Lower Caste Movements
Lower Caste Movements efforts to obliterate the social backwardness of some groups or communities in the society. Bengali society throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries remained broadly divided into the Hindu and Muslim communities. In that sense, the inner divisions of the Hindu society tended to be perfunctory. Thus, the social scenario in Bengal betrayed features quite different from those in Central India and some parts of the Deccan, where the Muslim population was relatively small as a result of which the anti-Brahmin movements thrived there.
The forms of discrimination against the untouchables in Bengal differed from that in Maharastra or South India. In Bengal, caste rigidities were never strong enough to keep the untouchable population in a state of perpetual servitude. In this context, the types of discrimination faced by depressed or scheduled caste leaders like jogendranath mandal were not the same as those experienced by Ambedkar in Maharastra.
In Bengal the list of scheduled castes included not only the 'untouchables' but also several Ajalchal castes ritually ranked a step above them. The colonial bureaucracy enlisted communities under the Scheduled Caste grouping not much in accordance to their ritual status, but more in terms of their economic status. Therefore, it has been argued that since the intensity of untouchability was relatively weak in Bengal, compared to some other regions of India, movements such as those demanding right of entry to temples could never become a major plank in the movement for the removal of untouchability. Therefore lower caste protest did not always demand the complete removal of untouchability. Scholars like Masayuki Usuda have argued that these movements took the form of joint efforts in which socially backward castes too participated. The problems of untouchability and those of social ostracism were reflected in the antagonisms that prevailed between the indigent Chhotoloks (low born) and the rich Bhadraloks (men enjoying a higher status by virtue of their ritual ranking, education and other virtues) in the society. At times movements among the Bengali untouchables assumed class connotations.
However, such movements need to be analysed in two different ways. In the first place, such movements are sometimes considered as manifestations of protest against a dominant system of social organisation that sanctioned disabilities and inflicted deprivation on certain subordinate groups. On the other hand such movements, it has been argued, could be interpreted as expressions of ambitions or aspirations that sought accommodation and positional readjustments within the existing system of distribution of power and prestige. It would be worthwhile to argue that within such 'untouchable' social groups, different levels of social consciousness and different forms of political action emerged, which inevitably were incorporated within a single movement.
In Bengal, due to their socio-economic backwardness, some of the lower or 'untouchable' castes developed worldviews that were fundamentally different from that of the nationalists and this led to their alienation from mainstream politics. However within the same social movement of such ritually 'inferior' castes, there could be a convergence of different tendencies - some protestant and some accommodating. In fact, as a result of such tendencies, lower caste social protest in spite of the immense possibilities of initiating some fundamental changes in society or polity, fell far short of the cherished goals.
The lower caste movements since the last decades of the nineteenth century were organised and largely led by the Namashudras of Eastern Bengal and the Rajbangshis in the North. They organised and led two of the most powerful movements among the Scheduled Castes of Bengal. In fact when scheduled caste politics emerged in the province in the 1930s, they provided it with both leadership and a popular support base. Moreover, these two communities by and large remained aloof from the nationalist movement. The Namasudras (2,087,162 as per 1911 census) constituted the largest agrarian caste in Eastern Bengal and their alienation from the Congress led anti-British agitation weakened the nationalist movement. Similarly, the Rajbangshis who too were a dominant caste in North Bengal exhibited apathy for the Congress led freedom movement and this possibly explains much of the weaknesses of the nationalist movement in this region.
The Namasudras who were earlier known as Chandals (a term derived from the Sanskrit chandala, a representative term for the untouchables) lived mainly in the Eastern districts of Bengal. According to the census of 1901, more than 75 percent of the Namasudra population lived in the districts of Bakerganj, Faridpur, Dhaka, Mymensingh, Jessore and Khulna. Moreover, it has also been pointed out in several studies that a contiguous region comprising northeastern Bakerganj, southern Faridpur and the adjoining Narail, Magura, Khulna and Bagerhat districts contained more than half of this caste population. In North Bengal a section of Kochs, who began to call themselves Rajbangshis from the early nineteenth century, also lived in a contiguously definable region. By the early years of the twentieth century more than 88 percent of the Rajbangshi population lived in the districts of Rangpur, Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri and the princely state of Cooch Behar. Presumably, this sort of geographical moorings, which has been explained in terms of the tribal origin of both the communities, accounted for their strength. The loss of such geographical anchorage in 1947 contributed to the decline of their movements.
Both Namasudras and Rajbangshis bore the stigma of untouchability and in most cases the various social disabilities from which they suffered created a considerable social distance between them and the privileged upper castes of Bengal - the Brahmins, Kayasthas and Baidyas. Apart from their low social standing, the majority of the Namasudras were tenant farmers with or without occupancy rights while a few were sharecroppers or bargadars, whose numbers proliferated towards the end of the 1920s. Thus the fundamental dichotomy in Bengal agrarian relations coincided, in the case of the Namasudras, with the caste hierarchy. However, a miniscule group among the Namasudras did move up the economic ladder by taking advantage of the process of reclamation that had started in the area (mostly in the three East Bengal Divisions of Dhaka, Rajshahi and Chittagong). Consequently, while some Namasudras set themselves up as big peasants or tenure holders, some others took to moneylending and trade and somewhat later to education and various professions.
In the case of the Rajbangshis the situation was quite different, as they were better placed than the Namasudras in terms of their ranking in the agrarian structure. In Rajshahi division the Rajbangshis constituted about 10.68 percent of the rent receiving population. Among the Rajbangshi 'cultivators', although many were sharecroppers or adhiyars, a substantial section happened to be rich peasants, enjoying various grades of tenurial rights as jotedars and chukamidars. Incidentally, the wide-scale clearing of jungle areas over large parts of Northern Bengal resulted in the establishment of some big zamindari houses by the Rajbangshis. However, it needs to be borne in mind that these inner contradictions did not come to the fore till the end of the 1930s as both the Namasudras and the Rajbangshi elite were not able to carve out a separate identity for themselves and consequently remained attached to the peasant community.
Under the influence of certain liberal religious sects, a sense of self-respect developed among the Namasudras. In fact, these liberal as well as radical sects under the leadership of charismatic gurus like Keshab Pagal or Sahalal Pir challenged the hierarchic Hindu caste system and preached a simple gospel based on devotion (bhakti) and spiritual emotionalism (bhava). In 1872-73, the Namasudras under the leadership of Dwarkanath Mandal, tried to bolster their self-esteem by undertaking a social and economic boycott of the upper castes. The failure of this movement led to the establishment of the Matua sect - an organised religious sect under the influence of Sri Guru Chand Thakur. The Guru, who came from a rich peasant household, preached the elimination of caste, equality of men and women and the possibility for spiritual relief through performance of secular duties. Subsequently, the message of the movement found expression through the shlogan of hate kam mukhe nam (work with the hands, chant with the mouth). At about the same time, several other lower caste spiritualists like Prabhu Jagatbandhu (1871-1921) spread their teachings among the Namasudras of Faridpur and Jessore. Jagatbandhu's teachings formed the core of the religious beliefs of the Mahanta sect.
The conversion of the Namasudras to Christianity was another phenomenon that deserves special mention. The Christian denominations, namely, the Baptists, Anglicans and Roman Catholics converted a fairly large number of Namasudras in Faridpur and Bakerganj.
From the early years of the twentieth century, the Namasudra Samiti gained in prominence and 'uplift meetings' were regularly organised to disseminate the message of the caste movement. At the same time Jatras and mass contact drives, such as those for the collection of musthi (handful of rice) were frequently organised for the purpose of mobilisation. From 1912, the Bengal Namasudra Association provided the movement with a more formal organisational network. Thus as the movement progressed, it encompassed within it two distinct levels of consciousness and action, one represented by the elite and the other by their peasant followers.
In the case of the Rajbangshis, the movement for self-respect was organised by the members of the affluent section of the community. From the 1890s, the influence of Sanskritisation could be clearly seen and there was an effort to characterise the Rajbangshis as Vratya (fallen) Ksatriyas. At the same time, from 1912 onwards the Rajbangshi elite organised a series of mass thread wearing ceremonies in order to boast their Ksatriya status. Moreover, efforts were also undertaken to establish links with the Bharatiya Ksatriya Mahasabha.
Since the early years of the twentieth century both the Namasudras and the Rajbangshis sent requests to the colonial bureaucracy to bring them under the orbit of preferential treatment. Apart from extending preferential treatment to them in matters of education and employment, sympathies were also sought from the colonial bureaucracy over matters related to political participation. While the position of the Namasudra and Rajbangshi elite in the local bodies showed signs of improvement, their representation in the provincial legislature was still negligible. But more importantly, in order to gain special political privileges, the lower caste elite consciously advocated an anti-Congress and pro-British stance. At the same time, the lower caste elite, particularly the Namasudras who had actively opposed the swadeshi movement of the Congress, favoured a blatantly separatist line in the wake of the constitutional proposals of the 1910s and 1920s seeking greater devolution of power among various Indian groups. Almost immediately after the Mont-Ford proposals, the Rajbangshi and Namasudra elite pressed for greater representation for depressed communities in Bengal. As a result of these demands, the Reform Act of 1919 provided for the nomination of one representative of the depressed classes to the Bengal Legislature.
Since the early 1920s the pro-British stance became more pronounced and the lower caste elite in pursuit of greater political privileges became more critical of the Congress policy to speak on behalf of the nation. Consequently, for them nationalism assumed a different meaning. In spite of being critical of the Hindu social order and championing an anti-Congress position they were not anti-nationalists as such. In other words the lower caste elite were in quest of a nation based on the principles of substantive rather than the nominal citizenship being offered to them by the Congress.
However, it would be wrong to surmise that the lower caste elite consistently favoured a political approach distinct from that of the nationalist mainstream. Occasional convergence did take place. For instance, in the 1920s, some of the Namasudra and Rajbangshi elite, notably Keshab Chandra Das, Mohini Mohan Das, and Upendranath Barman favoured a policy of collaboration with the nationalists. Understandably, anti-Congress feeling ran high among the less privileged Namasudra and Rajbangshi peasantry. Interestingly, as a part of their protest against social and economic discrimination Namasudra and Rajbangshi peasants entered into bitter strife with dominant landholding groups, comprising both high caste Hindus and Muslims.
By the 1930s, with institutional concessions pouring in, the lower caste elite became more and more unmindful of the interests of their peasant followers and showed more interest in Council politics and Constitutional debates. But, to keep their influence intact over their rural following, they did at times expose issues closely related to the lives of the peasants. In the 1930s, their political separatism became all the more pronounced because of a distinct tilt towards Ambedkar's brand of separatist scheduled caste politics. But by the mid-1930s, the lower caste elite began to lose popular support, more because of the emergence of political outfits like the krishak praja party, which had a pronounced peasant orientation. But with the Krishak Praja Party turning away its face from the scheduled caste constituency on the eve of the 1937 elections, the lower caste elite was once more able to recover their lost political base. But more importantly, during this period the Congress was also able to woo a section of the lower caste elite.
In the 1937 elections, the scheduled castes won 32 out of the 256 seats in the Bengal Legislative Assembly. The composition of the 32 successful candidates revealed a shift in political allegiances. In addition to 23 Independent members, 7 were elected on Congress support and the hindu mahasabha backed 2.
Since the late 1930s, the lower caste movement lost much of its momentum and autonomy as class divisions began to surface. The lower caste elite could no longer sustain their links with their rural following. The onset of depression and the resultant hardships of the peasantry forced a substantial section of the rural proletariat, irrespective of caste affiliation, to draw closer to the Kisan Sabha agitations. In the Jalpaiguri-Dinajpur region throughout the early 1940s, common caste identity failed to stem the conflict between the Rajbangshi Jotedars and the Adhiyars, over the latter's demand for a greater share of the harvest. This conflict culminated in the tebhaga movement of 1946-47. But more importantly, the hobnobbing between the Independent Scheduled Caste party and Krishak Praja Party-Muslim League ministry also proved to be a short-lived one. The establishment of the Bengal Provincial Scheduled Caste Federation also did not signify the rise of a third political alternative.
In retrospect it needs to be argued that lower caste community identity was always in a process of change, thereby resulting in fragmentation. In fact, the fragments and particles that fell apart were appropriated by the other wider identities of nation, religion or class. In that sense, the integration of the lower castes, more particularly in the 1940s, with various other political streams such as Congress led nationalism or Hindu Mahasabha instigated communalism or the Communist led Kisan Sabha were rooted in the very logic of such movements. [Raj Sekhar Basu]
Bibliography Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Caste, Politics and the Raj, Calcutta, 1990; Namasudras, London, 1998; Usuda Masayuki, 'Pushed towards the Partition: Jogendranath Mandal and the Constrained Namasudra Movement', in H Kotani (ed), Caste System, Untouchability and the Depressed, Delhi, 1997.