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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 21, May 14, 2011

WEST BENGAL ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS 2011: A Perspective beyond Conventional Frame

Tuesday 24 May 2011, by A K Biswas

Every election, Assembly or Parliament, in India exposes the interiors of social panorama in original colours. The manifestation of social realities attain fullness, be it in the cow-belt or in the so-called progressive States. In the case of States like West Bengal, discussion of caste via-a-vis election or for that matter on any occasion is abhorred and considered blas-phemous. A social anthropological analysis of the ground realities nonetheless is worth, though such an attempt might be bitterly assailed on many hands as reflective of the regressive and primitive mindset.

In weeks, results of the Assembly elections 2011 in West Bengal will be before the country. The main contenders for power are the ruling Left Front (LF) on one hand, and Indian National Congress (INC) and Trinamul Congress (TMC) on the other. The lists of candidates, though pregnant with immense social significance, have escaped attention and analysis. Psephologists and academics engage themselves animatedly in such exercises, if it concerns the BIMARU States. Alarm alleging politics of caste against the major players is sounded. Unbridled criticism, sarcasm, admonition or condemnation are reserved for Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav as the avatars as also benefactors of caste politics.

The spectrum in West Bengal usually remains strangely enveloped in golden silence on such occasions, for reasons not intelligible though. No questions, no inquisitiveness whatsoever on this front is ever entertained or evinced. This defies explanation. Such attitude presupposes that things are perfectly harmonious. But Bengali electoral politics ab initio is as much steeped in caste and suffers from dominance by the microscopic social aristocrats as elsewhere in India, not excluding the BIMARU States!

A section of the Bengalis feigns that caste is anathema in politics as it is in their life and culture. The truth, however, belies the claim. Democracy cannot be divorced from demo-graphy. If so, the balance of benefit is cornered by a minuscule minority and democracy is a mere tool in their hands. West Bengal has since decades defied demography, and democracy is applied to suit the advantage and benefit of an oligarchy. A cursory look at the list of candidates fielded respectively by the LF as well as the INC-TMC combine for the forthcoming Assembly elections reveals an embarrassing ground reality aimed at dominance and subversion of the cardinal principles of democracy. The ruling Front, for instance, has favoured 59 Brahmans and the INC-TMC 58 of the same breed with tickets. TEN Left Front candidates bear the surname Bhattacharya and have captured the top slot among the priestly flock; SEVEN Mukherjee, FIVE Chatterjee, and THREE Chakraborty in order followed suit. Banerjee, Maitra, Bagchi, Ganguly, Mishra, Mahapatra, Roychoudhuri, Roy, etc. supply the rest of the Left luminaries from the sacred community.

In the seventh LF Government, there were ELEVEN Mukherjees who were MLAs, belonging to the CPM. No other party, including the Opposition, boasted of a Mukherjee as an MLA. Alas! the Bhattacharyas this time have pushed the Mukherjees out of the position of primacy in nomination under the red banner.

The rival INC-TMC coalition together have deployed 58 Brahmans including SIX Bhatta-charya, SIX Chakraborty, SIX Mukherjee, FOUR Chatterjee and FOUR Banerjee at the hustings. Others of the Opposition brigade are Roy, Batabyal, Mishra, Pande, Majumdar, Ghatak, Ghosal, etc.

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CASTE enumeration in census being stopped after 1931, we have no reliable data save and except the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. In 1931 Bengal returned Hindus, 2,32,12,069 including 14,47,691 Brahman, 15,58,475 Kayastha and 1,10,730 Baidya and Muslims 2,78,10,100. The three upper caste euphemistically called bhadralok aggregated 31,16,905 souls and accounted for a mere 6.1 per cent of the population in 1931.1 In the absence of up-to-date data, we assume that the same ratio of bhadralok in the West Bengal population prevails even now, notwithstanding the havoc of partition in 1947.

The Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee Council has sixteen Brahmans as Ministers, accounting for 48 per cent of his outgoing Cabinet. With the Kayasthas and Baidyas, he has packed 69 per cent of his Ministry with bhadralok alone.

There are 40 Muslim MLAs in this Assembly but five Ministers, though they comprise 23.6 per cent of the State’s population. Fiftyeight Assembly constituencies are reserved for Scheduled Castes and 17 for Scheduled Tribes. Excluding those 75 reserved constituencies, the LF’s Brahman candidates account for 20.06 per cent of the unreserved seats whereas the INC-TMC fielded the priestly class to the extent of 19.72 per cent, a shade less than their political rivals.

For the 2011 elections, 57 Muslims have been favoured with nomination by the LF. The bonanza of the INC-TMC for them is the same too. Fortytheree Kayasthas and Baidyas have made into the INC-TMC candidate list whereas 36 of them seem to have bagged the LF tickets. There was a time under Jyoti Basu, when Baidyas and Kayasthas didn’t play second fiddle to the Brahmans as they do nowadays under their prince, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The INC-TMC have granted 14.6 per cent of their tickets to Kayasthas and Baidyas, who together account for a mere 3.5 per cent (approx.) of the population. The LF has been less generous by allowing 12.3 per cent seats to Ghosh, Bose, Guha, Mitra, Dutta, etc. who embellish the list of the main contenders.

The tri-castes (bhadralok) alone account for candidates in elections more than their proportion to the population. This perverts democracy, denying legitimate share to others proportionate to their communities and creates vested interest. The bhadralok apart, no other community boasts of a share of tickets even equivalent to their proportionate strength in population. Under-representation of any community distorts the democratic spirit and impairs the character of the polity. Here begins political injustice and political immorality that breeds discontent, the precursor to violence and extremism. In a situation as this, political injustice cannot be reformed by awakening the moral conscience. That is why the wronged communities resort to violence to undo the mischief of the minority.

Thanks to the constitutional safeguard, the SCs and STs get due share of representation. But then the Buddhadeb Government does not have a tribal as a Cabinet Minister, on presumptuous incompetence albeit merit. Democracy is not all about merit; it’s about participation of all sections in governance.

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WHAT have been the actual and potential upshots of disproportionate acquisition of political muscle by 6.1 per cent people in colonial and post-partition Bengal? Bengal suffered and Bengalis slided down the slope in accelerated speed to the doom. The minority, welding unbridled political and administrative clout, has virtually turned everyone against them, manifesting fissiparous tendencies since the early twentieth century. No other province suffered as much political disaster as Bengal. A minority tenaciously dominated the commanding heights of political and adminis-trative tools exclusively to their advantage. They blamed the British for “divide and rule†but mastered the same art as also craft under the Imperial rulers’ feet with brazen disregard for fellow Bengalis at large.

The language, literature and cultural celebra-tions or visual media of the Bengali ruling class smack of acerbic arrogance, blind prejudice, or vile innuendos against the masses through subtle signs or gestures and cryptic language beyond their comprehension. A professor described a girl, the first ever graduate of her tribe in a university classroom, as the member of a criminal tribe. Her protests against continued harassment over three years went unheeded leading her ultimately to commit suicide in 1993.2 The tormentor, a Brahman, was exonerated by a commission of inquiry headed by a fellow retired High Court judge. Partha Chakraborty and Sudipta Banerjee led deputations to ventilate grievances of the health employees to the Superintendent, Dr Ujjwal Biswas, in Murshidabad in 2007. As a gesture of courtesy, tea was offered over discussion to the two leaders who turned it down saying: “We do not accept tea from Scheduled Castes.†3 Authorities did not take action against the offenders. A school teacher’s wife offered puja at a temple after a bath in a pond adjacent to it in the Hooghly. The panchayat levied a fine of Rs 50,000 on the poor low-caste teacher for polluting the pond as well as the temple used by superior breeds. An erudite Bengali editor of The Statesman, Calcutta, in an article in the edit page, blamed the Namasudra caste, the erstwhile Chandals, as being wholly responsible for supply of “manpower for West Bengal’s politico-criminal underworld†besides “collapse of civic amenity†of the Calcutta metropolis.4 A persual of caste-specific crime data collected during colonial rule and the administrative reports would batter the ego of the bhadralok vis-a-vis chotalok despite the former’s tremendous ability for mounting pressure on the police, magistracy and judicial officers through various questionable means even in the colonial era. Lord Macaulay’s portrayal of the Bengali resorting to perjury, forgery, chicanery and falsehood is still relevant. Nevertheless in Bengali literature, chotalok and minorities are routinely portrayed as rapists, arsonists, rioters, pickpockets, contract killers, pimps, brothel keepers etc. The cure for malice is yet to be invented by the scientific world.

Darjeeling has been in turmoil since the 1980s. The agitation of Rajbanshis for a separate State in North Bengal is older than the Gorkha movement. Now tribal communities in the area of Jangal Mahal are in ferment. The mere fact that discontent has been brewing among vast sections is a pointer to criminal negligence of the ruling class towards them. Stifling domination of every inch of space—social, political, adminis-trative or cultural life— by the same narcissistic bhadralok clan is accountable squarely for all the ills the State confronts now.

True, there is no room for abdication of political aspirations by the class in favour of the less privileged communities. Nor does a class ever forgo pecuniary interests for upholding principles and honouring moral conviction towards the underprivileged in the society. Vested interest is out to bedevil relations in a society marked by the notion of preordained graded inequality and inequity. They perpetuate themselves by means and justification that calculatedly hurt those on the other side of the fence.

And the impact of the power game is all too evident, no matter whether it is noted or not by the partisan intelligentsia. What in the BIMARU States is considered widely as caste politics and denounced roundly is connived at, if even the worse is practised, in Bengal under the garb of superior culture and sophistication. At this rate, one may apprehend, is the time far off when the Bengalis will have nothing left to rule except a city state, for example, Calcutta? Someone must muster courage to tell on their face that the king is naked.

The change, as the heightened hype wants us to believe, after the Assembly elections 2011 may visit West Bengal but that would, by all indications and standards, elude the masses. The bottle, the wine in it and even the stink may intuitively be apprehended to be the one and the same, save and except the glossy level affixed thereon.

In the nick of time a Left prophet has issued a deafening warning of impending doomsday:

Any weakening of the Left weakens the democratic revolution in our country and hence our march to “modernity†. India’s march to “modernity†requires not 8, 9, 10, or 11 per cent growth rate; it requires a carrying forward of the democratic revolution. This is the touchstone by which all political formations have to be judged, and on this criterion the Left, notwithstanding all its weaknesses, emerges superior to all other political formations.5

Thirtyfive years of Left rule is long enough to judge the modernists. Democracy has been turned upside down and ravished thoroughly for minority gains.

REFERENCES

1. A.K. Biswas, “West Bengal Election 2006—A Review of Results and Analysis of Social Implication and Political Repercussions†, Journal of Social & Economic Studies, Vol. XVIII, January-June 200, No. 1, A. N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, pp. 1-27.

2. Falguni Chakraborty, an anthropology teacher in Vidyasagar University in Midnapur, victimised Chuni Kotal as belonging to a criminal tribe. The Justice S. S. Gangopadhyay Commission of Inquiry gave a clean chit to the accused. The West Bengal Police did not invoke the Scheduled Caste & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 against the accused.

3. Ananda Bazar Patrika published the story in 2007. The date and issue number I do not remember.

4. Sunanda K. Datta Ray, “Deceit in the East†article in The Statesman, August 6, 1989, Calcutta.

5. Prabhat Patnaik, “Why the Left Matters†, The Indian Express, March 17, 2011, New Delhi—reprinted in Mainstream, March 26, 2011, New Delhi.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He can be contacted at born.bengali@gmail.com

(Prof Prabhat Patnaik is the Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board having formerly been a Professor of Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; he is also one of the intellectual pillars of the CPI-M. His piece, “Why the Left Matters†, in The Indian Express (March 17, 2011) was reproduced, with due acknowledgement, in this journal’s March 26, 2011 issue along with a rejoinder by noted journalist Barun Das Gupta. Subsequently Sailendra Nath Ghosh’s communication and the Mainstream editor’s note on the subject appeared in this journal’s April 16, 2011 issue. Here is another rejoinder to Prof Patnaik’s piece by K.N. Ramachandran, the CPI-ML General Secretary (who has permitted the reproduction of the following piece from the CPI-ML’s central organ) alongwith a communication from well-known scientist Dr D.P. Sen.)

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