Does the caste system really not exist in Bengal?

Bengali middle class society is seen as casteless because caste violence lacks visibility. One woman’s story of working as a teacher shows how caste intersects with gender to reproduce discriminatory practices.

Sarbani Bandyopadhyay
21 April 2016

Bengal was the first region of British India to be colonised and modernised. The opportunities colonial rule opened up were taken advantage of by the bhadralok (gentlefolk) who were mostly upper caste. One of the leaders of the Indian Independence movement Gokhale said “what Bengal thinks today India thinks tomorrow” which captured this avant garde position of Bengal. In such a vision a ‘backward’ institution like caste was claimed to have no significant presence. Consequently, in most academic and popular domains the castelessness of Bengali (especially) middle class society became an established fact particularly in comparison with other Indian states where caste violence and caste-based political parties have a high visibility. However, the absence of visible forms of violence and of caste-based parties does not necessarily indicate the casteless nature of Bengali society. The recent ‘suicide’ of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student of Hyderabad Central University, brought to focus the naked face of caste discrimination in higher education in many regions of India. However, the pervasiveness of caste is no less significant in Bengal. The politics of repression has allowed caste to be insidiously reproduced in both public and private domains with little resistance.

The story of Lata Biswas, a Scheduled Caste (SC) person, demonstrates the insidious ways in which caste prejudice operates in Bengal. Despite evidence to the contrary, Lata claimed that she did not experience caste in her village where her caste, the Namasudras, formed the majority of the population.  Based on her narrative I would argue that caste is encountered in Bengal in mostly middle class spaces such as educational institutions, urban and non-urban. Lata passed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Bengali literature with excellent grades, completed her degree for school teaching and joined a school in 1992. The school is located in an interior village of Burdwan district. She was the only Dalit teacher there and kept overhearing terms like ‘schedule’ in staffroom conversations between her women colleagues:

Each time I entered the staff room I would hear this word. At first I did not understand. Then such remarks became routine and kept increasing. Some were like ‘she is schedule you know, like the maid we have’, someone would reply ‘even my mother’s maid is schedule and now we have a schedule here again’. When I did not pay any attention to all these remarks they started saying new things. ‘Now the last one fled, but this one seems to be staying, more schedules will come, santhals [an advisasi group] will come, all those who eat rats, snakes, frogs will start coming and we’ll have these items for food as well. We should not drink water from the same jug but now we will have to, oh what has this world come to’. It was very humiliating because I never had to face these things when I was a student.

Lata faced other forms of discrimination which clearly told her that she did not belong. She was given a chair and a separate table to sit at apparently because there was no space for her on the long bench on which teachers normally sat in the common room. The next day the cloth on the table went missing, the newspaper that Lata used in place of the cloth had a similar fate. Within a couple of days her chair too disappeared. Finally getting angry Lata squeezed herself on to the common bench. That forced an open reaction from her high caste colleagues. One of them instructed her to sit on the floor.


Village market in Burdwan. Credit: Soumyadeep Paul / Flickr

What led to such animosity toward Lata? Middle class/bhadralok society has certain imagery about non-bhadralok beings, in particular the ‘lowly’ people, popularly known as chhotolok. They are seen as uneducated, lacking in culture, consciousness and agency, as docile and in perpetual need of bhadralok assistance. The bhadralok self is constructed and asserted through its other, in this case the marginalised castes. Lata disrupted this imagery. She “did not look or behave like an SC” was another of the remarks that gained ground within a few days of Lata joining the school. She was assertive and argumentative. In disputes with the school administration, she often became the spokesperson for the teachers. She hardly lost her temper. Above all she was a good teacher and students were fond of her. Lata thus posed a danger: she was the figure on the threshold that threatened to disrupt boundaries between the bhadralok and the chhotolok and the assertion of middle classness by the local bhadralok teachers in the school. In an interior village school the need for policing and reproducing the boundaries of middle classness was felt more by these teachers who formed a small segment of the local population. Unlike the earlier incumbent she asserted her ‘rights’, as a woman and as a Scheduled Caste person, Lata never felt the need to allow (high caste) men to speak on her behalf or along with her unlike her high caste women colleagues. Lata was therefore an anomaly: she did not exhibit ‘feminine’ qualities, or those of her ‘caste’. She seemed to have done violence to every understanding of bhadralok/middle class self in terms of her caste as well as gender.

Lata was tall, not “too dark-skinned” and was on average “good-looking”. In short, she did not have the typical attributes of a scheduled caste person. These remarks made Lata wonder how the previous incumbent looked. Through remarks and conversations she gained an understanding that her predecessor was “quite ugly” and “docile”. She, unlike Lata, had fitted into both the caste and gender stereotypes that bhadralok society produced in terms of appearance and disposition.

Since the Durban Conference on Racism in 2000 there has been much academic debate on seeing caste as a racial category. Regardless of such debates, in the everyday perceptions of people caste is seen to have a racial basis. Everyday life is a fuzzy domain that does not  fit into the neat analytical categories developed by academics. When Lata claimed that she “did not fit into the Scheduled Caste category” because her physical features set her apart from the average figure of the Scheduled Caste person she was basing her statement on the commonly held perception that people’s castes could to an extent be marked out in terms of their physical features.

Besides these, Lata, as mentioned earlier would rarely get angry. She could argue using what is known as the language of reason and rationality. In a masculine space marked by caste (i.e. casted) like the school, upper caste men are supposed to be logical/reasonable and marginalised castes and women to be emotional. Bengali society had been remarkably successful in not having much meaningful engagement with caste, gender, or even class. Bhadralok/middle class Left politics has considerably aided this disengagement. Lata’s narrative shows the process of becoming middle class and ‘casted’. Moreover upper caste men went off the handle in tackling Lata and in preserving the boundaries of spaces from where Dalits were historically excluded. Upper casteness and masculinity that together went into the making of middle classness suddenly faced a major challenge from Lata, a Dalit woman, who seemed to trespass into forbidden territory.

Being a ‘meritorious’ student Lata never needed her caste certificate for admission under the quota system. At university her “intelligence and grades” shielded her from forms of prejudice and discrimination. But in this workspace despite her grades Lata was taken in not as a General Category candidate but in the reserved post for Scheduled Castes. What we see in the workspace is that caste while it cannot be articulated is nonetheless incessantly articulated in conjunction with that of gender and local hierarchies. Here the high castes categorised as the General Category have to pretend that they are ‘uncasted’ whereas the Scheduled Castes who come in through a different category of caste do not have access to such privileged forms of denial/pretension. They are seen as permanently ‘casted’. Therefore, Lata was not a person, she was only a caste, marked and categorised as inferior and inadequate to the rest. Everyday aggression is the central aspect of this articulation of gendered caste. Considered as trivial such aggression normalises institutionalised violence. These apparently inconsequential forms of violence considerably affect the sense of self among Dalits aspiring to be a part of the middle class.

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