Cast(e) out in West Bengal


back to issue

THAT West Bengal bucks the trend of North Indian politics has been evident for some time, as the Left Front romped home to its sixth electoral victory in the state in May 2001, putting paid to speculations about the anti-incumbency factor! But does that mean that the patterns of exclusion and discrimination are also different?

In the context of the UN’s Durban conference ‘against racism’ in September 2001, a section of public opinion had argued that caste was akin to race in its discriminatory practices. Their effort was directed at making the Government of India acknowledge that caste oppression and discrimination was similar to racial discrimination. To this effect a concerted move was made by some dalit organizations and NGOs to draw international attention to the practices of untouchability, still widely prevalent in different parts of India.

Despite their efforts the final resolution of the conference did not mention caste nor draw any analogy between caste and race. However, this can hardly be taken as a vindication of any lack of discrimination and exclusionary processes in India. Perhaps instead of overstretched generalizations about the nature of caste discrimination on an all-India scale, it would be more productive to locate the historically constituted nature of exclusion in different regions. This article seeks to understand why inspite of the presence of caste based discrimination, it is not the principal mode of exclusion in West Bengal. But the historical nature of caste collision and collusion does not provide a model of caste discrimination for the rest of India.

Practichi (India) Trust was set up by Amartya Sen from his Nobel Prize award money. Recently the Trust carried out a survey in three districts of West Bengal – Midnapur, Birbhum and Purulia – to evaluate the system of primary education. One of its findings as mentioned by Professor Sen to the press in Calcutta on 10 November, is that in some schools scheduled caste students were still forced to sit separately (The Statesman, 11 November 2001).



That this is not an isolated observation is testified to by a report on practices of untouchability published a few years ago in a well-known Calcutta weekly (Gupta 1977: 48-50). The report vividly brought home the persistence of caste discrimination in rural West Bengal, Debu Mukhi, a hanri by caste, of Rohini village in Jhargram sub-division of Midnapur district mentioned that inspite of the much publicized literacy campaign in the district their children were kept segregated in school. He said, ‘Teachers tell our children to bring their own asaans (small mats) and they are asked to sit separately in class.’

But spatial segregation in school or residential segregation in the village is not the only discriminations they face, as Gupta learned from the doms and hanris (two scheduled castes) of Rohini. For many years after Independence, they had to wear bells around their neck whenever they ventured outside their locality (para) to forewarn the upper castes of their approach! Though these practices have waned others persist. The doms and hanris are not allowed inside the homes of the upper castes and if they stray inside then the premises have to be washed and plastered afresh with cow dung. Their touch is still considered polluting and for the brahmin, baidyas and kayasthas, a purificatory bath is mandatory on contact with them.

The scheduled castes are not allowed to draw water from wells and tubewells belonging to the upper castes. They are only allowed to use the public tubewells sunk by the government. Though they play the dhak (drum) during the Durga Puja or other festivals, they are denied the right to enter temples or offer prayers. At ceremonial feasts they are treated like scavengers and offered the leftovers in soiled leaf plates. As Jaladhar Patar of the same village puts it, ‘We and the dogs eat together after everyone else has eaten.’ And when the dogs have to be shooed away, the upper castes call out ‘shoo hanri’!



Upper castes in the village do not admit to the persistence of untouchability but concede after persistent enquiry that isolated instances may have occurred. They maintain that it is the filth and squalor of the lower caste lifestyle that sets them apart. The stigma attached to status is deftly displaced upon questions of hygiene.

Last year another instance of caste discrimination came to light from another place. In Pursurah village of Hooghly district, a scheduled caste school teacher’s wife was fined Rs 8,000 because she entered the local Kali temple to offer prayers after bathing in the temple pond. Subhama Sheet was singled out for her misdemeanor by the village elders for her caste status. The fine imposed was necessary to perform the purificatory rituals (Biswas 2001: 22).

More than five decades after Independence, with nearly two and half of them under Left Front governance, caste discrimination has not disappeared. Yet caste discrimination is not a major public issue in West Bengal. Embedded in the customary practices of the civic community it persists unobtrusively. Caste is not the principal conduit of political power and contestation in the state. Transgression of caste norms invites social sanctions but not violent retribution. Caste based pogroms and massacres are not frequent. A quick review of the historical reasons as to the absence of caste as the means of exclusion will reveal the historically constituted nature of discrimination.



There are certain particularities to the caste structure in West Bengal. The upper castes: brahmin, kayastha and baidyas, who as a result of the Permanent Settlement (1793) came to control most of the land, functioned largely as absentee landlords. Land was a productive asset that yielded substantial rent. But they were neither directly engaged in supervising agricultural production nor increasing productivity. As residents of urban areas in Calcutta or the district towns, these upper caste landlords became detached from agricultural pursuits.

These castes had the opportunity to acquire English education in urban educational institutions and develop a stranglehold on jobs and professions (Mitra 1995: 20). The high correlation between literacy and engagement in higher professions is clearly manifest from Table 1. The head start of the upper castes in education enabled them to monopolize jobs and professions, so much that the upper caste bhadraloks have since exercised undisputed authority in the public realm. As Mitra (1995: 21) put it, ‘Indeed, so absolute is the ascendancy of the top castes in Bengal that the subordinate castes take their subordinate status almost as a divine dispensation.’


Literacy and Occupation of Selected Castes, 1931

(as percentage of total population of the caste in Bengal)





Higher Professions




































Source: Nirmal Kumar Bose, Hindu Samaj Garan (Visvabharati, Calcutta, 1949), now available in English as The Structure of Hindu Society, tr. Andre Beteille (Orient Longman, Delhi, 1975).


In the rural areas, during British rule, the dominant peasant middle castes were too dispersed and disparate to pose a challenge to bhadralok hegemony. The 1931 Census enumeration of castes in the West Bengal districts reveals that middle caste groups were localized in particular districts or contiguous areas but were not distributed over a wide area. The rajbangshis (later to be classified as scheduled caste) were preponderant in the North Bengal districts of Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Cooch Behar. In Cooch Behar they comprised 53.56% of the population, while in Jalpaiguri they were 33.68% and in Dinajpur they formed 20.53%. Dependent on rainfed agriculture, these districts were the least developed. Other than plantations and orchards, there was little sign of industrial development. For the rajbangshis, opportunities of higher education were limited in the region and Calcutta was too far and inaccessible.

The mahishyas were prominent in the south-western districts of Midnapore (31.56%), Howrah (24.92%), Hooghly (15.92%) and 24 Parganas (12.14%), and present in Nadia (6.49%) and Murshidabad (5.48%). The kurmimahatos were largely confined to Manbhum (17.84%) from which has been carved the present district of Purulia, while the aguris/ugra kshatriyas, another dominant peasant middle caste, were only to be found in Burdwan district.



A section from these castes who became proprietary tenants and succeeded in educating their children, engaged in social reform of their castes. In the 1920s when the non-cooperation movement of Gandhi found a resonance in the rural areas of South-West Bengal, it was these middle castes like mahishyas who formed the bulwark of the movements. Engagement with the Congress party gave a boost to the reformist stirrings among these castes. But none of the middle castes had a statewide presence to exercise social dominance. Their localized presence, lack of English education and professional advancement left them far behind the upper caste bhadraloks (Chatterjee 1982).

The challenge to bhadralok hegemony that the emergent Muslim middle class posed in the 1940s was dissolved with the partition of Bengal, as the landowning Muslim peasantry left for Pakistan. Chatterjee (1982:101) has noted how even though the Muslim landowning peasantry was akin to the dominant peasant middle castes of other parts of India in their behaviour, their challenge to the bhadraloks acquired the stigma of communalism.

In his own words, ‘Muslim conversion has a great deal to do with the rather unique caste structure in Bengal, because a very substantial bulk of the peasantry who would otherwise have formed the large middle caste, became Muslim. In many respects, both before and after partition the Muslim landowning peasantry in both halves of Bengal have behaved much like the dominant peasant middle castes in other parts of India, but because of religious "communalism" this has taken completely different ideological and organizational forms in undivided and later divided Bengal, especially in terms of the hold of the substantial landed peasantry over the Muslim small and landless in eastern Bengal’ (Chatterjee 1982:101).

Like the intermediate caste dominant peasants, the scheduled castes were also too dispersed and fragmented to pose any challenge to the upper caste bhadralok. In the wake of partition, the most organized among them, the namasudras who were mostly to be found in the East Bengal districts, migrated to West Bengal in large numbers. Many of them settled in the border districts of Nadia and 24 Parganas but later migrants who sought refuge after 1964 were resettled in Andaman Islands and Dandakaranya in Madhya Pradesh.

The 1940s were turbulent times in Bengal. Large scale political mobilizations and strikes tested British governance sorely. But the large scale mobilization of the sharecroppers in both North and South Bengal known as the Tebhaga movement by the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha left an enduring legacy. The Tebhaga struggles began in the North Bengal districts a couple of years before Independence and continued especially in the South Bengal districts after 1947. The struggle for two-thirds share of the produce by the sharecroppers set in place the discourse of class for agrarian struggles. It was able to displace any vestiges of the caste discourse for peasant struggle.



A committee set up by the West Bengal government to look into the question of caste backwardness in August 1980 maintained that, ‘Poverty and low levels of living standards rather than caste should, in our opinion, be the most important criteria for identifying backwardness’ (Mandal 1980:11). This enabled the chief minister of West Bengal to remark before the Mandal Commission that in the state there were only two castes – the rich and the poor!

Both at the state level and in the popular imagination caste discrimination is not a major public issue in West Bengal. For caste status is not the only arbiter of a person’s life chances. In the wake of Macaulay’s Minute on Education (1835), Bengal’s bhadraloks have carried out ‘a despotism of caste tempered by matriculation’ (quoted in Chatterjee 1982: 89). This has jeopardised caste as the language of exclusion in the state. The withdrawal of the upper caste bhadraloks from agriculture may have facilitated the rejection of the politics of caste. Moreover, in the bhadralok imagination, caste and other primordial solidarities have been associated with backward looking traditions, hardly in consonance with the modernist reforms of the Left.

However, even as caste has been displaced from the discourse of exclusion, other principles may have made their entry, like education and culture. The use of a language of refinement and progress has become significant as a marker of acceptability, as was evident from the elections to the state legislature in May 2001. Consequently status and stigma are not the only exclusionary principles at work in West Bengal. Other caste-neutral models of exclusion have been developed to keep the lower castes at bay!



A.K. Biswas, ‘Discrimination – Caste or Racial’, Mainstream, 14 July 2001, 21-23.

Partha Chatterjee, ‘Caste and Politics in West Bengal’, in G. Omvedt (ed.) Land, Caste and Politics in Indian States, Teaching Politics, Delhi, 1982, 88-101.

Anish Gupta, ‘The Outcasts’, Sunday, 2-8 November 1997, 48-50.

Asok Mitra, Caste and Class in Indian Society, Asiatic Society, Calcutta, 1995.