A dingy and dark room where sunlight is not benevolent enough to enter through the visible cracks and a small bed unable to fit into the congested 10/10 feet space—this is where Balaram Mistry (31), a Kolkata-based government college teacher, spent most of his life. However, it was not the financial condition that made his journey difficult; it was the casteist gaze and slurs from the Bhadroloks that made it unbearable. “People may say casteism is not directly practised in West Bengal, but we know what it means to be born in a lower caste family,” says Mistry.
He was in his early teens when he realised the subtle perpetration of caste violence. “One of my closest friends’ family with whom I used to play throughout the day couldn’t even accept my identity. Once, his mother casually remarked, “Playing together is fine but marriage with you people is impossible”.
“I felt bad, but remained silent,” laments Mistry. The financial position of his Savarna friend’s family was much worse than theirs. “His father was a drunkard; had no financial stability. Still, it is caste that bars them from thinking of a marriage alliance with people like us,” he adds.
Mistry is not the only one who frequently suffers verbal and attitudinal caste abuse from upper-caste Hindu Bengalis— commonly known as Bhadroloks. However, this everyday caste-based violence hardly finds space in the columns of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). According to the NCRB data, the number of documented crimes against Scheduled Castes (SC) in West Bengal between 2018 and 2020 is far lower than Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and even Tamil Nadu. In 2020, while the number of registered caste-based crimes in Uttar Pradesh was 12774, in West Bengal it was 109.
The myth pertaining to the invisibility of caste is nothing new in the state. The rest of India witnessed a strong caste-based mobilisation in the post-independence era, but West Bengal—ruled by the Left Front for more than three decades—hardly observed any formidable Dalit resistance.
In response to the Mandal commission, the longest-serving Chief Minister of the state, Jyoti Basu, once said: “In West Bengal, there are only two castes—rich and poor.” In 1994, the most-read newspaper of the state, Anandabazar Patrika, even questioned the significance of Dalit literature when Bangla Dalit Sahitya Sanstha was formed. However, does such propagation of castelessness actually corroborate the experiences of people? The voices from the margin say otherwise.
Caste in Everyday Life
Dibarkar Das, a college faculty in his mid-40s, still remembers how caste discrimination hugely impacted his childhood memories. Born and brought up in a small village in Birbhum district, Das bore the brunt of everyday caste discrimination. “While I used to play with my upper caste friends in the field, my entry to their houses was strictly restricted,” says Das. Later, when he started giving private tuition, the families of the upper caste students treated him like ‘untouchables'. “Whenever I went to teach, I found their family members removing clothes and other useful stuffs from the room—as if my touch would make them impure,” he adds.
His experience didn’t change much as he went to pursue his higher studies in Kolkata. “Though I got admitted in the unreserved category, their perception of me didn’t change. They never minced any words while doubting my merit,” laments Das.
The experience of Maroona Murmu, currently a faculty at Jadavpur University, shows how caste works even in the ‘so-called’ progressive university spaces. Murmu, belonging to the Santhal community, went to JNU to fulfil her dream of doing research on the social history of the origin and development of the Bishnupur school of classical music in the second half of eighteenth-century Bengal. It was her formal training in vocal music for over a decade-and-a-half that motivated her to carry on the study. But the chairperson of the Centre said to her: “You are a tribal and yet you want to work on high culture? You are not even an insider.”
“Forever an outsider to the classical high culture, it was as though my Adivasi origin had permanently limited the range of what I was allowed to research on. I took up my research on the marginalised other in ‘renaissance’ Bengal, the Bengali Hindu and Brahmo bhadramahila writers,” says Murmu.
From her childhood memories of the second standard when she was asked about her ST status by her teacher to the latest episode of caste violence that she faced at Jadavpur University, her birth identity has always preceded merit. In September 2020, she had to face a vitriolic attack for merely expressing her opinion on the mode of assessment during terminal semester exams and was trolled in social media by over 1,900 people.
“During the initial days of pandemic, where none of us understood the effects that Covid had, my fault was an articulation of my concern that an academic year cannot be more valuable than the life of a student. I was dubbed a “meritless Adivasi” and an inefficient ‘quota’ candidate who need not bother about the importance of an academic year. I had to file a case under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act and it has been almost three years and I am still awaiting social justice,” notes the professor.
While neither Das nor Murmu took up jobs in the reserved category as their parents could provide them with a decent education, for Mistry affirmative actions were the only path to attain social mobility. “It is only because of reservation and supplementary scholarships that I could continue my education. However, I will perhaps not let my children use it if there is no need,” Mistry notes. Besides teaching, he is also currently pursuing his research on the absence of films on Dalits.
The achievements, nonetheless, never bar the Savarna academicians from vilifying him. “When one of my upper caste teachers got to know about my PhD admission, he told his colleague, ‘The day is not far when my maid will do research’. I was hurt, but chose silence,” Mistry adds.
He also emphasises another social cleavage that facilitates caste discrimination in the state—the colour line. Isabel Wilkerson in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents connects race and caste through a comparative study. In the Indian context, it seems to be a novel intervention. But Mistry’s experience speaks to it. “Our skin colour has been a major factor for the Savarna white people to consider us as untouchable. A Dalit may pass as an upper caste if she is white, but for a black person like me, it is impossible to hide the caste identity,” he notes.
A Deliberate Invisibilisation?
Even after so many instances of everyday caste violence, why is there such silence over caste discrimination in the state? Scholars think that the partition played a huge role in dividing the united Namasudra (Dalit) community to several fragments, stripping them off the possibility of mobilisation and hence, assertion. This was coupled with the class politics of left front and the dominance of upper caste Bhadroloks that denied legitimacy to caste-based politics.
Praskanva Sinharay, a scholar on caste in West Bengal, says: “There are a host of reasons for this peculiarity, such as the hegemonic role of the urban, upper caste Bhadralok in all domains of public life that actively silenced debates/discussions on the caste question. Partition of Bengal and fragmentation of Namasudra politics in particular, different interests of different caste groups, the communists’ stress on the class question, the undisputed control of the ‘political party’ in rural politics that eclipsed all other associational assertions for decades.”
Historian Dwaipayan Sen also points out how the politics of Left Front and Bengali elites together invisibilised caste. “Public discourse about caste and caste inequality was undoubtedly invisibility by Bengali caste Hindus of varied political affiliations from the colonial period onwards through the Left Front government,” says the author of The Decline of the Caste Question: Jogendranath Mandal and the Defeat of Dalit Politics in Bengal.
However, Ayan Guha, the author of The Curious Trajectory of Caste in West Bengal Politics, is of the opinion that the 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 mobilisation along the lines of caste.
New Trend in Caste Mobilisation
Notably, in recent times, since the decimation of the Left front government in 2011, the caste question has come upfront in Bengal politics. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tried to woo the largest Dalit sect of the state known as Matuas by mollycoddling with their matriarch Binapani Devi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid his tributes to the founder of the sect Sri Sri Harichand Thakur at Orakandi Thakurbari during his Bangladesh visit in 2021. Matuas primarily supported the TMC and stood with Banerjee giving her political leverage in at least 30 assembly seats; since 2019, the BJP’s passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the promise of permanent citizenship changed the equation. Such active participation of Matuas in the leadership position of different political parties seemed to be a new political turn in Bengal politics.
“The political and cultural assertions of the Matuas from a platform that is not controlled by the upper castes, their negotiations with the state institutions and political parties, participation in electoral politics for representation of community leadership in legislative bodies as well as a distinct vote bank, is what is a new phenomenon in the politics of West Bengal,” Sinharay points out.
However, the caste burden and discontent among Matuas didn’t go away even after gaining certain political powers. Shantanu Thakur, the chief of Matua Mahasangh, currently the Minister of State for Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways of India and an MP from Bangaon, the bastion of Matuas, in 2022 reportedly expressed his disgruntlement over the non-inclusion of Matuas in the important state-level committees of the BJP. In a statement, he said, “I am getting this feeling that those who are at the helm of affairs of the West Bengal BJP do not require me or the support of the Matua community.”
So, even the political alignments, commonly called ‘strategic alliances’, didn’t help Matuas much to whittle down the impact of caste. Guha says: “In West Bengal, caste is a silent factor and not a vocal idiom for ventilation of social and economic interests. Disguising itself into unapparent forms, it now travels through unconsciously inherited social notions and cultural attitudes, which reinforce caste-based cultural typecasting of groups and communities.”
In this backdrop, the myth of casteless Bengal can be debunked only through the experiences of people who carry the trauma in their everyday lives. In the words of Murmu: “The claim that there is ‘no consciousness of caste’ in West Bengal can only be made by those who, with their socio-cultural capital emanating from privileged caste status, have benefitted from it rather than being discriminated against on the basis of graded inequality that caste identity entails.”
Do knowledge and education push them to a better pedestal as Babasaheb Ambedkar once envisaged? Das still tries to decode his experience. “The same friend whose family didn’t let me sit once in their room now invites me frequently. Perhaps, it is my social and financial capital that made them change their mind.” However, thousands like Mistry and Murmu are not so sure. “The language itself is casteist. A Bhadrolok always finds a Chhotolok (lower caste people, a common slur in Bengali) to establish their superiority,” says Mistry.