From Chuni Kotal to Ruma Das: The price of Bengal's casteist education system


Drishadwati Bargi & Georgy Kuruvila Roy 

The recruitment of candidates under the West Bengal School Service Commission has always been tampered with political interference. Irrespective of political colour, the ruling party has always been perceived as giving undue favours to its members/supporters, often in blatant disregard of constitutional rules or morals or the socio-economic predicament of the successful candidates who have no doubt been working very hard and waiting with relentless patience for their appointments. Dependence on what is roughly called "party connections" for jobs or services offered by the state is a pervasive phenomenon in the state's political culture.

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This system of dependence becomes even more conspicuous when it comes to the lives of semi-literate /underprivileged /first generation learners, residing in the rural areas who face great difficulties in accessing information about jobs or getting the required training needed for the examinations. Without the privileges of English education, correct information about the nitty gritty of the recruitment procedure and lack of guidance from family members, the candidates do not have any choice but to take recourse to the help that is offered by the political parties.

For the past thirteen days an indefinite hunger strike in Kolkata, organized by the candidates who have not been given appointment as teachers in government schools by the State School Service Commission inspite of successfully clearing the examination, is going on. They allege that the candidates who had ranked lower got appointments due to their association with the ruling party.

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 Ruma Das was one of those candidates who was denied an appointment despite her high rank. She came from a Namashudra (Dalit) family in Ranaghat, Nadia. Her father, a carpenter would remain bedridden for most of the year. She had two younger siblings, a brother and a sister. Significantly, since their financial condition was poor, the father decided to educate only his elder daughter, hoping someday she would get a government job and alleviate their condition. The other two siblings could not continue their education and now do odd jobs. Clearly, under such circumstances Ruma must have put a lot of hope on this job especially when her name had appeared on the merit list. But, when she found out that appointment had been given to the candidate who had ranked lower, she broke down completely. That very night (24th May, 2014) she consumed poison and committed suicide.

Locating caste in the suicide of Ruma Das or the plight of the 2,700 odd candidates who have been staging a hunger strike for the past 13 days (and have been regularly agitating for over past six months) against the West Bengal's School Service Commission's recruitment procedure may seem odd or even useless. Most activists and Bhadroloks belonging to the civil society have analyzed the issue through the lens of inter-party rivalry. For eg., Bappaditya Paul, a journalist working with Anandabazar Patrika (or ABP, Bengal's oldest running newspaper) in his blog Marginal Matters focuses on the undue favour given to the Trinamool workers in the recruitment procedure.

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When we went to talk to the protestors they were unwilling to "see" caste in the procedure of recruitment. But a little scratching revealed that caste and community identity has definitely played an important role here. Dippojjal Mondal, one of the supporters of the agitation (also a Dalit, and a member of the Moolnibashi Samity, a group that organises the Poundra Kshatriyas and other Dalits in Bengal) asserted that more than eighty percent of the harassed were either Scheduled Tribe, Scheduled Caste or Other Backward Class candidates. However, the other participants were reluctant to answer questions on this matter. Even the state seemed to have been keen on pushing the question of caste under the carpet. It has tried its best to counter any allegation of discrimination by publishing a merit list that does not mention the categories of the candidates selected.

It is not the for the first time that identity based violence has taken away somebody's life in West Bengal. Chuni Kotal, a Lodha (belonging to the Scheduled Tribe category) girl committed suicide on 16th August, 1992, after she faced repeated verbal abuse from her teacher at the Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University. Her classmates testified to the fact that she was taunted because of her identity as a Lodha woman. The professor (rumored to have got his appointment due to backing of the then ruling party, the CPI-M) would repeatedly mock her desire to get an M.A degree. He would stress that being an Adivashi woman, Chuni had grown too big for her boots and threatened that he would not let her pass the examination when she filed a complaint against him. Frightened by the repeated taunts, Chuni committed suicide on the night of independence day in the year 1992.

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Both these women belonged to marginalised communities that have not only been deprived of political power but also cultural capital. Interestingly, in spite of the patriarchal culture, the families of the women could foresee a future when their daughters would bring about a change in their lives. This point was stressed by a protestor called Shajima Khatun, a Muslim woman who hailed from rural Bengal. When I asked her whether she faced opposition from her family for staying in Kolkata amidst strangers, she replied that her parents have accepted her decision to make a career and she has their full support.

What unites the two women is not just their deaths. It is the strong apathy of the state, the judiciary and the civil society that doggedly remains silent about the reason of their deaths. Had the candidates been members of the Kolkata based Bhadrolok caste, the state would not have been able to manipulate the recruitment procedure without being castigated for it by the mainstream media. Is not this a case of discrimination on grounds of caste and religion? Can we ignore the fact that the perpetrators are all bhadroloks, that the ruling party is dominated by the three upper castes and the fact that majority of the victims belong to SC, ST or OBC category? West Bengal may not have had its share of caste riots and caste rapes, but the suicide of Chuni Kotal or Ruma Das and the jeopardized lives of 2,700 odd protestors are a grim reminder of the fact that Brahminical dominance is no less prevalent in West Bengal than in any other state of India.

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The suicides of these two women and the situation of the 2700 applicants who are fasting should not be considered as the situation of only these people but it rather represents the plight of all minority communities in West Bengal, subjected mainly to an education system that ensures the privileges of the English educated bhadralok and the rural savarnas, while disprivleging the rest. Most of these applicants have braved huge odds and endeavoured to successfully compete for a job which is structurally very difficult for them to achieve. In the end, the state's discrimination leaves them with no option but to commit suicides.

This position shows the large disparity between the promises and the policies that the state says it will follow and the real ground where such norms for adequate representation are thrown to the wind and replaced by the norm of "social mobility for the politically powerful". At this juncture, Chuni and Ruma are not mere victims of state oppression but are courageous figures who should inspire the Dalit and Adivashi communities to continue their struggles. The formation of the Dalit Sahitya Samastha, inspired by the pain of the death of Chuni Kotal is a step in the right direction, to document the struggles of many such heroes. M.R. Renukumar, the Malayalam Dalit poet's elegy on the death of Florence Joyner, the black sprinter, captures this emotion adequately:

Flo... Florence

for You

We do not shed tears

Instead we garner strength in our legs, we do not sleep

 Until all legs are engulfed by the storm

And all seas are

Swallowed by black.

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Drishadwati Bargi is a second year M.Phil student at the School Of Women's Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is interested in the intersectionality of caste, gender and sexuality in West Bengal.

Georgy Kuruvila Roy works with Dalit Camera in its Bengal Chapter. He is pursuing PhD in CSSS, Kolkata.

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