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Discussion Map

In this feature, we map the discussion around Praskanva Sinharay’s 2012 article, “A New Politics of Caste,” which argued that the Matua Mahasangha—representative of the Namasudras of West Bengal—asserted  itself politically and changed the caste categories associated with politics in West Bengal. 




The author looks at the Left Front’s past electoral agendas and argues that unlike earlier, just like the rest of the country, caste is a now considerable factor in West Bengal elections.

The politics of West Bengal, compared to other states of India, had been truly unique, particularly with regard to the caste question. Caste was considered antagonistic to “modern” politics; it never had been a determinant category in the electoral politics of the province for a number of reasons.





One, the “secular” public image of the erstwhile ruling parties and coalitions (initially the Congress and then the Left Front (LF)); two, the prolonged rule of the LF as well as the presence of a leftist political culture where “class” politics apparently subsumed “caste” politics; and three, the politics of the state had been historically dominated by the urban-educated upper-caste bhadralok who had constituted much of the leadership of political parties, irrespective of ideologies.





The hegemonic domination of the modern liberal bhadralok over the public life of Bengal has now been fractured with the dramatic entry of the lower caste Matuas as a major vote conglomerate.





The Congress made a populist move by incorporating them mostly as “unrecognised refugees” whereas the LF recognised them in a clandestine manner by providing them ration cards and other benefits for securing votes.





The indifference of the LF towards the caste question, the bhadralok dominance over its leadership and its non-cooperation with the Mandal Commission in the 1980s widened the rift between the ruling government and the Matuas.





The Matua Mahasangha organised itself independently of the political structures in order to secure its long list of demands relating to social status, migration and citizenship problems, as well as economic well-being.





The Matua Mahasangha today has more than seven million followers capable of influencing the electoral results in about 74 constituencies… What followed in the state politics vis-à-vis the Matua community was what Gopal Guru (2010) calls “a politics of compensation”.





Whether the present politics signals a successful culmination of the Namasudra movement or an extension of their politics of resistance, or whether the Namasudra elite will replicate bhadralok culture is an open question. For now, all we can say is that the caste question is no longer alien to the politics of West Bengal and for that the long resistance of the Matuas is responsible.


Read the article.




The authors argue that caste does not seem like a relevant category in West Bengal because of a lack of serious ethnographic research done by the dominant upper-caste Hindu bhadralok.


This “long-held political myth” about the irrelevance of caste in West Bengal derives its potency from the apparent lack of aggregation of caste interests in state elections (Sinharay 2012: 26) and the ostensible “depth of class feeling” and strength of the Left parties “cutting across divisions of caste and community” (Chatterjee 1997: 69).





Caste in West Bengal, just as elsewhere in India, is as much a political-economic reality as a ritual one. If anything, the situation in West Bengal is worse than elsewhere in India where caste-based political movements have posed a significant challenge to the traditional dominance of brahmins and other upper castes over the 20th century.





As Aloysius (1998: 69) explains, “upper caste consciousness is so dominant among the intelligentsia that little research has been done on the egalitarian aspirations emanating from the traditionally depressed communities.” Just as the upper-caste character of the Indian middle classes renders it a taboo for them to undertake manual labour, bhadralok intellectuals conducting rigorous field research in West Bengal are few and far between.





The few bhadralok anthropologists with considerable fieldwork experience in rural West Bengal are, of course, well aware of the persistence of caste in local power relations, even under the Left Front.





The myth that caste does not matter in state politics can only be sustained if one insists, myopically, on seeing aggregate election data—where major parties do not have identifiable caste bases—as the only bona fide indicator of popular political behaviour. But, even here, the preponderance of bhadralok in the leadership structures of all major parties should set alarm bells ringing. If West Bengal is, in any sense, an exception to wider Indian realities of caste, it is in the continued dominance of the upper-caste bhadralok over the rest of the society.





In situ, party cadres, leaders, and legislators across the ideological spectrum typically pretend not to know the caste of their colleagues, nor even their own, beyond lump categories such as upper caste or scheduled caste (Lama-Rewal 2009: 363). If one’s study of politics relies heavily on interviews of this kind, one may indeed infer that caste matters little in state politics. If, however, one adopts a critical ethnographic approach, caste is likely to figure much more prominently as a category that shapes local relations of power and influence.


Read the article.




The author argues that the relevance of caste in politics took a backseat in West Bengal politics only after Independence and the partition.


If one looks at histories and literatures of caste mobilisations during the colonial period in Bengal one would be obliged to confront and rethink the alleged lack of significance of caste in Bengal … Although these movements began seeking higher varna status for their respective castes they soon began to claim special treatment from the colonial government arguing that their current economic and political oppression was inseparable from their caste oppression.





Attempts were made by the Congress and Hindu organisations, like the Hindu Mahasabha and the Hindu Mission, to co-opt the different caste movements, especially when their demands for high ritual status got combined with their efforts to seek benefits in the secular field of politics, education and employment.





Since the time of the Swadeshi movement the dalits have made their political presence felt and were there to stay had Bengal not been partitioned. The bhadralok enthusiasm behind the second partition of Bengal begs a question. Why were those (in terms of social location) who opposed the 1905 partition of Bengal pushing for the partitioning of the province 40 years later?





The electoral process in colonial Bengal clearly shows that the Hindu bhadralok could not come to power in a Bengal where the Muslims were a majority and there was a large dalit population which, in turn, was suspicious of caste Hindu organisations like the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha … Suspicion and lack of unity amongst dalit leaders,their different ideological positions as well as the political ambitions of individual leaders were amongst the reasons that weakened dalit politics and also led to their co-option into the Congress and the Mahasabha.





Partition not only kept a huge dalit population away from West Bengal; when they fled East Pakistan and came to West Bengal they did so as refugees whose primary concern could not have been politics but survival … They were unlikely to pose a threat to bhadralok order in West Bengal. The partition thereby solved the thorny question of caste in Bengal politics.





The Communists were the loudest in proclaiming the irrelevance of caste in the struggles of the downtrodden. For a party whose leaders were bhadralok, class was a more relevant, progressive and the only legitimate category.





Given the history of dalit politics in united Bengal, this [2011] election could be seen as one that has brought caste back into the stage of Bengal politics from where it was banished in 1947. Here again, bhadralok politics played its role when the Mahasangha split one part owing allegiance to the Trinamool Congress and the other to the CPI(M).





It remains to be seen whether the different dalit castes can form their own platform and create space for an independent dalit politics here or whether they would continue to play into bhadralok hands.


Read the article.




Partha Chatterjee argues that the partition of Bengal split the electorate in a way that undermined caste relevance.


Caste appears to be insignificant in West Bengal’s politics precisely because public political life is thoroughly dominated by the upper castes.




Upper-caste Hindu dominance in colonial Bengal was the result of the decline of the Muslim nobility, the colonial land settlements, and the rapid adoption of English education by upper-caste Hindus.





The partition of Bengal was demanded in 1947 by an overwhelming majority among Hindus who could not imagine a future under permanent Muslim domination. The consequence of partition was a massive migration of Hindus from East Pakistan, mostly to the suburbs of Kolkata.





The partition removed the principal political challenge to upper-caste Hindu dominance in West Bengal. The population of Kolkata increased by leaps and bounds in the first two decades after Independence and the importance of the metropolis became overwhelming in the state’s economic, political, and social life.





The reason why caste never became a distinct object of study is that caste support was never polarised between the Left Front and the Congress even at the district level, let alone the state level. Both parties had significant support from every major caste, the only exception being the strong inclination of dalit voters towards the Left Front from the early 1980s to just before the most recent round of elections after 2009.


Read the article.






The author contests the exceptional nature of West Bengal’s caste-based politics.


It is too early to say if the attention of the big political parties and the government to the Matua Mahasangha on the eve of the last two elections indicates the potentiality and the possibility of the Namasudra movement (mainly in the form of the Matua cult) evolving into a serious challenge to the upper-caste hegemony in the state.





One, why could not the Namasudras re-enact their political past on their arrival in West Bengal? Two, is there a larger inquiry concealed in this state of affairs, which would be around the “exceptionality” of the Bengal situation?

First, there is a need to rethink if we had exaggerated the possibility of the Namasudra movement in erstwhile united Bengal to build up an autonomous mobilisation of the lower castes throughout the entire land. After all, the Namasudra mobilisation took place in a compact area of four districts of lower-eastern Bengal and there is little evidence to suggest that the three-way game between the upper-caste Hindus, Muslims and the lower castes was played in the same way in other parts of the land.





It will not be irrelevant to mention here that while one of the biggest groups of dalit workers in the city of Kolkata, the tannery workers of Tangra, maintains their caste associations including the Rabidas Sabha, they have persisted with a high degree of unionism and participated in the political militancy of the workers in general. This tells us of the double world of lower-caste consciousness—the kin and community life of a caste aware of the inequalities and impediments it faces in this world, but aspiring at same time to participate in the emancipative generality of the age.





From the point of view of science, I think it would be, thus, an error to discard a relational framework and look for a pre-given pattern of popular activism among the lower castes and pass judgments on the basis of a loss of our expectations, formed either on the basis of a pre-Partition past or a received understanding of what is happening in other states in India. By adopting a relational framework, we can also keep aside the perennial dispute about the exceptionality of the Bengal experience.





Lower castes have repeatedly striven for autonomy by framing a generality, without which a transformational politics of justice cannot happen in our time. The politics of the bahujan samaj I am indicating is not the electoral arithmetic-centric mobilisation we discuss, it is beyond the election-centric mobilisation and alliances, and elevates dalit subjectivity beyond the operation of governmentality.


Read the article.




In the wake of the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the author questions whether there is a resurgence of the bhadralok leadership in West Bengal.


With the decline of the Left Front’s organisational strength and political appeal among the voters of the state; the present ruling party Trinamool Congress (TMC), which this time has not aligned with the Congress for the upcoming election, cannot also claim a monopoly over popular support … Therefore, unlike the erstwhile bipolar nature of West Bengal’s election scene, the upcoming Lok Sabha polls cannot be simply looked at as a contest between two major camps; rather the other prominent political parties like Congress, BJP among others, quite evidently, shall play a crucial role in the deciding the results.





Even though the Mahasangha gained prominence as an important political actor in state’s rural politics; its leadership, today, has been subsumed within the TMC’s party-influence.





A crucial question arises at this point. Whether should we look at the integrationist attitude of the community-organisation and its leadership within the mainstream political parties as strategic moves of the time, or is that so that the bhadralok leadership has managed to reclaim their temporarily lost authority during the crisis phase over local politics?





The party-identity of a candidate is no longer the only strong marker of her or his political credibility, rather the identity of the candidate as a “minority” has become crucial in support of the candidature. Therefore, such a political trend, on the one hand, challenges the erstwhile authority of the bhadralok-dominated party at the local level; whereas, on the other, it publicly champions the identitarian politics of the community in present-day rural West Bengal.





The political expressions and alliances of the leadership of different lower-caste groups before the polls had been quite different. Some chose to align with the bhadralok-dominated party to meet their demands, whereas others have opted for an autonomous political position … Moreover, since the electoral fight is no longer bipolar this time; all the players are eyeing the dalit and minority votes for their electoral success.


Read the article.




The authors dismiss the role of caste in the future of electoral politics in West Bengal.


Though the Left Front leadership almost exclusively belongs to the upper castes of Bengal, the communists received uninterrupted support from the dalits who never felt the need for an independent political platform. Therefore, it would not be out of place to employ a hegemony paradigm in a Gramscian sense.





This hegemony had its roots in the landmark land reform initiatives which facilitated the replacement of the old order of landlords by the new institutional mechanism of the panchayats in rural society. But instead of the political empowerment of the dalit farmers, leadership passed into the hands of educated upper castes as education was necessary to grasp the rules and regulations of the new institutional order.





Nonetheless, the amount of social control that the left front in Bengal could manage to wield over the Bengali society is significantly considerable in a democratic country like India. Moreover, their ideology also obstructed the assertion of identity-based loyalties which are now on the rise with the left’s electoral decline.





It is quite unlikely that parties will be completely dependent on communities as Bhattacharya and Sinharay claim since open electoral mobilisation on the lines of caste and community by the mainstream parties will be limited by their commitment to the largely leftist political culture of Bengal.





The blatant disregard shown by the CPI(M) government to their own declared doctrine was the reason furnished by the intellectuals and general public for their support to Banerjee, whom they found to be more leftist than the so-called leftists belonging to the left front (Biswas 2012) ... Therefore, the electoral decline of the left parties should not be equated with the decline of leftist culture in the popular consciousness.





As a result, in the near future some caste-based political groups may operate on the periphery of the polity but the mainstream political parties may only afford to accommodate them up to some extent, owing to a deep hangover of a secular-leftist-political culture in the state.


Read the article.


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