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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 48 November 19, 2022

Saha on Guha’s The Curious Trajectory of Caste in West Bengal Politics

Saturday 19 November 2022

Book Review by Soumya Saha

The Curious Trajectory of Caste in West Bengal Politics: Chronicling Continuity and Change
by Ayan Guha

Leiden/Boston: Brill
2022
Price: €145.00
309 pages
Hardback-ISBN: 978-90-04-51181-1
E-Book -ISBN: 978-90-04-51456-0

Since the demise of the Left Front government in West Bengal, scholarly interest in the changing political dynamics in the state, particularly in the political role of caste has significantly increased (Chandra et. al, 2016; Heierstad, 2017; Bandyopadhyay and Basu Ray Chaudhury, 2022). The Curious Trajectory of Caste in West Bengal Politics: Chronicling Continuity and Change written by Ayan Guha is an important addition to the existing literature on the politics of caste in West Bengal. This book carries forward Guha’s earlier writings (2014, 2017, 2021a, 2021b) on caste based identity politics in West Bengal while significantly broadening the analytical canvass of the issue. Most importantly, this is the first book length study on caste question in post-colonial West Bengal politics, directed towards the analysis of two major research questions; a) why caste has played a relatively marginal role in West Bengal politics compared to other states and b) whether the electoral decline of the Left offers better possibilities for the rise of caste politics in the state.

Guha begins by analyzing the “rise of caste” thesis, which has been advanced on the basis of increasing political assertion by the Matua-Namasudra community in West Bengal since the Left Front’s electoral decline. At the outset, he sets for himself the task of finding out the veracity of the “rise of caste” thesis by engaging with the nature of the emerging patterns of caste mobilization in West Bengal in relation to the Namasudra community. He compares the TMC’s sporadic attempts to mobilize the community with the BJP’s sustained and more consistent mobilization strategy based on the blueprint of Hindutva politics. Guha argues that the Matua movement’s Hinduization over the years and the political invocation of the Namasudras’ collective memory of religious persecution in East Pakistan and later in Bangladesh through Hindutva narrative of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA, 2019) have enhanced BJP’s support among the Namasudras. The Namasudras are being treated by the BJP primarily as Hindu refugees who have migrated from Bangladesh due to communal persecution. This political strategy which Guha calls ‘politics of memory’ is directed towards the goal of Hinduization of Bengali Dalits through the use of their collective historical memory and this strategy, according to Guha, has been able to make a crucial intervention in the communal self-perception of the Namasudras by supplanting caste consciousness with Hindu belongingness. Therefore, what apparently looks like caste politics is nothing but a more flexible version of Hindutva politics, where caste only matters as a unit of mobilization and religious consciousness overpowers caste consciousness. Next, Guha debunks the “rise of caste” thesis by also delving into the question of political representation of the lower castes, which is an indicator of the rising significance of caste in organized electoral politics. He convincingly demonstrates through a meticulous analysis of Election Commission’s data that since the electoral defeat of the Left Front and transition to the TMC rule, political representation of the lower castes has not improved.

After showcasing the continuing marginality of caste as a political factor in the macro political arena of the state, Guha embarks upon the task of identifying those structural factors which are responsible for the insignificance of caste as political category in West Bengal. He makes the broad argument that there are certain structural factors limiting the mobilization and collective political action by lower castes in West Bengal. He identifies several demographic factors such as absence of a dominant caste, limited geographical spread of major lower and middle castes and severe fragmentation of middle castes as limiting factors in the context of caste mobilization. Thereafter, Guha moves onto the factors concerning political economy, an under-studied domain as far as caste question in West Bengal is concerned. He finds out that in comparison to other states in West Bengal the lower castes suffer from much lower level of relative deprivation vis-à-vis other sections of the society, a scenario not favorable for political mobilization along caste lines. Guha masterfully deploys an impressive array of evidences drawn from economic data relating to landholding patterns, per capita expenditure and poverty ratio to substantiate his point. Further, Guha remains skeptical regarding the rise of caste politics in West Bengal also due to high level of economic disparity between major lower caste groups and their contradictory demands and divergent agendas, which obstruct emergence of of caste coalitions based on commonalities of interests.

In the final parts of his book Guha shifts his focus to the intangible phenomenon of political culture both at micro and macro levels. Through an ethnographic inquiry of a village in Nadia district, populated largely by the dominant Namasudras and the subservient Bagdis, he brings out the pervasive influence of the norms of Bhadralok culture among the upwardly mobile caste groups. The prevalence Bhadralok culture in the minds of the aspirational and upwardly mobile individuals belonging to the lower castes has prevented the emergence of a “Dalit counter public” as an alternative value system opposed to the dominant culture. Guha argues that this has robbed caste of its political possibilities.

This ethnographic inquiry is followed by a detailed analysis of Bhadralok culture. Guha chronicles the genealogy of the Bhadralok culture with impressive scholarly acumen. He chronicles the emergence of Bhadralok in colonial Bengal as a class of comprador bourgeoisie, their gradual decline into the position of landed gentry and their eventual move towards colonial bureaucracy and other professional fields. Thereafter, he engages with the leftward drift of the Bhadralok detailing the reasons behind such drift. Returning to the contemporary times Guha shows that TMC’s politics is largely a continuation of the discourses and praxis shaped by the Left. Notwithstanding the electoral decline of the Left, the Left-minded Bhadralok culture has become institutionalized, providing the dominant template of doing institutional politics in West Bengal. The continuing hangover of this template does not augur well for caste-based mobilization.

Thus, Guha makes a strong case to disprove the “rise of caste” thesis, suggesting that caste still remains a marginal player in the politics of West Bengal. However, in a recent article, Rajat Roy has suggested that the allegiance of the Matua-Namasudra community to the BJP is strategic. The community has supported the BJP, considering the latter’s capability of alleviating its concerns relating to citizenship through the CAA, 2019. Imbued with an anti-caste consciousness, they remain aware of the Brahminical nature of the BJP (Roy, 2022). This runs contrary to Guha’s claim that communal self-perception of the community has increasingly been moving in the direction of religious consciousness though the initial drift of the community towards the BJP started as a strategic move. Both the scholars have relied on an interview-based field work to come to their respective and divergent conclusions. Further research on this question will provide greater clarity on this issue. Overall, this book is a valuable and well researched intervention as far as caste studies and studies on West Bengal politics are concerned. Though the role of caste in West Bengal politics started to receive a great deal of scholarly attention after the electoral decline of Left, an organized and comprehensive thematic treatment of the question of caste in West Bengal still remained an unfulfilled imperative, which this book has fulfilled with sufficient analytical rigors.

(Reviewer: Soumya Saha, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Sister Nivedita University, Kolkata)

References:

  • Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury. Caste and Partition in Bengal: The Story of Dalit Refugees, 1946-1961. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2022.
  • Chandra Uday, Geir Heierstad and Kenneth Bo Nielsen (eds). Politics of Caste in West Bengal. New Delhi: Routledge, 2016.
  • Kumar, Arvind and Ayan Guha. “Political Future of Caste in West Bengal.” Economic and Political Weekly 49, no. 32 (2014): 73—74.
  • Guha, Ayan. “Caste and Politics in West Bengal: Traditional Limitations and Contemporary Developments.” Contemporary Voice of Dalit 9, no. 1 (2017): 27—36.
  • Guha, Ayan. “Is There A Second Wave of Dalit Upsurge in West Bengal?” Economic and Political Weekly 54, no. 2 (2019).
  • Guha, Ayan. “Caste Question in West Bengal Politics: Rising Relevance of Continuing Inconsequentiality?” Contemporary South Asia 29, no. 3 (2021): 376—400.
  • Guha, Ayan. “Beyond Conspiracy and Coordinated Ascendancy: Revisiting Caste Question in West Bengal under the Left Front Rule (1977—2011).” Contemporary Voice of Dalit 13, no. 1 (2021): 50—65.
  • Guha, Ayan. The Curious Trajectory of Caste in West Bengal politics: Chronicling Continuity and Change. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2022.
  • Heierstad, Geir. Caste, Entrepreneurship and the Illusions of Tradition: Branding the Potters of Kolkata. London: Anthem, 2017.
  • Roy, Rajat. “Politics of Identity Contra Anti-caste Social Visions: The Matua Problem and Beyond.” Economic and Political Weekly 57, no. 42 (2022): 46-53.
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