The caste question in West Bengal (and Bengal before 1947) is unique. It resonates with the conventional perspectives on caste in history and politics in India since the nineteenth century as much as it diverges from them. While there are many important perspectives on caste in Indian history and politics, two major ones dominate the majority of scholarship. The first is untouchability, with its attendant narratives and relations of domination, exploitation and humiliation. The second is protest against this perversity, which emphasises political and electoral articulation and consolidation by castes or caste groups. Within these two broad trends, however, there is a horizon of complicated political histories and cultures of caste, interfacing with diverse analytical categories and contexts, across time and space, such as definition, experience, region, religion, gender, class, education, mobilisation and various combinations of these entanglements.
The scholarship on caste in Bengal both conforms to the two broad trends and diverges from them in significant ways. It is framed by paradoxes of layered presences and absences. Caste was ‘hyper visible’ in institutional politics in Bengal at least up to the partition. Since the partition, however, it has ceased to feature explicitly in party politics and electoral mobilisation. In the politics of popular consciousness, however, it persists as much as it continues to condition political relations at the local level. The invisibility of caste in party politics and electoral mobilisation at the provincial level did not do away with the consciousness or salience of caste in politics altogether. On the contrary, this paradox raises fresh questions about trajectories of research on caste in Bengal. Are there lives or careers of caste without transparent quantitative translations onto the domain of institutional or electoral politics at the provincial level? What is it about the historical and political trajectories of caste relations in Bengal that resists such translations? There is a second paradox in terms of the centrality of untouchability in public life. While various forms of untouchability persisted in Bengal even into the twenty-first century, it is widely acknowledged that its rigidity as a uniform system of oppression across the province was arguably less compared to other parts of India.
This essay addresses an aspect of the historical and cultural politics of caste in Bengal. It explores how on given moments of historical conjecture, articulations of caste are entangled with several other analytical categories such as local and provincial history and identity. In so doing, it seeks to shift focus from the ‘systemic’ or ‘structural-normative’ aspects of caste relations towards how members of caste-communities themselves (re)constitute their self-projections in response to perceived historical and political incentives and disincentives.
This paper is an account of a people, located firmly within a particular space and time, making a political claim to a larger, regional culture in terms that embody a collective selfhood. The empirical core of the paper comes from the material circulating in print during the protest in Contai subdivision in eastern Midnapore in 1932, against a controversial proposal to add some parts of eastern Midnapore district with the forthcoming province of Odisha. Some distinct cultural attributes had emerged at the time as basic constituents of an incontrovertible ‘Bengali’ identity. A people making a claim to an authentic or legitimate Bengali identity was partly forced and partly chosen to articulate that claim within the limits of meaning presumably emanating out of those particular cultural attributes. In the process, the paper emphasises emergence of two particular claims. The first is that fresh dimensions to caste identities may on occasions emerge as part of a reimagined history in view of political claims to larger, and potentially empowering, cultural identities. The second is that explorations in the making of such claims offer an insight to new caste claims forged in the crucible of entangled cultural, regional and political histories.
In the late nineteenth century, Mahisyas (that is, Kaibartas) were regarded, by influential upper-caste intellectuals, as a low agricultural caste, incapable of understanding the benefits of formal education for their children. Rajendralal Mitra, the famous Sanskritist who was asked to prepare a list of social precedence for Bengal castes in 1881s, wrote to A. Smith, Magistrate 24 Parganas, dated, April 29, 1868, Manicktollah, that ‘Kaivartas ...are ...very poor and ... will find attendance to schools a source of positive loss which they cannot tolerate’ (quoted in University of Calcutta 1925:127–38). This general impression about an in-built aversion of agricultural castes as ‘low’ and indifferent to ‘modern’ sources of power, such as education and government service, had in some ways persisted into the twentieth century. In nationalist circles in Bengal, Mahisyas were still widely considered a part of the Depressed Classes in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the status of Mahisyas was perceived in official and nationalist discourses as roughly analogous to the Namasudras. The Superintendent of Census operations in 1921 did not know what to do with the Mahisyas’ status. ‘They belong to the rural areas and occupy much the same position in the body politic in the areas where they are numerous, as do, for instance, the Namasudras, though they are higher placed in the Hindu social scale’ he wrote. The divergence in subsequent political trajectory of Namasudras and Mahisyas was consequent partly to their varying responses to the prospect of inclusion with the Depressed Classes list, based on their fundamentally differing understanding of the cultural qualities and meanings associated with the category. In case of Mahisyas this subsequent change in political trajectory was caused at least partly by the rise of Midnapore Mahisyas to positions of political prominence.
The essay now focuses on a particular event and process through which the Mahisyas of Midnapore had successfully reimagined their caste and political identity during the 1930s. They had, by the early 1930s, opted out of the category of the Depressed Classes, a history to which this essay does not refer directly. Instead, it refers to how during the 1930s the Mahisyas of Midnapore were busy making claims to a larger ‘Bengali’ cultural self. One of the strategies involved in this claim was to emphasise a timeless Bengali cultural identity. The articulation of this identity came out particularly strongly in course of a local movement against proposed inclusion of some parts of the Midnapore district within the proposed new province of Orissa.
Plans to divide the district of Midnapore into smaller administrative units were considered and shelved several times between 1880s and 1910s. The articulate class of Midnapore mobilised strong public opinion against them and had them shelved. Predictably, when a boundary commission was announced in 1932 to ascertain if some ‘Oriya speaking parts’ of Midnapore district could be amalgamated with the proposed new state of Orissa, there arose a strong wave of protests for ‘linguistic, cultural and material’ reasons. High literary culture emerges as the primary marker of a perceived Bengali identity to which Mahisyas explicitly laid claim for a full share. These elements were seen to embody a distinct form of cultural ‘advancement’ characteristic of Bengal as opposed to the cultural ‘backwardness’ typical of Orissa, apart, of course, from hard core administrative and material calculations.
The ‘rich literary culture and institutions of scientific learning’ of Bengal were contrasted against the ‘famine stricken, poverty-cursed’ literature of Orissa represented by a solitary Rasa Kallola and dismissed as unworthy of aspiration. A commentary published in Nihar (1931i) neatly summed it up in the following manner:
We cannot deny our children access to the Bengali literature which has received global acclaim…the works of Bankimchandra (Chatterjee), Rabindranath (Tagore) and Sharatchandra (Chatterjee)…the religious institutions of Vaisnavism, Navya Nyaya, Brahma Samaj, Ramkrishna Mission…the great men of Bengal Rammohan, Iswarchandra, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Ashutosh… Bengali politicians Surendranath, Anandamohan, Chittaranjan…Bengali scientists Sir Jagadish Chandra, Sir Prafulla Chandra, Meghnad Saha…the high art of Bengal and its literary periodicals…all these prestigious legacies we cherish as our own…we are not prepared to renounce this legacy for a paltry service appointment or two.
History, or the public character and function of history, emerged as a central concern in this conversation in two senses; as accurate chronology and as logic of the past over-determining the present. There was considerable traffic between the two. History as the logic of chronology was manifested in attempts to situate the people and the culture of southern Midnapore as always already Bengali.
As a correspondent to Nihar (1931h) wrote, ‘even in 1830s when unlike today there was no public opinion, the government did not have the audacity to attach Contai, Ramnagar or Egra with the district of Balasore.’ History was also projected as an undesirable memory from the past to be disowned and shed off. By this logic, popular refusal to endorse a particular version of the past was held to constitute sufficient ground for its overall rejection. The campaign rejected past historical connections as an insufficient ground for amalgamation, valorising contemporary linguistic and literary-cultural associations instead. B.N. Sasmal, the tallest Mahisya politican, in 1919, privately admitted the Oriya ethnic origin of Mahisyas to Godavari Mishra and Gopabandhu Das, two major leaders of the Oriya movement at the time, rejecting it at the same time as ‘only a memory consigned to history’, according to Samaj (21 October, 1931; quoted in Mohanty 2005:231). A correspondent to Nihar (1931c) wrote, responding to a Oriya tract advocating amalgamation, that historical connections cannot determine provincial boundaries…Oriya traces in some areas of south west Midnapore is hard to deny…but (C)ontemporary Midnapore is so overwhelmingly Bengali in character that accepting past connections as a good enough reason to shove it into Orissa is same as committing suicide.
An ‘anti-partition’ committee was immediately formed, with B.N. Sasmal as President and Trailokyanath Pradhan as Secretary (Nihar 1931a). Sasmal, although temporarily retired from mainstream Bengal politics, was hailed as the undisputed leader of the district and best placed to decide on matters pertaining to its interests (Nihar 1931e). At least 7000 copies of Sasmal’s ‘Reply to Orissa’ were commissioned to be printed (Nihar 1931d). Copies of the pamphlet and minutes of District Congress meetings dissenting against the proposed partition were forwarded to national leaders such as Patel and Gandhi and to Congress leadership in Bengal and Orissa (Nihar 1931b, 1931f, 1931g). In his tract, Sasmal began with a regret at the unfortunate ‘destiny’ of Midnapore that allegedly inflected more trouble on Midnapore when its people were busy dedicating their energy wholly to the Civil Disobedience movement (Nihar 1931e, 1931f, 1931g). He pegged his case on the presumed financial impracticability of the projected province and the explicit resistance of the people concerned against it. Even if the people of southern Midnapore share a common language and culture with the Oriyas, it has nevertheless to be seen if they want to go to Orissa’, he emphasised.
A key aspect of Sasmal’s rhetoric was isolation of castes as indisputably Oriya and Bengali. Oriya pamphlets undersigned by some Brahmins and Karans were circulated in Midnapore. Sasmal contrasted the ‘positive’ cooperation between Kayasthas, Karans, Mahisyas and Poundrakhatriyas during the Civil Disobedience movement with the dreadful and diversionary prospect of a ‘civil war’ between Bengali and Oriya castes. Separating castes as ‘indisputably’ Oriya and Bengali respectively was a key strategy in arbitrating claims. Some castes in southern Midnapore were conceded Oriya origin and an overwhelming majority was confirmed as Bengali. Migration of some Brahmins and Karans, for instance, from Orissa was admitted but they were described as a small minority.
As the majority caste in southern Midnapore, Mahisyas were identified as an exclusively Bengali caste, along with Namasudras, Sadgops and Kayasthas. Allusions were made to an article by prominent Oriya leader Gopabandhu Das published an article in Advance regretting low ajalacharaniya Shudra status of Mahisyas in Bengal and implicitly promising better social status for them in the proposed Orissa state. Das’ intervention was dismissed as ‘uninformed and irresponsible’ and he was directed to the reference in Jogendranath Bhattacharya’s Hindu Castes and Sects to Mahisyas as an ‘upper class’ in Midnapore. More importantly, Mahisyas were portrayed as patrons and providers of destitute Oriya Brahmins, a state of affairs signifying both the material degradation of Oriya Brahmins and the generosity of agriculturist Mahisyas. They were positioned as an indigenous Bengali caste since time immemorial. As a rejoinder argued, ‘both their water and food are widely accepted by upper castes…the thousands of Oriya Brahmins who make a living out of begging in the Mahisya villages would have happily informed him of the social status of Mahisyas…Mahisyas never came from Orissa…they are a part of the large Mahisya samaj of Bengal…the Mahisyas of Midnapore had been ruling Tamluk since the time of the Mahabharata’ (Nihar 1931g).
Eventually, no part of Midnapore district was included in the new province of Orissa. ‘The Oriya claim falls flat on all grounds,’ observed the Orissa Committee Report. ‘By the test of race they are a minority in all areas…by the test of language they are still more heavily outnumbered…in all areas there is an overwhelming majority opposed to the transfer of any part…in Midnapore the prestige of Bengal is higher than that of Orissa…they prefer their political future to be bound up with Bengal’ (Report 1932a:6). On the Mahisya question too, the Orissa Committee concurred that ‘(T)he Kaebartas, who now style themselves as Mahisyas, are the largest caste in Midnapore and they entered Midnapore from Orissa.’ Members wrote specifically that ‘this is also the conclusion to which we ourselves incline.’ In the final analysis though, it was committed to be ‘concerned with existing facts and not remote racial origins,’ and ruled that ‘a caste which describes itself as Bengali and speaks Bengali, may legitimately be treated as a Bengali caste’ (Report 1932a:5).
What emerged from this consideration of the ‘anti-partition’ campaign in Midnapore was a non-negotiable resolve of the people of Midnapore to affirm their Bengali identity. A popular conception of Mahisyas of Midnapore as an indisputably ‘Bengali’ caste in existence since ancient times was a necessary part of the wider idea of Midnapore as an inalienably Bengali space. Yet, the observations of the Orissa Committee showed how Mahisyas had managed to overwrite an actual history or shared past. It is to that past that the paper now turns.
From the middle of the twelfth century to 1568, Midnapore, along with the Arambagh subdivision of Hooghly district, formed the northern part of the Kingdom of the Ganga kings who ruled Orissa. In 1568 it was taken over by the Afghans and later the Mughals who made it a part of Subah (province) Orissa. In 1751 Subah Orissa, as demarcated by the river Subarnarekha, was ceded to the Marathas although some areas to the east of the river too were held by the Marathas. In 1760 Midnapore, except the Pataspur Pargana, was handed over to the British (Report 1932a:3). When in 1760 Mir Qasim handed over three districts to the East India Company, including Midnapore, the latter was explicitly mentioned as ‘the chucla of Midnapore in the districts of the subah of Orissa’ (Long  1973:224–25). The Subarnarekha was officially made the boundary between Orissa and Midnapore in 1817 (Toyenbee 1873:33). As late as 1829 Midnapore was described as a part of Subah Orissa in property deeds of local zamindars. The district of Midnapore, except Ghatal and Chandrakona, was created in 1836 (Report 1932b:9). Intriguingly enough, a series of transfers and retransfers of parganas between Balasore and Midnapore continued until as late as the 1870s (Report 1932a:3).
However, since the 1850s, the people of eastern Midnapore, particularly the gentry, would conceive themselves as Bengalis, in terms of the manners and customs. H.V. Bayley observed in 1852 that the Oriya immigrants outnumbered the Bengalis, going by the greater prevalence of Oriya surnames. Generally, the people of Midnapore consisted of an ‘amalgamated race who can neither be called Bengalis nor Oriyas’ (Report 1932a:4). More importantly for our purpose, Bayley, in his Memorandum of Midnapore, was convinced that the landed gentry of the country were ‘insensibly approximating to the manners of the same class in Bengal’ (quoted in O’Malley 1911:67).
Earlier under the Afghan and Mughal rule, Oriya was used as the official language, along with Persian. In 1836, Hijli was added to Midnapore and Bengali was introduced as the language of instruction in place of Oriya (Mohanty 2005:223). By the 1830s the language of instruction in a majority of schools was Bengali, although Oriya was certainly the language of instruction in every fourth primary school in Midnapore. Adam’s report on vernacular education, for instance, lists 548 Bengali primary schools along with 182 Oriya primary schools out of a total of 748 in the district. Adam himself writes that ‘the district is in the province of Orissa but it has been so long attached to Bengal that it may be considered a component part of the province’ (Long 1868:35, 153). Writing in 1870, Rajendralal Mitra, the author of Antiquities of Orissa, observed:
Some 20 years ago when the district of Midnapore was transferred from the commissionership of Cuttack to that of Burdwan…the new commissionership for the sake of uniformity in all districts suppressed Oriya and introduced Bengali language and the whole of …Midnapore has now become a Bengali speaking district…People of these places often feel offended if they are called Oriyas. (quoted in Mohanty 2005:224)
The process of Bengalisation was further consolidated by the 1880s and 1890s; the colonial administrators and surveyors had since the 1830s dealt with Midnapore as a Bengal district. Hunter in his two volumes on Orissa did not include Midnapore at all (Hunter 1872). Around the same time, Risley found that ‘there seems to be good grounds for the belief that Kaibartas (i.e. Mahisyas) were among the earliest inhabitants of Bengal and occupied a commanding position’ (Risley 1891:376). Finally, Grierson (1903:59, 106) described the linguistic peculiarity of Midnapore in the following terms:
The history of their (Mahisyas) arrival accounts for the very peculiar character of the dialect of Bengali spoken by them. Originally owning some non-Aryan language, they arrived in Midnapore speaking some corrupt Patois of Oriya language, and on this, as a basis, they have built the dialect of Bengali which they speak in their present home.
The near complete consensus among the colonial and Bengali authorities on the status of Midnapore as an inalienable part of Bengal region however was complicated by the continued practice of Oriya linguistic and ritual particularities in private. Even the Oriya memorial for the inclusion of Midnapore territories admitted that so long as Orissa remained a part of the Bengal Presidency, the evil effects of our separation from the mother province ‘were not brought home to us…we felt then that the entire Oriya race was joined to Bengal in order that the two races might build up a joint destiny under the empire’ (Report 1932a: Appendix-3, A(1)). But no one, least of all colonial administrator-surveyors, denied that a good many of Midnapore residents had migrated from Orissa.
This article is an account of a people, located firmly within a particular space and time, making a political claim to a larger, regional, culture in terms that embody a collective selfhood. The claim makes for an aspiration to a higher status, compared to another people and culture with which they presumably found themselves reduced, in several senses. The article explores this tension between these two available pasts and cultures for a people in a borderland. It explores also how one of them appears to offer a more empowering strategy for carving out an honourably recognised default selfhood within the mainstream of the more powerful past and culture at a given moment in history. In short, it hopes to contribute to the growing literature, across the world, on the historical politics of identity recognition. More particularly, it is presented, at the same time, as a few questions to the process of meaning making, of the category ‘Bengal’ and ‘Bengalis’, with reference to a concrete historical moment. Caste here influences the making of a regional identity as much as the latter plays a constitutive role in remaking questions of caste, with particular reference to Bengal.
For a recent collection of perspectives on the caste question in Bengal with reference to politics and other domains see Chandra, Heierstad and Nielsen 2016.
 The Rasa Kallola by Dinakrushna Das, a 17th-century Kavya work dealing with the Radha-Krishna story, is considered a foremost literary treasure of medieval Orissa. See Mukherjee 1998. The reference here is clearly pejorative.
Chandra, Uday, Geir Heierstad, and Kenneth Bo Nielsen eds. 2016. The Politics of Caste in West Bengal. London and New York: Routledge.
Grierson, G.A. 1903. Linguistic Survey of India. Vol. 5, part 1. Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing.
Hunter, W.W. 1872. Orissa. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder and Co.
Long, James, ed. 1868. Adam’s Reports on Vernacular Education in Bengal and Bihar. Calcutta: Home Secretariat Press.
Long, James. (1869) 1973. Selections from the Unpublished Records of the Government between 1748-1767. Vol. I. Reprint, Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay.
Mohanty, Nivedita. 2005. Oriya Nationalism: Quest for a United Orissa 1866-1956. Jagatsinghpur, Orissa: Prafulla.
Mukherjee, Sujit. 1998. A Dictionary of Indian Literature: Beginnings-1850. Hyderabad: Orient Longman.
Nihar. 1931a. July 21.
Nihar. 1931b. August 18.
Nihar. 1931c. “Orissar Khudha.” September 1.
Nihar. 1931d. September 1.
Nihar. 1931e. September 15.
Nihar. 1931f. September 22.
Nihar. 1931g. “Panditjir Keramoti.” September 29.
Nihar. 1931h. “Urissabasir Ojouktik Dabi.” October 6.
Nihar. 1931i. “Urissar Dabir Uttor.” October 13.
O’Malley, L.S.S. 1911. Bengal District Gazetteers: Midnapore. Calcutta.
Report. 1932a. Report of the Orissa Boundary Committee. Vol. I. Calcutta.
Report. 1932a. Report of the Orissa Boundary Committee. Vol. II. Calcutta.
Risley, H.H. 1891. The Tribes and Castes of Bengal. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press.
Toyenbee, George. 1873. A Sketch of the History of Orissa from 1803-1828. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press.
University of Calcutta. 1925. Calcutta Review 16 (October): 127–38.