By Sandip Bayopadhyay
24 July, 2004
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
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.
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