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A Review of Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s Caste, Culture and Hegemony: Social Dominance in Colonial Bengal

Damayanti Sarkar


Caste, Culture and Hegemony: Social Dominance in Colonial Bengal by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, was first published in 2004 by Sage Publications. Bandyopadhyay is the Head and Senior Lecturer of the Dept. of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations in Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. The introduction acknowledges the diversity of India which is primarily divided between Hindus and Muslims. However, this diversity is difficult to generalize because of its regional variations. In the next chapters the caste system which has been based upon the cultural notion of rank concerning purity and impurity, and revolves around the power politics of the elites, has been discussed. He mentions statements of the scholars who had talked about the subordination of the lower castes through inclination towards the Aryan civilization. They were marginalized from the mainstream of civilization. However, later influences of Islamism and the Bhakti movement will be discussed in the following chapters. Bandyopadhyay contradicts many views of the caste system and mentions about the appropriation of Hinduism by the tribal communities. He also discusses the betterment of their situation because of colonial rule. The influence of colonial rule increased the social mobilization of the lower castes that helped in the subversion of power structures through ‘Sanskritisation’ and ‘Westernisation’. Bandyopadhyay writes about religious subordination in the second chapter. We are further introduced to Sumit Sarkar’s interpretation of the heterogeneous castes, and how the caste movements resulted in elevating their social status. The struggle of the Namasudras brought a new dawn in colonial Bengal, but later on, they disintegrated and merged with Congress to form a Hindu nation. This book revolves around a major question of how the lower caste withstood the hegemony of the upper castes of the society either through protests or by merging with them.

The first chapter begins with controversy about secularism directing the glorification of Hindutva. Racists deceived the victims by splitting the Hindu political vote-banks in electoral politics. It mentions the collaboration of BSP with BJP leading to many arguments about Hindu alignments. Dalits refused to align with these parties because of their former unfulfilled promises. Bandyopadhyay praises the struggle of Dalits to elevate their social status. The announcement of reservation by Dr. Ambedkar for the Scheduled castes concerned only with the Hindus. However, the major question was whether the Dalit organization was compatible enough to ally with BJP.

Social hegemony is omnipresent since the Gupta period which wanted to homogenize Hinduism. Varnashrama Dharma allocated the practice of a specific hereditary occupation. But colonialism focussed more on talents. Raja-pundit nexus was realized. In spite of the emergence of the capitalist economy that diluted the hegemony of power relations, the religion and cultural aspects still existed especially through tribal cultures who gradually got ‘Hinduised’ for their elevation. Youths took the responsibility to improve the condition by eating together and consuming beef which annoyed the elites who had attempted to normalize the idea of the caste hierarchy. They hurt the soft religious sentiments of the public, claiming that the Hindu unity is violated by the disintegration of the system. Economic mobility improved towards dominant groups who were called clean Shudras by Nabadwip pundits. This resulted in the incorporation of high-class rituals gaining them a social rank in Hindu society. The impact of print culture among the poor was shallow because of their illiteracy. The depressed classes demanded their fundamental rights. The plan was to strengthen Hindu power against the Muslims by favouring the lower castes with minimum provisions that were previously denied to them. The problem of untouchability was out of focus. These classes aimed for political power rather than social rights and struggled to have their voice in a public forum. The exosmosis of the scheduled castes in the elite community made the Swaraj movement heterogenous and this gained them seats in the legislative assembly which unveiled them to many political exposures. Most of them joined Congress which was provoked by the Calcutta Scheduled Caste League gaining them a remarkable number of seats in the election. Outraged, the Muslims claimed Hindu majority in Congress while they gained Dalit support during the Partition movement, and thus, getting involved in the Tebhaga movement.

In the second chapter, Bandyopadhyay shows how the religious conventions have led to the alienation of subordinated classes whose traditions were constructed by scriptures. Populist beliefs framed the boundaries of human thinking. In spite of domination, the hegemonical structure had open ends that constituted many contradictions but they did not challenge the hegemony as they were shrouded by major orthodoxy where dissimilar ideas were confined to ‘residual culture’. The Bhakti movement emerged as a new culture in Bengal. We know about Chaitanya’s philosophy of attaining spiritual divinity through Krishna but, he had no political stance which resulted in different interpretations of his teachings, after his death. One inclined towards elitism while the other, towards the poor. Thus, the system of power politics re-emerged and the ‘Sanskritisation’ of bhakti added on to the Hindu dominance. The injustice of any power-politics gradually leads to civil destruction. The Gaudiya Vaishnava was appropriated by the superiors but, Sahajiyas indulged in seeking all the worldly pleasure and divine love, controlling the carnal desire. The Jat Vaishnavas, who welcomed the lower castes in their community were defamed by Gaudiya Vaishnava leading to the formation of Jat Khuye Vaishnava that aimed for an autonomous civilization. The Bauls prevented Hinduism to percolate in their community. Bandyopadhyay writes about Lalon Shah of Bengal who had a community but failed to form a sect. Many subsects emerged both for and against Hinduism but every sect tended towards autonomy. Thus, equality stands as an abstract theory which is only suitable for various theoretical philosophies and hypothesis. Also, the Matua sect struggled towards philosophies that enslaved Sudras. The ultimate motto of the sects was to oppose religions and embrace mankind. Normative structures were broken as women became both partners and gurus. But they practised their rituals in secrecy. Bandyopadhyay says that the sects were attracted to the higher castes because of many rumours of miracles accomplished by gurus. Philosophy of Kartabhajas and Bauls were embraced in the urban spaces with modifications while the Matuas got absorbed into them without modifications because of their inclination towards Hinduism. Sects which could not merge with Hinduism were simply marginalized. Bandyopadhyay uses Robert Gray’s interpretation of the negotiated version of ideologies.

In the third chapter, he talks about the social reforms initiated by the elites including Raja Rammohan Roy and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar which gained rare acceptance as the cornered classes tabooed them. However, more emphasis was on the result rather than the reasons for such injustice. The reforms depended on the patriarchs who practically discarded them to preserve the purity of superiors. Namasudras discarded widow remarriage to gain social elevation. The bhadraloks were compatible with colonial rules to show their political activation backed by the native press. Society was infused with the poison of jati dharma whose violation denied basic human rights. Lower castes were attracted to these codes, discarding liberty to equalize their position. Women were degraded to subhuman levels by the sham of the religion. Literary injustice was evident through the monopoly of knowledge by the Brahmins. Men refused any reforms irrespective of shastras. The fear of Prayaschitta confined them to conservatism making progress difficult as the upper castes refused to compromise with their autonomy of power. Bandyopadhyay criticizes Vidyasagar for his failure to reform by describing how a conservative and sexist man he was, who could not think about any other ways when he failed to convince his superiors through his self-modified shastras. The rivalry between social and legal authority was never-ending despite the colonial courts. Women had no rights. Political patriarchy focussed on politics instead of the humanistic aspects of women. The sympathy was superficial only to boast their liberalism. The 20th century Bengali literature was immensely influenced by this turmoil. Patriarchy gobbled the lower classes which refused any reforms for women. Justice was never a focus for this civilized society. Later, few backward classes accepted remarriage but could not do much despite legalizing widow remarriage.

In the fourth chapter, Bandyopadhyay illustrates the struggle to uplift women which only aimed to empower the agenda. Women of the superior castes were still confined to patriarchy while the lower caste women gained little liberty. The elites wanted to conserve their modified patriarchy as a social code. Colonial courts started following the Brahmin’s commands to produce laws. Modern Bengal witnessed how the lower castes eradicated liberty rendered to their women. The idea of Varnashrama Dharma differed regionally where the Brahmins established different rituals. Smritis concerned with childbirth and marriage was also appropriated by the lower castes. Limited social mobility was permitted and no one could discard ‘Sanskritisation’. Ironically, the westernization among the elites attracted them towards Victorian women and they now demanded women who could be their companions. Bandyopadhyay refers to the Kahars from Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay’s novel which revolved around the liberal lives of their women and accusations on them. Unlike the other lower castes, marginalization could not gain them upliftment. Rajbansis and Namasudras discarded the liberties of women as they aimed to get an equal position like the elites. A new marriage ritual was established. The bhadraloks abandoned child marriage though, lower castes clung on conservatism for upliftment. Bandyopadhyay wrote about the threat of dowry resulting in financial constraints which delayed daughters’ marriages and records of their suicides in the houses of the poor lower castes are to be found. Kulinism appealed to the lower classes, glorifying sati leading to a reform movement for its abolition in 1829 which enraged the conservatives.

With the upliftment of the lower castes, the women’s issues got overshadowed by many other political issues. Bandyopadhyay refers to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s comment on transmigration which was a half-hearted attempt. The literacy rate among the lower caste increased whose improvement produced a remodelled culture. Vernacular writings talked about improving them for national liberation. The Mahishya Samaj took a radical attempt to involve women in political activities to gain swaraj and issues regarding marriage and education were being discussed. However, the problem got a solution but the domestic violence upon married women had no redressal. The age for marriage was fixed. Reforms were initiated only for the improvement of family and welfare. Dominant lower castes tried to abolish the dowry system while the newspapers glorified families who married their sons without dowries. Steps were taken to educate women by initiatives of social reformers which included lower caste reformers. The situation improved, schools were established, women journals were published and also many women took their exams outraging many conservatives. Bhadraloks desired Victorian women as companions, and they were educated to maintain the household in a better way. Bandyopadhyay brings out the overlapping of modernity and patriarchy in this chapter. Referring to Dipesh Chakrabarty and Tanika Sarkar, he writes about the power starvation among the bhadraloks. The aim was to educate women embodying well-known personas from the Vedic age so that they can be good wives. The custom was also appropriated by the Namasudras and Rajbansis. Bandyopadhyay mentions the contribution of women in Rajbansi and Mahishya community during the colonial movement. He observes that ultimately it was the grievances of women from the peasants and trading classes who struggled with rituals enforced on them.

The fifth chapter is about the partition of Bengal in 1947 that changed the total political scenario. Most of the Rajbansis and Namasudras had to migrate to East Bengal resulting in partition agitation. It says how the lower castes were overwhelmed by the basic rights rendered to them and also the alienation of lower castes in the Hindu community. On the other hand, ‘Hinduisation’ led to a loss of identity. Hindus exploited the Dalits for their political agenda only to eradicate the Muslims from the public. They started to mobilize Dalits to acquire their support and started providing them education along with many trivial facilities. The promise of anti-untouchability and taking water from their hands led the Rajbansis and Namasudras to glorify Hinduism. The manipulation continued through the idea of purifying them and claiming every Indian is Hindu. Hindu Mahasabha leaders held meetings in many tribal regions of Bengal, marked them as Hindus in the census, and made them participate in prosperous festivals. The census operations outraged the Dalit classes as they refused to lose their identification while the Muslim community threatened the Hindus about mass destruction. Veer Savarkar announced the necessity of Hindu Militarisation. The Muslims hurled verbal abuses on Hindus in public meetings. Sudden communal riots between Muslims and Dalits were raged. Rumours intensified the riots irrespective of the politics. The focus on Quit India Movement somewhat diluted the situation but Hinduisation continued. Muslims were portrayed as evils who violate women. Ambedkar’s policies of reservation were refused by the Hindu-Dalits, as it would segregate them from Hinduism. The Hindu Mahasabha protested against Wavell’s plan for being excluded from the Shimla Conference and considering Scheduled caste as a different community. Ambedkar supported the Pakistan demand and appealed for a separate Dalit village by influencing many Dalits. However, the majority of the Dalits who considered themselves as Hindus refused to accept this. The demand for partition was supported by most of the Bengalis without bothering the demand of a free united Bengal. The partition movement gained huge support from the Namasudras and Rajbansis. The concept of Boundary commission was both accepted and countered. The Hindu power permitted them to subjugate any other groups to acquire their property. As the two dominant communities gained power, other communities became negligible nudging to incline upon them to have a voice. Bandyopadhyay claims that the significance of this book is to re-examine the equally important question of alienation of the Dalits and the nature of their political identity.

In the conclusion, Bandyopadhyay writes about how the Hindus survived through centuries, by preaching and glorifying Hinduism. He says that the Hindus practised hegemony through coercion and consent. Hegemony and subordination are hugely prevalent even in the 21st century. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is indeed a humanitarian who brings out the torments of the subaltern classes by illustrating mundane lives that contributed to the national movements.

Works Cited

Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar. Caste, Culture and Hegemony: Social Dominance in Colonial Bengal. Sage Publications, 2004.

Author Information

Damayanti Sarkar studies English Literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests include caste studies, postcolonial literature, gender and sexuality studies.



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