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Whither the Subaltern Domain? - An Ethnographic Enquiry

Decentralisation of power and the institution of the panchayati raj system in West Bengal have been expected to aid the disappearance of subalternity (or a state of powerlessness) by way of caste, class and gender. On the contrary, an ethnographic investigation in a village panchayat reveals that divisions between the elite and the subaltern continue to exist in a complex form despite grassroots democracy in the state.

Whither the Subaltern Domain?

– An Ethnographic Enquiry

Dayabati Roy

was a case in point. Does that context of bifurcating the political domain into elite and subaltern domains get lost in the contemporary period due to the influence of the democratic process on the lives of the subaltern classes? In that case, there seems to be a shift from the earlier under-

Decentralisation of power and the institution of the panchayati raj system in West Bengal have been expected to aid the disappearance of subalternity (or a state of powerlessness) by way of caste, class and gender. On the contrary, an ethnographic investigation in a village panchayat reveals that divisions between the elite and the subaltern continue to exist in a complex form despite grassroots democracy in the state.

This article was presented at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, on December 4, 2007. I am thankful to the faculty members present, especially to Manabi Majumdar and Pradip Kumar Dutta, for their valuable comments and suggestions. I am indebted to Partha Sarathi Banerjee for his valuable inputs in preparing this article.

Dayabati Roy ( is with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

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hile introducing the concept of political society, Partha Chatterjee has defended his original idea to split the realm of politics into elite and subaltern domains so far as the colonial Indian society was concerned. This was intended, he argues, “to mark a fault line in the arena of nationalist politics in the three decades before independence during which Indian masses, especially the peasantry, were drawn into organised political movements and yet remained distanced from the evolving forms of the postcolonial state” [Chatterjee 2004:39]. To analyse subsequent developments in the postcolonial period in the light of growing influence of the “democratic process in India”, he introduces the concept of “political society” to explain the “recent forms of the entanglement of elite and subaltern politics”. In his words, “since those early experiences of the imbrication of elite and subaltern politics in the context of anti-colonial movements, the democratic process in India has come a long way in bringing under its influence the lives of the subaltern classes. It is to understand these relatively recent forms of the entanglement of elite and subaltern politics that I am proposing the notion of a political society” (ibid: 39)

Here Partha Chatterjee seems to have distinguished the colonial situation from the contemporary period principally by the degree of detachment or entanglement of subaltern politics with state-centred political processes and practices. In the late-colonial period, the Indian masses, particularly the peasantry, had been involved in several political movements under the influence of organised parties or religious bodies, but at the same time maintained a distance from the organised domain. The peasant stirrings during the 1920s and 1930s discussed in one of Chatterjee’s earlier works [Chatterjee 1984] standing of Chatterjee that “colonial and post-colonial Indian history can be studied in a framework of power relationships in which the elites and subaltern classes inhabit two distinct and relatively autonomous domains of everyday existence and consciousness. The task of the new historio graphy is, first of all, to recover this autonomous history of subaltern classes, and second, to study in its concreteness the interpenetration of the two domains as a process of domination and resistance” [Chatterjee 1984:xli].

It is true that the political process in the post-colonial India has come a long way to bring about many changes in the relationship between the elite and subaltern classes. It is also true that elite and subaltern politics have got entangled in ever-increasing ways in the post-colonial period, particularly in post-1977 West Bengal that has witnessed a long uninterrupted rule by the Left Front government. The influence of the state and organised parties on the everyday lives of common people, particularly of the rural masses, has enormously increased in more recent times due to the successful implementation of panchayati raj institutions including the reservation of panchayat seats for the SC, ST and women, the six-monthly gram sansad1 meetings and increasing allotment of funds and welfare schemes through the panchayat. But over and above, organised parties seem to be dominating the social and political lives of the rural people in West Bengal more than the panchayats. In the words of Harihar Bhattacharya, “panchayats have failed to become the centre of people’s power; it is just another centre for party power in the state. The party is self-critically aware of it, but the victim of its own political problematic” [Bhattacharya 1998: 179-80]. The contemporary political process in rural Bengal thus can be studied only by paying attention to both the panchayat and the party as the two institutions of political power.

But do the above changes lead to a situation when the “framework of power relationship between the elite and subaltern classes” inhabiting “two distinct and relatively autonomous domains of everyday existence and consciousness” is no more relevant? Or has the study of interpenetration of “the two domains as a process of domination and resistance” on the basis of the relative autonomy of the subaltern domain become irrelevant in the contemporary period? I intend to closely examine these issues on the basis of my ethnographic study conducted in two villages of Hooghly district in the state of West Bengal.

A Subaltern in the Elite Domain

When I stayed in Kalipur2 just before the assembly elections of 2006, I found the SC leader Khagen Malik and the tribal leader Pakhi Murmu actively campaigning and organising SC-ST people in favour of Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)). Khagen was the elected panchayat member from Kalipur and the pradhan (chief) of the local gram panchayat. He was also a branch committee3 member of the CPI(M) party. Pakhi had a chequered political career, playing the main role in mobilising the ST people of the village behind the party and leading many struggles in the late-1960s, being elected as the first panchayat member from the village, dissociating from the party in the late-1980s, joining the Left Front constituent Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and contesting election against the CPI(M) and then rejoining it in the recent period. Both of them had substantial influence on the SC and ST people respectively and were instrumental in mobilising them in party rallies and acting as mediators between the panchayat and the SC-ST people.

On my way to meet the pradhan Khagen Malik belonging to the ‘bagdi’ caste, I ran into one prosperous ‘mahishya’ (caste) farmer Jiban Pal. Knowing that I would like to meet the pradhan to gather information about the village, he immediately reacted, “what does Khagen know about the village? These people are ‘faltu’ (worthless). They are only for show. Better you go to Naru Chatterjee and Manoj Dutta who can give you the true picture. I am an AG member4 of the party. I too have an intimate knowledge about the village”. Naru Chatterjee and Manoj Dutta, both hailing from upper castes, were the leaders of the CPI(M) party and, as it appeared from his words, held real power in the village. Though being the panchayat pradhan and leader of the numerically dominant SC communities of the village, Khagen Malik was considered as a worthless person by none other than one of his own fellow party comrades.

Naru Chatterjee and Manoj Dutta of the neighbouring village Madhupur were the main local leaders of the CPI(M), dominating the affairs of both Madhupur and Kalipur. Naru Chatterjee was the local ration shop dealer and many people had grievances against him for being unscrupulous in distributing rationed foods. Manoj Dutta was a cultivator, owning less than 1 acre of land and improving his economic status very fast. Both of them had an educational background that Khagen Malik and Pakhi Murmu lacked. Were these the main reasons behind their domination in village politics?

Khagen Malik used to cultivate four ‘bighas’ of land, most of which he cultivated as an unregistered ‘bargadar’.5 Earlier he used to work as agricultural labourer as well, but that practice he had discontinued upon becoming the panchayat pradhan. In his words, “People won’t respect me if I go to work as a ‘khet majoor’ (agricultural labourer). Anyhow, I have to manage a lot of work both in the fields and in my house and only then can I go to attend to the works of the panchayat and the party. People might regard the CPI(M) as a party of the poor, and the Left Front government a government of the poor, but in actuality that is not the case. Both the party and the government belong to the rich”.

Asked why he was commenting such things, being the panchayat pradhan and a member of the ruling party, he candidly replied,

we don’t get time to spend for the party. Only economically solvent people can devote sufficient time for the party and assume leadership position. One needs money to be involved in politics. Politics is based on economy. So people like me remain as petty workers of the party and can never be its leaders. Moreover, one needs some capability to become a leader. We don’t have that much capability coming from the family of an agricultural labourer and a backward caste. But we all vote for the CPI(M), with the understanding that the party would look after our interests.

Khagen Malik continued, sometimes I feel ashamed to work in the field fearing that people would not respect me as pradhan as I have to toil so hard in the field. But I have no other way to maintain my family. So I feel that persons like me are not suitable for leading the party or managing the panchayat. These are jobs meant to be done by the rich, by the ‘rajas’ (kings). That is why it is called ‘rajniti’.6 Anyhow, I also need to maintain my habit of doing manual labour. Otherwise what would I do once relinquished from the post of pradhan. In that case, I would not get the allowance and have to earn by toiling in the field only. In fact, I seek to relinquish the post of pradhan as I am not fit for it. I don’t have education and hence, cannot follow most of the panchayat works. Very often I don’t understand what should be done and why. I can’t follow the government policies and directives properly. With the party’s help I could manage somehow. The guide committee7 of the party helps me to run the panchayat. They prepare the action plans and look after the accounts. They obviously consider my opinions. The staff of the panchayat office also help me a lot. With all these helps I could develop my understanding to some extent. Bidhanda himself looks after the panchayat works. He is a very honest person. He is highly educated and understands everything.

Voice of the Subaltern?

This was the voice of a subaltern trying to cope with the elite domain he was placed in, but feeling marginalised and concluding that rajniti was the place for the rajas, the riches, not for people like him. He was much dependent on Bidhanda or Bidhan Mandal, the zonal committee secretary of the party and the most powerful leader in the whole block. In fact, Bidhan used to run most of the affairs of the panchayat, making all the major decisions. His wife, the ‘baudi’ (sister-in-law) of all and sundry, was the ‘upa-pradhan’ (deputy chief) of the panchayat and took all the important decisions in the absence of Bidhan Mandal. While I visited the panchayat office, I found that all the visitors and office staff were approaching the baudi for all their respective errands. Khagen Malik did not have much work except putting his signatures wherever necessary. He felt quite embarrassed when even matters related

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to his own village Kalipur were dealt with by the baudi in his presence. When Bidhan Mandal attended the panchayat office, he remained as the unquestioned boss though holding no official power whatsoever. Khagen Malik seemed obliged to the party for the assistance received in running the panchayat, and at the same time also felt marginalised in the power structure.

Such was the dichotomy of the situation in which a subaltern had been placed in the essentially elite power structure by virtue of the reservation regime for dalits.8 During the earlier regime sans reservation, Bidhan Mandal had been the panchayat pradhan for two terms and his wife, the baudi, for one term. These people coming from educated, higher caste and landed families were considered the natural leaders in the hierarchy of party and panchayat power. This was why a party AG member from the mahishya caste could easily term Khagen Malik as useless with utter contempt. It seemed that though the power structure had accommodated the subaltern representatives, this had been more formal than real, keeping intact the elitist character of the structure in which a subaltern felt like a “fish out of water”.

Importantly, on the recent land acquisition move in Singur, Khagen Malik expressed a view that did not toe the official line of the party. He said,

only once I went to attend a meeting in Singur. That was in response to the party’s call to mobilise people in Singur. The police did not allow us to go up to the field being acquired. But from a distance we could see that the land in question was very fertile and suitable for potato cultivation. Some parts of it may be low marshy land. Though I belong to the CPI(M) party, I can’t support the decision to acquire those tracts of land. So much of agricultural land should not be acquired. For industry and industrialisation some other land could have been acquired.

Other local party leaders I spoke to in the area parroted the party stand; but Khagen spoke out his mind against the government’s decision, which the party was so strongly defending. It appeared as though the subaltern consciousness of Khagen Malik was in natural sympathy with the subaltern population of Singur, facing the threat of loss of lives and livelihoods due to land acquisition.

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An Obstinate Tribal Leader

Pakhi Murmu was a more open critic of the

present-day party leaders and party activi

ties that, according to him, had turned pro

rich. Pakhi spoke out his mind about the

party for which he had suffered a lot. Pakhi recollected the past thus,

we have built up the party, established it bit by bit. At that time hardly anyone was there to work for the party, which was new in the area. Since the advent of the United Front regime, we the ‘adivasis’ (tribals) had conducted a number of struggles here. Initially I was known as the only CPI(M) person in the area. We have carried out continuous struggles against the ‘zamindars’ (landlords) on the issues of confiscation of ‘benami’9 land, for wage hikes and against all kinds of oppressions. During that period, I was beaten up several times, had to go underground for a long time and even spent nights upon the tree. The police had issued an arrest warrant against me. But the people in thousands used to gather at my calls. But the same party is in power now. Is’t it?

He replied, the party is no longer ours. It has been usurped by the ‘bhadraloks’10 (upper caste gentlemen) and the ‘baroloks’ (the riches). The persons, against whom we had once led many struggles, have become the party leaders. In this situation, how can our condition improve? Our position has remained mostly unchanged.

Did he quit the path of struggle once

elected as the panchayat member in 1978? Pakhi resumed his narration,

in spite of being a panchayat member, I continued the struggle against the landed gentry on different issues. Not only in this village, I used to visit other villages as well to mobilise people in struggles, while the leaders used to do paper works sitting in the panchayat office. In a village near Dhaniakhali, the local landlord once offered me money while we were conducting a struggle to recover vested land. I refused to accept the bribe. Once, Khetra Pal pointed his gun at me. I also targeted him with the bow and arrow. We remained ever ready and alert with our impoverished arms. Khetra Pal then became panicky and implored me not to kill him.

Khetra Pal was the most prosperous

landowner in Kalipur, having around 25

acres of land, and always remaining a

target of the resistance movement by the

agricultural labourers of the village. Pakhi’s style of narration was very lively.

Even now he seemed to be quite

fascinated to dream of struggle, eager to talk of struggle and judge the party and its leaders on the basis of struggle. He was the hero of those struggles, the class struggles that had been instrumental in establishing the party in this area. He could not forget those struggles that had provided his community some rights, recognition and social prestige. Now that the party had withdrawn from struggle, people like Pakhi seemed to have lost importance for the party. Finally, he fell out with the party in the course of conducting a labour strike for wage hike.

Pakhi continued, Sanatan Tudu became the next panchayat member. But I remained active as before to organise the poor. At that time the wage of the day labourers was very low, only Rs 5.00 plus 750 grams of rice. That was 1986-87. I initiated the wage revision movement after consulting the party. The labour strike continued for 20 days. The landed people tried to bring labourers from outside. We resisted the attempt. All the agricultural labourers’ families were united in the struggle. But the ‘babus’ (the landed gentry) were not ready to concede to our demand. After some days Sanatan betrayed the striking people. He began to speak in the voice of the landowners, proposing their terms. Ironically, the party backed him. He was successful in misleading a section of the struggling people. We, the ‘adivasis’, remained steadfast till the last, but the SC people were persuaded to withdraw from the struggle.

Pakhi’s brother-in-law, present during this part of our discussion, commented,

these SC people are always agents of the babus (the landed gentry). They always remain subordinated to them. They are the double-dealers.

Pakhi continued, the party then asked me to withdraw the movement; but I refused to budge. This led to differences of opinions in the party. I proposed that we could recall the movement vis-à-vis only against those landowners who were ready to concede to our demands. One evening a few local party people came to discuss the matter with me. But the discussion didn’t yield any result as they were insisting to call off the strike. As both sides stuck to their points, tempers began to rise. At the end they attacked me unexpectedly and beat me up severely and then went away. That day on occasion of a tribal festival all my people were outside the village.

Pakhi’s brother-in-law commented angrily,

had we been present on that day, they would not have gone unpunished. We would have beaten them away.

After this incident, the whole adivasi community of the village turned against the party. The seriously injured Pakhi then went to the district court at Chinsura to file a case against the party people who had beaten him up. In the court some cadres of the RSP party contacted him and pledged all support to the struggle of his community. At this Pakhi along with his community joined the RSP, a constituent of the Left Front. Pakhi contested the village seat as a RSP candidate in the next panchayat election held in 1993 and lost to the CPI(M) candidate by a margin of only five votes. But the RSP could not sustain the organisation in an isolated pocket. In Pakhi’s opinion, an organisation in one village could not survive for long, particularly when all the powers of the panchayat were concentrated in the hands of the CPI(M). There was also tremendous pressure from the CPI(M) that the small organisation found difficult to withstand. So the tribal people under the leadership of Pakhi again came back to the fold of CPI(M) in 2001. How would the adivasi people survive without the help of the panchayat, which was totally under the control of the CPI(M), Pakhi wondered? Most of the schemes and projects in the panchayat were meant for them, the adivasis and the poor. How could they stay aloof from the panchayat and the party leading the same? Even if the party was not their “own”, they had to cling to it until and unless an alternative of their choice emerged.

Since then, Pakhi and the adivasi community have remained with the CPI(M) party. Pakhi Murmu remarked, “We have no other way but to join the party. We cannot live without the support of a party. And we cannot join the Congress or TMC-BJP, as these are the party of the landowners.” So he again approached the CPI(M) leaders.

It seemed that no party could ignore a person like Pakhi Murmu who had long been an efficient organiser and a natural leader of his own community. Hence, the leaders of the CPI(M) party once again accepted him within its fold, but he found it difficult to cope with the present atmosphere in the party. Pakhi Murmu, a 65year-old and yet a strongly built personality, said, “Bidhanbabu allotted a chair for me in the party office and sometimes I used to sit on it. But I can’t follow what they discuss these days. So I don’t feel anymore interested to go there.”

Noticeably, Pakhi in his long narrative repeatedly spoke in terms of “us” and “they”. While the word “us” was used to mean the adivasis in particular and poor and toiling people in general, “they” meant sometimes the landed gentry, sometimes the party leaders, sometimes the SC people who were getting, according to him, the bulk of panchayat facilities at the cost of his community. He seemed to consider the adivasis as the “other” of the mainstream politics, which was once represented by the landlords and the Congress and then by the landed gentry and the CPI(M). His feelings were not some isolated, idiosyncratic view, but were echoed by others in his community.

Panchayat and the Subalterns

To get a glimpse of the relationship of the subaltern people of the village with the panchayat I decided to attend the gram sansad meeting in Kalipur held in November 2006. On the day of the meeting, I visited several SC and ST households in the village and asked the women whether they were going to attend the meeting. Astonishingly, almost all of them told that they were unaware of the meeting to be held on that day. First I visited the house of the pradhan Khagen Malik and asked his wife whether she knew about the imminent gram sansad meeting. She replied, “I have heard that some meeting is going to be held today. But whether it is gram sansad meeting or something else I don’t know.”

Next I visited the house of Pritilata, the wife of Khagen’s brother. She said,

I have no knowledge about the gram sansad meeting being held today. My husband may know it. Nobody informed me anything about it. And it doesn’t make much sense to attend the same. Whatever is predetermined would be passed in the meeting whether I go there or not.

She was one of the women representatives in the Village Education Committee (VEC) and a pioneer in organising SHGs11 in the village. She also used to attend the meetings of ‘Ganatantrik Mahila Samiti’ (Democratic Women’s Association), the women’s wing of the CPI(M). It was surprising that such a politically active woman was not informed about the gram sansad meeting.

Trevelling further through the Malikpara, I ran into many women of SC communities. None had any knowledge about the forthcoming meeting. I eventually reached the house of Sanatan Tudu, the former panchayat member of the village and a leader of the CPI(M) party. Sanatan’s wife remarked, “What meeting? I am not interested in any meeting. I have no time for it.” Then I reached the house of the veteran tribal leader Pakhi Murmu. Pakhi’s wife Purnima Murmu had been an activist of the left movement that once rocked the village. Until recently she used to attend CPI(M) party meetings whenever called for. She said, “I don’t know that the gram sansad meeting will be held today. Pakhi must know of it and attend the same”. I suggested that she might raise their problems in the gram sansad meeting. She replied, “Our presence won’t matter much as things are predetermined in such meetings”.

While roaming through the Adivasipara I found almost the same ignorance and apathy among the tribal women with respect to the gram sansad meeting. These people, mainly women from the lower caste and tribal communities, were not only unaware of the gram sansad meeting; they also seemed quite reluctant to attend such a meeting. They were not informed or motivated to attend the meeting, as it appeared. This finding that women are not even invited to attend gram sansad meetings in West Bengal corresponds with the observation made by other researchers as well [Ghatak and Ghatak 2002].

The gram sansad meeting was held at Harisabha, which was a small but usually crowded place close to Malikpara, the SC hamlet. Around 6/7 women, all from the SC-ST communities, arrived at the venue of the meeting in a group and sat in a corner. Most of them were widows. Some chairs were placed on one side, which were meant for party leaders and panchayat persons. The branch committee members of the CPI(M) and one local committee member, who resided in a nearby village, came one by one and occupied the chairs. Some more people came and sat on the

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floor along with the women. The secretary of the panchayat submitted the accounts totalling Rs 22,000. But it seemed that nobody was listening as the panchayat secretary was reading out these figures. The pradhan requested the participants to put forward objections, if they had any, or approve the accounts by raising hands. Immediately, people raised their hands and the statement of accounts was passed. Then Khagen Malik, the president of the meeting, asked the party leaders one by one to speak on the occasion. All the leaders mainly dwelt on the general achievements of the panchayat. Some of them mentioned the problems of roads, irrigation channels, primary school and black-marketing of potato seeds. Interestingly, the party leaders, not associated with the village and the panchayat were given the legitimacy for attending the meeting by mentioning them as “wellwishers of the panchayat”.

Questions and Complaints

Once the speeches were over, one SC youth forcefully argued,

in our village, only 10 per cent people are rich or middle peasants. But all the discussions so far are made keeping the interest of this tiny section of population in mind. Nobody raises the problems related to landless agricultural labourers like us. At an old age the labourers are consigned to the position of near-starvation. Often they don’t have even rooms to stay. So something should be done for them. At least they should be provided with some funds for constructing their own shelters.

Now the women who were sitting silently in a corner all through the meeting began to speak. Bimala Mandi, a veteran tribal widow, stood up to talk without the microphone and in a hesitating manner with a voice full of prayers and pleas,

I have not received any money, relief or house. My husband had died long back, but I didn’t receive anything. I need help.

It seemed as if she was begging the powerful of the village as it used to happen in the days of the zamindars. Bimala was in the forefront of anti-zamindar struggles during the Congress period. Today she was seeking the mercy of the leaders of a party that came to power by virtue of those past struggles. Then one by one all the SC-ST women present in the

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meeting stood up and pleaded their cases asking for help to mitigate their distress. One of them asked for ration cards for her children, another for widow allowance, one for a house to stay on and one just sought food for mere survival.

One tribal woman Dukhi Tudu said,

everybody is getting widow allowance. My

husband had died 15 years back, but I am not

getting anything. I am made to participate

in the party meetings time and again with

the assurance that I shall be given the allow

ance. But till now I did not receive anything.

All these women seemed to be in a destitute condition and were desperate to get some help necessary for their mere survival. Two more persons, one from the SC and the other from tribal community, urged for ration cards for their families while one of them also asked for a loan with which he wished to buy one auto-van to fetch a livelihood.

Noticeably, in the gram sansad meeting, the few who were attentive participants were the needy and the destitute, who were expecting to get some benefits from the panchayat while others even among the SC-ST population were either reluctant participants or absent from the meeting. More remarkable was the attitude of the leaders present there listening to the prayers of these women. They were just making fun of these women, ridiculing them, saying jokingly, “Say your words more loudly otherwise you won’t get anything,” or “tell us what more you need”, etc. All the time when these women were talking, these leaders including Khagen Malik were laughing at them as if they were enjoying some show. Here I found another Khagen Malik feeling affinity with the higher caste party leaders in his dealings with the village people asking for favour from the panchayat. Here he was among the “givers” of benefits and hence, identified himself with the elite domain wielding power, though in some other contexts, sitting in the office of the panchayat, a feeling of distance and marginalisation from the elite circles might have been predominant in him.

The Patron-Client Relationship

In the gram sansad meeting finally a division became evident among the participants, some on the chairs being the “givers” of benefits or patrons and the distressed subalterns, the “takers” of benefits or the clients. This essential division between patrons and clients characterises the panchayati raj system that is so glibly termed as the local self-government in the development parlance. And herein probably lies the basis of subalternity in the society in which benefits are distributed not as rights but as favours. Here some people live at the mercy of others, at best on the benevolence of the rulers. The rulers may be democratically elected by universal suffrage, but the system of governance is based on patron-client relationships, shaped in turn by the clients’ loyalty to the rulers. The people are treated more as subjects than as citizens in a system in which they have to solicit the ruler’s favours for their survival or minimum improvement in their living conditions. The example of the lopsided supply of electricity may be revealing in this context.

This patron-client relationship was evident even in the so-called public-good project like the bringing of electricity in a certain locality. An area or a particular ‘para’ (hamlet) may be discriminated against for not being loyal to the ruling party. Kolepara was electrified only some 4/5 years ago whereas other parts of the village got electric lines 15 years ago. This was surprising since the ‘Kole’ families of the mahishya caste were very prosperous farmers and among the richest in the village. Most of the families had twostoried concrete houses. So why did they receive electricity so late? Was there any political reason?

The youths of ‘Kolepara’ replied, “Yes, there is a lot of politics behind it. As we were not supporters of the ruling party at that time we were deliberately denied electricity”. “At last how could you manage to get it? Did you, of late, turn into CPI(M) supporters?” They laughed, “Maybe, we have become CPI(M) supporters”.

These solvent Kole families were known to be traditional supporters of the Congress Party. Though never active in politics, they were not in the good book of the present ruling party. It was evident that the non-CPI(M) people among the upper castes too were involved in strategic politics. It seemed that they had to participate in the CPI(M)-led activities so much so that they could also be deemed “eligible” to get a part of the fruits of development works. Such has been the entanglement of the common village people with the ruling party and the panchayat, based on the patron-client relationship that even the solvent middle class people have not been able to ignore the party in power for long, leave alone opposing the same.

Some researchers [Corbridge, Williams, Srivastav, Veron 2003] have compared the local state’s functioning in rural Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal and argued that in rural Bengal the political society is not dominated by patron-client relationships unlike in the other two states and hence the local state could work more effectively on behalf of the rural poor. We however find a strong trace of the same relationship existing in rural Bengal as well. Whether this relationship weakens the effective functioning of the local state is not the only issue here; the point is that it reflects the domination-subordination relationship that informs the division of the society into the elite and subaltern domains. In the rural society of Bengal, a stark division between the bhadraloks and ‘chhotoloks’ still exists, encompassing both caste and class divisions that are almost overlapping (two-thirds of the SC-ST families in Kalipur being landless and the rest having very little land, while most of the land is concentrated in the hands of the upper caste families). This caste-class division seems to be reflected in the panchayati raj institutions (PRIs), notwithstanding the law that has institutionalised the participation of the subalterns in PRIs. The Left Front too could sustain its rule for 30 long years drawing on the support of the subalterns. How this bhadralokchhotolok division has been entrenched in the Bengal polity, even among the socalled leftist families, may be illustrated through the instance below.


As I met Madhabi, the wife of the village CPI(M) leader Manoj Dutta, just before the state assembly elections, she commented on the impending elections,

My husband was saying that in the coming elections the government could fall. Indeed, a change is needed. It might seem an unusual comment from me, but I must say that the chhotoloks would be cut to size once the government is changed. These people have become so adamant that they don’t care for anyone. They can’t be taken to task even if they don’t work in the field properly. You must realise what happens if the shoe is placed on the head. One should be kept in the arena earmarked for him/her in the “society. Anyhow all the mental works have still to be done by us. Can they do such works? Do they have the brains? The persons from SC-ST communities are now becoming panchayat members and even pradhans, but who are performing the real works of panchayat other than people like us?

Madhabi was among the very few women in the village who were active in the party, trying to mobilise other women for party rallies. She herself was an active member of the Mahila Samiti (women’s wing) of the party. Still she reacted so sharply and negatively against the subaltern assertion in the contemporary period that she was aspiring for the defeat of her own party in the elections. Such elitist and casteist aspersions on the chhotolok subalterns are not uncommon among the leftleaning bhadraloks both in the rural and urban areas of West Bengal and the ruling left party leaders seems no exception.

The question is how the subalterns have been interacting with the organised domain of politics in the present phase and whether subaltern politics have any relative autonomy within its deep entanglement with the state-led organised politics. Let us go back and analyse the two principal subaltern characters emerging from the ethnographic study in Kalipur. Both the SC leader Khagen Malik and the ST leader Pakhi Murmu were deeply involved in the organised elite domain so much so that they could not probably imagine a life without the latter. But did it mean that they had lost their identity and consciousness as subalterns? It did not seem so. Khagen had been serving as a panchayat pradhan with the help of the higher caste party leaders. But why was he so frustrated with the job? There seemed to exist two contradictory consciousnesses in him at the same tine. On the one hand, he was influenced by the elitist domain of power and was suffering from an inferiority complex for not being able to run the panchayat independently like the educated party persons. On the other hand, he had a realisation that he should not serve just as a tool in the hand of the upper caste leaders and rather relinquish the office of the pradhan. The first consciousness (elitist) generated in him an aspiration to become the real authority in the running of the gram panchayat. But realising that a person of his background could never be competent enough to gain the elitist authority, he was thinking of opting out of the elite domain. But finally he was compromising with the elite domain to continue to play the role of pradhan, as this had been beneficial for him and his community in terms of grabbing the larger part of the panchayat benefits. At the moment, the elitist hankering for power seemed to dominate his consciousness, overshadowing the subaltern in him. But he was still not lost in the elitist domain altogether and retained his subalternity to some extent.

Subaltern Assertion

The case of Pakhi Murmu, on the other hand, seems to indicate the opposite. Apparently he belonged to the ruling party and had been an ardent activist of the party. But he carried the rebel in him all through, castigating the pro-rich activities of the party and dissociating with all the anti-labour actions of the party. When he was a panchayat member, he never felt interested enough to sit in the panchayat office and instead spent his time organising people in peasant struggles. Now after rejoining the party, he was offered a seat in the party office, but he refused to sit there and enjoy the prestige of association with the upper caste leaders of the party. Instead he remained a humble organiser of the ST people in favour of a party that he did not believe to represent his community and class interests. He believed that the subalterns could not live without the support of an organised party. He knew through his long experience that whatever rights and benefits the subalterns had achieved was through struggles under a party. Without the support of the party, those struggles would not have been possible. Though that party had of late turned pro-rich, obstructing their movements against the landed gentry and hobnobbing with their erstwhile enemies, he had no other alternative, but to associate with the same party that seemed still better than the main opposition

june 7, 2008


parties in West Bengal. At the same time, he thought that as most of the panchayat schemes were meant for the development of his community, it would not be wise for his community to stay away from the party running the panchayat and instead should try to garner as much benefits as possible for the community that had struggled most for bringing this party into power. Though Pakhi was associated with the ruling party most of the time during the last 30 years, he had refused to accept the party’s elitist turn in this period and instead tried to oppose the same, sometimes from within the party and on other occasions from without.

This was also an instance of subaltern entanglement with the elite domain, but the defiance in him against the elitist party had been more prominent all through his interactions with the party since its ascendancy into power in the state. A prominent subaltern historian has observed that the “two elements that together constitute the subaltern mentality” are “submissiveness to the authority in one context” and “defiance in another” [Gautam Bhadra 1997]. In the case of Kalipur, these two elements of subaltern mentality were found to be in full play in the actions and thoughts of the two leading subaltern persons. If Khagen Malik was an epitome of subaltern submissiveness to the organised domain, Pakhi represented the instance of defiance though staying entangled with the elite domain.

The difference in mentality between these two subaltern leaders seemed to have their origins in the histories of evolution of the two communities as also in the divergent process of their interaction with the organised domain. The tribal community was in the forefront of peasant struggle in the late-1960s that had challenged the authority of the old landlords. Again this community, under the leadership of Pakhi Murmu, waged a number of struggles against the rich farmers in the early period of LF rule. The tribal community had gained some rights and assertion through these struggles and fell apart with the mentor party when it was not ready to side with their struggle and rather opposed it in the later period. During these struggles, even in the 1980s, the subaltern assertion was at its peak, when the biggest

Economic & Political Weekly

june 7, 2008

landowner of the village Khetra Pal had to beg Pakhi Murmu for his life, when the landed gentry had to offer bribes to Pakhi for a compromise which he had refused, when Pakhi and his community were revered by all and sundry in the area. During the labour strike in 1986, the party leaders asked him to call off the strike, but he and his community defied the party and as a result his own party men beat him up. That was the peak of their defiance vis-à-vis the organised domain and the assertion of the relative autonomy of the subaltern consciousness in them.


At the surface level, an overview of the political situation of Kalipur might reveal the complete subordination of the SC-ST communities to the organised domain, or the hegemony of a single party for 30 long years. But the undercurrent of discontent among these subaltern communities was more than evident in my ethnography. A youth club existed in Kalipur having a membership of around 60 youths, almost all from SC-ST background. The club used to conduct different games and sports activities along with social works that mainly meant helping people in distress. The most interesting thing was a membership rule of the club that prohibited the entry of any activist of a political party in the club. In a village completely dominated by a single party with an unofficial ban on all opposition party activities, this club was the only space outside the organised domain. But why had they debarred the entry of political activists in the club? The club secretary said,

the party here wants to control everything. After we reorganised the club some years back, the party tried to intervene and penetrate into the club with the sole aim to get control over it. Fortunately the club members refused to accept their intervention. Since then we have made the rule to prevent further attempt of the party to penetrate and control the club.

The general opinion of the club members on politics and political parties was quite negative. They said,

actually the party and ‘partybaji’ (party-based favouritism) have polluted the whole atmosphere of the village. The poor people are flocking behind the party with the hope of getting some benefit. These political parties have no principles. All are opportunists. We have no faith in this sort of politics. Those who are involved in such politics can’t be benign. They are hypocrites. Something good can be done only by getting rid of this kind of politics.

Most of the club members were agricultural labourers, but still they could maintain not only a distance from the party, but also completely differing opinions about society and politics. But why was not there any trace of an opposition party in the village? The village atmosphere seemed to be suffocating for them. They said, “We don’t have any freedom to speak our mind out or tell the truth. We live forever in a state of terror. Leave alone joining a party of our own choice, we don’t enjoy any individual freedom at all.” The setting up of this youth club was an act of defiance against the absolute domination of the ruling party in the village and an effort to create a space for the subalterns who were not ready to submit before the power of the day. This is probably another instance of the “relative autonomy of the everyday existence and consciousness” of the subalterns, where their detachment from the organised domain is perhaps more distinct than their entanglement.

Earlier during the panchayat elections in 1998, some upper caste youths had become active on behalf of TMC-BJP combine and put up a candidate. But they were beaten up severely and some were even ousted from the village immediately after the elections. Since then no one has dared to oppose the ruling party and campaign for any opposition party. People were beaten up even for trying to campaign in favour of LF constituents like the Forward Bloc and the RSP. Pakhi was beaten up for not complying with the party instruction regarding a labour strike. All these were forms of domination that were resorted to pacify the discontents among the people and subdue any opposition to the present rule. Hence, the subordination of the subaltern population to the organised domain had probably been more a result of domination than hegemony by the ruling party and the state.

If domination exists as a form of governance, the subaltern response would probably be both subordination and resistance or defiance. We find both the elements of subaltern consciousness in this the sphere of politics and more so in the sphere of ideology.

village. As the political process pursued by the party local committee to form a branch com 9 Even after the promulgation of the Land Ceiling
the state had not always been democratic, mittee. The party hierarchy starts from branch committee at the village level as the lowest tier, Act during the Congress regime, the rural gentry used to retain much of the above-ceiling land
leaving very little space for ventilating and then proceeds upwards through local com through evasive transfers to relatives, friends and
opposition views and organising opposition mittee (LC), zonal committee, district committee, state committee and finally central committee fictitious persons. This later land was popularly termed as ‘benami land’. After the installation of
parties, it perhaps failed to a great extent to bring the lives of the subaltern people 4 and the polit-bureau. AG means auxiliary group in the CPI(M) party parlance. An AG is formed with party activists at successive United Front governments in West Bengal in the late-1960s, a peasant movement broke out in many parts of West Bengal principally to
under its ideological hegemony. Though the rural poor had to gather at the party and panchayat offices to get their share of doles, this was more a case of patron-client relationship than one of equal rights of citizenship. So only the people likely to receive benefits assembled in gram sansad meeting or in party rallies. Most of the people seemed to have lost interest in the functioning of the panchayat. A survey by Moitree Bhattacharya (2002) in two villages of Bardhhaman district has made similar observations. In the contemporary rural polity of 5 6 7 the village/hamlet level. These activists are not yet members of the party; rather as a process of getting membership, they are being organised in AGs by the leadership to train them in activism and indoctrinate them in party ideology. It was astonishing that a CPI(M) leader had not registered his name as a bargadar. This betrayed the limitation of Operation Barga. In fact, many bargadars remained unregistered even after 30 years of LF rule for different reasons. ‘Rajniti’ means politics in the Bengali language. If we divide the word into ‘raj’ and ‘niti’, the two become separate words having separate connotations. The word raj means a state or government as well as a king. So people often equate the word rajniti with something related to the kings or the riches. Guide committee is a party committee to look after the works of the panchayat. The CPI(M) party generally maintains such committees as party fractions inside government institutions and mass organisations to get its directives translated into work. 10 11 reclaim these benami lands so far held by the landlords through their connection with the administration and the political leaders in power. The CPI(M) party became popular among the poor in the countryside by leading this movement. The terms bhadralok and Chhotolok are commonly used in Bengali parlance to mean people belonging to the higher castes and lower castes respectively. The educated higher caste persons, who consider themselves as bhadraloks or gentlemen and the uneducated lower caste people as chhotoloks in the derogatory sense, principally use these terms. Here bhadra means gentle, loks means people and choto means substandard. SHG is the abbreviation of self-help group organised with principally BPL women who are to save some money in the bank and get back a few times of their savings as loan that might be utilised for small business or enhancing farming activities. This scheme has been instrumental in reducing the dependency of rural poor on moneylenders.
West Bengal, the response of the subalterns to the state domain could not be uni 8 The 73rd amendment (1993) of the Constitution made reservation for SC, ST and the women mandatory in the three-tier panchayati raj institu- References Bhadra, Gautam (1997): ‘The Mentality of Suabalternity:
form, as the subaltern communities have been fragmented due to the deep influ tions. According to the amendment, the number of seats to be reserved for the SC and ST would be determined according to the proportion of popu- Kantanama or Rajdharma’ in Ranajit Guha (ed), A Subaltern Studies Reader – 1986-95, OUP, New Delhi.
ence and penetration of the organised parties. No single phenomenon would suffice to capture their state of relationship with the state and state-led politics. My ethnography reveals some of the complex and multifarious relationships between the elite and subaltern domains that have lation of SC and ST to the total number of population in that constituency. One-third of the reserved seats for SC and ST will be reserved for the women of the aforesaid communities. Apart from this, one-third of the total seats of the three-tier panchayats must be reserved for the women (including the seats reserved for the SC and ST women). Notably, no seat will be reserved permanently; rather the seats will be rotationally reserved for SC, ST and the women. The seats of the pradhans (chief of the gram panchayat), sabhapatis Bhattacharya, Harihar (1998): Micro Foundations of Bengal Communism, Ajanta Books International, Delhi. Bhattacharya, Moitree (2002): Panchayati Raj in West Bengal, Manak Publication, New Delhi. Chatterjee, Partha (1984): Bengal: 1920-47, The Land Question, K P Bagchi, Kolkata. – (2004): Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, Permanent Black, Delhi. Corbridge, Stuart et al (2003): ‘Making Social Science
been increasingly entangled with one an (president of the panchayat samiti) and ‘sabhadhipatis’ (president of zilla parishad) will also be Matter-1’, Economic & Political Weekly, June 14. Ghatak, M and M Ghatak (2002): ‘Recent Reform in
other in the contemporary period and at reserved for SC, ST and women by an Act passed the Panchayat System in West Bengal’, Economic
the same time, have maintained their own by the West Bengal State Assembly. & Political Weekly, January 5.
relatively autonomous existence both in

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