scientists in Bengal, these were aimed at strengthening caste-based vote banks across the state.

“Over the years, Mamata Banerjee has pursued several caste groups, like the Matuas in south Bengal and the Rajbanshis in north Bengal. This was based on political arithmetic. She calculated the population percentage of a particular caste group and accordingly engaged with them,” said Jadavpur University professor Abdul Matin, who researches on castes and communities.

But her calculations may have backfired, with the BJP now using the same tactics to oust her.

“She opened a Pandora’s Box as she brought the subject of castes to the forefront in politics, raised issues such as development and protecting their culture and left those unaddressed. Eventually, her politics prepared the ground for the BJP to play the caste card. The Left Front government had never allowed the issue of castes to come to the fore in politics, not even after the Mondal Commission report of 1980,” he added.

CPM politburo member Mohammed Salim echoed Das’s concern.

“Bengal has remained a progressive society since the Bengal renaissance (in the nineteenth century). There were issues related to human rights and we always involved people from all castes and religion in the movement, specifically our land rights movement. Our government never indulged into dividing communities,” he said. “The development works or schemes were for economically weak or backward regions. The Trinamool and the BJP are both trying to reverse the achievements of the Bengal renaissance.”

Trinamool leaders are vociferous, however, in their support of their leader and insist that Banerjee has only “performed her duty under the constitutional obligation”.

“Mamata Banerjee tried to uplift the lives of the backward communities. She did not do anything unconstitutional, unlike BJP. What Modi and Shah are doing, by bringing in the Citizenship Act, is unconstitutional,” said Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP Sukhendu Sekhar Roy. “The chief minister has announced universities, formed development boards and given financial assistance to the poor. What is wrong in that?”

Blaming the BJP for the “caste divide” in the state, he said: “I believe Bengal is a progressive society. We have inter-caste marriages here and it is not a big deal. In north India, there are instances [of such marriages ending in] honour killing.”


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Making it to the manifestos

From indirect wooing and promises made in public speeches, caste-based sops have now become an accepted part of poll manifestos, making it more formal and mainstream.

In her budget speech in February, the Bengal chief minister announced the opening of 100 English-medium schools for students from SC/ST and OBC categories. She has also promised 500 new schools for those who want to study in the Ol Chiki (the Santhali script) medium. A total of 800 new schools have been announced in tribal-dominated areas of the state, such as West Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura, Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri and the Gorkha-Kurmali-speaking areas in the state’s northern and western parts.

Approximately 100 new schools for Nepali, Hindi, Urdu, Kamtapuri and Kurmali-speaking students will be opened, she had said in her budget speech. She has also proposed 100 new schools where the medium of teaching will be Sadri, a language commonly spoken by tea garden workers in north Bengal. Two hundred schools for Rajbanshi-speaking students have also been announced.

She has also announced state housing schemes in areas dominated by SC, ST and OBC population. Further, she has announced monthly assistance of Rs 1,000 for SC, ST and OBC families in the state, thus doubling the amount of the monthly income scheme announced for the financially weaker sections among the general castes in her manifesto. She has also proposed to bring 10 Hindu castes, including Mahishyas and Telis, under OBC category. This announcement came after a similar promise made by the BJP in March.

The BJP in its manifesto has announced 200 days of work under the NREGA in all blocks with a predominantly ST population. For those from general castes, the central scheme is 100 days’ work. The party has also announced a Poundra Kshatriya Development Board and inclusion of Mahishyas, Telis and other backward Hindu castes in the OBC list. A monthly assistance scheme of Rs 3,000 has also been announced for Matua Dalapatis, leaders of the Matua sect.

Not everyone, however, feels that this political focus on castes is problematic.

Sarbani Banerjee, sociologist and professor at Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College, said: “It is good that castes have come to the fore. Caste is a factor that caused Partition. There were Maryada (dignity) movements by several sect leaders for social rights. The issue of caste remained political, but its prominence in electoral politics is being seen now. Politicians woo various castes thinking they will go for block-voting, like Yadavs or Jatts or Gujjars. In Bengal, that has not happened [in the past].”

Whether that changes this election, and whether the Trinamool and the BJP’s energetic wooing of backward classes brings them any benefit, remains to be seen.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)


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2 COMMENTS

  1. You are perhaps a Bengali. But, you know so little of post-independence history of Bengal. Most of the CMs of Bengal have been Brahmins. Bidhan Chandra Roy, Ajoy Mukherjee, Jyoti Basu, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, even Mumtaz Bano! You say caste had no role in Bengal politics.

  2. BJP has taken the smart strategy of ignoring the self certified Bhadraloks and engaged with the Dalits, SC, ST and OBCs. The Left had subsumed the identities and issues of these marginalized communities under the overall ideology of communism. But it was like keeping a lid on a pressure cooker.

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