Bengali - Sociopolitical Organization



West Bengal is a federal state within the Republic of India, with its own elected governor and legislature; it also sends representatives to a bicameral national parliament. Bangladesh is an independent sovereign republic with an elected president and a unicameral, elected national assembly (the Jatiya Sangsad).

Social Organization. Bengali Hindu society is organized along the lines of the Hindu caste system, in which every Individual is a member by birth of a corporate, ranked, endogamous occupational group, called a caste ( jati ). One's place in society is determined by the rank of one's caste, and the latter is determined by the relative prestige—measured by the degree of ritual purity or impurity—associated with the caste's traditional occupation. The castes traditionally associated with religious leadership are considered to be the most pure ritually and so have the highest rank. At the bottom of the hierarchy are found those castes whose occupations, because they involve direct or indirect contact with such defiling substances as blood and human excreta or may be associated with death in some way, are considered to be the most ritually impure. The customs governing much of the individual's existence are those of his or her caste community; the wealth of one's family is also correlated with one's caste ranking; the probability that a person will receive a high degree of education is also related to caste status, and of course most people marry a member of their caste as well. Individual upward Social mobility is highly restricted in this kind of social system, but it is possible for a whole caste to elevate its actual rank in its local hierarchy if its members become wealthy and attempt to emulate norms and customs of the higher castes. Certain castes found elsewhere in India, notably those associated in the past with royalty (i.e., the Kshatriya varna) and the performance of traditional ruling functions, have not been historically present in Bengal. Anywhere from six to a dozen caste groups might be found in a typical Bengali Hindu Village, but villages in Bengal tend to be less highly stratified, in the sense that they tend to have a smaller number of castes than Hindu communities in other parts of India. In the most populous southern areas of the Bengal Delta, Hindu village communities are often dominated numerically and politically by one of several low-ranked cultivating castes: the Namasudras, the Mahisyas, and/or the Pods. In part because Islam is an egalitarian religion and in principle forbids hereditary distinctions of social rank, one does not find among Bengali Muslims whole communities organized along the lines of caste, and the social system is more open and fluid from the point of view of social mobility. The vestiges are still found of a traditional South Asian Muslim system of social rank that distinguished between "noble" ( ashraf ) and low-ranked ( ajlaf or atraf ) status groups, and some of the latter still exist and tend to be occupationally endogamous. Today, however, Muslim village communities, at least in Bangladesh, are most often populated by ordinary cultivators, among whom well-marked castelike distinctions are not found and who emphasize distinctions in wealth as the basis for social rank.

Political Organization. West Bengal is divided into sixteen districts, and below the district level (as everywhere in India) there is a three-tiered council system known as panchayati raj, whose purpose is to administer village and multivil1age affairs and to carry out development projects consistent with statewide plans and goals. Each village elects a village assembly ( gram sabha), whose executive body is the village council ( gram panchayat ). Usually these village councils are controlled by the numerically and/or economically dominant caste group in the villages electing them. Several village Councils in turn elect an area council ( anchal panchayat ), which has jurisdiction over the village councils. The heads of the various area councils, along with nominated members of the state legislative assembly, form the district council ( zitta parishad ), which, linked to the state government, has control over the entire local government system. Parallel to the local councils at each level is a three-tiered judicial system as well. In Bangladesh, which undertook administrative reforms in 1982, the 68,000 officially designated "villages" or mauzas are amalgamated into around 4,300 unions with governing Councils known as union parishads constituting the lowest levels of the national government and administration, to which the villagers elect members. Unions are further grouped into nearly 500 upazillas or "subdistricts," governed by upazilla parishads, whose memberships are composed by the chairmen of the union parishads (except that the chairman of an upazilla parishad is directly elected). Upazillas in turn are united into some sixty-four districts, and these again into four divisions. The key to this administrative scheme is supposed to be the upazilla parishad, which has many local decision-making powers, especially those relevant to community Development. Social scientists who have studied the local government system in Bangladesh have found that it is usually dominated by the more wealthy sections of the peasantry and locally powerful village elites.

Social Control. In both West Bengal and Bangladesh, Formal social control mechanisms are provided by the units of local government described above, in conjunction with police and civil court administration. However, informal mechanisms have traditionally been important as well. Among Hindus, intervillage caste panchayats (councils), headed by the elders, regulate marriages and otherwise govern the affairs and mediate disputes of the members of the same caste in Several adjacent villages. Among Muslims, similar traditional councils, called sama], of village elders perform similar functions, and sometimes these groups may encompass several contiguous villages. These traditional sociopolitical groupings may overlap with the official units of local government described above, in that the leaders of these indigenous groups are sometimes elected to membership in the governmental bodies too.

Conflict. Anthropologists have conducted many studies of conflict in South Asian villages, including those of Bengal. They have found that conflict often occurs not only between the various castes but also between factions, each composed of members of various caste groups. Competition for scarce land is a major source of conflict, as well as rivalry between landowners for power and influence in local, regional, and even state and national affairs. Wealthy landowning families will often exercise control over their tenants and the landless people who work on their land, relying on the support of the latter in conflict situations. The outcomes of elections for both local and upper-level councils are influenced by factional conflict, as are the polls in each constituency for state and national legislative bodies.

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