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Bengal's Caste Prejudices

By Sandip Bayopadhyay

24 July, 2004
The Statesman

A gruesome incident in a village in West Bengal in April this year didn't spark off the public reaction it deserved probably because election waves were rocking the country and one had the time for such "trivial" matters. The story involves the love affair between a Brahmin boy and a girl belonging to the Hari community, traditionally a "low caste". The boy's family didn't want the relationship to develop into wedlock, allegedly on the ground that a Hari bride would pollute the family goddess. Driven to extreme frustration, the young couple committed suicide.

The tragic incident, however, didn't end there. It took a bizarre turn when the couple's dead bodies were left to rot for several days because the villagers refused to touch them and arrange for cremation. The incident took place at a time when the vote-seeking political leaders were mouthing concern for the downtrodden, promising to take up their cause if voted to power.

Compared with some other states, discrimination on grounds of caste or religion is certainly less in Bengal. One may therefore brush aside the above incident as an exception. But even an exceptional case loses none of its gravity when it involves an inhuman practice that tainted Indian (Hindu) society for ages together and continues to prevail in some form even today. Moreover, even in West Bengal, such cases are not too rare. In November 2000, in a village in Hooghly, a Hari woman was humiliated for having dared to enter a Kali temple and smear her forehead with the sindoor of the goddess. On 14 October 2002, The Statesman reported on a Murshidabad village incident in which members of the Mochi community were not allowed to participate in the local Durga puja celebrations. In July this year, the press again informed us of another incident where a Bauri family in a Bankura village was forced to leave their home because they belonged to a "low" caste.

Ironical as it may seem, the Government of India has declared this year as the year of Scientific Awareness and is spending crores of rupees to spread such awareness among the common people. But let alone the development of scientific/rational thinking, even the basic tenets of human equality continue to elude our "civil" society.It is true that after Independence, the Indian State made specific provisions for the uplift of neglected communities. This has, to some extent, led to the upward mobility of some "low" castes that are now in a position to use caste as an instrument of power. But in the kind of democracy we have, a caste's position in the power hierarchy is not always an index of the actual social status of its rank and file.

In West Bengal, for example, politics does not follow caste lines and the education system is free from any caste-related discrimination. But several surveys, including one carried out by Pratichi Trust, bear out that in school Dalit and tribal children are not always treated on equal terms.

Two examples from the author's personal experience will elucidate this. In a primary school at Rajarhat, not very far from Kolkata, the head teacher claimed, "Now a days, all families are sending their kids to school." On my way, I had found some boys fishing in a canal. Do they attend school? The teacher remarked, "They are Kaoras, you know. How can you expect them to come to school?" Obviously, the teacher excluded the Kaoras, an extremely underdeveloped community, from "all the families" he had earlier referred to.

On another occasion, in a Bankura village, a secondary school teacher lamented, "These days, children from Bagdi, Bauri and Khaira families are coming to school. There is no hope for development in education in this situation."

This is the mindset of many and it is precisely this that helps perpetuate discrimination or exclusion in one form or another. In
West Bengal, the increasing participation of Dalits and tribals in the panchayats is undoubtedly a significant phenomenon. But this does not always reflect the lived reality of some branded communities and the treatment that they receive at the hands of the "upper" castes.

In the Hooghly incident, the Hari woman's family was forced to pay the money needed for "cleansing" the temple. What did the local panchayat do? And why didn't the panchayat move forward to cremate the dead bodies of the lovers who laid down their lives as a mark of protest against caste prejudice?

West Bengal's ruling Marxists seem to have failed to properly address this specificity of Indian society. This holds true for Marxists in general who believe that class consciousness will automatically lead to eradication of caste consciousness.

The caste question, in fact, has taken on a peculiar form in West Bengal. Political leaders rarely talk about it; there's a general feeling that caste is no longer a problem in the state. Any reference to the caste-identity of a person is considered taboo and people prefer to avoid certain caste-names in view of the age-old stigma attached. Even better economic position does not always raise one's social status. The Murshidabad case is an example of this. The puja organisers explained the exclusion of the Mochis as a matter of convention.

Namasudras have a long history of struggle against Brahminical dominance and a section of them are now in a position to assert themselves as a powerful social group. The Pods of South Bengal, now known as Paundrakshatriyas, have also been able to improve their social status. But this does not hold true for the Bagdis, Bauris, Haris, Mochis, Kaoras and other groups. Spread of education among them is also very low. A UGC survey of two districts in West Bengal found 64 per cent of the Dalits (scheduled castes) to be illiterate. Thanks to Leftist politics holding sway for over two decades, people
in this state, however, have become cautious about the caste question. There is a conscious attempt to keep politics free from caste; the issue does not find place on the agenda of any political party. The Bahujan Samaj Party does exist in West Bengal, but it has little influence on the politics of the state. In the public sphere, even those who harbour a prejudice do not speak their hearts out publicly. The author came across one such incident in a village in the Canning area, South 24 Parganas. While talking about his village and its population, an old man suddenly stopped and asked the local panchayat leader, who was also present there, "Should I speak freely?" The latter hesitated a bit and then said, "Go on". The old man then introduced himself as a member of a "superior" caste and identified some others as belonging to "lower" castes. "They are all Bunos and sardars, you know," he said.

Such terms as Bunos and Sardars actually denote the names of communities in various areas in West Bengal. People, in general, hardly bother about knowing their ethnic identities. This seems to be the covert expression of a deep-seated prejudice against certain communities. Naming is an important part of cognition. To deny a community its name is to treat it as not worthy of recognition. Untouchability, as a social practice, is not very far from this prejudiced mentality.

(The author is a freelance contributor.)