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Unravelling casteism in a Marxist town of West Bengal


Balaka Chattaraj

balaka chattarajWhat comes to our mind when we hear the word caste? Well, the answer will be different for each person. But mostly if the person is from Kerala and West Bengal caste is so-called and it doesn't exist. I grew up in the typical Bengali culture in a small town called Raniganj. In my school days the communist party was in power and it also was very influential in my locality as it is an industrial town. The town was influenced by the ideology of Marx and Lenin.

I had witnessed a lot of protest marches over there to abolish class and gender discrimination. But not a single march was organised to abolish the caste discrimination or the exploitation faced by the Tribal or Dalit workers in the industries or the coal mines. In my childhood too I didn't understood caste that much and that's why I was more vocal about class discrimination, workers' rights and gender discrimination. But today when I critically look at my town I understand how caste system is vibrantly practised there. Moreover I understand that the class, gender and workers' exploitation are the outcome of the caste discrimination.

Raniganj is a small town famous for coal mines. In the coal mines there is a hierarchy among ranks and workers. In the higher posts the people from general castes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are present but not surprisingly all the manual laborers who are supposed to do the toxic work which involves moving down the dark, suffocating coal mines to cut coal without safety measures are Dalit. So, all the Dalits are not manual laborers but all the manual laborers are Dalit. The nature of the work is actually very tough and toxic. Many  men involved in such work also tend to consume alcohol and some also indulge in gambling. Many such factors related to such exploitative work push some of the labourers to borrow money from non-formal money lenders. Some of them lose their jobs also due to the same factors. Pressure of debt makes their situation worse and to pull out the family from that the women seek work in households. The women from the Dalit families work in the upper caste/class households. They are also called "kameen" in local language which actually means low or lower born. The women workers most of the time are not paid adequately by their so-called feminist babus (owners of the households) and also some time they become victims of sexual harassment where they never gets justice as the social and political power favours the savarna men.

For a town which is under the influence of Marxist ideology, surprisingly, the area where the Dalits live is separate from the others and is also known as "Bouri para" (Dalit people in the town are termed as Bouri) and the people from upper castes never go there because the area is considered as impure, polluted and an area of alcoholics and sex workers. Most importantly, the people in the communist politburo who claim to be the messiahs of common people never thought of the liberation of the Bouris from the chain of insults and their oppressed situation. Rather, many a times they use castiest slurs. The language of the people in the so-called Marxist town is casteist and deregotary. For example, often the parents of the upper caste families teach their children to not dress like "Bouri", not to watch rocking Hindi movies like "Bouri", to study properly or else they have to do manual work like "Bouri", not to shout like "Bouri" etc. The caste practices have been institutionalised to such an extent that when I asked one educated lady who claims to be a feminist on why she has employed below 18 year old girl as a domestic worker, she replied to me that "the Bouri people are foolish at that level that they don't even know how to use a watch so, with that level of brain what more they can do other than doing manual work". The Dalit community here has faced historical oppression which kept them away from access to education and land rights. Not a single English medium school where quality education is provided has any students from Bouri community and nor does a single Bouri have land in his own name here.

The caste practices have been injected into people's minds so strongly that the teachers of the government schools look down upon the children of the Bouri community which pushes many children to drop out from the school and work in somebody's home to earn some money where they again get trapped into the vicious circle of poor payments, sexual harassment and poverty. The oppressive situation is so normalized in the town that even if any child from Bouri community dreams to go to a convent or English medium school people take it as a light hearted joke. Their casteism has given birth to innumerable hardships for the members of Dalit communities, but yet the Bengali Marxist intellectual can't see casteism.

The important leaders of the communist party and the so-called intellectuals of the communist party while talking about the class based worker's exploitation never understood that it is the outcome of caste exploitation. Also the babus of the town while using casteist slurs and making derogatory jokes about Bouris forget that the privileges they enjoy come from the labour of the Bouris. It is the people from the Bouri community who kept the mines alive by moving down the mines and cutting coal from there without safety measures. It is the people from the Bouri community who clean the toilets of the babus' households while the women members of the babus' families watch k-serials. The very feminist woman who goes outside the babu family to work should also understand that they they are able to do so because women from the Bouri community do all their household work and that too under exploitative payment and work conditions.

The Bouris in the town are the productive community and the fruits of the production have so far been eaten by the upper caste/class people, used by the so-called comrades for election benefits and vibrantly exploited by the feminists inside the households whose feminism never urged them to pay the Bouri houehold worker adequately for her hard work or to stand up for her rights when she is harassed by the male members of her family.

When in the most important resource rich town of the state casteism is celebrated so vibrantly and practised every day, the people of state still can't see caste. The communist leaders must understand that because of casteism the people from Bouri community are trapped under the darkness of the coal mines, alcoholism, gambling and women are facing sexual violence, and are underpaid, restricted and the "Lal Salam" slogan won't liberate them from their oppressive situation. The vulnerable people can only be liberated if the real intellectuals understand that caste is the root of all the misery in the town. It is the caste system which has still kept the Bouri community under oppression. Attempts to abolish caste by providing equal education, giving them land rights and encouraging inter-caste marriages never happened here. Such things are possible only when the intellectuals of the town feel the need to discuss Ambedkar as much as they discuss Marx or Lenin.

~~~

 

Balaka Chattaraj is student at Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai pursuing her Masters in Social work(Dalit & Tribal Studies and Action). She ideologically identify herself as a feminist ambedkarite.

 

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