By Suddhabrata Sengupta
I am currently reading ‘Words of Her Own: Women Authors in Nineteenth Century Bengal’ (Oxford University Press, 2020) by Maroona Murmu. Dr. Murmu teaches in the Department of History in Jadavpur University in Kolkata.
‘Words of Her Own’ is an outstanding piece of research and scholarship. It is wide ranging in scope, unearths much new material, and is, at its core, a passionate and erudite testament to the value of a close reading of the claiming of agency by many different kinds of women at a complex and difficult time. And it teaches me a great deal. Which makes me think that Dr.Murmu’s students are exceptionally lucky to have a scholar like her as their mentor and teacher.
This also needs to be said, unfortunately, as I have watched with horror, a vicious campaign of frankly, casteist and racist aggression against Dr. Murmu unfold across several online forums and social media platforms in Bengal in recent days. The origins of this behaviour lie in a reaction to a post by Dr. Murmu on the utter callousness and needless-ness of the Modi government’s decision to force public examinations on students at a difficult time – because of the still raging pandemic conditions all over India. Her post was made out of a teacher’s legitimate concern about the health and well-being of students.
This prompted a vicious response from an entitled student in another college (she is not Dr. Murmu’s student) that randomly invokes Dr. Murmu’s Adivasi origins and implies that she is where she is professionally , not by dint of her scholarship, but because a ‘quota’, ie – the reservation provision for SC/ST candidates in education and employment got her there, and implying, therefore that she had no business expressing concern about the welfare of students. This reaction to Dr. Murmu’s post was greatly amplified by a host of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp handles that jumped in to promote aggression against her. Some of the forums in which this hatred is being circulated claim to speak for ‘merit’, ‘equality’ and ‘caste-less-ness’, but it is absolutely clear to me that these terms are deployed to disguise an agenda of upper-caste suprematicism and resentment against people from different backgrounds achieving and setting high intellectual standards.
This vicious piece of trollery unleashed an avalanche of racist and scornful taunts against Dr. Murmu in the form of tweets, posts and WhatsApp forwards that have truly revealed the unreconstructed underbelly of Bengali Bhadralok privilege, prejudice and misogyny. I have watched this hatred escalate over the past few days with dismay.
Dr. Murmu’s recent posts on Facebook indicate that she is in distress and in a fragile condition as a result of this barrage of racism and misogyny. I appeal to everyone to stand with Dr. Murmu, and I am glad that some student organizations in Kolkata and elsewhere (AISA, Jadavpur University Unit, Bethune College Students, Ambedkar Students Association, TISS Mumbai) have already been active with solidarity actions in her support.
Obviously, none of Dr. Murmu’s detractors have undertake to read even a word of what she has ever written. If they had, and if their dull, privileged brains had even half the capacity to comprehend the range and depth of her scholarship and the acuity, or the sympathy and sharpness of her intellectual abilities, they would not have dared written a word of what they have been so callously expressing.
This reveals two things to me –
1. Bengali Hindu Upper Caste sensibilities can still often be deeply uncultured and uncivilised, when it comes to dealing with people who do not fit their description of what it takes to be a ‘Bhadralok’ or ‘Bhadramohila’. Hence the condescension (at best) and aggression (otherwise) towards the majority of the inhabitants of Bengal – who are, and have been, for a long time – Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi and non-upper-caste Christians.
2. That without reservation for people from SC/ST and OBC backgrounds, a huge swathe of experience and reflection would be totally absent from academia and scholarship. This would actually perpetuate a form of incestuous intellectual mediocrity that most entitled, self-congratulatory, narcissistic, caste-and-class-privileged, social-and-cultural-capital-laden Bengalis would not be even capable of recognising.
I hope that Dr. Murmu’s harrassment ceases, that she can go back to her research and teaching without having to bother about this kind of naked aggression, and that people in large numbers, both in Bengal, and elsewhere, stand with her in solidarity so that her smug detractors realise that they stand no chance.