Bengal : Chowdulis, Bengal's Low- Caste Muslims { 53 images } Created 6 Dec 2011

We were visiting a rural area of West Bengal called Hasnabad to spend some time with a low-caste Muslim community called the Chowdulis. Our interest was in how this impoverished group is asking the government to classify it officially as a "backward" class - a status that would entitle it to all sorts of benefits. The Chowdulis traditionally are fishermen. Since most can't afford boats or even nets, they drain water from ponds and harvest fish by hand. They get a variety of saltwater fish that comes in from the Bay of Bengal - but most don't make more than $20 per month. Since fishing is declining now, they're looking for other job opportunities - but there isn't much except the local brick kilns. Young men who never made it past the fourth grade and therefore really aren't qualified for many jobs. Thus with limited resources, the entire family ends up working to earn the livelihood for the family. Many of the women spend their days making bidis - which are hand-rolled Indian cigarettes. Many families had changed their family name from Chowduli to Gazi to increase their social status. Though there's theoretically no caste system in Islam - but there is a parallel social hierarchy. The Chowdulis are treated just like a low Hindu caste. Now, if the Chowdulis get recognized nationally as a backward class - the only way anyone will get benefits like a government job is if they emphasizes their Chowduli heritage. The affirmative action system in India was meant to address discrimination in the caste system, which is quite complicated. Traditionally caste defined your social status and your occupation, which often is hereditary. There are castes of barbers, sweepers, cobblers. We also visited a low caste Hindu community called the Devangas - traditional weavers who are also petitioning to be considered a backward class nationwide. They want to go backward to try to go forward.
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