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.