The left turn is the best turn in West Bengal. And has been so for the last 25 years. The left may have been slow on the uptake about industrial development, but in social matters it takes pride in being progressive. Caste and religion may chalk out battle lines everywhere else in India, but not in West Bengal if the Left Front can help it. Besides, the liberal Bengali feels a special pride in his own enlightenment, in which casteism finds no place. Just to be able to say, and show, that caste does not matter, that untouchability is an evil to be eradicated, is a small but decisive step towards self-education and ultimately social change. It is in emptying casteism of significance and denying it presence in social arrangements that left and liberal proclamations find common ground. But when children of the cobbler community are denied entrance to Durga Puja pandals, in a left-voting, left-dominated village in Murshidabad district, even the hopes raised by anti-caste rhetoric are bound to be dashed. For this is not a question of private prejudice or lack of education enacting itself away from the gaze of a critical neighbour. This is a whole society’s attitude to one particular caste, exhibited openly at a public function which is a festival especially designed to bring people together.
The organizers of the two pujas in the area have no problems in stating that “lower castes” will not be allowed into the puja arena. One puja committee feels that the cobblers can arrange their own puja since the government has done a lot for them. And the other is considerate enough not to take subscriptions from them since they are too poor — and as they cannot pay the subscriptions they cannot be allowed to come anyway. The marks of consideration are contradictory: if a community cannot pay subscriptions, it cannot possibly organize its “own” puja. What the organizers reveal is a revolting mixture of callousness, contempt, envy and irritation, based on a sharp sense of the “untouchability” of the community. It is no use sentimentally mourning this abysmal failure of the human spirit. It is far more important to identify what has gone so terribly wrong with the state’s education, in which the left intervenes openly and without fail. Unfortunately, the buck cannot stop here. The left’s influence in the countryside is yet undisputed; it is time to ask what the left has done with this influence, how far it has been able to attack the hidebound prejudices of traditional society. When children are not allowed to enter puja pandals because of their caste, it is time to suspect the left has done nothing in this direction at all, it was busy using its influence in other things.