In West Bengal, caste links with Hindutva - Hindustan Times

In West Bengal, caste links with Hindutva

May 07, 2024 10:10 PM IST

The BJP's political growth in Bengal is driven by the successful mobilisation of several lower caste groups, but the logic draws from the template of Hindutva

From a state known for the class politics of the Left, West Bengal now seems to have emerged as a new laboratory of identity politics. Political analysts are currently concentrating on what, on the surface, appears as signs of caste-based political assertion by several lower caste groups. However, a closer analysis divulges a curious reality. What West Bengal is currently witnessing is not conventional caste politics, but an extraordinary marriage between the politics of Hindutva and the politics of caste, where the former informs the logic underlying the latter.

**EDS: HANDOUT IMAGE** Krishnanagar: BJP supporters during a public meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Lok Sabha elections, in Krishnanagar, West Bengal, Friday, May 3, 2024. (PTI Photo)(PTI05_03_2024_000113B)(PTI) PREMIUM
**EDS: HANDOUT IMAGE** Krishnanagar: BJP supporters during a public meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Lok Sabha elections, in Krishnanagar, West Bengal, Friday, May 3, 2024. (PTI Photo)(PTI05_03_2024_000113B)(PTI)

It is widely believed that the general castes constitute the main support base of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but the current political dynamics in West Bengal present a picture contrary to this conventional wisdom. The BJP has been struggling to win elections in the upper caste-dominated Greater Kolkata and its surrounding areas in South Bengal. In the ongoing Lok Sabha elections too, the party is not expected to do well in this region. But it has made impressive political inroads in several pockets dominated by the subaltern population. Some of these areas are the Matua belt in South Bengal, North Bengal districts populated by the Rajbanshis, Midnapore that is home to Mahishyas, and Junglemahal with its large tribal presence.

The support that the BJP currently enjoys among the lower caste Namasudras, who mostly belong to the anti-Brahmanical Matua sect is quite formidable. The citizenship status of many among the Namasudras remains uncertain. The Namasudras, originally hailing from East Pakistan/Bangladesh, were forced to migrate at different intervals in the decades following Partition in 1947 on account of religious persecution. The BJP’s outreach to the Matua-Namasudra community is based on the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA), which promises to eliminate their citizenship-related woes. However, given the anti-Brahmanical character of the Matua sect, the BJP’s growing traction among the Matua-Namasudra community raises an important question: Is their political allegiance to the BJP merely a tactical stance influenced by citizenship-related demands or is it also an expression of ideological commitment? Undoubtedly, the Namasudras transferred their political allegiance to the BJP due to the enactment of the CAA. But the CAA is not merely a piece of legislation; it is an entire political discourse, which has reopened the repressed wounds of Partition and politicised the collective memory of religious persecution suffered by the Namasudra refugees. It has enabled the BJP to politically organise the Namasudras not as a lower caste group but as a religiously exploited group of Hindu refugees. This has created among the Namasudras a strong impetus for the development of ideological sympathies for the politics of Hindutva. The recent notification of the Citizenship Amendment Rules, 2024 (CAR) is also aimed at consolidating the Namasudra support in favour of the BJP. However, the application process and documentation requirements as mandated by CAR have created a great deal of anxiety and resentment. Still, it is unlikely that the majority of BJP supporters will turn away from the party. This is due to the powerful ideological pull of Hindutva. For many, CAA is not only about legally acquiring citizenship but also about discouraging the migration of Bangladeshi Muslims.

Elsewhere in the state, one of the main reasons behind the BJP’s spectacular political rise in North Bengal is its success in winning the support of the Rajbanshi community. Historically, the Rajbanshis, who claim to be the original inhabitants of North Bengal, have remained at the forefront of a movement demanding the creation of a separate state within the Indian Union, comprising parts of North Bengal. The influx of outsiders, mainly immigrant Bengalis, locally known as Bhatias, is seen by the Rajbanshis as a threat to their livelihood and culture. Apparently, the BJP’s tacit support for the demand for a separate state has contributed to its growing appeal among the Rajbanshis. The party’s recent move to send Ananta Maharaj to the Rajya Sabha from West Bengal was seen as a manifestation of such support. Ananta Maharaj heads an influential faction of the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association, a group that has been demanding the formation of a separate Cooch Behar state or Union Territory constitutive of portions of North Bengal. This demand for territorial and cultural autonomy has also made many among the Rajbanshis quite sympathetic to the BJP’s idea of a National Registry of Citizens (NRC). An NRC-like exercise is increasingly considered necessary by them for the expulsion of illegal Bangladeshis from North Bengal.

The BJP has also spiritedly advocated granting of Other Backward Class (OBC) status to Hindu intermediate castes such as the Mahishyas. Significantly, the BJP’s argument for the inclusion of Mahishyas into the OBC category is connected to the conventional Hindutva narrative of Muslim appeasement. Highlighting the disproportionate inclusion of a large number of Muslim groups into the OBC list by the Trinamool Congress government, the BJP has accused the TMC of deliberately depriving deserving Hindu intermediate castes to unduly favour the Muslims.

The political growth of the BJP in West Bengal is driven considerably by the successful mobilisation of several lower caste groups — but the logic of this mobilisation draws heavily from the conventional ideological template of Hindutva. Such a scenario problematises the widely held proposition that the politics of caste and the politics of Hindu nationalism are inherently antithetical and that the political articulation of Dalit or lower caste identity is necessarily an effective antidote to the Hindutva agenda of Hindu consolidation. Contemporary Bengal politics demonstrates that the politics of caste and politics of religion, far from being mutually incompatible, can seamlessly blend and integrate. It draws our attention to the need for a new analytical framework for comprehending the emerging nexus between the politics of caste and the politics of Hindutva.

Ayan Guha is a British Academy International Fellow, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. He is the author of the book The Curious Trajectory of Caste in West Bengal Politics: Chronicling Continuity and Change (Brill, 2022). The views expressed are personal

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