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Bengal Scenario

Claiming Caste Equality-I

A K Biswas

Caste is perhaps comparable only to  cancer. It’s dreadful until and unless urgently cured by strong intervention. But caste has no antidote. India is the home of caste, ordained by scriptures and preached by venerable sages and saints over ages, poisoning mind and body of everybody—sufferer or beneficiary—professing Hinduism. A section of Goebblesian publicists and propagandists want the lay countrymen to believe caste is dying out, if not already dead. Those who have fallen for such gimmicks have been deluded and the cost has been enormous in terms of social peace, happiness and self-esteem. Bengal has been in the frontline with high decible claim that caste has ceased to exist there. The propagandists are mainly from a minority section, who have nursed ulterior motives to benefit them only most politically as well as socially. Their approach, briefly, is mollifying, language refined and intonation dignified to deceive illiterate, credulous masses.

The dynamics of caste has to be appreciated by demonstrating untouch-ability, deprivation and discrimination there alongside province(s), say Bihar and Orissa, known to be caste-ridden. An ordinary Bihari or Oriya perhaps is unware that his blessed neighbour Bengal had, according to 1911 census, returned larger percentage of untouchables than in his own province. Further proportion of people denied access to Hindu temples was more in Bengal than in Bihar & Orissa. The following Table shows the ground realities of caste dynamics in two provinces. [1]

With matchless cruelty, Bengali upper caste Hindus trampled over the necks of the untouchables in complete disregrad for human dignity. Some of the victims did not surrender to their tormentors. The Census of India in 1901 declared that the descendants of Chandals (renamed Namasudras in 1911) and Pods who converted to Islam in Dacca and Chittagong Divisions aggregated at least nine millions. Only the bhadralok could asnwer who were the oppressors, forcing them to seek refuge under the Islam for protection and liberation from thraldom sanctified by scriptures. It's anybody's guess. But the violators of the untouchables responsible for largescale conversion to Islam do not admit it. The bhadraloks were the actual creators of East Pakistan by converting the province into Muslim majority through conversion of untouchables into Islam.

Many across India are under delusion that the birthplace of towering social reformers, educationists, religious leaders and winners of Nobel prizes cannot be marked and characterized by caste hatred and discrimination. This is utterly wrong. Such belief is solely the result of false propaganda. Example is better than precept. Below are some recent instances:

First Example
Bikas Sardar completed all required formalities and paid Rs 10,900 for admission of his daughter into Kishaloy, nursery section in Jadavpur Vidyapeeth. The guardians who were called for counselling, was supplied a 4-page terms and conditions for admissions of their wards. The Principal Krishna Chakraborty asked Bikas Sardar to read out the terms and conditions of admission. A surprised Bikas wanted to know why he was singled out when no other parents were not subjected to test. "You are a scheduled caste", shot back the insolent lady principal, "I want to see and be sure your daughter is eligible for admission." Bikas refused to take the humiliation and discrimination lying. He demanded refund of the fees, saying that he would not admit his daughter in the school that practiced caste-based discrimination. The school not only did not refund the fees, the principal set the durwan on him to assault and chase the scheduled caste man away. Bikas lodgded a complaint to the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate, Alipore who directed the Calcutta Police Commissioner to file a case u/s 156 Indian Penal Code [2] in Jadavpur Thana against 11 accused including Krishna Chakraborty and investigate the case. Notably, the ACJM did not direct the Police Commissioner to invoke appropriate provisions of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, leaving a gaping hole for the accused to escape the charges which basically are tantamount to untouchability and discrimination against a scheduled caste girl child seeking admission in a school of her choice. [3]

This happened in the heart of Calcutta in September 2013. An executive of the Pratichi Trust funded by Prof Amartya Sen, when contacted, expressed his surprise and ignorance about this incident. The Bengali media, by and large, preferred to ignore such an incident in the metropolitan.

Second Example
The other case, equally illustrative, concerned a school teacher, Nakul Ruidas of Sukanta Smriti Vidyamandir, Bankura district. A leather wroker's son, he was recruited through competitive examinations held by West Bengal School Service Commission. From the day one, he was subjected to all conceivable harassment and humiliation by his collegues. Obviously his caste was the target of insunuation in which the students did not lag behind Nakul's collegues.

Due to illness, once the teacher absented himself from school under due intimation to the authorities. On recovery, when Nakul reported to the school for duties, he was not allowed to join whereupon the distraught teacher moved the Calcutta High Court for direction to the school to redress of his grievances. The High Court ordered the District Inspector of Schools to ensure that the petitoner joined the school; his salaries with arrears were paid within ten days and he did not face any harassment in his workplace. What the petitioner's advocate agitated before the Court was very alarming as it exposed the tip of the iceberg. The Court was told that there were many others like Nakul who were subjected to caste-beased discrimination and harassment.[4] This happened in, February 2010 under a regime that vociferously pretended to be of the Marxist Left. Moreover, the West Bengal School Service Commission under them did not find "suitable" candidates for recruitment in thousands of vacancies reserved for scheduled castes and tribes year after year.

Are further instances necessary to prove the ground realities obtaining in the cultural heaven? What else are the connotations and implications of the incidents cited above other than untouchability, discrimination and hatred against the underdogs? Instances of such dimension regardless of political barrier or dispensation are not rare. The first instance cited above occured under the present regime. The hue of rulers-left, right or centre-makes no difference to the deprived there.

Nobody expects that the state administration would take in either of the cases appropriate and prompt action against the offenders to safeguard and uphold the rights and dignity of the underprivileged vactims, though sonorous chants of self-praise continue aloud saying the state is free from vices of caste.

Caste in their bone marrow
Appointment of Sukumar Mallick, ICS as the Chief Secretary of West Bengal in post-emergency era in late 1970s was greeted with protest demonstrations by unionised employees and pen down strike in Writers Buildings. The agitators were lustily cheered by blistering Bengali media attacks. Prominent journalists like Vivekananda Mukherjee and Barun Sengupta, to note only two, were in the forefront in the campaings. And the State Government under Jyoti Basu bowed down and removed Mallick shortly.

The ICS officer, S Mallick was a Namasudra, a scheduled caste of Bengal.

Deshapran Birendra Nath Sasmal (1881-1934), son of a zamindar of Midnapur and a Bar-at-Law was edcuated in England. Patriotic to the core, "Sasmal assisted C R Das (Chitta Ranjan Das) in organising the Bengal Provincial Swarajya Party and subsequently became its Secretary." In the teeth of opposition of the Indian National Congress, he won election to Calcutta Corporation. "He (Sasmal) aspired to be the Chief Executive of the Calcutta Corporation. But Das feared to offer the post to Sasmal because he assumed that the choice would offend the Kayastha clique of Calcutta". [5]

In the circumstances, a younger Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945) became the CEO of Calcutta Corporation with the blessings of C R Das, who was elected its mayor in 1924.[6] Subhas Bose had disdainfully commented, "Oh! That Keot of Mindapur as CEO of Calcutta Corporation?"[7] Humiliated and angry Sasmal, left Bengal Provincial Congress Committee and went back to his legal practice and took control of local politics in Midnapur.[8] Evidently, an appeased clique, by threats and blackmail, won the day.

Caste either in colonial era or after independence is not anathema to Bengalee bhadralok who pretend to be liberal and unorthodox. It is the result of misinformation campaigns that drove the rest of India to believe that caste is non-existent in Bengal. For one thing caste is avidly courted in Bengal in politics, literature and social life. The year 1905 is marked by partition of the province into East and West Bengal carried out by Governor-General Lord Curzon. A meeting attended by large body of prominent citizens in the Town Hall, Calcutta on March 4, 1905 denounced the British scheme. A memorandum was submitted to the authorities following the said meeting. One of the pleas agitated therein was glorification of caste, though astounding, if not ridiculous to the core.

"A Brahman or a Kayastha of one part of Bengal will not now object to form matrimonial connection with a Brahman or a Kayastha of the other. But, divided by two governments, they will not have opportunities of associating with each other, and all social connections will in due course cease to exist between them." (Paragraph 48)[9]

What a plea! Matrimonial alliances over large parts of India across Hindi speaking states, e. g. Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, etc. never recognized provincial boundaries as any obstacles. This was an exclusivist idea sadly propagated by the enlightened class, bradralok. Why did they exclude Baidya along with the populous depressed and untouchable castes into similar predicament? How come, therefore, such argument did not ever invite unreserved ridicule from sensible people? By flounting caste, the tiny antagonists wanted the British Paramount to kowtow before them. The memorandum landed right into the British Parliament. Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea had introduced the puerile argument in a historical document. His boastful claim, "I had a large hand in drawing up…." this memorial10 is ringing and leaves none in doubt. These are the very people who now display high decible of allergy against caste-tag. To the bhadralok all others Bengalees are "chhotalok" implying mean, useless and base-born.

Such claim and its publicity serves two purposes: The lower social order are afraid to discuss as also disclose one's caste in public under fear of inviting scornful condemnation as uncultured and brute, a common refrain in bhadralok lexicon. The other is to drill a lasting sense of inferiority and horror in the low castes. So feelings and sense of unlimited shame and vulnerability hunted very large section of the Hindus, particularly Bengalees to agitate before colonial Government for change of caste designation with a view to obtain upper status for gaining social respectability. The Baidyas and Kayasthas joined the rush of untouchables, e. g., Bagdi, Hari, Dom, Chandal, Sunri, Chamar, Rajbanshi, to note only few, who submitted memoranda to the census authorities in 1911, 1921 and 1931 in their efforts to improve their social standing in the eyes of the fellow countrymen. Prolonged movement participated by Kayastha landlords, civil servants (including ICS, holding offices as divisional commissioner, district judge, BCS), legal practitioners, writers, journalists, clerks, businessmen etc., was launched to claim Kshatriyahood but without luck.11 Census authorities turned down the cherished pleas of all castes (including Baidya and Kayastha)—save and except two-the Namasudra and Mahishya! They craved before the authorities to raise barrages for protection against cascading hatred from caste(s) above each of them. Indeed low status in caste hierarchy is not only a fear factor, it terrorized (even now do) each and everyone. They are crashed without provocation publicly as well as privately with no remedy.

Public discussions on caste, more-over, have potential for exposing the truth along with its grim ramification plaguing every walk of life. Total monopolization of opportunities in West Bengal by a microscopic minority has blocked all avenues to power and influence for the rest, irrespective of caste or creed. No other state has succeded in blocking upward mobilization of all for so long. The benefits of governance willy-nilly have been accuring to the masses elsewhere slowly but definitely.

New Horizon
"It has been decided to expel Rezzak Mollah from the CPM for serious anti-party activity and for belittling the party's image in public," declared the State office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in a cryptic statement. The Bengalees in West Bengal, barring few ideologcal bigots know, by and large, the reason is different. The statement is bereft of truth, if not a pack of lies.

What have actually irked and upset his bosses are unpardonable uttarences aimed at the very bastion of the rulers over 34 years (1977-2011). The ousted party-card holder was quotd as saying, "My target is to fight the brahmanical order in the mainstream political parties, where the voice of the backward Hindus and Muslims are seldom heard."[12] Only with the exception of Bengali rulers and ruling castes, none would grudge Rezzak. His further salvo was shriller still: "These people have been used by political parties while the Banerjees, Bhattacharjees, Chakrabarties—the upper-caste brahi-mins—called the shots".[13] Unpalatable and bitter though, he can rarely be challenged by any sane observer of Bengali politics and administration. Outside the horizon of myopic privileged class, everyone knows or believes as to who have imperviously monopolised power and authority. West Bengal is ruled by Brahmans, Baidyas and Kayasthas but they do nothing for uplift of the rest, triggering simmering resentment against them.

These are the undenying facts and factors leading to the expulsion of Rezzak Mollah. By targeting them, he committed blasphemy in Bengali heartland. Such volcanic erruption from public forum aiming at the herrenvolks, who have subjugated the majority comprising Bengali scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, backward classes and minorities is rarest in the post-colonial era. But did he warrant to be kicked out? A sitting MLA, Abdur Rezzak Mollah (born in 1945) might not be a leader of all-India stature but he is in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly representing one of its rural constituencies for pretty long period from 1977 uninterruptedly and was a minister since 1981 to 2011. Son of a peasant, Rezzak is definitely popular to his constituents, if victory in all elections held since 1977 is at all any indicator.

He voiced grievances which, though widely prevalent, are never acknowledged by the Bengali aristocratic and elite ruling class of any hue. Without beating about the bush, Rezzak is known to speak out his mind. The occasion of his outburst against his Party was offered by nomination of a candidate for election to Rajya Sabha. The party's favours fell on a kulin Brahmin, who are overrated in public esteem and furiously courted by political parties in Bengal. The outgoing MP, also a Brahman, recommended the said kulin for the slot vacated by him for nomination.[14] This brings to mind the caste syndrome Nirod C Chaudhuri pejoratively portrayed: Banerjee brings in a Chatterjee and a Bose a Mitra. His suggestion was that a Brahman favours another Brahman only, a Kayastha another Kayastha and so on, if cornering of opportunities was concerned. Thanks to nepotism, Nirod Babu landed a job in Defence Accounts Departmet, Calcutta in 1920s, even without submitting an application during colonial era.

Hence Rezzak's accusation against the Communist Party (Marxist) of being trapped in Brahminical appeasement just cannot be questioned or slighted. His declaration to form a political party comprising the marginalized dalit, tribal, backward classes and minorities in West Bengal to fight Assembly election in 2016 is the most unexpected and dreadful challenge essentially for the conglomerate called bhadralok-euphemism for three castes, Brahman, Baidya and Kayastha. If elected to power, he further asserted, the chief minister would be a dalit and deputy chief minister a minority, who have never been trusted with any portfolio of importance. In fact, one would be at pains to recall any discussions aimed at the issues concerning welfare of dalit and tribal community in West Bengal Assembly about last four decades.

A London-based journalist and author has himself a bhadralok, defined his class in down-to-earth realism. "The bhadralok (civilized gentleman) in Calcutta is the most assiduously complex city man in the world. He can be both saturnine and generously hospitable, intellectual and barbaric, civil and outrageously uncouth in the same human frame."[15] To the bhadralok, the world extends right upto the boundaries of Calcutta. So reaction of the privileged club is predictable. The underdogs are, without doubts, familiar with their saturnine, barbaric and outrageously uncouth personality.

A popular leader though, Rezzak incurred displeasure of the appartchik in the high-end of his party hierarchy. The leader has not just embarassed his erstwhile colleagues and followers, he has provoked utter dismay in the bhadralok circles while the educated sections in the marginalised communities have justifiable reasons to cheer him. A widely circulated Bengali daily insinuated that Rezzak, by his accusation, indulged in caste politics. Speaking unassailable truth is derided as caste politics. No adverse notice of caste, however, is taken against the bhadralok by the said media for indulgence if and when their own fortunes, political, social or economic, are promoted! The Bengali media, not long ago, burst into wild songs and dances over his caste as the Brahmin of Keernahar, a village in Birbhum district when the first ever Bengali was elected to the highest office of India.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, for instance, did not entrust any tribal leaders with a Cabinet rank as minister. He had 16 Brahmans, grabbing 48% of his Cabinet comprising 33 ministers. The priestly caste alone accounted for 8-times more than their proportionate share of state population. As high as 69% of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya Cabinet was packed with Brahman, Baidya and Kayastha, who formed 6.5% of population of West Bengal. His cabinet boasted of two junior tribal ministers. The tribal communities are 6% of West Bengal population. Nonetheless the bhardalok see no wrong in such blind monopolisation of power in a minority and none paint themselves as casteist.

Of 294 MLAs in the West Bengal Assembly, 64 were Kayasthas, as against 58 Brahmans during Jyoti Basu's last term. The trend, however, got reversed during Buddhadeb Bhattacharya with more Brahman MLAs than Kayasthas. In passing, it is noted, the present Cabinet also boasts of 16 Brahman ministers and a solitary tribal leader. An oppressive minority has colonised West Bengal, converting democracy into their obedient donkey. They have been doing what is most essential for perpetuating themselves in position of power and authority. Brazilian philosopher and educationist Paulo Friere correctly diagnosed the attitude and strategy of such minority with down-to-earth vision: "As the oppressive minority subordinates and dominates the majority, it must divide in order to remain in power. The minority cannot allow the luxury of tolerating the unification of the people, which would undoubtedly signify a serious threat to their own Hegemony….Concept such as unity, organization and struggle are immediately lebelled as dangerous."[16]

The masses, reposing their faith and confidence in their leaders, have ultimately dscovered that they have actually been used as ladders and exploited in keeping them in power perpetually with no benefits accruing to them. More importantly, the masses not only stand badly divided but they fight dangerously also amongst themselves leading often to bloodbath, which has become the hallmark of political engineering in the bhadralokdom. The strategy behind politically engineered killings ensures that a member of minority community kills a fellow community member, giving the rulers huge space to claim with great elan that the state is free from communal virus and violence, thanks to their enlighteted rule. The scheduled castes similarly kill scheduled castes and tribal kills tribal. Rarely, if ever, a bhadralok gets involved in such strifes and is even bruised, the consequence is predictable: the whole administration, political machinery and bhadralok media become supersensitive and hyper-active in ensuring the victim justice with alacrity. Most, if not all, victims of police bullets, lathi charges and custodial murders in the state belong to the people who are subordinated and subjugated. Of course, this is, by and large, an all-India feature. No all-India study has been carried out to ascertain the extent of abuse of administrative powers and violation of human rights by communtiy, caste or tribes. However a limited survey undertaken by a UN Working Group of Human Rights and Working Group on Human Rights in India covering "47 districts over a period of more than two years shows that on an average 1.8 million people are victims of police torture and violence in India every year."[17] The majority of the victims, if one carefully looks at occasional media reports, appear to belong to the dalits, tribals and, minorities who have no protectors nor well-wishers in high places to intervene in highhanded-ness against them. According to Asian Centre for Human Rights, West Bengal has captured fourth position in deaths in police custody. "During 2001-2010, Maharashtra recorded the highest number of deaths in police custody with 250 deaths; followed by Uttar Pradesh (174); Gujarat (134); Andhra Pradesh (109); West Bengal (98); Tamil Nadu (95)".[18] During 2001-2010, 12,727 deaths in judicial custody took place. Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest number of deaths in judicial custody with 2171 deaths, followed by Bihar (1512); Maharashtra (1176); Andhra Pradesh (1037); Tamil Nadu (744); Punjab (739); West Bengal (601).[19] Police brutalities perpetrated on hapless victims do not jell with the angelical image the Bengali ruling elite claims.

Long ago, the shape of things obtaining in West Bengal today was predicted by Lord Ripon, Governor-General of India in his Convocation address to Calcutta University in 1882. "It is not desirable in any country to have a small highly educated class brought into contact with large uneducated masses (….) and that there should be no sharp line drawn between the educated few and the ignorant and untrained many."[20] The socio-political consequences and costs of a small highly educated, self-serving and scheming class in commanding heights are enormous for those-the illiterate, ill-educated and credulous masses-under them. West Bengal under bhadralok domination is a shinning instance. The rulers since 1947 in general and in last three and half decades have brazenly proved that they have brought the entire population under their feet, crashing mercilessly. They consider none save and except themselves fit to handle any office in public life and administrative domain. They belive they are alone worthy and without parallel. This is a fascist attitude and proclivity.

The demography of West Bengal is most suitable for the idea propagated by the ousted leader Rezzak to bring down domination by the clique in place since 1947. Where does exactly lie the intrinsic strength for forming a political party of the deprived and discriminated communities? Does a party of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, backward castes and minorities seem feasible, if formed to contest next elections? Is such a mobilisation viable at all? West Bengal has the largest Muslim population, 23.6%, which no state can match. Bengali scheduled castes account for 23.6%, second only to Punjab with 28%. The tribal communities account for 6%. The backward castes if added to them, dream of the herrenvolks for holding power any longer may well-nigh become impossible, if not a nightmare. Deprived, discriminated and marginalised citizens have every right to fight for self-determination, for bringing an end to their sufferings and for ameliorating their fate in democratic manner. What actually is in place in West Bengal is antithetical to democracy. The self-service of a small class under pretension for public service thereby has to come to an end for greater good.

References:
1.      A K Biswas, Understanding Bihar, Blumoon Books, Delhi, Secod edition, 2001, p. 218.
2.     Section 156 in The Indian Penal Code, 1860 reads:
"Liability of agent of owner or occupier for whose benefit riot is committed.- Whenever a riot is committed for the benefit or on behalf of any person who is the owner or occupier of any land respecting which such riot takes place, or who claims any interest in such land, or in the subject of any dispute which gave rise to the riot, or who has accepted or derived any benefit therefrom, the agent or manager of such person shall be punishable with fine, if such agent or manager, having reason to believe that such riot was likely to be committed, or that the unlawful assembly by which such riot was committed was likely to be held, shall not use all lawful means in his power to prevent such riot or assembly from taking place and for suppressing and dispersing the same."
3.      Khabor 365 Days, a Bengali Daily, Kolikata, Friday 20 September 2013. p. 3.
4.     Ananda Bazar Patrika, February 4, 2010.
5.     http://www.banglapedia.Org/HT/S 0146.htm
The clique had campaigned against Birendra Nath Sasmal and conviced Basanti Devi, wife of Chittaranjan Das against his appointment as CEO. She influenced her husband and the Mahisya was eased out of the arena despite all his qualities and sacrifices for patriotic causes.
6.     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subhas_Chandra_Bose
7.     In 1992, Asok Mitra, ICS who was a prolific writer and scholar disclosed this in a Seminar on education to mark Ambedkar Centenary Celebrations in Mahabodhi Society Hall, Calcutta. This essayist was present there. All those present were shocked at the disclosure by an unassailable authority of Mitra's stature who was interalia the census commissioner of India in 1961.
8.      http://www.banglapedia.org/HT/S0146.htm
9.     Nityapriya Ghosh & Ashoke Kumar Mukherjee, Partition of Bengal, 1905-1911, Sahitya Samsad, Calcutta, February 2005, Calcutta, p. 37.
10.    S N Banerjea, A Nation in Making, OUP, 1925, p. 163.
11.     In 1911 census, the number of mumeranda by various castes including Baidyas and Kayasthas of Bengal and Babhan (now called Bhumihar) of Bihar were so large that its total weight was no less than 1½ maunds.
12.    The Times of India, January 5, 2014, news under caption, "Abdur Rezzak Mollah's distance with CPM grows."
13.    Ibid.
14.    Nirode C Choudhuri aptly observed this syndrome in Bengal.
15.    Sasthi Brata (Chakravarti), India: The perpetual paradox, 1986, Rupa & Co., p. 98.
16.    Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Books, 1972, p. 111.
17.    Times of India, June 28, 2012, news captioned , "43 die in police custody daily: UN Study"".
18.    Asian Centre for Human Rights press; release of 21 November 2011. http://www.achrweb.org/press/2011/IND07-2011.html
19.    Ibid.
20.    Speeches and Unpublished Resolutions of Lord Ripon edited by Ramachandra Palit, Calcutta, 1882, p. 286.

Table
Showing Hindu population and indices of human dignity in Bengal and Bihar & Orissa in 1911

Sl. Hindu    Bengal Bihar & Orissa
1
Hindu returned
  20945379
27689274
2
Untouchables
6697070
7927577
3
Access to temple denied
9589930
9966444
4
Percentage of untouchables on total Hindus
31.97%
28.60%
5
Percentage of people denied access to temple on total Hindus
45.78%
35.99%

Frontier
Vol. 46, No. 45, May 18 -24, 2014