What became of the caste question in West Bengal is often asked, but seldom considered at any great length in scholarly literature. 1 Since that state has not experienced caste-based mobilisations of the kind witnessed in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh or Tamil Nadu, much less the centrality of caste-related issues in legislative politics, a fairly welldispersed common belief has developed that West Bengal, somehow, was able to relieve itself of such ‘backward’ attachments. Whatever animosities that existed in the past were dissolved by the exceptionality of the Bengali social – whether the Congress paternalism, which reigned shortly after 1947 or the supposed compact with the communist regimes that followed. As it stands, our understanding of this subsumption is depicted as the outcome of consent and mutuality born of nationalist and communist hegemony. Indeed, we have little documentation, much less discussion, of what was, and what is, bhadralok casteism in West Bengal. 2
In this chapter, I explore the analytically vexed problem of agency with respect to the following anomaly: the domination of this state’s political, social and cultural domains by the upper castes, even as it was surely proclaimed that caste did not matter; indeed, the perpetuation of caste inequality by those who disavowed the salience of caste. Who, or what, is the agent of this domination? What is the ‘biography
of the general category’ in West Bengal (Deshpande 2013)? These questions require consideration because the resumption of uppercaste domination and concomitant decline of the political visibility of caste have been explained primarily as a consequence of social structure in the first case, and acquiescence and accommodation in the latter. After reviewing two key sets of contributions to the extant literature, I pose these questions to three dimensions of the caste question in postcolonial West Bengal, which curiously enough, have – for the most part – elicited limited comment: a brief account of the Congress and Communist governments’ observation of reservation policies for the Scheduled Castes; contemporary activist discourse about uppercaste domination and Dalit inequality; and the prospects for alliances between Dalit and Muslim communities.