Namasudras as a sub-caste originated from the Aryanisation processes that began from the very ancient period when the tendency of resolving the four-fold varna divisions of the society into a hierarchical order began. Theoretically the hierarchy was determined on the basis of the order of puritical precedence with the brahmans on its top and the sudras at the bottom. The sudras, who made the lowest rung of the socio-religious order, were believed to have possessed no quality of svatva or truth.
Aryanisation of the subcontinent led to gradual absorption of non-Aryans into the four-fold varna system. The characteristics of the varna system were later elaborated in minute detail in the jati system. Subsequently, the broad-based division of labour as represented by varna found expression in the jati system, thereby resulting in an elaborate system of occupational distinctions and interrelations among various varnas.
In Bengal the gradual spread of Aryan culture led to the classification of different groups with particular occupations as distinct jatis. The cultivating, trading, artisan and service castes came to be recognised as Sudras in terms of varna. The bulk of the people covered under the occupational groups of jatis were invested with the responsibilities of meeting the needs of the society. As a consequence the structure of Hindu society in Bengal came to be understood in terms of jati rather than varna.
But more importantly, by emphasising the connection between jati and occupation, the proponents of the caste system tried to lay the foundations of an absolutely non- competitive arrangement of production and distribution that ensured the livelihood of each individual and guaranteed minimum social security. To the society in general the system guaranteed production and distribution in a smooth manner within the constraints of limited resources and conditions of scarcity and stagnation that prevailed in the localised economy of India since the seventh century AD.
The Vallalacharita, which has elaborated on the rise and development of the Sudras in Bengal, have divided into two broad groups - namely, Sat or honest Sudras (from whom higher castes could accept food and drinks) and Asat or dishonest Sudras (whose touch was considered to be polluting). The sudras who were in cultivation were came to be known as Namasudra by and large and others as das. Under the Sultani regime there was a social tendency to to recognise many occupational castes like the shuvarnabaniks as sat sudras. The alien rule must have contributed to this tendency, because socially alienated and deprived castes tended to convert to Islam for social recognition. Under the circumstances, the Namasudras emerged as the most numerous and economically the very influential community in Bengal during the Sultani and Mughal periods. Under the colonial period, the Namasudra community became more numerous both through reproduction and further recognitions and thus got greater political attention from the early 20th century, when electoral politics focussing on the interests of the backward communities and castes.
The Namasudra population in East Bengal gathered momentum in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, when landless and marginalized Namasudras of West Bengal districts and beyond were attracted to join the reclamation drive in various parts of East Bengal, such as Shundarbans, Chittagong, Meghna estuary, haor region in Sylhet and Mymensingh, Jalpaighuri. Jotedars and other large land owning peasants of the region invited them to join the reclamation of abundant wastelands there as sharecroppers. Such tenancy contracts led to the emergence of a large sharecropping class consisting of landless Namasudras mainly. They became under-raiyats and were normally indebted to their landowners, who were mostly upper caste Hindus. The Namasudras as a class was normally indebted and depressed. This depressed classes of Bengal began to be politically organised under different caste associations and samitis from the beginning of the 20th century, and their demands received sympathetic support from the government. The' simon commission Report and the Round Table Conference made specific recommendation for politically accommodating the depressed classes. Finally, the Congress also acceded to their demand under the Poona Pact (1932). In order to avoid psychological stigma attached to the appellation of 'depressed classes', the Bengal Government coined in 1932 the term 'Scheduled Castes', for about 76 Hindu depressed castes mentioned in the First Schedule to the India Act of 1935. Under this Act, 20% seats of the bengal legislative assembly were kept reserved for the scheduled castes. The Muslims, who made another depressed community though not as depressed as of the Namasudras, they also got the right to contest for general seats outside of the seats kept reserved for them. The scheduled castes thus emerged as a powerful balancing force in Bengal politics and both the communities came closer to each other in politics and put up programmes to ameliorate their conditions. All Bengal Namasudra Association shared power with the Muslim League in forming the ministries from 1937 to 1946 and 1954 (East Bengal). [Sirajul Islam]
Bibliography' Hitesranjan Sanyal, Social Mobility in Bengal, Calcutta, 1981; Niharranjan Ray, Bangalir Itihas: Adi Parba, (1 Edition), Calcutta, 1356 BS; Adrienne Cooper, Sharecropping and Sharecroppers' Struggles in Bengal 1930 ' 1950, (Calcutta 1988).