Scholar Dwaipayan Sen noted in his book that distinguished civil servant Ashok Mitra once commented on Bengal’s politics that “there must be something odd about a state which, professedly so secular and anti-sectarian, has yet not produced a single Jagjivan Ram, Kamraj, Buta Singh, or Rafi Ahmed Kidwai to hold a major portfolio”. This conundrum is premised upon the notion that Bengal’s politics is exceptional as it is “casteless,” despite the presence of country’s second largest scheduled caste community – which has for long dominated the discourse on caste politics in West Bengal.

Caste conundrum

In the recent years, a plethora of scholarship attempts to debunk the myth of Bengal’s “exceptionalism.” Making a very significant contribution to this debate, Ayan Guha’s new book, The Curious Trajectory of Caste in West Bengal Politics: Chronicling Continuity and Change, is crucial in three ways. The book’s treatment of the research problem has been nuanced and multi-dimensional and the central argument offered is novel in a sense as it offers fresh perspective to the debate.

First, Guha’s work importantly looks beyond the existing linear absolutist narratives which argues that either Bengal politics is casteless and hence exceptional, or the notion of castelessness in Bengal is entirely erroneous, and caste prejudices work in Bengal as much as in other states in India, or with the decline of the left, caste politics have undeniably emerged to dominate the political discourse of Bengal.

Rather, the book seeks to make a nuanced unpacking of the caste problem in Bengal politics that is shaped by a contradiction. On the one hand, there is the presence of caste in social relations at the local level that continues to reproduce socio-economic inequalities in everyday lives, especially in rural areas. On the other, organised caste-based political mobilisation in the institutionalised formal political space of Bengal has been visibly absent. This study makes a concerted effort to understand this contradiction in order to reveal the factors that deter the caste dynamics at the micro-level from spilling over into the organised macro politics of the state.

Second, the book eclectically attempts to take a deep dive into a host of aspects, including representative politics, society, economy, demography, and political culture, in order to explore multi-dimensional reasoning to explain the caste conundrum in Bengal’s politics. The study ponders over the intersectionality of these overlapping factors to develop a nuanced perspective on how such aspects inform and shape the state’s political interaction with the caste and community dynamics.

Finally, Guha’s central proposition in the book makes a set of novel submissions that opens up newer dimensions to this debate. The book concludes that despite the decline of left politics and initiation of some issue-based electoral mobilisation of the Matua community (a heterodox sect who are refugees from East Pakistan belonging to the Namasudra Scheduled Caste group), there has been no substantial emergence of caste politics or rise in lower caste representation in the formal macro politics of the state owing to a host of political, socio-economic and cultural factors.

It further argues that the political ascendency of the BJP in Bengal especially since 2019 Lok Sabha elections, instead of paving the way for caste-based mobilisation, has unveiled the political narrative of Hindutva to co-opt the lower castes, mostly Dalit refugees, who have the memory of partition and resultant communal violence of that time. Hence, besides offering a multifarious explanation for the lack of caste-based politics at the macro-level even after post-Left era, the book sheds light on the trends of contemporary politics of caste in the state which, the author argues, is increasingly being shaped by BJP’s Hindutva-based mobilisation project based on Hinduisation of the lower-caste Matuas.

Caste versus class

Apart from the introductory and concluding sections, the book is systematically and thematically structured into six chapters dealing with factors that include political mobilisation and political representation, updated demographic dynamics in the state, the political economy, socio-economic and cultural dynamics at the local level, and the political culture that has shaped the macro-politics of the state.

First, the book notes how sporadic caste-based mobilisation of the Matuas by the ruling TMC in the state has been followed by BJP’s recently initiated more systematic political mobilisation of Matuas by Hinduisation of their dalit identity. However, the study further notes that despite some form of caste-based mobilisation of the Matuas after the decline of the Left, there has been no substantial increase in the political representation of lower castes in the political institutions of the state.

Also, the author uses data from the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) of 2011 in order to highlight the demographic challenges to caste-based political mobilisation and difficulties in politically aggregating the socio-economic interests of different caste groups in the state.

The book notes that Bengal’s demographic landscape is marked by the “absence of a dominant caste, fragmentation of the intermediate castes, limited geographical spread of the lower, and intermediate castes and comparable demographic strength of major lower caste groups having different and even divergent demands.” Such demographic factors have derailed the prospects of large-scale caste politics in the state.

In the subsequent chapter, the study provides a material explanation for the absence of coherent
caste-based politics in the state. It is observed that the large sections of landholders in the state belonged to different caste backgrounds, preventing them from forming a cohesive political bloc. Also, as “dalits and non-dalits in the state are, more or less, similarly placed in terms of possession of land holdings,” the lower castes suffer from a lesser degree of relative deprivation in comparison with the upper castes, disincentivising the condition for fostering lower caste solidarity around material demands.

Also, the uneven development of various lower caste groups has made the needs and demands of various lower castes different from one another, making the prerequisite for finding a common ground for unified political mobilisation of lower castes extremely difficult. Very importantly, the work touches upon the extremely crucial aspect of political culture that has obfuscated the upsurge of lower caste-based politics in the state.

A kind of political culture which instilled a bhadrolok culture that has been wedded with the Marxist or left-wing political thought has strengthened over time since the advent of the Left Front rule, and has continued during TMC rule. It has been adopted by the TMC leadership, which has led to the “ideological subsumption of the discourse of caste by that of class.” The author’s ethnographic study suggests that in rural Bengal, “caste plays a prominent role is securing economic and political relations between groups.”

No caste-based political agenda

But still caste is not overtly deployed as a “conscious vocabulary of socio-economic marginalisation” in rural West Bengal due to the dominant bhadralok culture. Guha makes a sincere effort to unpack the idiosyncratic dynamics of bhadrolok culture in Bengal, which has perpetuated itself resiliently as a “normative structure of legitimisation”.

Though the term bhadralok historically refers to the upper-caste, educated, and aristocratic sections of people who thrived on social honour rather than caste or other traditional identity concerns, it became a largely open category in which non-upper castes could also be accommodated through westernised education and certain cultural and life style attributes.

The book notes that though the majority of the lower strata of the intermediate and lower castes couldn’t directly join the bhadralok community, the legitimisation of the bhadralok value system “by the upwardly mobile sections have led to its internalisation as the model code of conduct by all groups placed at the different layers of the socio-economic spectrum.”

Elements like’ the invocation of Bengali asmita (pride), articulation of the narrative of Centre’s step motherly attitude towards West Bengal, appropriation of the legacy of legal luminaries. and most importantly, use of pro-poor language and left-wing rhetoric of class politics constituted the core of the bhadralok-dominated political culture in the state, keeping the possibility of caste-based political agenda at bay. Guha observes that though this bhadralok political culture remains entrenched, obstructing caste-based political agenda, the advent of tje BJP in the state reveals chances of ushering in a religion-based politics that seeks to subsume lower-caste identity into Hindutva’s fold.

Guha’s book undoubtedly makes a rich contribution to the vibrant debate on caste politics and political culture in Bengal. However, taking a cue from the book, there are two questions which might need further problematisation and investigation. First, with the advent of the BJP as a potential political force in the last few years, how far can the existing bhadralok political culture dilute itself to accommodate the grammar of religion-based identity politics at the formal macro-level politics of the state, despite the Hinduisation of Matua-dalit identity at the local level?

Second, in what ways is the BJP’s targeted mobilisation of lower-caste groups based on specific demands of recognition and redistribution to create a broad-based social coalition for Hindutva-centric mobilisation in Bengal different from its effective political appeal in other states? The book is definitely an important read for observers of Bengal politics and broader caste dynamics in Indian democracy.

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