National Situation

There is no Caste discrimination in West Bengal?

By Maroona Murmu


Note by Administrator:  Dr. Maroona Murmu, Associate Professor of History, Jadavpur University, wrote an article in Bangla in Ananda Bazar Patrika, which has generated a huge debate on social media. She has been supported, as well as condemned. Condemnation and criticism has come from dominant caste Hindus claiming as usual that casteism happens only due to reservations, but also from adivasis taking a kind of adivasi purist stance. Dr. Murmu has issued the following translation on Facebook with a short preface. We are reproducing the entire thing with her permission because the article, and the subsequent debate, raises important questions about how radical politics needs to be configured in West Bengal. -- Admin, Radical Socialist


Some of you who are not acquainted with Bengali might think why my wall is flooded with my saree-clad photo. Recently I wrote a post-editorial in a popular newspaper, Anandabazar Patrika. It created a hue and cry because I have written on the prevalence of caste discrimination in West Bengal which is otherwise considered to be progressive and liberal. If you are interested in knowing the cause of tirade against me, here is a translation of the piece.
I am grateful to my friend Anirban who helped me translate a draft version of the paper earlier. This translation is mostly mine.…/the-discrimination-in-rbu-was…

There is no caste discrimination in West Bengal?
Exactly like the Santhals

Recently, there was an uproar concerning caste-based abuse on the head of the Geography Department of Rabindra Bharati University, Dr. Saraswati Kerketta. She was physically and emotionally harassed citing her caste, skin tone, birthplace and gender. The incident took a political hue. As if this has never happened in West Bengal before. Due to pervasive dominance of the upper castes over political, social, economic and cultural domains, political or academic discourses dismiss caste-based dominance as an illogical and irrelevant analytical category. Ironically enough, the very fact that such dismissive generalization goes unchallenged shows up how strong or pervasive the caste system has been in practice. I am forced, as a member of the Santhal community, to expose this skillfully devised myth that caste does not exist in West Bengal.
Sometime ago, an adivasi professor of a university in Kolkata informed me about slow and steady everyday practices of social discrimination she faced from her childhood. Every time her family members carried harvested paddy over to the upper caste households, the yard would be cleansed with a paste made of cow dung and water to remove pollution caused by the entry of lower caste individuals within an upper caste household. As a standard five student, a Brahman batchmate once ordered her to touch her feet as part of her body accidentally came in contact with that of the Brahman classmate. She complained against the discriminatory practice of adivasi students being singled out for cleaning the restrooms of the residential school where she studied. The authorities retorted: How can a poor adivasi girl dare to challenge their style of operation?
How true! How audacious of an adivasi girl to even think of having the right to feel humiliated, insulted or possess a sense of honour and dignity. They are reserved for the upper castes since time immemorial and for all times to come. According to the convention, adivasi are allowed to enrol after general candidates and assigned the last roll numbers. An upper caste classmate informed her how, she, despite being a member of the upper caste, befriended a student belonging to the last few roll numbers and shared the same table at lunch, marvelling at her own generosity and progressiveness. What an accomplishment!

Later, in the college hostel, she once hurriedly turned off the faucet seeing her classmate’s water bucket overflowing. Her classmate overturned the bucket filled with water. In government propaganda, water is life. It becomes an issue of great concern if that precious life is defiled by an untouchable. The mother of her roommate in the accommodation where she previously lived nonchalantly addressed her: Hey, Santhal girl. Obviously, Santhals do not possess an identity of their own. When she applied for her passport, the same roommate asked with profound amazement – “Even you would be going abroad?”
She ‘suffered’ from a unique disqualification of possessing fair complexion. Seeing such a strange adivasi, the bhadralok observers would patronisingly greet her with a grin – “Oh! You look like us!”. She retorts – “You don’t even have the ability to understand how insulting your praise is to me”. When she was appointed as Assistant Professor in a university, the head of her Department informed her that the students did not wish to study grammar and dense theoretical papers with her. O yes, these subjects are the ancestral professional preserve of the educated elites of our society.
Going back to the past – my mother Shelley is probably the first Hindu Bengali woman in West Bengal to fall in love with an adivasi batchmate in the university and marry him subsequently. Neither the adivasi community, nor the Bengali Hindu society was willing to recognise this marriage socially. So, in my forlorn childhood, the feeling of insecurity was my sole companion. This was compounded by my existential crisis. I was made to understand early in my childhood that I was only a ‘marginal other’. The Hindu Bengali bhadralok society did neither grant me the right nor the permission to live just as a ‘human being’, an unmarked individual.

Those who believe that identity-based mobilisation makes room for divisive politics, let me tell them that the very prejudice that predisposes them to somehow tie me down to an essentialist paternal ethnicity fixes me up as an irreversible ‘other’ in societal perception. I would often be made to face my utterly marginal location, even as a child, as if I was an exhibit in a museum of strange objects. I was a second standard student when the class teacher made me stand up and asked if I belonged to the ST category. I was struck dumb. My parents never informed me that I was the holder and bearer of those two letters or what those stood for. Otherwise an alert student who promptly answered all questions, my silence had raised the eyebrows of my class teacher. I could not comprehend whether she was surprised or irritated but I did realise that I was something that the rest of the students in the class were certainly not. I was somehow fundamentally different from others.
When I was in the eighth standard, those two letters came back to haunt me yet again. There was a turmoil at home on the issue of obtaining a “ST” certificate and me getting photographed for it. My mother argued that since I was a good student, I need not apply for that certificate. But my father believed that it was a formal recognition of my ethnic identity, and therefore a highly desirable and affirmative exercise. It was after all an official recognition of my very existence as an adivasi. The disagreement ended and I became an officially certified member of the Scheduled Tribe community.
Thanks to my father Gurucharan Murmu’s government service, we were a comfortable middle-class family. My father could buy me quality education that ensured sufficient academic competence in my early years. This secured me a seat as an Honours graduate student of History in the most eminent undergraduate college in Calcutta in those times. But in this case, my lack of cultural capital cannot be wished away. Even after three years in that premier college, I had not heard of the world-famous social sciences university in Delhi, where I eventually went up for higher studies. A classmate had perchance purchased two forms for the entrance test and passed me the spare one and I incidentally got selected. I was hurt, when I came to know that my “ST” identity is the only benchmark to my friend and her family. I woke up to the reality when the father of this Brahman batchmate called my mother, enquiring if she would be interested in a groom for me. The groom had made it to the hallowed Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and was therefore eminently eligible but was not good enough for the admittedly proud Brahman family. Even the most prestigious government job in the country was not going to make him or her suitable enough for an upper caste match. Just like the admission form, the groom was in excess.
Intriguingly enough, even at that famed bastion of progressive politics and pedagogy where I continued my post-graduate studies in Delhi, my birth and ethnicity appeared as a negative influence and I was made to understand that I did not belong to the mainstream. My formal training in vocal music for over a decade and a half prompted me to carry on research in the social history of the origin and development of the Bishnupur school of classical music in the second half of eighteenth-century Bengal. But the Chairperson of the Centre replied: 'Being a tribal you want to work on high culture? You are not even an insider.’ Forever an outsider to the classical high culture of the bhadralok, it was as though my adivasi origin had permanently limited the range of what I am allowed to research.
I now teach in a five-star university in the heart of urban Kolkata. The place is well known as a nursery of protests and as a bastion of progressive politics. Yet, there too I have seen several instances of everyday casteism. Derogatory phrases like sonar chand or sonar tukro would be casually tossed around in departmental meetings. These are sarcastic Bengali phrases punning with the abbreviations of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes with the metaphorical connotation conveying ‘privileged ones.’ To several upper caste department heads, the very idea of a competent Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe professional appeared as an impossibility. The mere mention of some surnames would be enough for them to deduce that those candidates were academically worthless. They were cocksure that the ability of those candidates did not require any test. I was once told that some students felt that they did not have much to learn from my classes, presumably because I looked like an African. While taking a class on Modern Indian Political Thought, I even heard my female students admit that they would never marry a man who belonged to the ‘lower caste’ or the ‘Muslim’ community. This is frightening as many of these students are now teachers in schools and will successfully carry forward the dreadful tradition of casteism. I have heard that many among them still believe, even in this twenty-first century when Indian satellite is orbiting Mars, that there should be separate cremation grounds for dalits and adivasis. Even in death, ‘impure’ lower caste people do not lose their ability to pollute the upper castes. Times are strange indeed. The older I grow, the more I learn that logic or reason do not travel equitably.
The more genteel bhadralok society display casteism through their cultural aggression. A colleague once told me that I did not look like a typical Santhal. On being asked how a typical Santhal should look, the colleague offered a description that more or less matched with how Satyajit Ray had portrayed Duli the Santhal woman in his film Aranyer Dinratri. Ray, a filmmaker who had otherwise acquired a worldwide reputation for his meticulous attention to details, did not hesitate to transform a fair skinned Simi Garewal, with her pointed nose and large eyes into a Santhal woman with a dab of soot on her body. The Santhals continue to bear the literary or cinematic burden of such cultural stereotypes
This perception is so widespread that it is easy to draw random samples. Take for instance this new dictionary called Abhinaba Bangla Abhidhan (A Unique Bengali Dictionary) published by the Unique Book Centre. Unique indeed! Professor Debashish Dutta, defines Santhals as ‘Original residents of Santhal Pargana, an uncivilised community.’ We are proud to be ‘uncivilised’. The ‘civilised’ community has no attention to spare for the unique culture that informs our lifeworlds and livelihoods. Their most usual means of dispensing cultural patronage is to call us over for a dance performance, whether it is for government-sponsored pageantry, at an expensive private retreat or family gatherings. In no uncertain terms, I register my severest contempt for such civilised endeavours.