The second sex: a glimpse of the Rajbangshi women

Simone de Beauvoir suggested in The Second Sex that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine. Only the intervention of someone else can establish an individual as an Other.’’(Beauvoir 1997:245).Beauvoir further discussed, how the man presents himself as the essential, absolute and transcendent while showing the woman as incomplete and mutilated. De Beauvoir states that while it is natural for humans to understand themselves in opposition to others, this process is flawed when applied to the genders. In defining woman exclusively as Other, man is effectively denying her humanity. India is a land of multiple hierarchies rooted in caste, class, and gender. Patriarchal hierarchies rank men above women in most spheres of life and, put very simply, assign them different social roles and responsibilities: men are the heads of the family, breadwinners, and decision-makers in the public realm; women are responsible for reproductive tasks and everything that has to do with the domestic domain, and her behaviour impinges directly on the honour of her family.

In an article titled ‘Indigenous knowledge and women entrepreneurs among Rajbangshi’s: A case study’, Das Gupta has stated how indigenous knowledge have helped in sustainable development. Women in the traditional society or indigenous community enjoying their folk life and with less input from modern way of living are more aware of their resources, experiments, indigenous knowledge, culture and identity, mode of production, and social system they are an integral part of the division of labor on gender. They can work in various production units besides their domestic works (Das Gupta 2013).Entrepreneurship encouragement in the form of microfinance and assistance from self-help group can help towards women’s empowerment and development. Improvement in the economy of the household could generate avenues of saving and lending and poverty alleviation. The Rajbansi women today are as successful as their male counterparts, but are the success of a woman in the patriarchal Indian society recognized? We still see the effects or dowry system rooted deeply in the Indian kinship relations and nevertheless, the Rajbansi’s have also been affected by the pressures of dowry. In the book Second Shift by Hochschild, she has prepared several case studies depicting how women labored both at home and at work. Her labors at home are unnoticed and unpaid for. She contributes more working hours than her male counterpart, looking both after household and work. The message that women’s time and work are inherently less valuable than that of their male peers’ is a systemic one. It doesn’t end with chores. When men grow up and begin working in fields where their gender dominates, salaries go up But when women work in female-dominated fields, salaries go down.Indeed, women continue to struggle with what Hochschild called the “second shift” impact, in which they come home from a long day at work and take on the unpaid labor of housework and childcare. But many women are also effectively working two jobs while they’re at the office.The message that women’s time and work are inherently less valuable than that of their male peers’ is a systemic one.

The Rajbansi women are as well not spared from the inequalities of the gender gap. The previously liberal Rajbansi society has been massively influenced by the deep-rooted, orthodox and unequal power relations shared among the Hindus. Historical evidence suggests how the Rajbansi women led a liberal life before the effects of orthodox Hinduism. To understand this, let us peek into history.

Rajbansi’s have been said to belong to the great Mech family that entered India in the 10th century B.C., from the east and settled on the banks of Brahmaputra and gradually spread over Assam and the whole of North and East (present-day Bangladesh) Bengal. The first records of the modern history of the people living in the North of Bengal are found in the accounts of invasion by Baktyar Khilji, who entered Tibet in 1206 A.D. It has been reported in the findings of Baktyar Khilji that at the time between the country Lakhnavati and Tibet lay tracts of forests which were supposedly inhabited by the three non – Indian Mongoloid tribes i.e the Koch, Mech, and Tharu. (Sanyal, 1965:10). The districts in which the Rajbansi’s mostly lived were Rangpur, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Dinajpur, Malda, Darjeeling in North Bengal, eighty ninePurnea in Bihar and Goalpara in Assam, eighty-nine percent of this caste population lived in just four districts i.e Dinajpur, Rangpur, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar. They were the largest original inhabitants of North Bengal and the third largest Hindu caste in the whole province (Basu 2003). Modern Assam and a part of Bengal forming the old Kamrup were formerly ruled by many tribes eg. The Danabs, Kiratas, Asuras, the Chutiyas, and the Pals. It is also said that the Ahoms, Khens and Kochs fought amongst themselves and were also tied up by matrimonial alliances. While the Ahoms occupied the eastern zone, the Kochs were the masters of the western zone of Kamrup, Cooch Behar and Baikanthopur (Sanyal, 1965:5).

Western scholar Dalton described that the Kochs were non-Aryans and belonged to the Dravidian stock instead of the Mongoloid. H. Boileau commented in the report of the Jalpaiguri district in 1891, that the ‘Koch and ‘Rajbansis’ were not Hindus and were rather Hinduised aboriginal tribes. The Koch masses took the title of Rajbansi’s in the 19th century, to show their connectedness with the royal families and tried to prove themselves as descendants of the Kshatriyas who have taken shelter in North Bengal, being pursued by the Brahman hero Parasu Ram who threatened to kill Kshatriyas from earth. Today, the Rajbansi’s constitute the most predominant section of the Hindu population of North Bengal, India. Numerically they are the third largest Hindu caste in Bengal. The origin of this caste is unknown and there are numerous debates around its association with the Koch. Originally a homogenous community, the Rajbansi’s had no sub-caste among them. The religious-cultural practices of the Rajbansi’s were free from Brahminical rigidities and from Brahminical religious practices. Some scholars have pointed out that historically the Rajbansi’s had little access to education and agriculture was the prime source of livelihood. The easy availability of land made the economic condition of the Rajbansi’s comparatively better than that of their counterparts in other parts of Bengal (India) (Basu 2003: 16).

Further distinct change took place in the economy of northern Bengal with the migration of the upper caste gentry into the traditional areas where the Rajbansi’s originally resided. Until the nineteenth century, most of the land in North Bengal was in the possession of the local people, i.e Kochs, Rajbansi’s and the Mech. Unlike the upper caste Hindus, the members of these castes’ were not socially stigmatized if they were found tilling their lands. However, following the partition of India and Bangladesh in 1971, the influx of the upper castes Hindu migrants from the late nineteenth century, the social situation showed rapid changes. As the immigrants were educationally and economically better, particularly the higher castes ones, the Rajbansi’s of North Bengal began to suffer. The rampant violence caused many Hindu, Muslim Bengalis and the Rajbansi families of Rangpur, mostly women to migrate over to India. The other troubling issue of the war violence was the mass rape of women in 1971. In these and other wars like that of Bosnia, Croatia or Rwanda, women were targeted for male violence and dehumanized as part of the war effort to reduce enemies into submission. Saikia discussed in her book ‘Women, War and the making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971’, how raping women was a rite in Bangladesh to assert the power of men’s ability to destroy the vulnerable and make it impossible for a woman to find a whole self after the war (Saikia, 2012:60).

Here I do not argue in favor of abandoning the inculcated Hinduism beliefs and traditions that most Rajbansi’s today follow, but a subtle change in recognizing the contribution of Rajbansi women being equally efficient and adept.

Written by Ankita Roy

Edited by Noya and Puja 


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