May 12, 2021

Why Bengal is Speaking About Castes This Election Season



“I can’t take this anymore,” Chuni Kotal informed her family members days earlier than she died by suicide at a hostel in West Midnapore in August 1992.

Kotal was a Dalit Adivasi who in 1985 earned the excellence of changing into the primary lady graduate from the Lodha Shabar tribe. She took a job as a hostel superintendent, however bother started whereas she was pursuing a grasp’s diploma at Vidyasgar College.

She was insulted for her “neechu jaat (decrease caste)”, subjected to blatant discrimination and confronted casteist slurs. Kotal couldn’t take it anymore.

“She was simply 27 years previous and struggling together with her caste id. It was a tragic incident…She was humiliated throughout her increased research due to her caste,” says Mrinal, her nephew.

Mrinal, who has began the Chuni Kotal Charitable Belief (it really works to advertise schooling amongst tribal folks), says Kotal was not the one one to face such discrimination in West Bengal, which has been historically perceived to be a state having minimal affect of caste on its polity and society.

“There are a lot of from the tribal and decrease caste communities who’re nonetheless going through discrimination…Even politicians are focusing on us for his or her vote financial institution politics,” Mrinal provides.

Kotal’s dying despatched shock waves throughout Bengal, producing heated debates within the state’s socio-political circles dominated by the “bhadralok (gentleman)”. There have been protest rallies on streets. However because the mud settled on the problem, the caste debate took a again seat as soon as once more.

In keeping with observers, the undercurrent of caste has all the time been there in Bengal, however that by no means swept the centre stage of politics on this jap state. Till just lately. Specialists and analysts say host of causes, together with the altering socio-cultural panorama, have catapulted the caste debate to the mainstream on this election season.

CASTE OR CLASS?

In keeping with observers, the Left Entrance, which dominated Bengal from 1977 to 2011, mobilised the backward sections for political functions, however not within the title of caste. The communists tried empowering the decrease castes towards the social elite and the rich, who they known as class enemies.

In a approach, this class stress took a toll on Bengal’s improvement and economic system in the long term with many industries transferring away from the state, particularly resulting from strikes and protests by labour unions, which have been dominated by decrease castes.

“Left Entrance, or to some extent the Congress (which dominated Bengal earlier than the Left), had mobilised castes by ridiculing elites in rural Bengal. They performed politics primarily based on…economic system and everyone knows what occurred after that…resulting from labour unions points and strikes,” says Debi Chatterjee, a researcher in caste politics and a former professor of worldwide relations on the prestigious Jadavpur College in Kolkata.

The Left empowered rural Dalits and tribal folks, who outnumbered rural elites, by attempting to deliver decrease caste teams below the widespread umbrellas of para (locality) golf equipment and small village committees. They have been additionally given decision-making powers in some issues. Thus, the Left achieved main political good points with out segregating folks primarily based on their castes.

“For many years, matrimonial pages of vernacular dailies in Bengal have silently spoken in regards to the caste issue on this cultural capital of India. The caste issue was all the time there in Bengal, however they (the Left) mobilised socially oppressed folks cleverly, differently…,” Chatterjee mentioned.

In keeping with Chatterjee, the problem is now overtly mentioned as a result of the decrease caste teams, particularly the educated new era, have gotten vocal and assertive about their rights. “It’s forcing events to chalk out methods to woo them overtly.”

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee breached the Left citadel in 2011, heralding a brand new period in Bengal politics. Her Trinamool Congress (TMC) rode to energy with the backing of social teams akin to Matuas, Rajbonshis, Kamtapuris, Gorkhas, Santhals, Lodha Shabars, Mundas, Bagdis and Bauris, amongst others. Her authorities has delivered 1.eight million caste certificates as a part of the flagship Duare Sarkar (authorities on the doorstep) programme.

CM Mamata Banerjee releases her manifesto for the upcoming West Bengal elections.

Within the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2016 meeting polls, the TMC received the help of the leaders of those teams, together with Binapani Devi Thakur, the influential Matua chief who died on March 5, 2019.

THE DEBATE BEGINS

CNN-Information18 reached the famed Thakurbari (temple) of the Matuas in Thakurnagar in North 24-Parganas district. The priest was busy arranging objects for day by day rituals. Swapan Roy, a resident of Bashirhat, was ready alongside together with his daughter, Tisha, for his or her flip to get a sacred tulsi mala (garland).

Come this election and Tisha will probably be a first-time voter. She is a proud Matua, who’re Dalit refugees from Bangladesh and account for a big part of namasudras in Bengal. She desires the Centre to right away implement the Citizenship Modification Act, or CAA, which fast-tracks citizenship of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis who’ve arrived in India from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh earlier than 2015. Tisha additionally desires her Bengal to flourish.

“I belong to the Matua group and I’m very emotional about it. We need to reside with dignity. And due to this fact we help the Citizenship Modification Act. Like different communities, we too want our personal house on this society,” she says.

In Kolkata, one other first-time voter, Anant Gupta, says persons are truly discussing the caste issue with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Celebration (BJP). “We do talk about caste, however in a restricted approach. I’m Marwari and belong to the Baniya group. However will we talk about caste to discriminate towards others? The reply is not any,” he says.

However not all share his views. Ask professor Maroona Murmu of Jadavpur College and she is going to testify to this. Final September, Murmu, a tribal particular person, expressed considerations on the social media over the College Grants Fee (UGC)’s determination to carry final-year and final-term examinations in the course of the Covid-19 outbreak.

What adopted was a nightmare. She drew a volley of ugly criticism, together with that by a Kolkata pupil who questioned Murmu’s tutorial credentials, claimed she received the job as a result of quota system, and “reminded” her of her Adivasi lineage.

“I by no means thought that I’ll face casteist remarks in Bengal. I solely mentioned ‘life is lengthy and nothing will occur if examinations weren’t held for one yr due to Covid-19’. As an alternative of going into the core concern, folks began commenting about my caste and quota. I belong to a tribal group and I feel I’ve the precise to specific my views on present affairs with out drawing objectionable feedback,” Murmu says.

UNDERCURRENTS TO THE SURFACE

Dr Ashish Thakur, a widely known Matua chief and a doctor, says there was an undercurrent among the many folks belonging to decrease caste communities in Bengal for many years. They wished to be empowered however have been discovering it troublesome in a society dominated by higher caste elites, he provides.

“Up to now, we have now seen folks from SC (Scheduled Castes), ST (Scheduled Tribes) and OBC (Different Backward Courses) communities hitting the streets, however that failed to attract a lot consideration. In 2010, almost 300,000 Matuas and refugees backed by different decrease caste teams gathered at Esplanade in Kolkata, demanding implementation of the Mandal Fee (suggestions) and their betterment. It was for the primary time that the caste issue was overtly and prominently felt in Bengal,” says Thakur, a resident of Patuli in South 24-Parganas.

In keeping with him, there have been talks, albeit in a restricted approach, for a political entrance for decrease castes. “Sadly, it by no means took off as a result of political events such because the Left, the Congress, the TMC and the BJP by no means wished that to occur…it was additionally resulting from lack of unity amongst Dalits and the allegiance of some sections amongst them to mainstream events…that is the rationale why Bengal doesn’t have political events primarily based on castes, like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have.”

He says Bengalis choose silence on the problem “as a result of if they are saying they consider in caste, she or he will lose the progressive picture within the society”.

Thakur says folks have begun discussing caste out of frustration as a result of the Mandal Fee suggestions “weren’t carried out logically in Bengal”. “Now when the election is there, each the BJP and the TMC are promising to kind a fee to incorporate the left-out castes akin to Kumvhokars, Mahisyas, Sahas and Telis and so on. within the OBC class. Persons are made to consider in caste by the politicians.”

He provides that there are deep divisions even among the many decrease castes primarily based on their financial standing. “A wealthy tribal family is not going to permit a poor man or lady belonging to the identical caste to sit down on the eating desk. This discrimination can be there.”

Gopal Biswas, a retired banker and an activist, agrees with Thakur. “Not like the Hindi belt, the place folks take a variety of pleasure in discussing castes, folks in Bengal speak of caste in a sugar-coated method,” he says.

“No person will overtly say that they discriminate towards folks, however on the floor stage, they really discriminate on the premise of an individual being a Shudra or a Vaishya…I belong to the Matua group, and we don’t consider in any caste system,” Biswas, a resident Madhyamgram in North 24-Parganas, provides.

THE POLITICS OF CASTE

Whereas CM Banerjee ousted the Left on the again of protests towards land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram, she centered on doles for backward sections and what the BJP calls “appeasement” of Muslims after coming to energy. The BJP, then again, noticed the latter as a possibility to consolidate the Hindu votes.

In 2014, Dilip Ghosh, then an energetic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) employee, was appointed the state normal secretary. A yr later, he was promoted because the state get together president. Underneath his management, the BJP extensively labored on mobilising Hindu Bengalis no matter their caste, even because the ruling get together performed the “Bangaliana (Bengaliness)” card as a way to attain out to all castes and religions.

The BJP technique labored properly. Within the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it secured almost 57% of the Hindu votes towards the 32% secured by the TMC. The BJP gained 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha, solely 4 fewer than the TMC’s 22. A big part of the Matuas is believed to have supported the BJP for its dedication to implementing CAA. Nonetheless, 70% of the Muslim voters within the state opted for the TMC in 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Within the 2016 state polls, Banerjee’s TMC gained 211 of the 294 meeting seats. Of them, Muslims performed a key position in 98 constituencies with their vote share in these seats starting from about 20% to about 30%.

THE BATTLE FOR DOMINANCE

Confronted with the BJP’s aggression, Banerjee has introduced a number of sops for Hindus in her current political conferences. Just a few of the essential bulletins have been allowances for Sanatan Brahmin monks, and plans to construct a “Maha Tirtha Bhumi (nice pilgrimage land)” and a “Maha Punya Bhumi (nice sacred land)” in Bengal.

Because it got here to the fore {that a} sizeable portion (about 30%) of the Left and Congress supporters (primarily Dalits, SC/ST and OBCs) helped the BJP in 2019, Banerjee started campaigning aggressively in decrease caste-dominated areas, asserting the formation of assorted welfare boards.

She has reached out to the influential Kurmi group in Jangalmahal, which is unfold over Purulia, Jhargram, West Midnapore and Bankura districts. The Hindu card doesn’t ring a bell among the many Kurmis, who’ve 38-40% vote share in these 4 districts. They’ve been preventing for the official recognition of the “Sarna Dharma (nature worship)” for a number of years. Kurmi group leaders allege that they’re pressured to comply with Hindu rituals.

In 1913, throughout the British rule, Kurmis have been listed within the ST class. They have been dropped from the record on September 6, 1950. Presently, they’re within the OBC (B) record and demanding ST standing.

Banerjee has additionally reached out to the Bauris and Bagdis (Barga Kshatriyas), who’re believed to have supported the BJP in 2019. With almost 19% of the state’s vote share, they’re below the highlight with the chief minister asserting a number of schemes for his or her welfare, together with a college within the title of Gobardhan Dikpati (a Bauri fighter who was hanged by the British throughout the Chuar revolt).

She has reached out to the Nashya Sekhs, who account for 13-15% of the voters in North Bengal. Their predecessors have been from Koch, Rajbonshi and Poliya communities who got here below the rule of Muḥammad Bakhtiyar Khilji throughout his conquest of North Bengal. They transformed to Islam and have become the Nashya Sekhs, which suggests the “fallen”.

Amit Shah releases the BJP’s ‘Sankalp Patra’ for Bengal elections.

Alternatively, the BJP’s sport plan for the 2021 meeting elections is loud and clear: consolidation of the Hindus chopping throughout castes with a share of the Muslim votes. And it’s on this backdrop that the caste debate is taking the centre stage in battle floor Bengal.

Political knowledgeable Kapil Thakur reiterates that caste-based politics has all the time been there within the state, although it was “by no means highlighted” earlier than. In keeping with him, at current each the BJP and the TMC are taking part in the caste card, bringing the problem to the centre of discussions.

“The day after Chuni Kotal died, we launched a motion towards caste discrimination in Bengal. Then, a fee was arrange, however her family members didn’t get justice. The caste politics is now open in public because the BJP has made it very clear earlier than the those that they’re consolidating the Hindus…,” he says.