The Deep and Often Denied Culture of Bengal’s Identity Politics


Born in Kolkata, then called Calcutta, in the year the Communist Party of India–Marxist [CPI(M)] came to power, I grew a political consciousness later in the Nineteen-nineties. By then the Communist Party had established itself in Bengal and successfully spun a narrative that pushed caste and communal concerns to the back burner and the mono-doctrine of class came to dominate the politics of West Bengal. My college education in Kolkata exposed me to some of the best intellectual minds in the field of political science and sociology, who encouraged me to be open to all ideological schools of thought while retaining the ability to cut through the clutter and think objectively. I have been fortunate to have had that opportunity but, I was a part of the privileged class. Though by birth, I belong to the Scheduled Caste community, my father worked hard to become a part of the upper-middle class and as a result, I enjoyed the experience of receiving the education other caste Hindus have access to it. But others were and are not that privileged. And not all of them reside in Kolkata. The people living in the suburbs and villages have had to witness and experience a less friendly face of an orthodox society, that made them shape an alternative interpretation of how politics work in Bengal. While some of my generation intellectuals grit their teeth and cringe at the growing popularity of identity politics in Bengal and elsewhere in the country, as if it’s an absurd anomaly alien to the natural political landscape, they forget that however progressive and erudite might the urban bred Bengali bhadralok[1] appear on the surface, and however cautious were they in their effort to erase the history of ascriptive influences of our traditional past, Bengal is no stranger to identity politics. Not only did this part of India witness the foundation of Hindu and Muslim nationalism, but it was also the epicenter of Dalit identity awakening once.

Hindu Nationalism has its roots in Bengal

 Today, the Hindu nationalist spirit seems to be residing primarily in the Hindi-speaking belt, but most of its foundational ideas were laid in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in pre-independent India. It was fundamentally the Bengali intellectuals then, who built the early strands of Hindu nationalism. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s celebrated work Ananda Math, is about the revolt of a monastic order of saffron-clad warriors fighting against their Islamic tormentors. It is he who gave India the sublime Bande Mataram through certain paragraphs of the original song were taken out by the Congress party later for they were considered too Hindu. Even the idea of India as Bharat Mata, his depiction of India as a Hindu goddess, was first conceptualized through a painting of Abanindranath Tagore. A sage and a nationalist, Sri Aurobindo mentioned the Sanatan Dharma which to him is synonymous with Indian Nationalism. His idea of nationalism is largely Hindu but he thought that it was wide enough to include the Muslim. He was not against the rise of Muslim Nationalism for it represented “all strength, all energy, all action” but, he believed that Hindu-Muslim unity cannot be affected by political adjustment or appeasement. It must be sought deeper down, in the heart and in the mind where the causes of disunion exist. He was clear that one needed to cease approaching the Muslims with false fawning and instead approach them with better mutual knowledge and empathy. He believed that a religious renaissance was important for people in India. He was inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s view on the diversity of religious expressions in India.

Professor Jyotirmaya Sharma, who has done extensive research on Hindutva and its origins, and calls Swami Vivekananda the father of Hindu nationalism, states that his version of Hindu nationalism was essentially a political phenomenon and a reaction to liberal Hindu reformers, colonialism and Christian missionaries. He believed that Hindu faith and culture should shape the state and its policies and thought that there is no room for weakness in the process of nation-building. Swami Vivekananda demanded the Hindus to shed their effeminate nature, and become virile and strong and said that the humiliation of being a slave nation could only be offset by total devotion to all things masculine.

Swami Vivekananda’s strong message captured the heart and imagination of many Indians. One among them was Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Though we cannot discount his contribution to the definitive formation of Hindu nationalism, there happens to be not a lot of literature found on him in Indian history books. I remember merely skimming his work and philosophy when we were perusing our text-heavy Indian political philosophy section during our undergraduate days. Mookerjee had believed that to build a country and a nation simultaneously, Indians needed to adopt the ideal of Swami for his Karma-yoga had nothing except love and sacrifice behind its sustenance. Born into bhadralok royalty, son of the influential vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, Mookerjee had started his political journey off as a Congress party member but soon realized that Congress’ approach towards Muslims was too soft and based on mindless flattery. He went on to champion the Hindu cause later in his life. To insert this into a historical context, a brief look into what happened in Bengal after 1932 is crucial in understanding why the Hindu movement gathered steam after that. The politics of Bengal changed when the British Raj released a new plan of legislative seat allocation known as the Communal Award in 1932. The bhadralok had, till then, dominated the province’s politics. This new plan of seat allocation and distributing power by the counting of heads, though, changed the system overnight. Now for 80 Hindu seats, there were 117 Muslims seats. The British governor of Bengal had warned Delhi that this would “increase communal bitterness”. Sure enough, the Hindu elite of Bengal was alarmed at this sudden loss of power. One petition, signed by a stunning list of Bengalis, including Mookerjee and the luminary, Rabindranath Tagore, argued that the Award was unjust since the “Hindus of Bengal, though, numerically a minority, are overwhelmingly superior culturally.” As historian, Joya Chatterji points out, “the implication was that the ‘cultural superiority’ of the Hindus more than outweighed the numerical majority of the backward Muslims, and entitled Hindus to a share of power far in excess of their numbers”.

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In 1939, Vinayak Savarkar – another Hindutva stalwart – launched his party, the Hindu Mahasabha in Bengal. Mookerjee joined the party and by 1940 had become the Mahasabha’s president and its most prominent face in Bengal. Mookerjee left the Mahasabha due to differences and founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951. The party was formed in association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and is the earlier avatar of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Independent India’s discourse, molded through a decidedly jaundiced view of the Congress and the Communists didn’t give Mookerjee his due. The naming of educational institutions, roads, bridges, towns, and schemes after him is a relatively recent phenomenon. For the longest time, his work and writing were deliberately shrouded in mystery undermining how he represented a chunk of Bengali sentiment and thinking when it came to Hindu nationalism.

Noted historian, Ayesha Jalal, has discussed how the concept of both Muslim and Hindu nationalism was largely the result of British social engineering which they began as a project after the 1857 Mutiny. The project began when the British introduced the whole idea of conducting a census. A lot of emphases were stressed upon the individual’s faith, and the results of the census were then segmented more on the bases of religion than on economic or social status. Ultimately both Muslim and Hindu nationalism were rooted in Britain’s colonial understanding of India. Policymakers endorsed the two-nation theory proposed by James Mill, author of the influential “The History of British India”, published in 1817, who said that there had always been two separate nations in India-the Hindu and the Muslim-constantly in conflict.

Rise of Muslim Nationalism in Bengal

 In 1906, the rise of Muslim nationalism took place in the city of Dhaka, now in Bangladesh, then East Bengal. Muslim nationalism began in counterpoint with the emergence of Hindu and Indian nationalism. This incipient nationalism was modern because it constituted the response of a part of the Muslim elites to the challenges posed by colonial domination and modernization; but its foundation was linked to a religious and cultural differentiation that, under those conditions, took on a new ideological and political meaning. The League was formed under the leadership of Aga Khan, the Nawab of Dhaka and Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk with the mission of safeguarding the rights of Indian Muslims. It had ideological similarities with the Hindu Mahasabha, that way. Both parties believed in the notion of ‘one religion-culture, one language’ as the guiding force of nationhood borrowing from the concept of narrow nationalism of Western Europe. So, what began as non-secular nationalism for Bengalis who had embraced Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, gradually became more religious-ethnic-linguistic nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

But in Bengal, apart from the Muslim League there had also developed an alternative Muslim politics has been almost forgotten today. The substitute was short-lived, between 1940 and 1943 under its chief architect A. K. Fazlul Huq, yet it had the promise of weaving together different communities based on regional loyalty. His peculiar variety of identity politics cut across religious differences without resorting to secular claims. His Krishak Praja Party (KPP) prevailed over the Muslim League in a majority of the constituencies reserved for the Muslim community in Bengal. It emerged as the single largest party in the provincial assembly. Having successfully snubbed the Muslim League in Bengal, Huq was keen to partner with Congress in the assembly but Congress high command turned his request down and as a result, he was compelled to form a coalition with Muslim League at the assembly. Huq’s KPP had a clear-cut program to protect the interests of the rural masses. In-office, Huq implemented the pledged promises to relieve the peasantry of the burden of unbridled exploitation by big landlords and loan sharks. He set up a commission — the Floud Commission — to introduce major land reform all over the province. The measures had a tremendous impact on all sections of the Muslims in Bengal whose support for Huq soared. The reaction of Hindus and the Indian National Congress was, perhaps not surprising, to this. The prospect of losing the opportunity of making easy money by increasing exploitation of the rural poor disturbed the Hindu gentry and even the middle-class Hindus. As a result, Congress launched a virulent campaign against Huq. The news media in Calcutta were full of reports, often concocted, of how the Hindu community were suffering in different parts of the province under the tyranny unleashed by the coalition government. Huq eventually decided that if he was dubbed communal for being a friend of the poor, he would rather turn into a full-fledged communalist. He liquidated his own party and joined the Muslim League.

Just the way, Huq’s KPP was ostracized for selfish, narrow gains of the Bengali elite, there was another well-organized identity group that was deliberately taken apart for all the wrong reasons to make sure the upper-caste gentry controlled the power in Bengal.

 Dalit Politics in Bengal

 Dalit politics was well developed in pre-independence Bengal. Unlike B.R. Ambedkar, who never saw much electoral success, Dalit leader Jogendranath Mandal fought electorally against the Congress, which he saw as an essentially upper-caste formation, during the British rule. Sarbani Bandyopadhyay in her article has contested the claim that caste has never been an important or relevant category in the electoral process in West Bengal and that only with the recent assertion of the Matua Mahasangha has that changed. Caste is not only relevant in everyday life and uninstitutionalized world of politics but also in the institutionalized, formal world of politics, she asserts. It is because lower caste politics had made its presence felt so early on that it became necessary for the bhadrolok community to resist it right away.


A quick look into the late nineteenth century and early twentieth-century history of caste politics in undivided Bengal will explain why the caste had appeared to have disappeared from the political conversation of Bengal after the partition. In 1926, the All Bengal Depressed Classes Association demanded separate electorates from the British. This created considerable problems for the bhadraloks whose hegemony stood to be contested by the section of Hindu society that they had considered irrelevant. The Dalits had always made their presence felt and would have still been dominant had Bengal not been partitioned. This is the prime reason that the same bhadraloks who had opposed Bengal partition in 1905 were suddenly in support of it forty years later. To understand why caste suddenly fell off the political radar, one has to pay attention to where the Dalits went post-partition.


The Partition plan worked in favor of the bhadraloks as it brought about a nationalistic resolution of the caste question since the majority of the Dalits and the Muslim population went to East Pakistan. Though the Partition eventually solved the thorny question of caste in Bengal, it did not go away without resistance. One figure and association that played an important part in opposing the Congress’ Partition plan was Jogendranath Mandal and the Bengal Provincial Scheduled Castes Federation (BPSCF). Mandal also thought that in terms of economic and political interests, the scheduled castes and the Muslims could have an alliance, though he was wary of the Muslim fundamentalist section as well. It was his concerted attempts that saw Ambedkar elected to the Constituent Assembly from Bengal. He was a strong voice that requested the inclusion of those sections of East Bengal that had a concentration of Dalits but the British were too eager to leave India by then and the appeal was discarded. This decision harmed the Dalits endlessly. It resulted in their suffering in newly formed East Pakistan and then Bangladesh and then later, they’re having to flee Bangladesh and coming back to their native land, as refugees. The plight of Dalit refugees continued under the Left rule and even deepened somewhat. They were not shown the right empathy and many of them weren’t even allowed to settle in West Bengal and were pushed to the jungles of Dandakaranya in Chhattisgarh and even the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In 1979, the Left Front government went a step forward and conducted a mass killing of Namashudra refugees, infamously known as the Marichjhapi massacre.


CPI(M) claimed that Caste is not a relevant factor in Bengal

 While this was unfolding, the CPI (M) party at the helm of affairs in Bengal for more than three decades, was the loudest to proclaim the irrelevance of caste in the struggles of the downtrodden. Though their land reform did benefit some of the poor Muslims and Dalits, the party itself had an essentially upper-caste representation only in the higher leadership ranks. The Left Front government of 1977 did not include a single scheduled caste member in its ministry. Its MLAs came mostly from the three upper castes of Brahmins, Kayasthas, and Baidyas. In fact, there has not been a single Dalit in the CPI(M)’s politburo since its formation in 1964. The party further claimed that it did not need identity to win elections, as if that was the only thing relevant for governance. The Communists had their cadre that ensured the formation of a “party-society” that broke old forms of hierarchy in the village (often based on caste) and replaced it with dominance by the party (which was itself completely controlled by an upper-caste leadership in Kolkata). This swallowed up every local institution in districts and interiors and meant Kolkata-based-upper-caste dominance of the party over local politics across the state.


Last year, political theorist and Dalit activist, Kancha Ilaiah was invited by Pratyay Gender Trust in Kolkata where he delivered a talk on Caste, Gender, and Democracy. He spoke on the advent of nationalism in Bengal, a moment crucial to the formation of modern Bengali identity, and pointed out that Bengali intellectuals from that moment had nourished the Hindu patriarchal ideology by eliding caste. Despite its commitment to “liberalism”, Bengal chose a continuity with the earliest caste traditions formulated in the four caste varnas. Though Buddhism was very near Bengal, vicinity wise, it failed to make an impact on Bengal, he pointed out. This had major implications for caste and gender as both categories have one thing in common — labor. The labor of women and Dalits was instrumental in birthing cities and transforming villages. So, by not acknowledging both caste and gender, the Communists undermined the entire labor class unintentionally. They never accepted that caste is an Indian reality. Caste was subsumed by class. The Communists seemed to believe that whenever the full revolution came about they would have everything—equality across class and gender. But that did not happen because Indian society has layers of identities that cannot be understood using the broad lens of western communism. Ilaiah said, “They should have initiated an understanding and identification of the role of identities. They should have located the caste structures and the gender structures in their programs. And that would have led the nation towards more egalitarian issues than what the Right-wing people today are doing.” Even today, he asserted, young Bengalis remain unaware of these differences. He stressed that while Rammohan Roy, Tagore, and Vivekananda are known in every part of the country, whenever he asks Bengali students if they have read Phule or Periyar, they don’t seem to be even familiar with the names.

The underlying caste issue and differences were brushed under the carpet and never addressed by the CPI (M) but later, in 2007, this party-society started breaking down over the contentious issue of land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram. In stepped Mamata Banerjee, using this opportunity to identify a chink in the Communist armor. However, without any planned and functioning party machine, her new political party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), turned to identity pretty quickly. TMC’s rule witnessed within a short period of five years, the political emergence of low-caste subaltern identities, till now kept away from the high table of power by both Congress and CPI (M).

Trinamool’s Support for Identity Politics

 Banerjee re-organized the electorate from this point onwards. Her tactic was to patronize various social groups across caste and religion. She openly reached out to the Matuas, a wing of Dalit immigrants from Bangladesh who got the shorter end of the stick during and after Partition; members of the diffused caste of Sundis, many of whom nave dispersed to neighboring states because of extreme discrimination; and more recently, the Lepchas in North Bengal. Banerjee now pits the Lepchas of Tibetan descent, against the powerful Gorkhas of Nepali origin, in an attempt to counter BJP support for the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. She also patronized the Muslim community and gave them special concessions. This was a significant change from earlier governments. Making caste and community politically salient helped the TMC break CPI(M)’s hold over rural West Bengal and allowed Banerjee to win two Assembly elections, in 2011 and in 2016.

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Banerjee had her own electoral interest at heart when she reactivated Dalit identity politics in Bengal. Whereas CPI(M) had a strong cadre base and party structure, TMC was a hodgepodge of local toughs and Congress defectors. So, wanting to piggyback on the Matua Mahasangh, was 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 has significant numbers of Matuas. It was a political calculation and the strategy worked. Unlike Punjab, which saw a mass exodus during Partition, it was after the 1960s, that most of the migration happened from Bangladesh to India and it was that of the lower caste population – a trend that has continued to this day. This mass migration, estimated at around million. Hindu Bangladeshis from 1964 to 2013 – played a significant role in Bengal’s politics. The closely-knit Scheduled Caste group has a presence in six parliamentary seats in the state, making them one of the biggest vote banks in West Bengal. Although no official count exists, it is estimated that there are about two crore Namasudra voters. Political observers believe that the community was influential in dislodging the Congress government in Bengal in 1977 and bringing TMC to power in 2011, overthrowing the 34-year rule of the Left government.


But with her fingers dipped in too many identity patron pots, Banerjee found it difficult to balance her priorities and eventually fell out of grace with the Matuas. Her poster of visiting the Sufi shrine in Hooghly and appeasing the Muslim population by including measures such as providing a stipend to Muslim clerics, ticked off the Matuas. Muslims legislators in the West Bengal Assembly went up by nearly 30% in 2011 as compared to 2006. For the 2016 elections, the TMC nominated 57 Muslim candidates – a fifth of its total nominees. Here an interesting fact is that, while the Muslim constituency fears the advancing steps of BJP into the state, they are also wary of Banerjee’s tactic of offering token rewards like the Imam stipends. The rising insecurity among the Muslims in the state has not been addressed by TMC by empowering them through more jobs, better access to education or by providing them with more finance for entrepreneurial activities, as recommended by the Sachar Committee a decade ago. Instead, the TMC government chose to go consorting with the orthodox section of the Bengali Muslims and appealing to their religious symbols while completely bypassing class-based issues. The Muslim population has been always treated as a vote bank to win elections, the implicit understanding is that the Muslims are homogenous entities who vote en bloc for any party irrespective of the party’s economic position. That their political and social opinions are largely controlled by dominant religious leaders. This has proved to be wrong, historically, not only in West Bengal but in the nation as a whole. Unwittingly, the real issues affecting the population, like farmer suicides, loss of land for the Muslim, and the general deepening of agrarian crisis in which Muslims and Dalits are being majorly affected in rural Bengal, have been brushed aside as minor incidents.

BJP’s rise in Bengal

TMC’s courting of Muslims in all the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons helped the BJP attack Banerjee for appeasing the community unnecessarily. BJP for the longest time did not have any foothold in the state, but it saw this as an opportunity to woo the Matua faction using their signature Hindutva politics. Across North 24 Paraganas, prominent Matua leaders have been crossing over to the BJP camp, for the party has been pushing the Hindu immigrant cause in the hope that it can replicate the CPI(M) and TMC’s success in the state. BJP even had a refugee cell, set up in 2014, before the Lok Sabha elections to help address their immigration problems. Furthermore, on January 8th, 2019, the BJP government amended India’s 1955 Citizenship Law through Lok Sabha. The tweak made it simple for illegal Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Parsi, Jain and Buddhist immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to become citizens of India after six years of residence. This focus on Hindu immigrants – most of whom are from lower castes – means that the BJP in West Bengal has suddenly become more representative of Hindu backward castes than the TMC or the Communists. In the state’s border areas, three out of four of the party’s local leaders hail from the backward castes and they chose to support BJP instead of TMC in the last national election.

Of course, when one lets loose the genie of identity, that too for fetching votes and not for any other deeper cause, it is not only the subalterns who will rise. Till now the upper caste domination in Bengal, which had been covert under the veil of western philosophies and intellectualism, will most probably unleash a more virulent avatar. While no religious mobilization of upper-caste Hindus has happened as yet in the state, an opening of the Pandora’s Box of identity starting with the lower castes makes upper-caste Hindutva politics a possibility because of the reactive nature of politics in present days. To fight the BJP, the TMC has decided to draw upon a dollop of Hindu identity itself, encouraging the development of upper Hindu caste consciousness. For example, in response to the BJP’s Ram Navami marches, some local units of the TMC organized functions centered around Ram’s lieutenant, Hanuman. Earlier, in 2015, the TMC had paid tributes to Mookerjee, as the founder of the Jana Sangh, acknowledging the importance of his contribution to Indian national movement. And when this awkward variety of Hindu identity received a cold shoulder from a section of Bengalis, TMC’s mode of attack became the Bengali identity itself. Like most other political decisions taken by Banerjee, the decision to use it was also a hurried one. It was put together at the last moment without much thought and reeked of the same self-seeking vested interest to gather votes as noticed before while Banerjee patronized the Matua or the Muslim electorate. With the BJP stepping on the gas with Hindutva, Banerjee has designed a state emblem and is composing a state song, apparently to assert Bengali culture and to demarcate the state as exclusive and different from North India.

The Future of Identity Politics in Bengal

Over the years, many scholars have been critical about the idea of “identity politics” and called it uselessly regressive, but the existence of identity politics is an indicator of the health of a democracy because it means that marginalized sections are making an active effort to share power. The issue is never simply the assertion of caste, religious or regional identity by itself, but how identity functions as “an instrument” to access material gains in a power set-up. Also, identities are not produced by choice but as a response to historical challenges, largely social and economic, and not necessarily cultural ones. Identity is generally meant to be the “site of resistance” for a community, and at times can also become oppressive to the very people it is trying to emancipate, by replicating the structures of oppressors. This has been witnessed in North Bengal. Writing in the context of the politics forged around ethnic identities in the North East that also coalesced around the experience of racism, R K Debbarma states that if identity politics evolves from an uncritical evaluation of the “self”, then it is often self-defeating. One of the strongest criticisms of identity politics has been that it tends to be obsessed with the historical injustices suffered by communities, and cannot move beyond it. Being stuck in the loop of history can take away the vision to move forward with a strategy to right the wrong, which is counterproductive to the original project of securing political power. So, identities need to be situated historically, but with a view of the future. The purpose of organizing under identity in the present is to overcome a historical injustice so that the identity is no longer required in the future when the objectives outlined by the present political project have been achieved.

Historically, though Bengal’s varied identity groups have been strong in expressing their opinion and position, it is yet to be seen if in the future they will form a stronghold in mainstream politics. Ultimately, all this noise about identity is futile if it cannot bring about social and economic reforms for the marginalized. Whether it is the Muslim population or the Scheduled Castes and Tribes or the Other Backward Classes—their identity struggle continues because they have always got a shoddy deal from mainstream administration. The few elite leaders and families that have pretended to take up their causes have in reality, filled their own pockets, not particularly bothered whether true social and economic development has been carried out for their communities. A lot of work still remains to be carried out to truly eradicate the social and economic cleavage between the haves and have-nots, and once equality is reached, the need for identity politics will either disappear or form around a new need that will be necessary for further development of future generations.




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