Why backward castes have remained politically enfeebled in Bengal

Navneet Mundhra
·5-min read

In 1990, the then prime minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, which recommended 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes in central government services and public sector units.

The declaration triggered monumental churn in the country's political ecosystem. The tremor was most ostensible in Hindi-belt states — Uttar Ptradesh and Bihar — where the backward classes mobilised en masse and threw up top leaders from their communities.

Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP formed their own parties and became chief ministers by championing the cause of backward classes. Mayawati also emerged as the numero uno leader of Dalits in UP.

As the leaders of backward classes occupied the positions of power, their representation in politics and administration also burgeoned significantly.

Even the Bharatiya Janata Party, then classified as a party of upper castes, started giving prominence to OBC leaders and hence Kalyan Singh in UP and later Narendra Modi in Gujarat became chief ministers.

(Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times)
(Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times)

In the Hindi belt, the percentage of OBC MPs nearly doubled from 11% in 1984 to more than 20% in the 1990s, whereas the proportion of upper caste MPs dropped from 47% in 1984 to below 40% in the 1990s. By 2004, upper caste presence in the Lok Sabha had fallen to 33%, while 25% of MPs were OBCs.

During that time the chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, asserted: "There are only two castes in Bengal — rich and poor."

On the face of it, it seemed like a progressive assertion where caste is rendered irrelevant. Bengal, under the CPM, was hailed as a citadel of secularism and an egalitarian society. But if the surface is scratched, it exposes a seedy underbelly and also the archetype chicanery of the Communists.

Because the Left regime and their cadre stemmed the assertion of lower castes in Bengal, they have remained at the periphery of political and cultural circles. While the representation of the lower castes in politics rose exponentially since the early 1990s, it remained abysmally low in Bengal.

The state has the second largest population of Scheduled Castes in the country and they comprise 24% of the overall Bengal's mankind, but leave alone a chief minister, there haven’t even been many popular or powerful Dalit politicians in the state. Their representation is also far lesser in proportion to their population.

Even the top leadership of all parties — Congress, CPM and Trinamool Congress — has mostly been upper castes.

What's worse is that due to complete absence of political representation, culturally and socially as well, the lower castes have remained despicably enfeebled.

Most of the famed actors, singers, authors and scholars have been from the upper castes. The hallowed 'Bengali Bhadralok', which drives the narrative, is replete with upper caste folks. The representation of lower castes even in academia and media is poor.

What the Left essentially ensured is an ecosystem where the lower castes remained woefully at the mercy of their upper caste counterparts as they (lower castes) were denied their rightful representation.

While the Left and other so-called progressive parties talk grandly about the need of representation for the empowerment of socially backward castes, what they have practised in Bengal is the complete opposite.

Fearful of losing their prominence and clout, they firmly ensconced themselves as the leaders of the lower castes and never let the leaders of the lower castes occupy top positions.

This becomes even more stark when one looks at the politburo of the CPM, their apex body, where historically there has been almost zilch representation of Dalits. The politburo has been the preserve of upper caste such as Brahmins, Nairs, Kayasthas with few OBCs but hasn't had a Dalit memeber in the last 50 years.

Another shocking fact is that nearly 60% of Kolkata’s neighbourhoods do not have any Dalit residents.

In essence, politically, culturally and socially, Bengal has remained in the firm grip of upper-caste 'Bhadralok' with no space for assertion of the backward castes.

A party that swears by Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar's ideology and criticises the BJP for not giving proper representation to Muslims, this is astonishing hypocrisy. Their practice comprehensively punctures their high-falutin rhetoric.

CPM has not even been averse to caste atrocities. The infamous Marichjhapi massacre — in which refugee Dalits were butchered — was orchestrated by the Left regime in 1979. A recently released book by journalist Deep Halder claims the casualties were in the tune of 5,000 and it was a far more gruesome pogram than the 2002 Gujarat riots and the 1984 Sikh massacre in Delhi.

But the Left deftly, with the help of 'Bhadralok', ensured that it remains an obscure footnote in history and doesn't occupy the larger public imagination.

Recently, a scheduled tribe academician Saraswati Kerketta, assistant professor at Kolkata's Rabindra Bharati University, alleged that a section of students — belonging to the ruling Trinamool Congress students’ union — hurled casteist slurs at her while mentioning her background.

Ironically, it is the BJP which is trying to fill the vacuum of lower caste assertion in the state by mobilising castes such as Rajbanshis and Matuas, who belong to the SC category in a bid to uproot Mamata Banerjee government.

The Matua community is part of the bigger Namasudra community. Originally from East Pakistan, most of the Namasudras came to India, first during the Partition, and then, after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 to evade religious persecution.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah met several prominent Matua leaders in 2018 and promised the implementation of Citizenship Amendment Act which would ensure Indian citizenship to them.

The prime minister held a meeting with centenarian Binapani Devi, popularly known as ‘Boro Ma’, the matriarch of the Matua community, and solicited her support.

The outreach bore rich dividends as the community staunchly rallied behind the BJP in the 2019 general elections and the party won a staggering 18 Lok Sabha seats in the state doing exceptionally well in the areas where Matuas are concentrated.

In the run-up to the Assembly polls in the state, both the BJP and the TMC are leaving no stones unturned in wooing Matua and Rajbanshi communities promising them several benefits.

What one hopes is whichever party comes to the power, the grossly skewed political and cultural representation of lower castes in Bengal would be upturned.

That would be an egalitarian 'Sonar Bangla' in true sense.

Follow the author on Twitter (@navneet_Mundhra)


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