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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 33 New Delhi August 6, 2016

Caste Factor in West Bengal Elections: Some Reflections

Wednesday 10 August 2016

by Ayan Guha

It is a well-known fact that caste has always remained a marginal factor in the domain of organised electoral politics in West Bengal. However, the electoral decline of the Left Front sparked off some anticipation about the enhanced role of caste in the future politics of the State.

The hypothesis regarding the enhanced role of caste in the organised politics of the State gained some plausibility in academic discussions due to two concrete developments. First, there was an increasing political correspondence between Matua Mahasangha (MM), an organisation of the Matuas, with mainstream political parties. The Matuas are a religious sect mostly belonging to the lower caste Namasudra community. Another important factor was the formation of a Social Justice Forum by Abdur Rezzak Mollah, a former Left Front Minister, with the goal to fight for the combined interests of the Dalits and minorities.

Although such developments were at a rudimentary stage, it was envisaged that they would unleash some long-term tendencies in favour of the consolidation of caste forces in the electoral politics of the State. However, these developments, which a few years ago raised hopes about the political incarnation of caste, seem to have largely petered out. As a result, in the recently concluded Assembly elections in West Bengal, the caste issue did not play any significant role. Even in the run-up to the elections, the question of caste did not find any prominent place in the overall political agenda.

Disunity and Demographic Disability: The Curious Case of Matua Mahasangha

The rise of MM received a great deal of attention from the scholars and journalists. The Matuas, belonging mostly to lower caste Namasudras rallied behind the MM, which possibly played some minor role in influencing electoral outcomes in the local, State and national level elections held in the State since 2008. Ms Mamta Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress (TMC) reportedly gained the electoral support of the Matuas and the party reciprocated by appointing Saha-Sanghadipati of the MM, Manjul Krishna Thakur, as the Minister of State for Refugee Rehabilitation and Relief. According to official estimates, there are two crore Matuas in India while as per the estimate of the MM, there are almost five crore Matuas, most being outside the electoral rolls. This is due to the fact that those who migrated to India from Bangladesh after 1971 have been denied citizenship in accordance with the 2003 Citizenship Amendment Act. The main demand of the MM is therefore citizenship for all the Matuas.

In West Bengal the Matuas are mainly concentrated in the North 24-Parganas around Bongaon and the adjoining parts of Nadia. According to the 2011 census, in Nadia the Namasudras number 9,03,186 amounting to 17.48 per cent of the district’s population and 58.39 per cent of the district’s Scheduled Caste population. In North 24-Parganas the Namsudras number 8,56,371 amounting to 8.56 per cent of the district’s population and 39.48 per cent of the district’s Scheduled Caste population. They are particularly concentrated in Kalyani, Haringhata, Bagda, Bongaon (North), Bongaon (South), Gaighata, Swarupnagar, Chakdaha, Ranaghat (North-east), Ranaghat (North-west) and Ranaghat (South) constituen-cies.

The MM elicited attention from political parties across the ideological spectrum since it was believed by many that it could guarantee en bloc support of the entire Namasudra community. However, of late the political significance of the organisation seems to have declined. The organisation currently does not seem to be in a position to mobilise the support of the entire community behind it. The entire community has become subject to the debilitating experience of political fragmentation with the MM unable to give clear political directions. The Matuas are generally expected to vote according to the wishes of Baroma, the spiritual leader of the sect, if she decides to hold before them a clear-cut political choice. Baroma put her weight behind Ms Mamata Banerjee before the 2011 elections. However, now the movement appears to be beset by internal feuds. This prevented the emergence of a clear-cut political choice equipped with the backing of all sections of the Thakur family in the recently concluded Assembly elections.

Manjul Krishna Thakur, the son of Baroma Binapani Devi, and Subrata Thakur, the son of Manjul Krishna Thakur, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) just before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Subrata Thakur fought on a BJP ticket from the Bongaon constituency against his aunt, Mamatabala Devi, the wife of late Kapil Krishna Thakur, Baroma Binapani Devi’s elder son. After the defeat of Subrata Thakur, his father Manjul Krishna Thakur passed into political oblivion losing his ministerial position and previous political prominence. However, the entire episode sent wrong political signals. It divulged the inability of the MM to mobilise the support of the entire Matua or Namasudra community in favour of a single party.

The recent election results also to some extent seem to have made this evident. While the TMC won 40 out of the total 50 seats in Nadia and North 24 Pargana, it failed to win three constituencies with particularly large presence of the Namasudras—Ranaghat (North-west) and Ranaghat (South) and Bagda. The defeat of the party’s Scheduled Caste face, Upen Biswas, in the Bagda constituency is particularly significant. Therefore, due to internal dissensions within the Thakur family the actual political loyalties of the family members and their supporters now seem dubious. Under such circumstances, it is a risky business to bank on a politically fragmented community, particularly when there is a chance that too much patronage to the Namasudra community could end up alienating the other numerically important caste groups. This is because there is not much commonality when it comes to the demands of the major lower caste groups of like Rajbanshis (17.71 per cent), Namasudras (16.33 per cent), Bagdi (14.25 per cent), Pods (11.42 per cent), Bauri (5.72 per cent) and Chamars (4.84 per cent).1 These communities are at different stages of development and the indicators of their backwardness are not much comparable unlike in some other States of India. While a large number of the members of the communities like Bagdi (61.41 per cent), Chamar (60.04 per cent), Bauri (50.50 per cent) are still illiterate and uneducated, the Namasudras (79.52 per cent) and Pods (79.75 per cent) are relatively educated to demand jobs and reservation.2

Moreover, demands for refugee rehabilitation and citizenship rights are peculiar to the Namasudras only. Similarly, another numeri-cally significant group, the Rajbanshis, are focused on the demand for territorial autonomy which has absolutely no relevance for other caste groups. Therefore, it is difficult to forge a common front of all the depressed groups along the lines of caste on the basis of some common agenda. On the other hand, increasingly association with one particular caste group may also prove counter-productive since such a political strategy may antagonise other groups due to mismatch between the demands of various caste groups. However, despite such mismatch, endorsement of the interests of particular caste groups has often provided rich dividends to political parties in various states. But in West Bengal such a strategy has never seemed prudent. The reason for this lies in the absence of dominant caste both in numeric and economic terms over a substantial geographical area. Though there is a large number of castes but unlike in other parts of country there is less possibility of one middle or lower caste to dominate a large area. Comparing the situation with Kerala, Nossiter has found nothing equivalent to the Nairs or Ezhavas.3 Only in parts of a few districts certain castes enjoy some dominance because of their numerical preponderance such as Rajbanshis in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri districts and the Mahisyas in Midnapore. Such a demographic situation implies that it is not politically feasible to formulate a caste based political agenda.

Furthermore, in terms of landholding no caste can be termed ‘dominant’ across the length and breadth of the State. Historical research has revealed that Bengali jotedars have never been homogeneous in terms of caste composition. The zamindars and zamindari tenure holders, which are collectively described as the class of gentry primarily, belonged to the three upper castes. But the caste background of the jotedars, who were in actual control of the village land and rural economy, belonged to diverse caste backgrounds. Many of them belonged to the upper castes. But a great many of them came from diverse lower and middle castes such as Sadgops, Namasudras, Aguris and Kaivartas. Such diverse caste origins of the landholding class prevented their transformation into a cohesive Political support base for the Congress party, as were, for example, the Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka, or the Kammas and the Reddis in Andhra Pradesh. Today, the upper castes such as Brahmans and Kayasthas are concentrated in certain districts and hold large amount of land there. However, in other districts landownership is possessed primarily by lower castes such as Sadgops, Namasudras, Aguris and Kaivartas. Such a system of land distribution has prevented crystallisation of political demands along caste lines.4

Under such a scenario, a neutral approach to the question of caste appears to be a wise political strategy. As a result, all political parties seem to have cautiously distanced themselves from the MM and turned non-committal on the citizenship demand of the Matuas. On the other hand, the members of the Thakur family, who enjoyed sufficient limelight even two years back, have now become increasingly isolated from mainstream politics. Consequently, the media has also turned its attention away from the MM and the rallies and demands made by the community are often going unnoticed. This time the pre-election rally organised by the community in Kolkata a few months back failed to generate any news in the mainstream print and electronic media while a similar kind of rally organised in December 2010 had generated a great deal media attention by bringing the then CPI-M Minister, Gautam Deb, and the TMC’s Mukul Roy on the same dais.

The indifference of the mainstream Bengali society towards such caste-based interest-articulation can also be attributed in some measure to the age-old bhadralok tendency to deliberately push the question of caste under the carpet, demonstrating in the process the apparent civility and secular credentials of their political culture, which due to several complex reasons has more or less maintained a secular Left-liberal character at least in outward modes of manifestation, that is, rhetoric and policy-commitments.5 Presently, electoral calculations seem to have concretised such socio-cultural tendencies, making them even more entrenched.

Marginality to Oblivion: Silencing Social Justice

Abdul Rezzak Mollah, who held the important portfolio of Land and Land Reforms in the Left Front Ministry, formed the Social Justice Forum in 2014. Thereafter, he was expelled from the CPI-M for anti-party activities. The Social Justice Forum was virtually synonymous with Mollah and came to be solely identified with him as other members of the Front were ill-equipped with any kind of political standing. However, it failed to become a political force to reckon with. The Forum was supposed to contest the 2016 Assembly elections appealing to the Dalit and minority voters. Mollah urged the Dalits and minorities to desist from political schism and fight against the bhadralok domination of the mainstream political parties. The outspoken leader claimed that his purpose was see a Dalit as West Bengal’s Chief Minister with a Muslim as his deputy. Thus, he envisaged some kind of a ‘Mulayam-Mayawati model’ to make dent into the bhadralok hegemony.

However, Mollah, being a seasoned and veteran leader, seemed to be aware of the existing limitations of caste politics in Bengal. This was evident from his wait-and-watch approach. His Front did not contest the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and decided to wait till the distant 2016 Assembly elections. Perhaps, he wanted to buy time and see the response of the targeted communities towards his political gestures. Unfortunately, the response was largely muted. Mollah’s expulsion from the CPI-M failed to agitate the Dalit public opinion in the State and solidarity gestures from other political parties also did not seem to be forthcoming. This clearly brought out that in modern Bengal, caste politics does face some kind of a “legitimacy crisis”.

Amidst such a scenario, before the Assembly elections, Mollah took a surprising u-turn by joining the TMC. He contested on a TMC ticket, achieved electoral victory and was inducted into the newly formed Ministry. With this development the issue of social justice seems to have completely fallen off the political agenda. Thus, for the political programme of social justice the recent shift has unfortunately been from marginality to oblivion.

Concluding Observations

Time and again the bhadralok politics in West Bengal has succeeded in preventing the creation of an autonomous arena of Dalit politics by co-opting the Dalits.6 The Dalits were co-opted through careful employment of the strategy of selective accommodation and tactful intervention in Dalit consciousness. However, in the current scenario it seems that the mainstream political forces can look beyond selective accommodation and afford to adopt a more uncompromising posture bringing about more damaging outcomes for the Dalits. Such outcomes may include crippling political impotency derivative of a disjuncture from the prevailing political currents as experienced by the MM or complete metamorphosis of the political lexicon derivative of an unexpected inversion of political consciousness as exemplified by Mollah’s slippery political trajectory.


1. Figures in the bracket refer to the 2001 census figures of the percentage of the population of individual castes in the total population of the Dalits.

2. The 2011 census figures of the percentage of literates in each caste group have been mentioned within the bracket.

3. T. J Nossiter, Marxist State Governments in India (London: Pinter Publishers, 1988), p. 120.

4. See, Atul Kohli, “From Breakdown to Order: West Bengal” in State and Politics in India edited by Partha Chatterjee (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 339-341. Atul Kohli, “From Elite Radicalism to Democratic Consolidation: The Rise of Reform Communism in West Bengal” in Dominance and State Power in Modern India: Decline of a Social Order, vol. 2 edited by M.S.A. Rao and Francine Frankel (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 398-99. Rajat Ray and Ratna Ray, “Zamindars and Jotedars: A Study of Rural Politics in Bengal”, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 1975, p. 84.

5. See, Arvind Kumar and Ayan Guha, “The Political Future of Caste in West Bengal”, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 49, no. 32, August 2014, p. 74.

6. I am not suggesting that force was never used. The Marichjhapi incident was a classic case of blatant use of violence. However, co-option remained a preferred strategy while violence was the last resort.

Dr Ayan Guha is a Doctoral Scholar at the Dr K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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