ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Demystifying Caste in Bengal

Although caste is a crucial reality in West Bengal, a declining Dalit movement post partition, the neglect of caste questions by the Left Front, and the failure of forging a broader Dalit solidarity due to fragmented Dalit constituencies have led to the invisibility of caste in the politics of the state.

“Bengalis have no understanding of caste,” Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd once said in an interview in Kolkata (Bhattacharya 2018). Although caste has an important role in the social and political domain of West Bengal, the Bengali bhadralok does not seem to have any ­understanding of the role of caste. Apart from Shepherd, several other scholars have also doubted the dominant narrative of the absence of caste in West Bengal’s politics. Ashok Mitra wrote, “there must be something odd about a state which, professedly so secular and anti-sectarian, has yet not produced a single Jagjivan Ram, Kamraj, Buta Singh or Rafi Ahmed Kidwai to hold major portfolio” (Sen 2018b). Analysing the 2009 general elections, Ashis Nandy wrote that despite a communist state government for three decades, “West Bengal is one state in ­India, for instance, where you cannot even dream of having a Dalit chief minister” (Sen 2018a). One of the popular discourses among the elite Bengali bhadralok is that West Bengal is “casteless” and “exceptional” compared to other states. This sense of uniqueness and ­departure from the rest of India forms one of the features of the Bengali identity. It is not considered civil to bring up issues related to caste in polite urban conversation as these discussions seem provocative and rude for the gentle casteless society (Chatterjee 2015).

In West Bengal, Dalits comprise 23.51% of the total population, the third highest Dalit population among Indian states (Table 1). As much as 10.66% of the entire Dalit population of India lives in West Bengal, the second highest on a pan-­India level (Table 1). Despite one of the largest Dalit populations in India and a significant experience of Dalit mobilisation in the late colonial period (Sen 2018b: 22), caste was never a determinant political category in the electoral realm. None of the major political parties championed the cause of any caste groups (Chandra et al 2015), and caste was never an electoral issue for the two dominant political parties, the Congress and the Left Front (Chatterjee 2012). In this context, the question arises: Does caste not matter in the current socio-economic and political landscape of West Bengal?

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Updated On : 16th Jan, 2021

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