ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Historicising Caste in Bengal Politics

In response to the issues raised by Praskanva Sinharay ("A New Politics of Caste", EPW, 25 August 2012) and Uday Chandra and Kenneth Bo Nielsen ("The Importance of Caste in Bengal", EPW, 3 November 2012), this article argues that caste has been hidden from view in Bengal due to the very specifi c manner in which religious community, class, caste and political power have combined in (West) Bengal.

Uday Chandra and Kenneth Bo Nielsen are entirely correct in drawing attention to the continued relevance of caste in the politics of West Bengal today in their response to Praskanva Sinharay. The apparent lack of caste mobilisation in the electoral poli­tics of the state is undoubtedly a somewhat unique feature when compared with the rest of India, but so is the other quite unique feature of the state, namely, the continued and unchallenged dominance of upper-caste Hindus in virtually every public institution, whether political or cultural. In fact, the two features are connected. That is to say, caste appears to be insignificant in West Bengal’s politics precisely because public political life is thoroughly dominated by the upper castes. But to explain this somewhat unique phenomenon, one has to consider yet another unique pheno­menon – the political consequence of the partition of Bengal in 1947.

Upper-caste Hindu dominance in colo­nial Bengal was the result of the decline of the Muslim nobility, the colonial land settlements and the rapid adoption of English education by upper-caste Hindus. But as in other provinces of ­India, this dominance came under ­severe challenge in Bengal in the 1930s and 1940s from rising groups of substantial peasant proprietors, of whom numerically the most significant were the Muslim richer peasantry of eastern and northern Bengal. After provincial autonomy in 1935, it became clear that elected governments in Bengal would be led by Muslim politicians. Bastions of upper-caste Hindu dominance, such as the ­municipalities, the universities and the bar associations, began to come under challenge from a rising Muslim middle class. The partition of Bengal was ­demanded in 1947 by an overwhelming majority among Hindus who could not imagine a future under permanent Muslim domination. The consequence of partition was a massive migration of Hindus from East Pakistan, mostly to the suburbs of Kolkata, and a smaller but nonetheless significant migration of middle-class Muslims from West ­Bengal to East Pakistan.

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