Will a Community Agitating for its Tribal Status Determine the Faith of a Former Maoist Bastion in Bengal?
The Kurmi community was also the key political force that helped Mamata Banarjee defeat the Left Front candidate after 42 years in 2014.
A key factor for the electoral fate of Jhargram – which was at the heart of Left wing extremism in West Bengal for decades – will be the potential split of the Kurmi community, an agrarian OBC community that has long been demanding that they be given ST status.
While exit polls largely predicted that BJP would make inroads in Bengal, the deciding factor at Jhargram is likely to be the extent to which TMC, BJP and Left were able to convince the ‘Adivasi Kurmi Samaj’.
The community was also the key political force that helped Mamata Banarjee defeat the Left Front candidate after 42 years in 2014. CPI (M) was in power in Jhargram from 1977 to 2014 but TMC’s Uma Soren changed the tables by defeating CPI(M)’s Pulin Bihari Baske by 3,47,883 votes. The community accounts for nearly 35-40 per cent of the votes.
The community was classified as a Notified Tribe by the British under the terms of the Indian Succession Act introduced in 1865 and subsequently in 1913 were classified as a Primitive Tribe – only to be dropped in the ST list of 1931 and the consequent 1950 list.
In 2019, Banerjee has fielded Birbaha Soren from this ST-reserved constituency after sitting MP Uma Soren was accused of failing to live up to the expectations of the Kurmi community. Both Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had held public rallies, with the specific aim of targeting the community, on May 6 at Jhargram and Gopiballavpur.
Each elections, the community leaders claimed, political parties would promise to fulfil the demand for granting the community ST status – but to little avail.
“First, we were fooled by the Congress, then Bangla Congress (1967-71) came in and then there was the CPI (M). The ruling TMC tried but failed. No one so far has managed to get our communities listed in the ST category. This time we have decided to vote for those who will stand beside us in granting the ST status,” said Rajesh Mahato, secretary, West Bengal Adivasi Kurmi Samaj.
Hinting that this time the wind is in the BJP’s favour, Mahato said, “As per the Shimla notification in 1913, Kurmis were listed in the ST category. In 1931, they were dropped from the ST list. A fresh list was prepared in 1950 but our community was not listed in the ST category. Since then we have been agitating but despite submitting memorandums to former president Pranab Mukherjee and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, no action has been taken. This is why you will find graffitis in every hut here which reads – ‘Fight for ST, Jai Guram’.”
Last year, the saffron party had managed to make a visible surge in Jhargram during the Panchayat elections, securing nearly 35 per cent votes. The ruling TMC got about 45 per cent votes but trailed in the Jhargram district due to a division in the Kurmi votes. In most areas dominated by the Maoists -- including Jhargram and Lalgarh – BJP won the Panchayat polls. This verdict is a strong indication that Kurmis are looking for a new political option to get their ST demand fulfilled. Given the present circumstances, the BJP has emerged as a strong force against the TMC.
To cement its chances, the BJP has fielded a strong candidate in IIT-engineer Kunar Hembram. CPI (M), on the other hand, is banking on YouTube star Debalina Hembram. Jogeshwar Hembram is contesting on a Congress ticket and Birbaha Hansda, an actor-turned-politician from the Santhal film industry, is contesting for Jharkhand Party (Naren).
However, the Trinamool Congress argued that the BJP – with little organization on the ground – and a “bad history of not being able to keep up the promises that it has made” would not be able to gain traction among the community.
“The BJP making this promise isn’t surprising. What have they done since 2014, but make promises. It is Mamata Banerjee who has actually done something about the issue,” said a TMC spokesperson, while referring to the Bengal government’s February 2018 letter to the Union Tribal Affairs Minister arguing that the Kurmi Mahato to be included in the tribal list.
The assembly constituencies that fall under Jhargram are Nayagram, Gopiballavpur, Jhargram, Garbeta, Salboni, Binpur and Bandwan. Polling is underway in Jhargram and it would be interesting to see which way the Kurmis swing to get their demand of ST status fulfilled.
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