Caste vs Religion

Why Caste Politics Failed in Bengal

Ayan Guha

The Namasudras were the main actors of caste politics in undivided Bengal. However, in post-colonial West Bengal the Namasudra movement miserably failed to fulfil its erstwhile promise and possibilities and with the decline of the Namasudra movement caste politics failed to take off in any significant manner. The partition of Bengal in 1947 to a great extent was responsible for the decline of Namasudra movement. After partition millions of Hindus migrated from the eastern part of Bengal to its western part. In initial stages few lower caste people could manage to migrate since they lacked necessary means to cope with immediate dislocation. However, gradually they also moved to India.

When the Namasudras migrated to India their social consciousness had already undergone a serious transformation. This transformation is key to the understanding of their reluctance to articulate caste based political demands in post-colonial political scenerio. In the decade following partition the traumatic and violent experiences of partition for both the Hindus and the Muslims created an atmosphere of intense communal polarization. With growing communal polarization and frequent communal clashes Muslims replaced caste Hindus as the main adversary in the Namasudra consciousness. They now saw themselves primarily as Hindus, pitted against their projected other—the Muslims. This collapsed the difference between outcastes and caste Hindus in the dalit consciousness. This change in their political outlook is the key to understanding the absence of caste based interest and grievance articulation in the initial decades after partition in 1947. Thus, partition violence and refugee influx had led to a "rephrasing of the idioms of victimhood and resistance, placing less emphasis on caste and focusing more on the predicament of migration and the struggles of the refugees". As a result, the public domain rejected caste as a dominant language of marginalization in favour of the language of religion. Thus, a situation was created in which religious division continually frustrated and obscured caste divisions for a long period to come.

However, such an atmosphere of communal polarization could not last endlessly. But caste politics still failed to revive itself. With the advent of organized left politics the field of political contestation both at discursive and pragmatic levels was structured and configured in a manner that caste was relegated to a situation of political insignificance and irrelevance. First of all, the Communists due to their ideological compulsions proved to be the loudest in proclaiming the irrelevance of caste in the struggles of the downtrodden. For the Left Front of West Bengal just like any Communist political formation class was a more relevant, progressive and legitimate category while the question of caste was only a part of superstructure. Jyoti Basu, the ex-Chief Minister of West Bengal in his reply to the Mandal Commission, stated that in West Bengal there were only two castes: the rich and the poor. Moreover, there were practical considerations too. The leadership of the Left parties almost exclusively belonged to the three upper castes of Bengal, i.e. Brahmins, Kayastha and Baidya. As a result, the Left Front had vested interests in making the language of caste irrelevant in order to sustain an order of hegemonic control of the upper castes. It is in this context that the dominant paradigm of class suppressed all community affiliations, giving the appearance that the caste question had already been resolved in post- colonial West Bengal. Under such circumstances the "Party" became the key institution to implement the new politics of class. Every other social institution such as caste council or religious assembly was either eliminated or subordinated to the overarching authority of the Party. According to S K Mishra, currently the West Bengal state CPM Secretary the CPM basically focused on two objectives which were to "bring about a change in the correlation of caste forces in favour of the poor and working people" and to raise class- consciousness through struggle over development. Thus, it hoped to approach politics through the prism of class, not caste.

However, it is debatable as to whether the CPI-M approached the question of politics solely through the prism of class. According to Atul Kohli over the years the ideological orientation of the CPI-M changed from revolutionary to reformist direction. However, class based mobilization though limited in scope and less polarizing in character was pursued with some vigour. The CPI-M was largely dominated by ritually pure middle class leadership and the electoral calculations also had to be kept in mind. As a result, like a traditional and orthodox political party the CPM did not focus its attention of the extreme rungs of the rural hierarchy. It tried to build an all inclusive alliance of all rural classes minus the large landowners or jotedars. The CPI-M functioning within the constraints of electoral politics had to tone down militancy of class politics and had to rely on the inclusive category of 'peasant class' without any internal differentiation. Consequently, the unity between the middle peasants on the one hand and agricultural labourers and sharecroppers on the other hand was emphasized. At the Conference of All India Kishan Sabha of 1982 H K Surjeet said "without raising the demands of the peasantry as a whole, including rich and middle peasants, and without merging the different currents into one, we can neither advance towards the agrarian revolution nor will we be able to raise the movement to the level of land occupation". After the second consecutive victory of the Left Front it was also declared by the West Bengal Pradesh Kishan Sabha that the victory would have never been possible without the support of an influential section of the middle peasants. As a result, during land grab and land distribution only landlords were targeted while the middle and rich peasants were left off the hook. After the abolition of Zamindari system the class contradictions between the middle peasants who used hired labour on one hand and the agricultural labourers working on the land of the middle and rich peasants could surface on the issue of agricultural wages. However, such a possibility vas largely averted. The CPM through its politicized Panchayat excelled in what may be called a consensus evoking unifying politics of mediation between various sectional interests which on one hand suppressed such class contradictions and on the other hand kept the class based peasant unity intact to a large extent through careful use of rhetoric, propaganda and persuasion.

Thus, the inclusive category of peasant class was discovered as a unit of electoral mobilization and the entire mobilization pattern was given a class oriented direction. In such a political scenario caste did not matter much even though there was a great deal of overlap between caste and class in the sense that generally the lower classes tend to belong to the lower caste category and upper classes tend to belong to the upper caste category. Being subjected to the class politics of mediation the lower castes saw themselves primarily as peasants and not as dalits. In the organized political domain the leftist rhetoric of electoral mobilization almost exclusively focused on the problems of the broad category of proletarian class within which the dalits were accommodated either as landless labourers or poor workers. As a result inclusion in the broad category of peasant class became the locus of conscious identification for the ritually poor middle peasants as well as dalit agricultural workers and provided them an orientation to act together out of common economic interests and the dalits also saw their problems as emanating not from their historically low social and ritual status but from poverty, ignorance and other hard economic realities faced by them.

Most importantly, they never attempted to create an independent political platform nor attempted to acquire leadership position within the party despite the overwhelming dominance of the party by the upper caste people. Therefore, operation of upper caste dominance with hegemony during the left rule to which the lower caste people seemingly accommodated and consented can't be ruled out. The social order was dominated by the upper caste intelligentsia at all levels but its upper caste character was not considered a hindrance to realizing the goal of an egalitarian society by the dalit masses as the ruling elite claimed their superiority on the basis of their education and ideology, not on the basis of their caste or wealth. The old order of the landlords was replaced by the new institutional mechanism of the panchayats but this did not enable the poor dalit farmers to the position of leadership. As education was necessary to grasp the government rules and regulations in order to handle the newly set up rural institutional mechanism, an educated upper caste elite took over the new positions of leadership in the rural society. At the village level, this new elite mostly comprised of local school teachers who were trusted and respected by people belonging to different social segments by virtue of being endowed with cultural and moral capital. As a result, the poor landless farmers did not oppose the leftist agenda to gain control of the entire society in the name of the poorer class by foreshadowing the role and autonomy of the communities. All these factors combined together to banish caste based identity politics from the matrix of probabilities at the macro level of organized political sphere.

Today with the increasing decline of the Left political forces in the state it is argued that 'a new politics of caste' is going to emerge. It is important to understand whether with the electoral decline of the Left there has occurred any fundamental change in the socio-political configuration that can facilitate the rise of caste politics at the big stage of electoral politics. In this connection, it should be reminded that caste as a political factor in West Bengal has historically faced certain handicaps which still remains in force.

Though there are a large number of castes but unlike the Hindi belt there is less possibility of one middle or lower caste to dominate a large area. There are no castes comparable to the Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh, Jats in Haryana, Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka, or the Kammas and the Reddis in Andhra Pradesh. Only in parts of a few districts certain castes enjoy some dominance because of their numerical preponderance such as Rajbanshis in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri district, the Mahisyas in Midnapore district and the Mahatos in Purulia district. Moreover, in terms of landholding no caste can be termed 'dominant' across the length and breadth of the state. The upper castes such as Brahmans and Kayasthas are concentrated in certain districts and hold large amounts of land there. However, in other districts landownership is possessed primarily by lower castes such as Sadgops, Namasudras, Aguris and Kaivartas. Such a system of land distribution has prevented crystallization of political demands along caste lines.

Moreover, in Bengal, Brahminical Hinduism spread its tentacles much later than in other parts of North India. As a result, the entrenchment of the caste system was both delayed and weakened, buffeted by the influence of Buddhism, Jainism and other reformist Hindu sects. Untouchability was not rigidly practiced in strict ritual sense but was used only as a means by the upper castes to assert social authority and power. It was more a political metaphor associated to power dynamics than a purely ritualistic concept. Moreover, caste did not act as an insurmountable barrier to social mobility as one could become a Bhadralok through professional success and educational attainments irrespective of his or her caste background. Therefore historically caste system was less rigorous and caste consciousness was relatively weak in Bengal.

Last but not the least the political culture of the state has shown a clear thrust towards secular left liberal political culture which does not augur well for caste based electoral mobilization. The patronization of a secular-leftist ideology over the years has created a situation where the secular leftist culture has come to possess an enormous influence over popular consciousness which has the potential to impose serious constraints on caste based political agenda and actions. Such a cultural frame has proved immensely compatible with the apparent civility of the dominant Bhadralok which in its bid for progressive politics has so far resisted modes of political mobilization which appeal to primordial identities. The Bhadralok culture is still well fortified. When values become entrenched and embedded in a society they become a social force in their own right. Under such circumstances, the political regime change does not lead to significant alterations in the existing political discourse. As a result, the basic structure of the long held political tradition remains intact. Therefore, it would be mistake to underestimate the significance of the long tradition of secular and radical politics of West Bengal. So, the electoral decline of the left should not be confused with the decline of a well entrenched and long cherished political and cultural tradition. That is the reason why there is still a deep hangover of a secular leftist political culture in West Bengal. As a result, in all probability caste based identity politics will continue to face the some kind of legitimacy crisis in the future too. Under such circumstances, a sustained caste based political assertion seems a distant possibility.

A historical study of West Bengal politics reveals that caste has been a victim of circumstances which have privileged discourses such as religion, nation and class over that of caste. However, a more critical analysis will also point out a host of socio-political factors peculiar to the social processes and political culture of the state. If one takes into account such factors one shall be able to understand that the factors and conditions which resulted in the absence of caste in the organized domain of politics seem to be existing in the same form in the current socio-political system and processes. Unless the fundamental, structural and systematic logic which drive the engines of society and politics of the state is altered, caste as a factor is likely to remain marginal in the politics of the state.

Vol. 49, No.2, Jul 17 - 23, 2016