ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Caste and Politics in Bengal

Caste and Politics in Bengal

Any attempt at understanding the presence or absence of caste in West Bengal today calls for a contextualisation of the problem by studying the history of caste politics in pre-Independence united Bengal. A response to Praskanva Sinharay ("A New Politics of Caste", EPW, 25 August 2012) and Uday Chandra and Kenneth Bo Nielsen ("The Importance of Caste in Bengal", EPW, 3 November 2012).

Praskanva Sinharay has argued that caste has never been important or relevant category in the electoral process in West Bengal and that the situation has now changed with the political assertion of the Matua Mahasangha. Chandra and Nielsen have referred to Chatterjee’s (1997) argument that in everyday village life and popular consciousness caste remained important to underscore their point that caste has always been a relevant category in Bengal, including Bengal politics. While agreeing with much of what they argued in that discussion I intend to point out through this article that caste was not only relevant in everyday life and “the apparently uninstitutionalised world of what may be called politics among the people” (Chandra and Nielsen 2012: 59) but very importantly in the world of institutionalised, formal politics. My argument is that because assertive “lower” caste politics made its presence well felt in the domain of formal politics, it became necessary for the bhadralok to resist it. This article seeks to ground the question of caste in present-day West Bengal in the history of caste movements and politics in late 19th and 20th centuries of undivided Bengal. A history of lower caste assertions in Bengal is likely to help us locate the prominence or lack of caste in Bengal today.


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