In West Bengal if you ask the question “Does caste matter in Bengal?”, the answer will depend on the caste of the person asked. Many among the Bengali Hindu bhadralok like to think that caste does not matter in Bengali society and politics. The long dominance of the Left in the state has entrenched idioms of class over caste and contributed to the myth of Bengali exceptionalism. “Castelessness”, many upper-caste Bengalis believe, distinguishes them from other Indians. By contrast, it has been argued that because everything in Bengal is controlled by the upper castes, it is the most casteist of India’s societies.
This view of Bengal as caste-ridden and casteist is borne out by the experience of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes there, who daily experience discrimination and humiliation, overt or subtle. The historical evidence of oppression and structural violence against them is clear and continues into the present.
This book of essays sets the cat among the pigeons. It is the most wide-ranging and scholarly collection available on the topic. It shows that the reforms which empowered the Dalit–Bahujan Samaj in the rest of India never properly happened in Bengal. It is also eye-opening in revealing the specificities, culture, politics, and practices of caste in Bengal.
Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is Emeritus Professor of History at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His several books include Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India: The Namasudras of Bengal, 1872–1947 (1997, 2011); Caste, Culture and Hegemony: Social Domination in Colonial Bengal (2004); and From Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Modern India (2004, 2015).
Tanika Sarkar retired as Professor, Modern History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has taught at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and been Visiting Professor at the universities of Chicago, Yale, Witwatersrand, and Göttingen. Her several books include Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation (2001), Rebels, Wives, Saints (2009), and Hindu Nationalism in India (2022).