Does the caste system really not exist in Bengal?

Sarbani Bandyopadhyay, Open Democracy, April 25, 2016

Indian caste system

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.

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
, 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
(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. 

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

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. 

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

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’. 

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

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.