When Will Kolkata’s Elite Spaces Acknowledge Caste Discrimination?

Bhadralok ‘politeness’ camouflages caste discrimination and promotes the narrative of a ‘casteless’ Bengal.

5 min read

As the nation rages over the gangrape and subsequent death of a young Dalit girl by Thakur men in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras, the widespread discussion over the intersection of caste and gender in sexual violence against women from oppressed castes, challenges the old caste-blind feminist boundaries.

Caste as an oppressive mechanism not only controls Dalit and Adivasi women’s sexualities, but also constructs the reductionist understanding of ‘merit’.

Here, I intend to deconstruct the casteist categorisation of merit by drawing attention to a recent case of online caste abuse of an Adivasi professor of Jadavpur University, Kolkata. The caste fault lines in the otherwise so-called progressive academic spaces of Bengal remains largely neglected, spaces which are often controlled by ‘sophisticated’ dominant caste ‘bhadralok’ politeness.


Bengal’s Culture Of ‘Bhadralok Politeness’

Sociologist Suryakant Waghmore’s research on ‘ethnographic fieldwork in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra’ and the ‘politics of politeness and its relevance in studying contemporary caste relations’ unravelled newer possibilities of studying caste dimensions in urban spaces too, especially in ‘progressive spaces’ like university campuses, where caste hierarchy is considered to be waning, but new kinds of caste sociality is emerging.

Waghmore’s argument – “Dalits dissent against the newer incivilities frame the new forms of politeness as caste violence” – formulates a new nuance that draws us directly into the disturbing parallels of Hindu ‘politeness’ in bhadralok politeness, which forms the basis of caste hierarchy and solidarity in urban university spaces of Kolkata.

In September 2020, the social media outrage over the casteist abuse of Jadavpur University professor, Maroona Murmu, caught many liberals’ attention.

Since then, there have been many reporting on the issue, but none foregrounded the crucial source of casteism in Bengal – that is, the culturally-constructed notion of bhadralok politeness. In fact, no substantial interrogation had been done so far on the myth that Bengal is ‘casteless’, because of the manufactured civility of politesse bhadralok (gentlemanly) populations in the urban spaces.

Caste Dynamics In Kolkata’s Elite Universities

The casteist abuser of Dr Murmu, a young student from a prominent college of urban Kolkata, had brazenly pointed out to Murmu in a post on her Facebook profile saying, “Today morning, just reminded one ‘Murmu’ a Santhal, about her Adivasi lineage. That too in a polite manner”. There is a catch in her post, which – besides being casteist – also eulogises ‘politeness’, and tries to imply the ‘worthlessness’ of Dr Murmu’s Adivasi identity.

While Waghmore finds that Hindu ‘politeness’ in villages is an evolving caste sociality, in the case of bhadralok politeness, it is so complete in Bengal – especially in the urban spaces of Kolkata like university campuses – that caste dominance is already mainstreamed as ‘civility’.

To understand the historical manufacturing of the polite bhadralok category, one needs to decipher the nature of the caste sociality in spaces of premier university campuses of Kolkata, which has overwhelmingly organised dominant caste Bengalis – especially in the higher rungs of the institutes – while Dalit Adivasis are minimally represented.

In this context, it is fitting to mention Dr Ambedkar, who he tellingly said, “If you give education to that stratum of Indian society which has a vested interest in maintaining the caste system for the advantages it gives them, then the caste system will be strengthened. On the other hand, if you give education to the lowest strata of Indian society, which is interested, in blowing up the caste system, the caste system will be blown up.”

It is interesting to note Dr Ambedkar’s compelling words on ‘education’, that it can be used to strengthen the caste system by those who have vested interest.


How Education Is Used To Preserve Caste Hierarchies

The roaring hegemony of dominant caste Bengalis in the university campuses of Bengal vindicates Dr Ambedkar’s extrapolation that education can be used to preserve caste superiority that gives them an upper-hand in hegemonising the production of knowledge, and well-premised in non-egalitarian epistemological boundaries that automatically creates a prejudiced pedagogy, and in effect, reduces Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan and Minority professors and students to their immediate identities.

Dr Murmu, in an interview, said: “I saw casual casteist slurs circulated in official meetings in the initial years here also... Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are called ‘Sonar Chand,’(golden moon) ‘Sonar Tukro’ (a piece of gold) – derogatory slangs – that these (disadvantaged caste groups) are ‘privileged’ people because they avail the advantages of quota. I have seen heads of the departments, even colleagues, looking at certain surnames and saying that these people are academically worthless’’.

Hence, the narrative that Bengal’s university campuses are non-discriminatory spaces, comes with a heavy ‘sacrifice’ – the ‘invisibilisation’ of Dalit, Adivasi, and other oppressed caste teachers and students.

One cannot see much physical violence on Bahujan (Dalit, Adivasi, and other oppressed castes) teachers and students in the so-called progressive campuses of Kolkata since the bhadralok has invented newer forms of humiliation that suits bhadralok ‘politeness’. It helps them create the ‘casteless’ narrative of Bengal for the rest of the world, which successfully brands incidents of anti-Dalit / Adivasi hatred as ‘fringe’ incidents.


Bahujan Questioning Of Casteism In Bengal Remains A Distant Dream

Discourses, discussions and debates in the campus spaces of Kolkata largely revolve around selective Bengali icons like Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose and Vivekananda, while some premier universities idolise Marx-Lenin and Che Guevara. For them, Bahujan reformers like Dr Ambedkar, Savitri Bai Phel, Periyar, Birsa Munda, Mahatma Phule, Begum Rokeya and Jogendra Nath Mandal are not ‘radical enough’ to be inducted into regular dialogues and discourse. Therefore, in the absence of Bahujan discourse, there is no chance to educate students and teachers about the ills of the caste system, as well as affirmative policies.

As a result, Bahujan interrogation of the Bengal’s university spaces – through egalitarian discourse – remains a distant dream.

However, of late, with the entry of assertive marginalised community professors like Dr Murmu into the otherwise dominant caste-ruled spaces of premier campuses of Kolkata, the bhadralok ‘epistemological patronage’’ is challenged by the pedagogy of ‘self-respect’.


Shaking Up The Fragile ‘Peace’ Of Elite University Campus

When Dr Murmu was asked by a journalist, Who do you think were the people who trolled you? , she said, “This is all my assumption [but] I would not be very surprised if there is a connection between the Savarna Hindus and the Hindutva brigade that is breeding hatred towards Dalit, Adivasis, Muslims, the Other Backward Classes’’.

Needless to say, Dr Murmu’s identity assertion has shaken the fragile peace that perpetually existed in the campuses at the cost of oppressed caste marginalisation. Academic imperialism of caste Hindu bhadraloks tactfully normalised the narrative that Dalit and Adivasi teachers are ‘meritless’.

Bhadralok gatekeepers of the academic discourses in the campuses of Kolkata’s premier universities/colleges have ‘caricatured’ the Dalit-Adivasi-Bahujan’s horizon of knowledge as ‘epistemologically dumb’.

The harvest of performative politeness of the dominant caste Bengali bhadralok, backed by caste supremacy and gatekeeping of knowledge, was not only unveiled by the remarkable resistance of Dr Murmu in the face of a complex caste-Hindu habitus of Kolkata’s liberal campuses, but also opened up newer possibilities for a bottom-up approach to annihilating caste.

(Subhajit Naskar is Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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