In a country where different states exhibit different degrees of it, being ‘casteist’ is one thing you cannot accuse Bengal of.
Snigdha Basu Mukherjee is a professor of history at the Calcutta University. She lives in a 113-year-old mansion in north Kolkata’s Gokul Boral Street that also houses a host of in-laws, nephews and nieces –31 of them – and is busy preparing for her daughter’s wedding due in January next year. Nothing extraordinary about that, save for the fact that like Snigdha, some of the ladies of the Mukherjee family affix a plethora of surnames belonging to different castes to their first names.
Snigdha was born into a Kayastha family (Basu), married a Brahmin (Mukherjee), and her daughter Esha, 26, is getting married to a Dalit (Debnath) while her nephew (son of her husband Ashish’s elder brother Amitabha) is married to an Agarwal (Bania) girl from Meerut. The womenfolk who have married into the Mukherjee family hail from a smorgasbord of castes like Brahmin, Kayastha, Bania and Scheduled Caste.
However, this family is not unique and inter-caste marriages, as well as intimate and easy social interactions between members of different castes, are quite the norm in Bengal. “My sister-in-law (husband’s elder brother’s wife) hails from a scheduled caste family (Haldar). Another sister-in-law, wife of my husband’s first cousin, is from the trading community called ‘Bene’. In fact, many of the women who have married into this family over the past few decades are non-Brahmins. There is absolutely no discrimination against anyone. My mother-in-law asks all of us (daughters-in-law) to conduct the puja rituals by turns,” said Snigdha.
The Mukherjee family is not an aberration in Bengal’s social landscape; there are countless such families. In fact, caste is not a determining factor in marriages, as can be fathomed from the matrimonial advertisements in local Bengali newspapers. Caste of a prospective groom or bride may be mentioned in such advertisements, but seldom do their families insist on getting proposals from families belonging to the same caste. This has been so for many, many decades now.
So what is it that sets Bengal apart from most other parts of the country in this regard? A primary reason, says sociologist Paromita Naskar, is the Bengal Renaissance of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Stalwarts of those times like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda and others pioneered social reforms and broke down caste barriers. They actively dedicated themselves to forging social harmony by campaigning vigorously against social evils like sati and untouchability,” said Naskar.
Historian Ramachandra Baral says that the reason why the campaign against untouchability worked in Bengal while the same campaign by Mohandas Gandhi in other parts of the country did not succeed is because the Bengal Renaissance was spearheaded by noted personalities from various spheres. Ram Mohan Roy’s campaigns advocating abolition of sati and untouchability, and widow remarriage were vociferously endorsed by both contemporary and later educationists and litterateurs like Vidyasagar and Chattopadhyay, by scientists like Jagadish Chandra Bose and Satyen Bose, by leading and respectable mathematicians, religious leaders, scholars and prominent personalities. “Within two to three decades, many social evils were completely rooted out of Bengal because all leading lights of Bengali society from all spheres of life advocated the abolition of those social evils and ills,” says Baral.
The Bengal Renaissance did not find replication in any other part of the country and that is why, reasons Baral, caste divisions still run deep elsewhere. “After Independence, too, prominent Bengali personalities upheld the spirit of the renaissance and thus an egalitarian mindset took deep roots in Bengal. Caste, untouchability and other social ills went completely out of fashion in Bengal. Even the political leadership of Bengal, right from the late nineteenth century to the present times, has always lent crucial support to social reforms. That was also a determining factor behind caste barriers dissolving almost completely in Bengal,” says Naskar. The indisputable egalitarian mindset of even the average Bengali, she adds, leaves little room for caste to play a role in Bengali Hindu society.
Pratap Chandra Mukherjee, a former professor of sociology at Calcutta University, says that caste was made even more irrelevant by the communists. “The pre-Independence movement in social reforms was carried forward after 1947 by Bengal’s socialists and communists. Leftist thought and philosophy came to dominate Bengal’s intellectual and social landscape and thus social ills could be eliminated to the large extent in Bengal. Social conservatism became, and still remains, unfashionable and unacceptable. The 34 uninterrupted years of communist rule entrenched egalitarianism, which was seeded by the Bengal Renaissance, in the state,” said Mukherjee. Even before the communists came to power in Bengal, successive rulers starting from Prafulla Chandra Ghosh and Bidhan Chandra Roy to Ajoy Mukherjee and Siddhartha Shankar Ray were strong supporters of social reforms.
Naskar agrees with this. “Whatever else the communists did, or didn’t do, for Bengal, this is one thing that Bengal has a lot to thank them for. In fact, egalitarianism – and in Bengal it translates more into a ‘casteless’ society – is so deep-rooted that politicians and personas across all political divides encourage and practise it. Bengali literature, films and theatre in the post-Independence era also promoted egalitarianism and the ‘casteless society’ concept. Filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, litterateurs like Sunil Gangopadhyay and Mahasweta Devi, leading musicians, playwrights, actors, professionals, educationists and scholars all promoted this concept, and continue to do so,” he said.
Meghalaya Governor Tathagata Roy provides yet another reason for caste being quite irrelevant in Bengal. “About 1.2 crore Bengali Hindus were displaced from East Pakistan and took refuge in Bengal in the aftermath of Partition. They suffered terribly – they were uprooted from their homes, had to leave all their belongings and properties behind, many saw their kith and kin being killed, raped and abducted. They settled in Bengal as penniless refugees and many even starved to death. The Muslims of East Pakistan who drove them away did not look at their castes while doing so. Bengali Hindu refugees realised this. Their common plight built a sense of kinship and fellowship among them. Humans forge close links to meet adversities and here was one instance of a mass of Bengali Hindus rising above caste divides in their own interests for self-preservation. As refugees sharing a common plight, suffering together in hovels and slums, beside railway tracks and roads, caste identities naturally dissolved,” said Roy, who has written books on the plight of Bengali Hindu refugees.
Naskar agrees: “after Partition, even those not affected directly by it were moved by the plight of the helpless refugees, the unfortunate victims of Partition. One must remember that the plight of refugees from East Pakistan was far worse than those from West Pakistan. This empathy for the refugees among those not affected by Partition also contributed to the rise of the egalitarian ethos in Bengal. The second wave of migration took place in 1971 (Bangladesh War) and the plight of the Bengali Hindu refugees were also pathetic that time. Also, the communists worked very effectively amongst the refugees – and the support they got from the refugees was majorly responsible for their coming to power in 1977 – and, by default, that led to breaking down of caste barriers amongst the refugees”.
Even today, the ruling Trinamool Congress and its chief don’t talk the language of caste, and promote egalitarianism. As do the opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party. Caste is no factor or determinant in Bengal’s polity and society, and this has been the case for many decades now.
It is a unique combination of factors and developments, both social and political, that has thus led to caste becoming irrelevant in Bengal. Had the social reformers of the mid to late nineteenth century not found strong support from the stalwarts in the fields of art, literature, science and even respected religious figures, Bengali society would not have been able to abandon the stifling social conservatism that plagues many other communities. The displacement of millions of Bengali Hindus from East Bengal (which became East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh), though tragic, played an important role in dissolution of caste barriers in Bengali Hindu society since the refugees shared a common plight.
As governor Roy surmises, caste barriers break down when persecuted people come to share a common and bleak fate and future. The fact that this huge mass of displaced people came under the firm influence of communists only reinforced the dissolution of caste among them. What’s more, Bengali films, theatre and literature have continued to promote and reinforce, even aggressively, the concept of social egalitarianism. Not to forget the state’s political players, who have consciously refrained from playing caste politics.