The Importance of Caste in Bengal

Whether caste emerges as a relevant category in the politics of West Bengal depends crucially on how one defines "politics" and how one studies it. A response to Praskanva Sinharay, "A New Politics of Caste", EPW, 25 August 2012.
Uday Chandra ( is at the department of political science, Yale University, USA and Kenneth Bo Nielsen ( is at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo, Norway.
The authors would like to thank Nate Roberts, Alpa Shah, Stig Toft Madsen, Dilip Menon, Akshay Mangla, and Lipika Kamra for d­iscussing the ideas in this essay with them. Alpa Shah, Stig Toft Madsen, Mridu Rai and Nate Roberts read this essay carefully and s­uggested improvements that have spared us some egregious errors.
Praskanva Sinharay (2012: 26) restates the oft-heard proposition that caste does not matter much in West Bengal politics:
The politics of West Bengal, compared to other states of India, had been truly unique, particularly with regard to the caste question. Caste was considered antagonistic to ‘modern’ politics; it never had been a determinant category in the electoral politics of the province.
That is, at least not until the Matuas recently stormed the political scene and changed that. This “long-held political myth” (Roy 2012: 948) about the irrelevance of caste in West Bengal derives its potency from the apparent lack of aggregation of caste interests in state elections (Sinharay 2012: 26) and the ostensible “depth of class feeling” and strength of the Left parties “cutting across ­divisions of caste and community” (Chatterjee 1997: 69).
Nationalist Myth
However, there are good reasons to ­rethink the proposition that caste did not matter to politics in West Bengal, electorally or otherwise. As Partha Chatterjee (1997: 83, 86) rightly notes, in the “apparently uninstitutionalised world of what may be called politics among the people”, caste categories have continued to provide many of the basic signifying terms through which collective identities and social relations are still perceived. This is not so different from other states where political parties have coalesced diverse communities along caste lines, and where the impact of caste on organised politics is obvious. In states like West Bengal, where the caste question does not formally dominate party politics, we may be mistaken to conclude that caste loyalties have disappeared from popular consciousness (Chatterjee 1997: 84). There may, indeed, be a contrast between politics in West Bengal and in other north Indian states, which arises primarily from the dominance of the upper-caste Hindu middle-classes, the bhadralok. But this contrast does not necessarily extend to the level of popular ideology or consciousness (Chatterjee 1997: 86).
This disjuncture between the bha­dra­lok and its others is neither new nor ­irrelevant to understanding politics and society in West Bengal today. As early as the 1880s, subordinated caste groups such as the Namasudras organised them­selves in ritual and economic spheres against the upper-caste bhadralok (Band­yopadhyay 2011: 35-48). The conscious materialism of the Matua cult contrasted starkly with Ramakrishna’s other-worldly exhortations against work (kaaj) and wealth (kanchan) (Sarkar 1992). Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (2011: xi), author of a magisterial history of social protest by the Namasudras of Bengal, thus attacks “the powerful political myth that caste did not matter in this part of the subcontinent”. Even during the swadeshi and nationalist movements in late colonial Bengal, lower-caste and adivasi groups did not make common cause with the ­bha­dralok. Hence
[t]hat the whole of Bengal Presidency supported the Bhadralok-sponsored renaissance and the subsequent phenomenon of Swadeshi nationalism is a myth perpetrated by many writers (Aloysius 1998: 69).
Bhadralok Blinds
Demythologising dominant bhadralok discourses in and outside academia, it is worth recognising that caste in West Bengal, just as elsewhere in India, is as much a political-economic reality as a ritual one. If anything, the situation in West Bengal is worse than elsewhere in India where caste-based political movements have posed a significant challenge to the traditional dominance of brahmins and other upper castes over the 20th century. Unlike in neighbouring Bihar or far-away Tamil Nadu, the “domination of the modern liberal bhadralok over the public life of [West] Bengal” remains intact today (Sinharay 2012: 26).
In postcolonial West Bengal, even groups such as the Namasudras have been compelled to play by bhadralok rules governing emulation, acculturation and ­assimilation, albeit in pursuit of their own socio-economic ends (Bandyopadhyay 2011: 240-46). Because caste has always been a matter of agrarian political-economic relations, standard upper-caste complaints about the “politicisation of caste” in the democratic public sphere must be recognised as “every bit as political and socially locatable as the Dalit activism they decry” (Roberts 2008: 463). Given the extremely limited scope of caste mobilisation in West Bengal, bhadralok complaints about caste politics reveal a curiously reactionary stance.
The social implications of this stance, within which we must contextualise the recent resurgence of the Matua Maha­sangha, are compounded by the pre­ponderance of the bhadralok in academia and politics. As Aloysius (1998: 69) ­explains, “upper caste consciousness is so dominant among the intelligentsia that little research has been done on the egalitarian aspirations emanating from the traditionally depressed communities”. Just as the upper-caste character of the Indian middle classes renders it a t­aboo for them to undertake manual l­abour, bhadralok intellectuals conducting rigorous field research in West Bengal are few and far between.
Dominant Ideology, Dominant Caste
The few bhadralok anthropologists with considerable fieldwork experience in r­ural West Bengal are, of course, well aware of the persistence of caste in local power relations, even under the Left Front. For instance, Dayabati Roy’s (2012) recent fieldwork finds caste hierarchies widespread in village society and demonstrates the entrenchment of a caste consciousness among the upper- and middle-caste leaders and cronies of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)]. Similarly, Mukulika Banerjee’s (2010) case-study of the CPI(M)’s “Comrades” in Birbhum shows how a local party boss from the dominant Syed caste in the village commands the loyalty of lower-caste Muslims such as Sheikhs and Pathans. This is hardly surprising given the social origins of bhadralok or madhyabitta Marxism in the early 20th century Bengal (Dasgupta 2005).
Since the 1930s, the politics of bhadra­lok Marxism was, as much as that of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha, an upper-caste Hindu alternative to a weak, declining Congress in the province (Galla­gher 1973). It is in this political scenario that we must locate the accomodationist turn in Namasudra and other lower-caste politics before decolonisation and under Congress, United Front, and CPI(M) governments in postcolonial West Bengal.
Beyond bhadralok circles, too, anthropologists of rural West Bengal have repeatedly underscored the limited social transformation wrought by the CPI(M) in a society where caste remains an everyday reality. Arild Ruud has, for example, examined in great detail how the Marxist penetration of rural Bengal did not lead to any deeper revolution in local perceptions of power and influence as in, say, postcolonial Bihar (Kunnath 2012). Ruud (1994) suggests that, although the Marxist movement may have mobilis­ed  the masses, particularly lower-caste groups, it nonetheless behaved and was perceived as a traditional patron (albeit a more just and potent one than older patrons). Elsewhere, Ruud (2003: 146) has demonstrated that local rural res­ponses to the Marxist message were generally influenced by local histories and experiences, inflected by caste relations and stereotypes. Hence, the dominant ideology of village society in West Bengal remains one of inequality, hierarchy and rank, separateness and distinction (Davis 1983).
It is in this light that we can appreciate Kenneth Bo Nielsen’s (forthcoming) recent study of the Singur movement, which demonstrates how pre-existing hierarchical relations between middle-caste chasi – with positions of influence in the local Trinamool Congress – and scheduled caste agricultural labourers (khet majur) transplanted themselves into the movement’s structure and leadership. We cannot, therefore, treat the apparent resurgence of Matua mobilisation in isolation from both older and more recent sociopolitical trends in r­ural West Bengal. Neither should we discount the significant ethnographic evidence that shows that caste was and remains significant in village politics, though its workings may have changed during the decades of Communist rule.
The myth that caste does not matter in state politics can only be sustained if one insists, myopically, on seeing aggregate election data – where major parties do not have identifiable caste bases – as the only bona fide indicator of popular ­political behaviour. But, even here, the preponderance of bhadralok in the leadership structures of all major parties should set alarm bells ringing. If West Bengal is, in any sense, an exception to wider Indian realities of caste, it is in the continued dominance of the upper-caste bhadralok over the rest of the society.
Caste remains, if not an issue, then certainly a political resource in West Bengal politics (Lama-Rewal 2009: 377). This is less widely acknowledged than it ought to be for both methodological and political reasons. In situ, party cadres, leaders, and legislators across the ideological spectrum typically pretend not to know the caste of their colleagues, nor even their own, beyond lump categories such as upper caste or scheduled caste (Lama-Rewal 2009: 363). If one’s study of politics relies heavily on interviews of this kind, one may indeed infer that caste matters little in state politics. If, however, one adopts a critical ethnographic approach, caste is likely to figure much more prominently as a cate­gory that shapes local relations of power and influence. While the former approach dominates the study of West Bengal politics, the latter looks far more promising to us.
Partha Chatterjee (2012: 49) has recently claimed that Subaltern Studies spearheaded an ethnographic turn in I­ndian historiography. But, to date, none of the overwhelmingly upper-caste Hindu bhadralok who founded the collective has undertaken serious ethnographic r­esearch, confining their writings to i­mpressionistic claims about subaltern world views (Chakrabarty 1992; Kaviraj 1997; cf Rodrigues 2009). If anthropo­logy is still the science that chases myth, it certainly seems to have its work cut out in West Bengal.
Aloysius, G (1998): Nationalism without a Nation in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).
Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar (2011): Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India: The Namasudras of Bengal, 1872-1947(New Delhi: Oxford University Press).
Banerjee, Mukulika (2010): “Leadership and Political Work” in Pamela Price and Arild Engelsen Ruud (ed.), Power and Influence in India: Bosses, Lords and Captains (New Delhi: Oxford ­University Press).
Chakrabarty, Dipesh (1992): “Of Garbage, Modernity and the Citizen’s Gaze”, Economic & Political Weekly, 27 (10-11): 541-47.
Chatterjee, Partha (1997): The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).
– (2012): “After Subaltern Studies”, Economic & Political Weekly, 47 (35): 44-49.
Dasgupta, Rajarshi (2005): “Rhyming Revolution: Marxism and Culture in Colonial Bengal”, Studies in History, 21 (1): 79-98.
Davis, Marvin (1983): Rank and Rivalry: The Politics of Inequality in Rural West Bengal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Gallagher, John (1973): “Congress in Decline: Bengal, 1930 to 1939”, Modern Asian Studies, 7 (3): 589-645.
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Nielsen, Kenneth Bo (forthcoming): “Managing ‘Communities’ of Resistance: Negotiating Caste and Class in an Anti-Land Acquisition Movement in West Bengal” in Uday Chandra and Daniel Taghioff (ed.), Staking Claims: The Politics of Social Movements in Contemporary Rural India (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Roberts, Nathaniel P (2008): “Caste, Anthropology of” in William S Darity (ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 1 (New York: Macmillan Reference USA).
Rodrigues, Valerian (2009): “Untouchability, Filth, and the Public Domain” in Gopal Guru (ed.), Humiliation: Claims and Context (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).
Roy, Dayabati (2012): “Caste and Power: An Ethnography in West Bengal, India”, Modern Asian Studies, 46 (4): 947-74.
Ruud, Arild Engelsen (1994): “Land and Power: The Marxist Conquest of Rural Bengal”, Modern Asian Studies, 28 (2): 357-80.
– (2003): Poetics of Village Politics: The Making of West Bengal’s Rural Communism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).
Sarkar, Sumit (1992): “‘Kaliyuga’, ‘Chakri’ and ‘Bhakti’: Ramakrishna and His Times”, Economic & Political Weekly, 27 (29): 1543-59 and 1561-66.
Sinharay, Praskanva (2012): “A New Politics of Caste”, Economic & Political Weekly, 47 (34): 26-27.


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