Upendranath Biswas, West Bengal Minister for Backward Classes Welfare and former CBI additional director, is a Dalit but prefers the Ambedkarite tag. S. N. M. Abdi spoke to Biswas— a caste historian in his own right—about the oppression of Dalits in a state which loves to flaunt its ‘progressive’ and ‘radical’ character.
You are shouldering a huge socio-political responsibility.
Absolutely - backward classes comprise 68 percent of Bengal’s population: SC 23 percent, ST six and OBC 39. Muslims constitute 21.5 percent of OBC, while 17.5 percent are non-Muslims. OBC is divided into two distinct groups – A and B. Group A is bigger, more backward and overwhelmingly Muslim. Trinamool Congress is in power today because backward classes shifted their allegiance to it. Any party which ill-treats them, or is disrespectful to their leader Ambedkar, will pay dearly for it.
Bengal’s backward classes are king-makers but are powerless. Political parties and government are the preserve of upper caste Hindus who tightly control non-political institutions too.
I agree with Ashok Mitra, ICS, who wrote that the dominance of upper castes is so intense in Bengal that low castes don’t dare to even launch an agitation against them - their dominance is accepted as divine dispensation. The situation is worse than in Bihar. Bengal has not produced a Jagjivan Ram, Ramvilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad or Mayawati. Upper castes— Brahmins, Kayasths and Baidyas—comprise hardly 20 percent of the population but are ruling over 80 percent. Bollywood is open to all classes and castes. But is Tollywood? When it comes to hypocrisy, nobody can beat the Bengali bhadrolok. Have you seen the matrimonial ads in Ananda Bazar? What is the caste composition of Calcutta Club? What about the performing arts or journalism?
Ram Krishna Mission too is an exalted upper caste bastion. I’m yet to hear of a namasudra maharaj [Dalit monk].
I will not talk about RKM because it’s a very sensitive issue. But the High Court and Supreme Court have ruled that RKM is a Hindu order. And according to Haraprasad Shastri, considered an expert on Hinduism, the whole thesis of Hinduism is based on the caste system. So there we are.
Mamata is a Brahmin. Buddhadev is a Brahmin. Isn’t it shocking that Bengal CMs have either been Brahmins or Kayasths.
Social discrimination has prevented others from becoming CM. Equal opportunity is not available to every one. Ours is a closed and non-inclusive society. Scholars have studied the caste composition of the communist government in power for 34 years.
Your Trinamool Congress is also a Manuwadi party. All the top positions in the government and party are held by upper caste leaders.
It’s inevitable. All political parties are essentially the same because of societal ingredients.
What are your reservations about the Dalit tag?
The expression was declared illegal 4-5 years ago.
But Nitish Kumar recently coined another term – Mahadalit.
It’s obnoxious and not acceptable to me. Maybe Nitish’s intentions are good. Maybe he wants to focus on the most backward and discriminated against among Dalits for bringing them into the mainstream. But those branded Mahadalit might develop an inferiority complex.
Historically, where did India go wrong?
Gandhiji was against untouchability but not against the caste or varna system. There is now a Supreme Court judgement that says the caste system is at the root of all evil. The caste system generates hatred and hatred leads to violence. So Gandhiji’s campaign against untouchability was contradictory because he simultaneously endorsed the caste system. He was afraid of antagonizing Hindus in the days of the two-nation theory.
@15/D - 86
My opinion is not meant to be taken in the offensive sense as it is not directed at any particular community. I had only placed my apppreciation of Bengalis as a community. Thats all.
RV Subramaniam >> I have spent my life among Bengalis till the age of twenty. I have life long Bengali friends. They are culturally most advanced compared to most other communities. They are one of the most liberal communities I have come across . A drawback may be that they are too proud of their culture.
Such statements sweeping in nature are not only quite absurd, they also are insulting to the dozens of other state folks in India who are also culturally advanced. Yes, it is more likely to see a Bengali in certain spheres of society such as art, media, literature, history and like than people of other state people, but that does not mean an opportunity to berate other community/state folks of India.
Further, the liberalism of Bengali itself is very narrowly defined. The average bengali intellectual's liberalism is very narrow in definition in that the average bengali intellectual is most likely to be marxist, worship nehruvian economics and believe that state intervention is best way to acheive progress. All these are truly the very negation of principles of liberalism.
The liberalism of the typical marxist, bengali middle class intellectual (the kind who endlessly debate on vietnam war and dialectic materialism) has also meant the death of enterprenuership in the state and the result is that a dalit or muslim or a tribal in bengal is less likely to have the economic opportunities that a supposedly illiberal, communal and evil MODI ruled Gujarat offers.
And guess what, when someone blurts this truth, the first thing we see is the so called pseudo liberal intellectuals swarm and indulge in name calling .
I have spent my life among Bengalis till the age of twenty. I have life long Bengali friends. They are culturally most advanced compared to most other communities. They are one of the most liberal communities I have come across . A drawback may be that they are too proud of their culture.
In fact Modern Indian Culture is largely influenced by by the Bengali thinkers and reformers of the last two/three centuries.
In fact in Bengal, Vegetarianism Fish is not taboo. The Bengali Vegetarian does not touch meat,pork etc and even onion.
One of the reasons why Dalit Movements are late to arrive in Bengal is due to the liberal outlook of the average Bengali folks,
R V SUBRAMANIAN
Really, there is limited scope for dalit reformers to emerge in Bengal, because of crusades of Vidyasagar and Ram Mohan Roy? Excuse me if I'm being little offensive. You might be suffering from stone blindness or infatuation for them.
Ram Mohan Roy took up anti-sati campaign just three years before 1829 when sati or widow burning was banned by Lord Bentinck. His elder brother died upon which his young wife was consigned to flames. This hurt and exerted a deep impact on Ram Mohan. He became a crusader against sati after this. Detailed data analysis by caste of sati, however, shows that Brahman along consigned over 38% women to flames, though in Bengal they accounted for just 3% population. Baidyas ( who were .005%) and Kayasthas (3.5%) along with Brahmans accounted for 65% sati in Bengal. The untouchables did not practice sati. The ban on widow burning benefited Brahmans, Kayastha and Baidya in the main. Was it social reform or family reform, if I may ask?
One day Vidyasagar was shocked to see Shashi, his childhood friend, a widow on a visit to home from Calcutta. She was married in infancy. This provoked him to take up widow marriage issue. Vidyasagar said, he would risk his life for remarriage of widodows. His son's marriage to a widow was a happy event of his life. History is silent on the number of widows he got married. May be they didn't exceed even a dozen---most, if not all Brahmans.
I will cite a case of a widow of Tamluk subdivision, in the neightbourhood of Ghatal subdivision to which Vidyasagar belonged. Doyamoyee, an infant widow was remarried by her father as per custom of the community he belonged. She got two sons. When Doyamoyee's father died, her uncle sold off land of his deceased brother as the sole heir. Doyamoyee resisted the purchaser of the land from taking possession. The matter of inheritence went to Tamluk Munsif court which passed order against Doyamoyee. She went in appeal to Surodinate judge Midnapur, who upheld the Musnif's order.
Undaunted a rebellious Doyamoyee went to Calcutta High Court in appeal against the lower court's order. A Division comprising Justice Princep and Justice O'Kinley allowed the appeal of Doyamoyee. The High Court observed that the marriage was an 'immemorial custom' of the community to which the appelant belonged. The lower courts wrongly disallowed her right of inheritence because payment of salami was not made to the zamindar, barber, Brahman and the village headman, called Mandal. Both the subordinate judicial officers were Hindus, who could not overcome their orthodox mindset and hence went against the custom of widow marriage practised in their community since ages.
Dayamoyee was a Namasudra (High Court order spelt Nomosudra), an untouchable also called Chandal, who in Bengal numbered about 1.5 million in 1871 census. Vidyasagr was totally unaware of this noble custom in practice among the low Nomosudra caste in his neighbourhood nor did he cite it as a point to highlight in his campaign. Vidysagar was eager to introduce family reform. How come it is a social reform? Shouldn't bot be different? The High Court's order passed in 1882 reveals that Doyamoyee was fighting her case before various courts when Vidyasagar was busy in widow marriage among the Brahmans. His son was married in 1870.
Further there were over two crores of population, all low caste like Chamar, Dom, Hari, Pod, Rajbanshi, Goala who had widow marriage socially approved. Bengali bhadralok and the intellectuals never ever mention this as a shinning customs to be emulated by upper castes too. But we should be able to distinguish between family reform to social reform. Ram Mohan Roy & Vidyasagr were aiming family reform to redeem their caste along with Kayasthas and Baidyas, who ccounted for just 6.5% in Bengal.
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