Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Virus of Caste and Religion and the Infections They Spread: Politics Beyond Bad and Good

Caste: a practical joke in definition
One of the practical joke that Kaleidoscope receives from one of the never ending answerscripts is the definition of the concept of caste by one of the under graduate students in their university examination.

"Caste is an airborne virus, no one can escape from infection it spreads. It starts even before you are born ad continues even after you are dead..." - Kaleidoscope wondered about this philosophical definition and then gave a zero the answer, as he has to.

Changing political configurations? a few questions
Back home Kaleidoscope was going through a brief list of phenomena that have taken place in West Bengal after Parliamentary election 2009 when left front government had enough evidence to be afraid of losing the assembly election scheduled for 2011. 

Kaleidoscope questions "what is the most conspicuous political change in the state?" 

There may be a list of it, starting from the strategic use of popular sentiments to a more nuanced association of iconic personalities with the power house, even in protest demonstrations. Something which is strikingly different in present day politics of the state is the frequent caste and religious comments in mainstream political discourse. 

Does different statement means differences in action?

To an extent, yes! it does. see for example:

Jyoti Basu mentions in 1980

"Caste is a legacy of the feudal system and viewing the social scene  from the casteist angle is no longer relevant for West Bengal"

Mamata Banerjee mentions in 2009 (Times of India)

"I shall work for Matuas as long as I am Alive... I have instructed railways to fill up all posts for SC/ST immediately"

For left front government the approach remained roughly same at the surface. However, the same government looked for rising reservation to the minority population especially the Muslims months before assembly election 2011 (click here)

The Hindu reports
"The shift of a section of the minority vote away from the Left Front in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections is believed to have been an important reason for the severe electoral reverses suffered by the Left parties. Political cicles will be closely watching the 201 State Assembly elections to see if these measures enable the Left to regain the minority vote, a traditional vote bank that is also being keenly pursued by the Trinamool Congress."

Apart from several other special provisions at present the CM announces special honourarium for the Imams (click here), special reservations of seats for OBCs in the coming panchayat elections (click here).

Keeping in view of the present circumstances, both the left front government and now the TMC government put emphasis on the caste, religion in a manner a skeptic must say a new politicization of caste and religion (see for example, Sinharay, 2012)

Should we call it a virus? 

Much plausibly, mentioning the caste and religious sentiments as virus marks a negativity. Kaleidoscope knows, as many others know too, we live in an unequal world, social games are never fair games, state, no matter whether it is run by left front, or TMC must look for, seek out and undone the historical injustice to our fellow citizens. However, as skeptical self of the Kaleidoscope and many others would see the political agenda behind left front's rapid focus on OBC and TMC's continuous focus on the same, there is a sense of threat too when extreme measures are getting extreme answers "Pay honourarium to priests" too (click here).

Poor Kaleidoscope, could not give more than zero the student who gave the fascinating definition of caste. 


Chatterjee, P. 1997. The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press

Sinharay, P. 2012. A New Politics of Caste, Economic and Political Weekly, August, 25, 2012 


  1. This is brilliant essay! We all are witnessing a new introduction of Caste and Religion based politics in West Bengal. The minority survey was only the tip of the iceberg. The base which was created by CPIM is now fully used by our new CM.

  2. Hey Kaleidoscope,

    I am also feeling sorry for the brilliant "zero" fellow. Should we also feel sorry for our "great" democracy?

  3. Kaushik,

    I agree with you. See, in a democratic system we only have alternatives. Choosing from (often, if not always) equally incompetent people. Nevertheless, look at ourselves, we keep on avoiding active participation in politics. We are taught to avoid participating in mainstream politics. We tend to avoid preparing ourselves for administrative power poles. The blame should incorporated us as well.

    1. Kaleido,

      You have perfectly pointed out the politics of non-politics. And amazingly we blame all the other people of our own group. Its a "zero" individual in "zero" democracy.

    2. you have wonderfully used the word "zero"... right you are. In a sense of blaming others and not doing anything for changing the situation we are zero and therefore the outcome of the democracy is also the same. :)

  4. @ Anonymous, you are partially right, the politics with caste and religion has always been there in West Bengal, although in a latent form. The present day mainstream political discourse of the state often involves significant emphasis on the caste and religion. Sometimes, it is unnecessarily and forcibly incorporated in a discussion. This feature is something new to us. I do not agree with Sinharay (2012) that this is a new form of politics, but of course this is fundamentally different. In fact, the use of popular icons, conscious and easily noticeable attempt of making the ruling party's discourse as only discourse is quite a fresh thing of West Bengal. The new ruling party is efficiently creating a charismatic character which much plausibly will further strengthen the rural base of the party, however, a parallel process of organisation building is necessary to make it sustainable.