In February this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducted a post-Budget webinar titled 'Reaching the last mile,' in which he highlighted the plight of lower caste Muslims. As quoted in The Hindu, he said,
“We have to quickly provide various facilities to our tribes people in over 200 districts and over 22,000 villages of the country. Similarly among our minorities, especially among Muslims we have Pasmanda Muslims. How we have to take benefits to them... as they even today after so many years of Independence remain far behind."
However, just a few months later, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have shifted their attention towards Pasmanda Muslims in West Bengal, claiming that many of the Muslim castes added to the state's Other Backward Classes list have been wrongly added and need to be removed.
BJP leader Hansraj Ahir, who is currently serving as the chief of National Commission for Backward Classes, claimed on 8 June that as many as 118 castes in the state's OBC list of 179, were Muslim.
He also stated that when the Left Front government under Jyoti Basu introduced reservations for the OBCs in 1993, the first list of 66 communities had 12 Muslim and 54 Hindu castes. He claimed that the disproportionate number of Muslim castes in the current list, when their population is less than the Hindus, shows the list hasn't been prepared objectively.
BJP president JP Nadda, a few days later, concurred with Ahir saying that the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government was favouring Muslims. He also went on to allege that the Banerjee government was giving OBC certificates to Bangladeshi infiltrators and Rohigyas.
The OBC list has been amended multiple times in the last decade and a half and the new additions by the Left Front and later TMC government have primarily been Muslim castes.
BJP Has Raised Similar Concerns in the Past Too
Political commentators pointed out that the BJP's rhetoric is not new. Adil Hossain, assistant professor at Azim Premji University, told The Quint that the BJP tried to communalise OBC politics in West Bengal just before the 2021 assembly elections as well but massively failed.
"This happened due to the fact that historically after the partition, the politicisation of identities happened more around class instead of caste which basically means that caste groups rarely acted as a single vote bank," he explained.
Hossain also asserted that without robust data, the BJP cannot successfully challenge the TMC on caste issues. "In the absence of a caste census, which happened last time in 1931 in Bengal, most of the communalisation attempt will remain rhetorical claims. The BJP should demand a caste census in West Bengal to have a clear picture on this."
The demand for caste census has become a focal point of Opposition parties' agenda. Rahul Gandhi made it an election issue in the recent assembly elections in Karnataka. Other parties like Samajwadi Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Rashtriya Janata Dal, and Janata Dal (United) too have tried to corner the BJP on this issue.
As the Opposition's electoral campaign coalesces around 'social justice' ahead of the Lok Sabha elections next year, with OBC category at its centre, the BJP will have to find a strategy to counter it.
BJP Trying to Reach Out to Middle Castes
The BJP has so far tried to disaggregate the OBC category and reach out to the more marginalised among them. As the Yadavs are the core voters of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, it devised campaigns to attract Nishads and other numerically smaller castes to its fold. It is trying the same strategy in Bihar against RJD's Yadav and JD(U)'s Kurmi voter base.
In West Bengal, it is pitting Hindu OBCs against Muslim OBCs, however, its main goal seems to be attracting the Hindu intermediary castes like Mahisya and Tili that are not part of the OBC category but are demanding inclusion in it.
Ayan Guha, author of the recent book The Curious Trajectory of Caste in West Bengal Politics: Chronicling Continuity and Change, told The Quint,
"I think this is a part of the BJP's social engineering strategy aimed at mobilising the support of the numerically significant and relatively well-off Mahisya caste. The Mahisyas are West Bengal's largest intermediate caste. They account for close to 10 percent of the state's population. The Mahisyas have a significance presence in southwestern Bengal, particularly in districts like Midnapore, Howrah and Hooghly. In these districts it can significantly influence electoral fortunes."
In the 2021 assembly election campaign, Mamata Banerjee had promised inclusion of Mahisya, Tili and other similarly placed castes in the OBC category.
"We shall appoint a Special Task Force to examine and propose OBC status to all the communities which are not recognised as OBCs like Mahisya, Tili, Tamul and Sahas," she had said.
At that time, JP Nadda too had promised in his campaign speech that if the BJP government came to power, it would set up a commission and add castes like Mahisya, Tili and others mentioned in the Mandal Commission report to West Bengal's OBC list.
However, neither the Banerjee government has added them to the state list nor the Modi government has given them a place in the central list.
The central government's OBC list contains only 99 castes for West Bengal, which seems like a massive undercount for a state with estimated population of over 10 crore.
Why Was Caste Not a Factor in West Bengal's Politics?
The reason for this may be found in the state's particular history as far as caste mobilisation is concerned. The initial Congress governments and later the Left Front, which ruled for 34 years from 1977 to 2011, were hostile towards caste-based reservations. The communist leaders refused to acknowledge that caste had any significance in the Bengali society.
West Bengal was one of the last major states to implement reservations for the OBCs.
While southern states and Maharashtra had quotas for the OBCs since before independence and other states joined them in the first three decades after independence, West Bengal introduced OBC quota only in 1993 after the Mandal churn of the early 1990s. And even then, the Left Front government stipulated a miserly 7% quota for them in government jobs. It refused to sanction quota in the higher educational institutions.
Adil Hossain told The Quint,
"The refusal of the Jyoti Basu government to provide important data related to the backward caste groups to Mandal Commission and the lack of politics around it has definitely impacted the state today. Though Mamata Banerjee government understood this political vacuum in the state and reignited questions around caste and welfare politics, she has shown little ideological commitment to social justice politics. She has shown more interest in creating political constituencies around her successful social welfare schemes. The BJP on the other hand has addressed the issue from the prism of larger Hindu identity and thus shied away from demanding caste census and extension of OBC quota."
Ayan Guha elaborates that we need to pay attention to factors like demography and political economy while explaining the lack of caste mobilisation in West Bengal.
"The are many reasons for the absence of OBC politics in West Bengal. I have shown in my book how various structural factors relating to demography, political culture and political economy have created hurdles for politicisation of caste identity. The Left being true to their class-centric ideology was not initially much in favour of identification of backwardness on the basis of caste. Jyoti Basu submitted before the Mandal Commission that in West Bengal there are only two castes – the rich and the poor."
As was the case in 2019 Lok Sabha elections and 2021 assembly elections, caste issues will dominate the election campaign in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections and the assembly elections a year later. This points to a significant change in the state's politics.
Since independence, the political establishment as well as the intellectual class, both dominated by the troika of Brahmin, Baidya and Kayastha castes, kept citing Bengali exceptionalism to claim that caste didn't matter in the Bengali society.
However, in the face of growing literature, lower caste movements like Matua Mahasangh, and the politicisation of the OBC category, that claim is facing intense scrutiny. The BJP, unsurprisingly, is trying to direct this energy towards its communal agenda, claiming Bangladeshis and Rohingyas are getting OBC certificates. Hossain says that the BJP's manoeuver will result in consolidation of Bengali Muslims towards the TMC.
"CAA politics in Bengal was centred around the Matua community who are part of the broader Namasudra community (a Dalit caste group) who had arrived in India as refugees from East Pakistan. Communalisation of the OBC politics along the lines of Rohingya and Bangladeshis is only going to increase the othering of Bengali Muslims and it will further consolidate their vote towards TMC. Till now they could not name a single Muslim caste group from the OBC list in West Bengal that they suspect as 'Rohingya' or 'Bangladeshi' so it has remained a polemical attack from India's ruling party. It is only to create perception politics by targeting a weak community that has no jobs, social network and mainly work as migrant labourers in the South Indian states, as many reports after Orissa train tragedy inform us."