Opinion

How Mamata Banerjee brought identity back into West Bengal politics (and why that's a good thing)

Lacking structure or ideology, the TMC has latched onto subaltern identities for support and given them an unprecedented amount of political exposure.

For a major religious centre of pilgrimage, Ramkeli in West Bengal's Malda district is rather modest. It contains a small 500-year-old temple built by two Brahmin ministers of the then Bengal Sultan, Hossain Shah, in honour of the medieval saint Chaitanya, founder of the Gaudiya Vaishnavism sect. Not much has changed since the time of Hossain Shah but there is one new addition to the complex – an 11-foot-tall lifelike statue of Chaitanya. Madan Panigrahi, the priest at the temple is visibly pleased with it. “The Trinamool minister Krishnendu Narayan Chowdhury got this put up two years ago,” he said. “He has done a lot for Ramkeli and this area.”

A statue at a religious place might not seem like much but Ramkeli is a vital window into the ruling Trinamool Congress's way of functioning in Bengal. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is attacked for her identity politics, especially by the right wing for her so-called Muslim appeasement. In Ramkeli, there is also identity politics – but of a kind not much talked about. Bengal’s Vaishnavs form a large segment of the state’s population and are usually drawn from the lower castes. Courting them using their Vaishnav identify is a new phenomenon in Bengali politics. And Ramekli isn’t alone. Five years of Banerjee’s rule has seen the slow political emergence of low-caste subaltern identities, till now kept away from the high table of power by both the Congress and the Left.

The Namasudra movement

In this, the most visible – and also electorally most rewarding – support base have been the Matuas of south Bengal. The Matuas are a religious sect almost exclusively drawn from the Namasudras, Bengal’s largest Dalit caste (earlier called Chandals – a term widely regarded as derogatory now).

Namasudras have led a long struggle against upper caste hegemony in Bengal and were one of the pioneers of Dalit politics in the subcontinent. Namasudra leaders such a Jogendranath Mondal allied with Bhimrao Ambedkar to reject the Congress, which was seen as a largely upper caste body. Partition, however, greatly affected the Namasudras, since they were mostly concentrated in East Bengal. To make things worse, the Congress and then the Left Front governments largely ignored the Namasudra refugees, who kept streaming in in large numbers right till the 1980s.

CPI(M) neglect

While neglect by the Congress was almost expected given the antagonistic nature of Namasudra-Congress relations before 1947, what was surprising was to see the Communists sticking to the same template. In 1977, when the first Left Front government took power, it didn’t contain a single Dalit minister. When Kanti Biswas, a Namasudra from the CPI(M) raised a hue and cry about this, chief minister Jyoti Basu asked, “We know the Scheduled Castes are socially and economically backward, but what is the justification to include someone of them as a minister?” Later, when the Mandal Commission would question Basu about Bengal’s castes, he would reply that he knew only two: rich and poor.

The Communist mono-doctrine of class and the fact that its leadership was almost completely savarna, or upper caste, made them blind to the lived reality of caste in Bengal. Unsurprisingly, there hasn’t been a single Dalit in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo since its formation in 1964. In fact, so terrible was the plight of Namasudra refugees under Left rule that often they weren’t even allowed to settle in their native Bengal, and were pushed to the jungles of Dandakaranya in Chhattisgarh and even the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Even worse, in 1979, the Left Front government conducted a mass killing of Namasudra refugees, infamously known as the Marichjhapi massacre.

Mamata and the Matuas

Fast-forward to 2011. Looking to overthrow the CPI(M)’s 34-year-long rule, Banerjee drastically changed the Namasudra power equation. She visited the home of Binapani Devi, the spiritual head of the Matua Mahasangha, and asked for her support. This direct call to a large Dalit caste was a game changer in Bengali politics and threw the Communists off guard. They had always relied on Namasudra support, but having the Matua identify at the high table of politics was something that the Communists – led by a staunchly savarna bhadralok vanguard – were unaccustomed to.

Of course, Banerjee had her own interests at heart. The Communists had a strong cadre base and party structure. The Trinamool, a hodgepodge of local toughs and Congress renegades, wanted to piggyback on the Matua Mahasangh – an attractive prospect given that massive Namasudra migration from East Bengal has meant that something like a quarter of West Bengal’s Assembly constituencies now have significant numbers of Matuas.

The gambit worked. Matua support is considered one of the key factors for Banerjee’s win in 2011. The contrast with the 1977 Left Front government, and Jyoti Basu’s attitude, was stark.

Matua political identity established

This opened the floodgates. During the 2014 elections, Narendra Modi courted the Namasudras, promising them full Indian citizenship – an ironic pitch given that it was a 2003 law passed by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-headed Bharatiya Janata Party government which had identified Bangladeshi refugees as "D", or doubtful voters. Before that, there were regular, if informal, channels for East Bengali immigrants to take Indian citizenship.

In this election, unlike 2011, there is no consolidated Matua backing of Banerjee and many factions of the sect are even supporting the CPI(M). But the start made in 2011 cannot be undone, and Dalit identity is now a definite factor in West Bengal’s politics.

Muslim identity

Of course, while Mamata has astutely played the politics of Matua identity, what has really made news is her courting of Muslims. But there is a caste angle here too, albeit a more muted one vis-à-vis the Matuas. In 2011, Banerjee had courted the Furfura Sharif shrine in Hooghly, around 2 hours from Kolkata. The Sufi shrine is patronised by large numbers of low caste, rural Bengali Muslims.

And while the Muslims have also voted for the CPI(M) in large numbers, like the Namasudras, they were rarely invited to the high table of politics, which remained dominated by upper castes. The Trinamool’s win changed that somewhat. For one, Muslims legislators in the West Bengal Assembly went up by nearly 30% in 2011 as compared to 2006. In 2011, 20% of TMC legislators were Muslims – a number which fell short of the state’s 27% Muslims but stands in impressive contrast to other states. For the 2016 elections, the TMC has nominated 57 Muslim candidates – a fifth of its total nominees.

Many urban Indians fail to see the link between identity and development, thinking the latter to be some sort of manna that descends from the heavens. However, examples like the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu or the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh have shown that development and identity are often coupled together.

Hindutva identity

Of course, when one lets loose the genie of identity, it is not only the subalterns who strike out. In June 2015, the Trinamool Congress paid floral tributes to Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which later evolved into the Bharatiya Janata Party. While any religious mobilisation of upper caste Hindus hasn’t happened as yet in West Bengal, a prising open of the Pandora’s box of identity also makes upper caste Hindutva politics a possibility sometime in the future.

One reason upper caste identity politics hasn’t caught on is that there’s simply no need. In spite of the early shoots of subaltern identities, West Bengal is still solidly dominated by bhadralok upper castes. Indeed, it is the only state in India in recent memory where two Brahmins – Mamata Banerjee and Surjya Kant Mishra – are fighting for the chief minister’s seat. In fact, since 1947, every West Bengal chief minister has been from the upper castes.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Why do our clothes fade, tear and lose their sheen?

From purchase to the back of the wardrobe – the life-cycle of a piece of clothing.

It’s an oft repeated story - shiny new dresses and smart blazers are bought with much enthusiasm, only to end up at the back of the wardrobe, frayed, faded or misshapen. From the moment of purchase, clothes are subject to wear and tear caused by nature, manmade chemicals and....human mishandling.

Just the act of wearing clothes is enough for gradual erosion. Some bodily functions aren’t too kind on certain fabrics. Sweat - made of trace amounts of minerals, lactic acid and urea - may seem harmless. But when combined with bacteria, it can weaken and discolour clothes over time. And if you think this is something you can remedy with an antiperspirant, you’ll just make matters worse. The chemical cocktail in deodorants and antiperspirants leads to those stubborn yellowish stains that don’t yield to multiple wash cycles or scrubbing sessions. Linen, rayon, cotton and synthetic blends are especially vulnerable.

Add to that, sun exposure. Though a reliable dryer and disinfectant, the UV radiation from the sun causes clothes to fade. You needn’t even dry your clothes out in the sun; walking outside on a sunny day is enough for your clothes to gradually fade.

And then there’s what we do to our clothes when we’re not wearing them - ignoring labels, forgetting to segregate while washing and maintaining improper storage habits. You think you know how to hang a sweater? Not if you hang it just like all your shirts - gravity stretches out the neck and shoulders of heavier clothing. Shielding your clothes by leaving them in the dry-cleaning bag? You just trapped them in humidity and foul odour. Fabrics need to breathe, so they shouldn’t be languishing in plastic bags. Tossing workout clothes into the laundry bag first thing after returning home? It’s why the odour stays. Excessive moisture boosts fungal growth, so these clothes need to be hung out to dry first. Every day, a whole host of such actions unleash immense wear and tear on our clothes.

Clothes encounter maximum resistance in the wash; it’s the biggest factor behind premature degeneration of clothes. Wash sessions that don’t adhere to the rules of fabric care have a harsh impact on clothes. For starters, extra effort often backfires. Using more detergent than is indicated may seem reasonable for a tub full of soiled clothes, but it actually adds to their erosion. Aggressive scrubbing, too, is counterproductive as it worsens stains. And most clothes can be worn a few times before being put in the wash, unless of course they are sweat-soaked gym clothes. Daily washing of regulars exposes them to too much friction, hastening their wear and tear.

Different fabrics react differently to these abrasive agents. Natural fabrics include cotton, wool, silk and linen and each has distinct care requirements. Synthetic fabrics, on the other hand, are sensitive to heat and oil.

A little bit of conscious effort will help your clothes survive for longer. You can start by lessening the forces acting on the clothes while washing. Sort your clothes by fabric instead of colour while loading them in the washing machine. This helps save lighter fabrics from the friction of rubbing against heavier ones. It’s best to wash denim materials separately as they are quite coarse. For the same reason, clothes should be unzipped and buttoned before being tossed in the washing machine. Turning jeans, printed clothes and shirts inside out while loading will also ensure any abrasion is limited to the inner layers only. Avoid overloading the washing machine to reduce friction between the clothes.

Your choice of washing tools also makes a huge difference. Invest in a gentler detergent, devoid of excessive dyes, perfumes and other unnecessary chemicals. If you prefer a washing machine for its convenience, you needn’t worry anymore. The latest washing machines are far gentler, and even equipped to handle delicate clothing with minimal wear and tear.


Bosch’s range of top loading washing machines, for example, care for your everyday wear to ensure they look as good as new over time. The machines make use of the PowerWave Wash System to retain the quality of the fabrics. The WaveDrum movement adds a top-down motion to the regular round action for a thorough cleaning, while the dynamic water flow reduces the friction and pulling forces on the clothes.

Play

The intelligent system also creates water displacement for better movement of clothes, resulting in lesser tangles and clothes that retain their shape for longer. These wash cycles are also noiseless and more energy efficient as the motor is directly attached to the tub to reduce overall friction. Bosch’s top loading washing machines take the guesswork away from setting of controls by automatically choosing the right wash program based on the load. All that’s needed is a one-touch start for a wash cycle that’s free of human errors. Read more about the range here. You can also follow Bosch on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Bosch and not by the Scroll editorial team.