Caste virus is dynamic


West Bengal does not usually feature in the list of Indian states with caste discrimination. Uddalak Mukherjee and Anusua Mukherjee travel to Malda and discover that the real picture might be different .

Pic01: Any sign of change? 
“No group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself… Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.”

— Simone de Beauvoir, Preface to The Second Sex.

Sunil Sarkhel, member of the Aktail gram panchayat in Malda, sat smugly in his stationary shop and gave us supercilious looks when we approached him for a chat. We were made to understand that his time was precious, juggling it, as he was, between conducting business from his shop, attending calls on his mobile and imparting counsel to villagers and comrades. With a voice of authority, he painted a glorious picture of the developments in his panchayat over the last few years. When interrupted and asked whether he thought that caste discriminations exist in his village, he dismissed our question with a disdainful ‘no’. Looking away from us, he declared that the problems from which the villages suffer — such as the lack of water for irrigation — are shared by all, irrespective of caste.

Sarkhel’s denial of social discrimination on caste lines cannot be dismissed easily. In February, the Indian chapter of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination submitted a report titled, “Hidden apartheid: Caste discrimination against India’s “untouchables”. Curiously, while states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka feature prominently in the report, West Bengal remains conspicuous by its absence. The findings seemed to be consistent with what Sarkhel had to say.

But every story has two sides. And the story of caste divisions in Malda was no different.

Sitting in a hotel room, Mrinmoy Maitra, a young NGO worker, chuckled a bit when he heard Sarkhel’s views. Maitra, who has worked extensively in Gajal and Alompur, explained that the social fabric of Malda remains divided on caste lines, as in the past. Maitra also provided an example of this kind of differentiation. The Ghosh community, he said, is the most powerful, politically and otherwise, in the whole of the district. Then, there is also the exploitation of tribals by the mahajans — mostly Bengalis, who are teli, kapaliks or sarkars.

Even physical space is structured on caste lines. Paras in villages are often named after specific communities. Maitra’s words were echoed by Benod Majumdar. Sitting in the stifling heat, in a small textiles store in Pakua, Majumdar, who belongs to a scheduled caste, sounded angry about the treatment meted out to his community. He said that in Chandpur, where scheduled castes are in the majority, the people have been demanding a bridge over the Haria river. No bridge has come up in the last sixty years, he added. However, such problems are unheard of in Sukdebpur, where the people from the general category outnumber those from the reserved communities.

What Sarkhel, Maitra or Majumdar said, even when their versions did not match, sounded entirely credible. But, in the course of our journey, it became clear that their explanation of caste differentiation did not address the complexities that were part of the larger reality. It is necessary for every community to posit an ‘other’, as Beauvoir says, against which it can define itself. In a process very similar to the ritual expulsion of the scapegoat performed in ancient Greek society, the privileged communities in India have found it convenient to impose their own vices on those from lower castes and then ostracize them. This has continued over time, and in all societies. Thirty years of rule by a Left coalition, however ‘enlightened’, in West Bengal have not been able to mend the fissures that lie embedded deep within the social system. But then, the very existence of the political ‘masters’ of West Bengal remains dependant on the ‘slaves’ they create. Caste divisions have continued, but remain unacknowledged by the left parties, which habitually argue in favour of class, and not caste, as an instrument to interpret differentiation in India.

However, it cannot also be denied that caste differences per se are on the wane in this state. The picture here is certainly not as dismal as in Uttar Pradesh or Tamil Nadu. But what is significant is that in districts like Malda, the divisive mentality has not been purged altogether, but has rather found expression in other forms. Kishor Ray, a scheduled caste teacher working in the Daulatpur high school in south Dinajpur, says that blatant instances of caste discrimination — untouchability, for instance —are no longer to be found now. More than inter-caste marriages, marriages between rival party affiliates cause outrage these days, according to Roy. Some years ago, a certain village in Malda had got divided into two factions when the daughter of a panchayat pradhan, professing allegiance to the CPI(M), fell in love and wanted to marry the son of a Congress leader. Although this particular couple was eventually united in happy matrimony, cases like theirs still abound.

The mutations may not always take political form. They may also result in an overlap between caste, class and power. In Parbatidanga, a village near the border with Bangladesh, we met a group of elderly men and women. The women in the gathering asked us warily whether we had come to take their ration cards away. Assured that we were innocent of any such intention, they gradually came out with the story about the harassments they face regularly because of their ‘class’, rather than caste. For them, the “higher castes” are the moneyed classes rather than the privileged castes. As the economically disadvantaged section of society, they are at the mercy of the rich, who, for them, belong to the politically powerful class. Thus, for these women, distr- ict magistrates, gram panchayat leaders and their functionaries constitute the “higher caste”. The representatives of this class ensure that the villagers, no matter how aggrieved they are, vote in their favour, by threatening to confiscate their ration cards if they refuse to vote.

Blackmailed into maintaining silence, resentment nevertheless simmers in the villagers. The women say that the free medicines distributed at the village hospitals are actually placebos, given away for every other disease. Only when money is produced do the doctors get interested in the treatment — and even that takes the form of getting the patients have their ‘picture’ taken — that is, have an X-ray done. Most of the poor farmers can neither afford the X-ray nor the journey to the sadar hospital and so they revert back to the village quack for relief from their ailments. Thus it is not merely prejudice that makes the villagers take the help of unqualified doctors, but also their economic condition, which does not allow them to avail themselves of a better alternative. But then, the ‘alternative’ in this case can hardly be termed ‘better’, given the condition of the hospitals and the quality of the ‘cure’ the doctors provide.

The men, playing cards in the afternoon light, were as bitter. “Gorib manusher abar zaat asse naki?” asked a thin, wiry man with a scraggly beard. Most of these men have lost their land, which now lie on the other side of the border and none of them sounded hopeful of a better life. Before we moved on, we asked them who was winning in the game of cards. One man paused before picking up a card, turned, and said that not one among them was a winner. All of them had lost in some way or the other.

However, to continue living and hoping, all of them have to make sure that they are winners in some way at least, even if that is no more than a wish fulfilment. Lawrence Kisku, a scheduled-tribe teacher in the Daulatpur high school, gives us a touching instance of this propensity. The poorest sections of society, the Santhals, who have resigned themselves to the fact that their social and economic conditions preclude the possibility of them ever rising above their class, give their children fanciful names like Master Murmu, Police Tudu or Chaudhuri Hembram. It is their way of ensuring that their sons will at least be addressed as a teacher or a land-holder even if they are never able to achieve this status in reality. It seems, that in some cases at least, a name does mean everything, especially when the dreams of generations of the deprived are gathered in it.

Source: Telegraph

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