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Why We Need to Speak of Caste in Bengal

Sumedh Bhagwan Ranvir, M.P. Terence Samuel and Sipoy Sarveswar
Apr 24, 2024
Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Rabindranath Tagore never met. But their ideals overlap. There is no better place than Visva-Bharati to reignite discussions on caste.

The Department of Marathi and the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes’ Welfare Association at Bengal’s Visva-Bharati University recently organised an international seminar titled ‘Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and 75 years of the Indian Constitution and Democracy’. It was to commemorate the 133rd birth anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar.

Many renowned Ambedkarite scholars, activists, and dignitaries from across the world and country participated in the celebrations. Many spoke about the need for revisiting Dr. Ambedkar’s writings and his contributions to the formation of a new and modern India – based on the ideals of human rights and constitutional values – as distinct from the old order dictated by hierarchical caste structures.

A resurgence of dialogue

The practice of celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti started in 2012 and has been organised continuously for the last 12 years. Even during the pandemic, the conference was organised online. However, when the lockdown was eased, the organisers had a different challenge from the then Vice-Chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty, who refused permission to hold the seminar in the Visva-Bharati premises on the eve of Ambedkar Jayanti. The Welfare Association was forced to find other means. The celebrations took place unhindered at another venue.

It is pertinent to mention that Chakraborty was also called for a hearing by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (based on a complaint filed by an employee) for his remarks against the employees of SC, ST, and OBC communities.

The return of Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations again to the Lipika auditorium of Visva-Bharati with the help of the current acting vice chancellor marks a remarkable moment in resuming the dialogue on caste and the contributions of Ambedkar and Tagore at the university in particular and Bengal in general. 

There is a popular discourse among the influential sections of Bengal (as well as the academia, perhaps) that denies the existence of caste and caste-based discrimination in the day-to-day functioning of the state.

However, surnames or caste names do not allow the invisibilisation of graded inequality of the caste structure and the privileges and discriminations that come with it. Caste operates differently in Bengal than the rest of the country, leading to the opinion that caste doesn’t exist in Bengal. This seems to be an accepted view, upheld consistently by the elite and ‘upper’ caste.  This popular notion is further accentuated by the class discourse which subsumes and eclipses the prevalence of caste practices as a mere economic category of class, rather than understanding the intersectionality of class, caste, religion, and gender in the operation of caste.

The categorisation of people into badhralok (elite or decent people indicating the educated, wealthy, and ‘upper’ caste), chhotolok (uneducated, indecent, poor, and people from lower castes), and kajerlok (the working class) is very interesting. Can there be a population that is not required to work? And if so, whose labour they are exploiting? How can they survive without working? If caste doesn’t exist in Bengal, why do people insist on maintaining surnames or caste names?

Also read: Why Is Caste an ‘Absent-Present’ Category in Bengal Politics?

Suppression of ‘caste’

Harish S. Wankhede, professor at the Centre for Political Studies at JNU, who delivered a keynote speech as chief guest for the international seminar, pointed out how certain states operate to suppress Dalit assertion to bring Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s vision of attaining political power to life. Suppression is to deny the existence of caste to maintain the status quo associated with the social and cultural capital and the privileges of the bhadralok. 

It is true that Dr Ambedkar and Tagore, being contemporaries, have never interacted and engaged with each other. Dr. Ambedkar, leading the movement and at constant war against the oppressive social order (which he called the ‘Hindu social order’) and its ritual sanctification of the caste system, envisioned ways to bring change in the social system. He wanted society to be guided by the constitutional values that guarantee universal human rights (which he called ‘free social order’ based on the inextricable link between liberty, equality, and fraternity) rather than an age-old caste system that is highly discriminative and exploitative. 

Tagore, on the other hand, was a constant learner. In his versatility and espousal of humanism, he was heavily influenced by the works of Kabir, Guru Nanak, Santh Thukaram, and Lalan Fakir, who were speaking against the caste system and preaching humanity to society. Tagore’s notions of humanism, nationalism, internationalism, communal harmony, gender sensitivity, and caste have been highly influenced by these poets and social reformers who spoke about equality and social justice.

Tagore went on to vehemently speak against the caste system and its discriminative and exploitative nature in the later stages of his life. He also embraced Buddhist ideas and incorporated them into the warp of the Brahmo movement. It is evident that Tagore was engaging with the caste through his play Chandalika (about an ‘untouchable’ girl), and many of his writings reflect on the issues of ‘untouchables’ and the caste system.

Tagore was closely following the discussions of untouchability and the caste system through his dialogues with Gandhi. When Gandhi launched a hunger strike against the demand for a separate electorate by Dr. Ambedkar, Tagore wrote a telegram to Gandhi, which is also believed to have had an impact on his (Tagore’s) play Chandalika to the extent that he changed the climax of the play from its earliest conception.

A dress code and tradition

The ‘upper’ castes, which benefit from the preservation of the graded inequality of the caste system, refuse to acknowledge, engage, and change the existing hierarchical social order. In Bengal, unlike other parts of India, sustained denial of the existence of caste system, thus works to oppress. 

 This is also reflected in romanticising the aesthetic appreciations of Tagore and turning a blind eye to his social concerns. Tagore too has raised uncomfortable questions about the practice of untouchability and the caste system. This attitude is reflected in most academic engagements with abstract epistemological, metaphysical, and normative moral questions surrounding Tagore.

Given the general operative mechanism of caste and the denial of the very existence of caste in the society of Bengal, it becomes important to discuss caste, democracy, and constitutional values through the contributions of Dr. Ambedkar. However, this academic and very pivotal societal intervention does not go unchallenged. Anand Bazar Patrika published a news report in Bengali right after the seminar noting the ‘controversy’ over an alleged violation of the dress code when students in modern dress welcomed guests. This controversy seems to be nothing but an attack in disguise. Such forces that try to hide under the garb of protecting tradition and make issues out of nothing are, in fact, casteist. Tagore himself was not immune to such criticism – for taking female students on tour to with his plays and for raising funds for Visva-Bharati. Making an issue out of such trivial matters goes against the ideal of Tagore who was unconventional and encouraged students – especially women – to break away from the traditional hold. 

Also read: West Bengal’s Landscape Is Shifting from ‘Party Society’ to ‘Caste Politics’

A resolve

The fact that this controversy has grabbed eyeballs rather than Visva-Bharati’s critical engagement with the theories and practices of Ambedkar is telling of the extent of resistance to progressive outlooks. Progressive knowledge discourses are subverted and distorted, by those having control over access to the apparatus of knowledge dissemination.

This highlights how social emancipatory and transformative political discourses on Dalit, Adivasi, and gender discriminations are a hard-fought struggle in a casteist and patriarchal society. As we have witnessed throughout the history of India, casteist and patriarchal gender norms and religious codifications try to control ‘untouchable’ communities and women.

In spite of 75 years of independence, such moral policing in the guise of a ‘dress code’ continues unabated. Thus tradition is used as a shield and camouflage to suppress the emergence of any emancipatory discourses towards the annihilation of Brahminical patriarchy.

Such instances bring to the fore the necessity to reinforce our unwavering commitment to constitutional values and intellectually engage with Dr. Ambedkar and Tagore’s visions.

Visva-Bharati’s idea was ‘Atra Visvam Bhavatieka Nidam’ which means that it is a place ‘where the whole world meets in a single nest.’

Sumedh Bhagwan Ranvir, M.P. Terence Samuel and Sipoy Sarveswar are assistant professors and Ambedkarites at Visva-Bharati. The authors acknowledge the assistance of Naina Das in preparing this article.  

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