Is Caste Hegemony Invisible in Bengal? A response to Partha Chatterjee’s claim

On 7th June 2020, The Wire published an interview with Partha Chatterjee conducted by Ajay Gudavarthy. Both Chatterjee and Gudavarthy are well known political scientists; Chatterjee is additionally a historian. The theme of the interview was the upcoming state elections in West Bengal to be held in 2021. I found Chatterjee’s narrative to be not only factually incorrect but also biased in its style of argumentation and narration. Before we move to my disagreements, let me state a few facts: In West Bengal, OBCs are 39%, SCs are 23%, Muslims are 27% and STs are 5.5%. OBCs consist of Muslim OBC (21.5%) and non Muslim OBC (17.5%). There are three dominant castes, often called bhadralok (meaning gentlemen) Brahmins, Kayastha, and Baidyas. They are roughly 20% of the total population. As per Upendranath Biswas, former additional director CBI, this 20% controls 80% of the resources (Abdi 2012). Now let me rectify Chatterjee taking an example at a time.

At one place Chatterjee says, “…the overwhelming majority of students in most public universities in West Bengal are not upper caste. Most remarkable is the presence of significant numbers of Muslim students, both men and women. Not only is there a new middle class among the peasant castes but also Muslims and the larger Dalit castes…” The data shows a picture which is in contrast to Chatterjee’s claim. As per AISHE 2018-19, only 11% of Muslims enroll as college students. A study by economist Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Trust, conducted across Bengal as late as in 2016, showed that only 2.7% of the state’s literate Muslims held a graduate degree, and 80% of the Muslim households in rural West Bengal had a monthly income of Rs 5,000 or less (Mitra n.d.). These are basic statistics, which tell us the grim picture of Muslims in West Bengal. Similar is the picture of STs and OBCs.

In another instance, Chatterjee says, “In 50 years of familiarity with the public university system in West Bengal, I have seen how the social composition of postgraduate students has been completely transformed. Even 30 years ago, at least three-fourths of the class would have come from the three upper castes – Brahmin, Kayastha and Baidya – and the quota for scheduled caste students would have remained unfilled. A Muslim postgraduate student was a rarity.” 2.7% of graduates out of 27% population is a complete transformation! ‘Quota of SCs, STs and OBCs remained unfilled’ is a passive sentence. But by whom? Is it getting filled up now? Since there is “complete transformation”, I am assuming almost 100% of the seats are getting filled up now. If not, why? Why SC, ST, and OBC with high grades in written tests are awarded fewer grades in interviews?

“Upper-caste bhadralok who are now abandoning their hegemony over Bengali culture and, with fluency in English as their capital, migrating to other parts of India or abroad,” says Prof. Chatterjee. Even after having observed reeducation in West Bengal for 50 years, he has not asked how fluency is gained in English, which caste and religion of Bengalis migrate out of Bengal and which caste and religion of Bengalis go abroad. Whose reference letters for foreign universities are signed and whose are not signed even for Indian universities? Who are labeled genetically superior and who are labeled inferior? How much these networks are based on nepotism, casteism and communalism?

The other defect in the interview is the analysis of the growth of BJP in West Bengal. When asked who are voting for BJP, Chatterjee starts with migrant workers, then moves to non-Bengali merchant classes and lastly tells us about the Hindu middle class. Why this sequence of the narrative was chosen? Is it tactical to lessen the burden of the social group to which he belongs and passing the buck to poor and non-Bengalis? Chatterjee himself told Gudavarthy that ‘caste hegemony is so complete in Bengal that it is invisible’. How come it got invisible from his narrative? Chatterjee could have used his social position to tell us more deeply about these pertinent questions without using a nebulous category- middle class. Suryakant Waghmore (2013) dares to ask- is it civil to deny people their basic human rights? Chatterjee chickens out by avoiding the caste and Muslim question. Top 10-20% is failing to accept the bottom 80-90% as fellow human beings. This explains why West Bengal is the 9th most backward state of India as per the UNDP report 2018.

Partha Chatterjee has taught in two premium institutes- CSSSC in Kolkata and Columbia University. Columbia is also the place where BR Ambedkar pursued his MA and Ph.D. For Ambedkar, the question of representation was so important that he argued for separate electorates for SCs and STs. It was denied by MK Gandhi as he said that SCs and STs are Hindus; hence must not get that benefit from the state. For Chatterjee, Ambedkar might be rejecting the sacrosanct principle of merit.

Ashwini Deshpande and Thomas E Weisskopf (2014) argue that reservation does not lead to a lessening of merit. Satish Deshpande (2020) tells us how slaves are in a better position to produce knowledge than masters. Sukhadeo Thorat (2004) argues for the extension of affirmative action programs in the private sector. Yogendra Yadav (2006) argues how and why there must be more diversity in the already existing reservation policy. Communalism, patriarchy and casteism are the brutal realities of Indian society and by extension, of Indian academia. I wonder how people theorise Indian polity and history without even understanding these basics. Knowledge production will be better if students and teachers from diverse social backgrounds can join social sciences. Diversity enriches both, society and academics. Our task as intellectuals is to enrich society and empower groups and individuals.

Works Cited

Abdi, S N M. “‘Bengal Hasn’t Produced A Jagjivan Ram Or Even A Mayawati’.” Outlook India. August 10, 2012. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/bengal-hasnt-produced-a-jagjivan-ram-or-even-a-mayawati/281957 (accessed June 9, 2020).

Deshpande, Ashwini, and Thomas E Weisskopf. “Does Affirmative Action Reduce Productivity? A Case Study of the Indian Railways.” World Development, 2014: 169-80.

Gudavarthy, Ajay. “Partha Chatterjee on the Upcoming Battle for Bengal and Where the BJP Stands.” The Wire. June 7, 2020. https://thewire.in/politics/bengal-polls-partha-chatterjee-interview (accessed June 9, 2020).

Mitra, Sumit. “Can Bengal’s Hindus forgive and forget?” First Post. https://www.firstpost.com/politics/if-didi-goes-will-bengals-hindus-forgive-forget-6794431.html (accessed June 10, 2020).

Thorat, Sukhadeo. “On Reservation Policy for Private Sector.” Economic and Political Weekly, June 19-25, 2004:2560-2563.

University, Yale. “Revisiting Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Conversation with Partha Chatterjee.” YouTube. December 11, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jaZn9IqPJZg (accessed June 10, 2020).

Waghmore, Suryakant. Civility against Caste: Dalit politics and citizenship in western India. New Delhi: Sage, 2013.

Yadav, Yogendra, and Satish Deshpande. “Redesigning Affirmative Action: Castes and Benefits in Higher Education.” Economic and Political Weekly, June 17, 2006: 2419- 2424.

Yengde, Suraj, S Anand, Anupama Rao, and Satish Deshpande. “Dialogics 4 | The problem of caste among Brahmins.” YouTube. June 7, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JabmA7LQlo (accessed June 10, 2020).



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