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“Calcutta University worshipping the Chandal” was the vicious campaigns when Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee had, in the University appointed Mukund Behari Mallick a Pali teacher in 1921.

The news of victimization of a tribal lady, university teacher in the faculty of Geography, targeting her birth, complexion and gender furnished the latest illustration of deep-rooted caste-based prejudice and discrimination prevalent in West Bengal. This one is inescapable because the ugly incident has unfolded itself right in the campus of the University named after Rabindra Nath Tagore, located in the heart of Calcutta. A section of Bengalis believes as also propagate aloud that they are above caste, creed and parochialism. But fact is that they are the actors and factors in the attack of the victim, Saraswati Karketta in their cultural highland. An assistant professor, hailing from Cooch Behar, West Bengal, she has been targeted and taunted her “on the basis of her caste and skin colour.” [1] The country from west to east, north to south is under a crushing burden of an illusory perception that caste, tribe, and community have no any takers in the blessed Bengalidom!

But fact remains that till date no voice from the civil society, which often launches campaign against such invasion on human dignity, has yet been heard to condemn the shameful incident that led to resignation of several faculty members of the University. A delegation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes activists held a demonstration and presented a memorandum to the Vice-Chancellor after the news broke in a Bengali newspaper. [2]

One would immediately recall the tragedy that befell Chuni Kotal, a Lodha girl, first in her tribe, who graduated and to enrolled in the M. Sc [Anthropology] in Vidyasagar University, Midnapur in early 1990s. She committed suicide in the teeth of unrelenting and humiliating persecution on the campus by her teacher Falguni Chakraborti. Chuni had protested in writing to the authorities in the University against her harassment and her abuser. Nobody heeded her pleas perhaps on the pretention that they were above caste, tribe, faith, etc. Her death unleashed uproar, obliging the Left Democratic Front Government to institute a Commission of Enquiry with retired Justice S. S. Gangopadhyay of Calcutta High Court. The Enquiry Commission concluded in a nutshell:

“On a consideration of all the materials on record we are constrained to hold, therefore, that the allegations brought against Falguni Chakraboraty by Chuni Kotal were not sustainable and further that Falguni Chakraborty never practised nor he had any reason to discriminate against Chuni simply because she was a Lodha. It may be that on occasions Falguni Chakraboraty took Chuni to task for her late or non-attendance or for some such reasons. This was mere trivialities which occur as a matter of course between the teacher and the taught without any personal involvement from either side.

“These trivialities were blown big beyond all proportions to transform them into the items of petition of complaint. On the findings arrived by us, we conclude that the behaviour meted out by Falguni Chakraborty to was not as to cause intense mental pain to Chuni so as to break her heart and lead her ultimately to commit suicide.” [3]

So, the abuser got a clean chit as “trivialities” that had occurred between him and his victim were not the reasons to cause intense pain for Chuni Kotal to commit suicide! A news report subsequently appeared in the media to suggest that Lodha children had started dropping out of schools as that fate of Chuni held out lingering clouds of threats of their future if educated like their first graduate! No elucidation as such is perhaps necessary! How sad “trivialities” of her teacher in the University cost her life and there was harrowing outburst of the Inquiry Commission for the tragedy!

One of the complaints which was prominently highlighted in the media was that Chuni belonged to a criminal tribe! Her tormentors albeit thereby justified the persecution of the student from the deprived community. Some of the dons of Calcutta University were quoted for their scholarly views in support of the smear campaigns against Chuni. Let me quote from the census of Bengal in 1911 what superintendent L. S. S. O’Malley, ICS had documented on crime and criminals: –

The number of Mussalman and Hindu convicts in Bengal were almost exactly proportionate to their strength in the population and it could not be said that either community had a particular propensity to crime. “The largest number of Hindu criminals are Kayasthas and Brahmans.” The Kayasthas represented seven and Brahmans four criminals per 10,000 people serving jail sentences in 1911.[4] The Lodha tribe, let me underline, did not even figure in the census report for their role in crimes so that her persecutor(s) could be justified in accusing the unfortunate Lodha girl.

Shoe-shiner’s son needed Calcutta High Court’s intervention to re-join duty! [5]

Some take pride in pro/claiming that Bengalis are above caste, creed or faith. Competent authorities had appointed Nakul Ruidas as a teacher for Sukanta Smriti Bidya Mandir, Tarapur, District Bankura after he passed the required examinations conducted by West Bengal School Service Commission. Ab initio, he faced stiff opposition and prejudice from all corners in the school because he was a Chamar whose ancestral profession was skinning, tanning, shoe-shinning, etc.

Once Nakul, under due intimation to the school, availed of sick leave. On recovery he reported to his school for duty. The headmaster did not accept his joining report, though no reasons were shown. As the last resort, the harassed teacher moved the Calcutta High Court for relief. Furious at the turn of events, Justice Tapen Sen directed the District Inspector of School to ensure that Nakul was no longer harassed, besides all his arears were paid within ten days. The High Court gave vent to its strong disapproval against prejudicial attitude of any person(s) of the school management to deny a job in school after clearing prescribed examinations.

The news report disclosed that Nakul had moved heaven and earth including the local police, School Managing Committee and District Inspector of Schools for intervention before approaching the High Court. Nobody paid any heed to his pleas. His advocate strongly agitated one particular point before the High Court that instances there were many who suffered harassment on flimsy grounds. The report does not mention the reasons highlighted during hearing of the case but we guess prejudice against candidates for their caste was the obvious reason!

Father of a girl seeking admission in KG school harassed for caste

Bikas Sardar wanted his daughter’s schooling in Kishalay, a kindergarten section of reputed Jadavpur Bidyapith, Kolkata. All formalities complete, he was called to the school for counselling. When the father reported to the school, its Principal gave a 4-page printed rules and regulation and asked Bikas to read it out aloud. Surprised being singled out, he asked why alone he alone was marked out? The Principal retorted, “You are a scheduled caste. I want to see and be sure your daughter is eligible for admission.” [6] A furious parent, he demanded immediate refund of Rs. 11,000 he had deposited.  He was chased away without refunding his deposits. But Bikas, who did not pocket the insult, filed a complaint against the school before the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate, Alipur. The Court had directed the Calcutta Police Commissioner to hold an enquiry and report. We have no knowledge nor update on further development in the matter.

  Bengal Education Department a “Hindoo institution”

The education department in Bengal was described as “Hindoo institution,” a remark recorded by Lord George Campbell, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal in his Administration Report for 1870-71. In his unique appreciation, he stated that “the Bengal Education Department may be said to be a Hindoo institution.” [7]  By this, Lord Campbell conveyed an impression of the field officers who manned and managed the fate of education in the rural Bengal. The personnel of the province were divided and subdivided into Inspector of Schools, Deputy Inspector of Schools and Sub-Deputy Inspector of Schools who worked under the overall control and guidance of Director of Education or generally known as Director of Public Instruction. Below him, sixty field officers in charge of districts from East Bengal to West Bengal held charges were exclusively Bengali Hindus who were nakedly inimical to the educational needs and aspirations of the low castes and Muslims. By 1887-1888, eleven Hindu Inspectors of Schools held charge of Circles each of which was coterminous with Revenue Division in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. [8] We cannot imagine of Hindu institution without a greasy coat of prejudice and hatred applied over each of them against the low castes, tribal and minority communities.

Historian Sumit Sarkar attests this with appropriate example. According to him, the Namasudras, a populous, untouchable community wanted to start an English high school in 1908 at a dreary village Orakand in Faridpur district of East Bengal [now Bangladesh] because the upper landlords and money-lenders tricked the illiterate and ignorant peasants in everyday matters of rent and debt-payment receipts. “They encountered stiff opposition from local high-caste Kayasthas who were afraid that their sharecroppers and servants would no longer work for them if they become educated.” [9] This was just in the close of the era Bengalis take pride as the century of renaissance! The upper castes needed illiterate and ignorant masses as tenants who could be exploited unabatedly as slaves to live an exalted life marked by aristocracy, pompous and frivolous exhibitionism. In 1911, G K Gokhale’s Compulsory Primary Education Bill was defeated in Central Legislature thanks to the upper caste leaders who included Surendra Nath Banerjea besides others. This is it is an unassailable historical truth. Education alone could drive the country like a high-power engine out of the morass. But opposition to education for low castes, tribes and minorities rendered the upper castes, by that token, as enemies of the country too.

As the President of Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress (1911), Bishan Narayan Dhar had observed that “…. there are some who object to it [compulsory education] on social and political grounds. Those who are opposed to it because they dread the loss of their menial servants, and desire that millions of poor men may remain steeped in ignorance so that few wealthy magnets may live in luxury. I am surprised that even in some respectable English journals opposition has been offered to Mr. Gokhale’s Bill on the ground that education would create political discontent among the masses and thus tend to disturb the even tenor of British rule in India.” [10] Rabindra Nath Tagore too bemoaned in almost the same tone and tenor.

Puja of Chandal in Calcutta University On appointment of a Namasudra as Pali teacher

Mukunda Behari Mallick, Namasudra by caste was a reputed advocate of Calcutta High Court. An eloquent orator, articulate legislator, he was a minister in colonial Bengal. One day Mallick was called to see Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee in 1921. He asked Mallick to Join the University as a Pali teacher. He joined the University and was perhaps the first untouchable teacher in the faculty of the Calcutta University. This sparked off nefarious campaign, targeting Mukunda that “Calcutta University worshipping the Chandal.” [11] By the way, we may mention that the Vice-Chancellor also drafted Mallick for teaching in the University Law College also. Later on, he was made a Fellow of Calcutta University. As Pali teacher, his responsibilities included paper-setting, and examining answer-papers of Pali in MA examinations for ten years. [12]

In a joint statement signed, some 231 distinguished academicians from home and abroad, e. g. UK, US, Canada, Australia, Singapore, etc. have strongly and unequivocally condemned the attack on Dr Saraswati Karketta and demanded justice for her from the administration at the earliest. They did not fail to stress that “Dr Karketta is by no means an isolated incident, but in fact the part of a long tradition that continues unabated.” This constitutes a serious charge as also challenge. A very sad aspect to escape attention is that the civil society, usually vocal and articulate on such issues, is conspicuous by enigmatic silence about the tirade and harassment hurled at Dr Saraswati Karketta.

But we must stress the point unambiguously that the shameful incident of harassment and slur against Dr Saraswati Karketta has placed West Bengal, make no mistake, at par and alongside Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, etc. which are haven for atrocities and dehumanization of the socially marginalized, weak and vulnerable.

[1] The Indian Express, June 20, 2019, “Rabindra Bharati university: Five professors quit to protest ‘caste slur’ on woman teacher by students.”

[2] Ei Samay, Calcutta, June 17, 2019

[3]  Suman Chattopadhyay, Ananda Bazar Patrika, Calcutta, June 6, 1995.

[4] Census of India, 1911, Vol VI, Part I by L. S. S. O’Malley, ICS, p 555.

[5] Ananda Bazar Patrika, Kolkata, February 4, 2010.

[6] Khabor 365 Days, a Bengali Daily, Kolkata, Friday 20 September 2013. p. 3.

[7] Bengal Administration Report 1871-72, 255.

[8] General Report on Public Instruction in Bengal for 1887-1888, pp. 12-13.

[9]    Quoted in article ‘Rabindranath Tagore: An Extraordinary Zamindar’ by A K Biswas, in Mainstream, vol. LV no. 21 New Delhi May 13, 2017.

[10]   Congress Presidential Address complied by A M Zaidi, Vol. I, 1998, p. 499.

 

[11] “কলিকাতা বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে চণ্ডালের আরাধনা করা হচ্ছে।” কিরণ তালুকদার, জননায়ক মুকুন্দ বিহারী মল্লিক, quoted by N. B. Roy, A People in Distress, B. Sarkar & Co., Calcutta, Volume 2, 1987, Chapter XII, endnote 24, p. ii.

[12] Ibid.

The writer, a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, Dr B R Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar can be reached at biswasatulk@gmail.com


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