Debayudh Chatterjee (Department of English, University of Delhi)
This post is an extract from my M.Phil. dissertation, Class vs Caste: Negotiating Marxist Politics in Bangla Dalit Literature, written under the supervision of Dr. Tapan Basu. The dissertation is due to be submitted to the Department of English, University of Delhi, in July 2017. It is based on a reading of Kanti Biswas, Amar Jiban: Kichhu Katha. Kolkata: Ekush Shatak, 2014.
For more than two decades, the Primary Education minister of the Left Front government (1977-2011) in West Bengal came from a Dalit community. Kanti Biswas’ position did not come without opposition. In 1982, when the Left Front came back to power for a second term, Kanti Biswas was assigned with the responsibility of the running the ministry of primary education. A few months into his term, Biswas was summoned to the state party headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M). Pramod Dasgupta, the then state secretary of the CPI(M), showed him a stack of more than four hundred letters coming from comrades from different parts of West Bengal. Most of them were infuriated with the party for having a Namasudra in charge of educating their children. Dasgupta smiled and said, ‘You see, son of a Chandala, this is West Bengal and you have to lead the education department amidst all this’ (87-88).Despite the grievance among several party cadres, Biswas continued to serve as the minister of primary education. Kanti Biswas’s autobiography, Aamar Jibon Kichhu Katha (2014), written in Bengali and published two years before the author’s death, reveals many such interesting episodes of how the CPI(M) grappled with the caste question within its fold and beyond during its uninterrupted reign of thirty-four years.
Kanti Biswas was born into an impoverished household on 31 October 1932 in a village named Bukrail in Faridpur district that falls in current day Bangladesh. His father, Jogendranath Biswas, a poor school teacher, passed away twenty-one days before his birth, leaving his family nothing more than an inheritance of three acres of land. Biswas’s birth was deemed ominous by his family members because it coincided with the premature death of his father. He was initially named ‘Kangal’, meaning destitute. Biswas recounts that his widowed mother received no pension after the death of his father; it was difficult for her to bring him up and she wished for his death as well. His grandmother came from the family that led the Matua reform movement – an enormously popular reform movement amongst the Namasudra community led by Sri Sri Harichand Thakur and his son Guruchand Thakur in Odakandi. Kanti Biswas’ grandmother took him to Guruchand to seek his blessings. After blessing the destitute child who was regarded as a harbinger of ill fate, Guruchand advised, ‘Take care of your unfortunate child. Raise him. See if you can educate him. Perhaps, someday, he will bring glory to our society’ (12).
Apart from ascribing his filial link to the founders of the Matua cult, Kanti Biswas does not speak about caste in the context of his childhood anywhere else in his autobiography. He goes on to narrate how his formative years were marked by absolute poverty, how intensely he had to struggle to secure primary education, and how he excelled at it in spite of all odds. Biswas does not mention any instance of caste humiliation during his school life, instead, keeps informing the reader at several instances how he was touched by the generosity of several of his teachers who stood by him in those precarious times, who inspired him to go on to become a teacher himself. In fact, it was one of his teachers who changed his name from Kangal to Kanti Chandra Biswas, thereby restoring the dignity that his ill-fate had deprived him of (16). The first part of his autobiography talks about his life in East Bengal until he was compelled to cross the border into India in 1960 to avoid arrest for being involved with the communist party.
Kanti Biswas with Jyoti Basu and Indira Gandhi
After securing a huge mandate of more than two-third seats in the assembly, the Left Front Government, under the leadership of the CPI(M), was formed in West Bengal on 21 June 1977. Jyoti Basu went on to become the Chief Minister and subsequently ruled for twenty-three more years. His initial cabinet comprised entirely of upper caste bhadrolok communists. There was not a single representative from the Schedule Caste (SC) community in spite of the presence of a sizable Dalit population of 33% in the state. After a couple of months, when Biswas was called over for a meeting with Pramod Dasgupta to deal with the growing resentment in the grassroots for being exclusionist, Basu asked, ‘It is a fact that SC communities are socially and economically backward, we are aware of it, but what is the logic behind making one of them a minister?’ (77). Biswas explained to him at length about the necessity of representing the under-castes. Rather than invoking the anti-caste movements propelled by figures like B. R. Ambedkar, he theoretically substantiated himself by citing what the communist stalwarts had to say about caste:
The sorry state of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes has been described and means of uplifting them have been brought up by Comrade Sundariya, Comrade Basav Punnaiya, and Comrade BT Randive in many of their writings. Even Karl Marx implied in one of his texts that class struggle in India would not be fruitful without including a struggle against the varna system. And the Scheduled Caste communities, in several instances, hesitate to articulate their problems to upper caste leaders. They apprehend that they would be termed as communal. Therefore, just as it is necessary to raise leaders from these communities in our mass organizations to listen to their miseries, it is imperative to represent them in the cabinet as well (77).
Biswas narrates that Basu’s face became grim at such a reply. Although he was sworn into the cabinet within a month of this exchange, he has not given charge of any department for weeks until he threatened to resign. These two episodes subsequently mark a change in Kanti Biswas’s personal take on caste. He becomes more conscious about the issue of caste identity and adopts initiatives within his individual capacity to address caste discrimination. Biswas departs from this point in the narrative to talk about his personal engagements with caste rather than his role as a cadre working with the communist party. In 1985, when the prospect of opening a college in Bongaon, a bordering town in Bengal, came up, Biswas took charge of naming the institution after Jogendranath Mandal and succeeded. He writes,
When the name and location of the college were to be decided, I proposed that the college be set up in Nahata (a predominantly Namasudra village). For several years, Jogendranath Mandal struggled for the emancipation of backward classes, scheduled castes, and tribal communities. He stayed back in Pakistan after the partition. He was also the first law minister. But after a few years, he came back to West Bengal and continued to work here, as well. I propose that the college be named after him (64).
In another episode, he recounts a partially successful venture of naming a university devoted to juridical sciences after Ambedkar. This is also the first and only sequence in his autobiography where he evokes and pays tribute to Ambedkar.
When it was proposed to establish a juridical sciences university in the state, I officially wrote to the state headquarters of the party. In 1946, when the Constituent Assembly of the new nation was to be formed, it was decided that its representatives were to be elected from each of the provinces. Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar was a famous personality. His role in emancipating the depressed classes of the society is remarkable, to say the least.
I have been to several parts of India and heard praises about West Bengal for ensuring Ambedkar’s entry into the Constituent Assembly. I also made a point that four states in India have universities named after Ambedkar. Now, that a juridical sciences university is being established in West Bengal, the state that made Ambedkar’s claim to such heights possible, I propose that the university be called Ambedkar University. I also submitted a lot of documents in my support. I expected that this new centre of learning would be named after him. But that did not happen. The university was named University of Juridical Sciences. Just one of the buildings in its Salt Lake campus was named Ambedkar Bhawan (113-14).
Kanti Biswas’s intricate familiarity with the history of caste struggles in India shapes his Dalit consciousness and separates him from the Savarna counterparts of his party. Throughout his autobiography, he keeps reinforcing how he worked for the upliftment of scheduled castes, minorities, tribal communities, and women by providing them education. He also talks about how his simple lifestyle was devoid of any extravagant luxury. In his personal life, he was married to Ashalata Mukherjee, the daughter of a rich Brahmin; he does not narrate any difficulty that he faced in his marriage and personal life. Instead, while he mentions that his wife changed her surname to Biswas by doing away with a prominent marker of upper-caste identity, one can assume that he gave in his best efforts, in his personal pursuits, to obliterate caste hierarchies.
In another instance, when he got into a confrontation with Murli Manohar Joshi, former education minister of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet, he openly took pride in his Namasudra identity. This is the seminal moment in his autobiography where one witnesses the manifestation of his Dalit consciousness.
He (Murli Manohar Joshi) said, ‘I immensely respect Mr. Kanti Biswas of West Bengal. I have hardly met an education minister of any state who seems to have such profound knowledge and vision of education. But at the same time, I hate him because he is a liar’.
All the other ministers in the room immediately turned towards me. I stood up and summarily protested, ‘Why are you calling me a liar?’
He replied, ‘I know that Kanti Biswas is a son of a Brahmin. But there are a lot of scheduled caste communities in Bengal. To fetch their votes for his party, he sells a lie that he belongs to the scheduled castes, although he is a Brahmin’.
I stood up and protested as fiercely as I could, ‘I have two things to tell you. First of all, according to which logic can a member of the scheduled castes not be wise and what makes you think that only Brahmins can have knowledge? Secondly, let me reiterate that I am not a Brahmin. I was born into a lower caste household. I strictly condemn the kind of casteism that you just displayed in relation to merit and knowledge and the incorrect facts that you delivered about me’ (89-90).
There are a few more episodes in which he recounts how he got into a contention with his party regarding caste matters. He narrates that 23.2% of the population in West Bengal belongs to scheduled castes while 5.5% are scheduled tribes. The Central Government declared ages ago that there would be a separate annual budget for the scheduled castes. An amount would be reserved under the categories, Scheduled Caste Sub-Plan and Scheduled Tribe Component Plan for these communities and these plans would have to be prepared by keeping in mind the section of the population that falls under these categories. A lot of states have implemented it. In West Bengal, during the Left Regime, the amount incorporated in those plans of the total economic budget increased gradually to 5% and 2% respectively. But there was no measure to check whether these plans have been successfully implemented. This is an example of gross injustice towards these deprived communities (122). He takes his inability to convince the party to be more attentive to caste matters as his personal failure as he laments:
The Central Committee of the party instructed all the State Committee members to be more attentive towards these issues. But it was of no avail. Situations did not change in West Bengal. In my own capacity, I wrote to the party that the heinous system of casteism prevails in this country. Do something to resist it. BT Randive, EMS Namboodripad, Sundaraiya, and Basavpunaiya, among other respected leaders of the party, had instructed the party to take adequate measures to struggle towards abolishing the caste system. They also talked about the difficulties of carrying out the fundamental project of class struggle without incorporating caste struggle in it. Our party, in the last party congress, adopted a resolution (2006) after emphasizing on the cruel ramifications of caste. But, in spite of all these, the condition in West Bengal did not change in several ways (123).
Biswas also talks about the failure of the Left regime in Bengal to accommodate scheduled caste students in higher education. He regrets that the percentage of scheduled caste students receiving higher education in West Bengal in different streams ranged from 1.9% to 9.5% only, at a point when 11% of the total scheduled castes reside in the state (124). He also regrets the deplorable percentage of tribal students engaged in higher education. While unpacking another episode, Biswas goes on to recount that during the seventh and the final lap of the Left Front government in West Bengal, a selection committee was set up to inspect the appointments in public and semi-public sectors of employment. Although the committee had women and minority representatives, there was no mention of having representatives from scheduled castes and tribes (124-125). Such a fallacy resulted in the violation of implementing reservation policies. The seventh Left Front government lost a case in the Kolkata High Court for violating the 1976 law of positive discrimination while appointing thousands of primary school teachers. Condemning this as a new low in the history of discrimination in India, Biswas recalls how he failed to deal with this case in spite of raising his voice in several party meetings of the West Bengal State Committee of the CPI(M) (125).
At the end of his autobiography, Biswas identifies himself as a teacher, as a believer in scientific Marxism. He does not hesitate to take a jibe at one of his comrades, Subhas Chakrabarty, without naming him. He recalls how Chakrabarty used to visit temples in spite of calling himself a communist— ‘I am primarily a Brahmin and secondarily, a communist’ (132). Biswas unequivocally condemns such an attitude and writes:
Kranti Biswas in Moscow University
In such a society marked by oppression and inequality, vices like greed, selfishness, consumerism, irresponsibility, self-centred approach towards life, and revisionism have engulfed several of my own comrades and deteriorated the party. Such voices are more prominent in the three states where the party had the chance to rule. Arrogance, megalomania, indecision, and at times communal prejudices and casteism have marred the actions of these party comrades (133: emphasis mine).
In spite of the ideological degeneration of some of his comrades, especially pertaining to caste issues, he continues to invest his faith in Marxism and pledges to do so till he breathes his last. Kanti Biswas argues,
At times I think that I am primarily a teacher and, at the same time, a firm believer in Marxist ideology. Teaching and Marxism are not mutually exclusive as are Brahminism and Marxism. Marxism attempts to teach one to bring out his/her potential to the fullest. […] Marxism is not a mumbo-jumbo. It is a scientific way of analyzing the socio-political conditions of a society. It is an applied science that attempts to look at the roots of discrimination that separate the oppressed from the oppressor and works towards obliterating such oppression. This is not a utopian project, but a process pertaining to the social sciences. (132).
Kanti Biswas’s autobiography becomes an interesting textual site, which hosts the clash between the author’s Dalit subjectivity and his institutional affiliation that ostensibly ‘invisibilized’ caste.The CPI(M)’s articulations on caste was modified over the ages although it remained by and largely rooted in the class rhetoric (for a detailed analysis, see Anand Teltumbde, ‘Bridging the Unholy Rift’, introduction to B. R. Ambedkar, India and Communism, New Delhi: LeftWord, 2017, 9-78). In such a context, the autobiography provides a crucial entry point into the lived experience of a Dalit in the communist threshold. Amar Jibon Kichhu Katha needs to be read not only as a critical confession of a Namasudra who served the party for more than five decades with utmost dedication, but also a public document that testifies to the party’s gradual ascendancy to power along with detailing one of the major reasons behind its eventual electoral decline—the problematic hostility towards caste issues—from the perspective of an insider. It is worth pointing out that the Matua Mahasangha—an important vehicle of under-caste assertion in West Bengal—voted en masse for the Trinamul Congress Party in 2011, two years after its chief – Binapani Devi Thakur – bestowed a lifetime membership of the Mahasangha on the Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee.
Book Cover: Kanti Biswas, Amar Jiban: Kichhu Katha