West Bengal: SC, ST issues take centre stage as BJP talks ‘paribortan’


KOLKATA: Identity issues, specifically related to land, immigration, caste and religion of the many SC/ST communities of West Bengal have taken centre stage in the upcoming electoral battle, with the TMC and BJP tailoring their campaigns to woo these groups which include Matuas, Mahishyas, Kurmi, Rajbanshi, Bagdis and STs, among others.

The BJP, while building on the prevalent anti-incumbency sentiment, plans to consolidate its Hindu vote bank with the Paribortan yatra it has rolled out on Saturday.

During his visit next week, home minister Amit Shah is likely to reach out to Matua voters at the sect’s spiritual centre of Thakurnagar, and also to the Rajbanshi voters in Cooch Behar and Bagdi community, among Dalits. He started his Bengal campaign with a tour of the Jangalmahal region that comprises a major chunk of the ST population of the state.

The TMC, on the other hand, has been focussing on the failure of the MPs to raise the concerns of the people in North Bengal, including the setting up an infantry regiment in the Indian Army in the name of Narayani Sena, the armed troops of the erstwhile princely state of Cooch Behar. It has also been harping on the Citizenship Amendment Act –– a promise to benefit the Matua community –– as a wasteful exercise. In the budget announced on Friday, CM announced 500 new schools in Alchiki language to appeal to Santhal population of the State, and 100 new schools in Kamtapuri for the Rajbanshis and Kurmali language to reach out to the State’s Kurmi population who have been demanding for the community’s inclusion among STs.

Dulal Chandra Bar, who heads the SC Morcha of BJP, said that there are 60 subcastes among the Dalits in West Bengal, a quarter of whom are the namashudras. Apart from the politically influential Matuas who are now divided between the TMC and BJP, there are many namasudras aligned with religious organisations of spiritual leaders such as Sri Guru Anukul Thakur, Baba Lokenath, Balak Brahmachari and organisations such as the Bharat Sevashram Sangh, Ramakrishna Mission and the Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who the BJP has been trying to get on its side.

“It is incorrect to think that all namasudras are part of the Thakurnagar Matua sect. Among the SCs, there are Bauris, Bagdis, Poundra-Kshatriya Dalits and many others who are agricultural labourers with very little or no land, who are with us. The jele, for instance, who are into fishing and have been ignored for decades, are coming to us,” he said.

Khagen Murmu, the ST Morcha head of the state, said that though the TMC promised a lot for STs, it did not implement any welfare measure.

“The ‘Al Chiki’ language of the Santhalis was given recognition in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but the TMC government did not provide any book or train teachers to promote it…The ST community members, who are largely dependant on MNREGA, are very angry with the ‘cut money’ demanded from them. This time, the TMC will not get any of the 16 seats reserved for STs,” he told ET.

The TMC has intensified its campaign among the Rajbanshis who are spread across Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Malda and Murshidabad Cooch Behar, by urging the Nasya Sheikh community (Rajbanshi Muslims) to support the party. Of North Bengal’s 54 seats, 15 are reserved for SC candidates and most of these seats have a prominent Rajbanshi population.

On Thursday, speaking at the SC/ST sammelan of TMC, a week after the party set up separate cells for the SC, ST and OBC communities, Banerjee said her government has declared holidays on the birthdays of revolutionary freedom fighter Birsa Munda, Matua community leader Guruchand Thakur, and had been organising state-wide celebrations of Hul utsav –– the fight of the state’s tribal community, Santhals, against the British Raj in 1885 –– apart from promoting the teachings of Santhali educator and reformer Raghunath Murmu in schools.

“Our constant engagement with Matuas to convince them that the citizenship promise of bjp is a hoax, when they already are voting and having livelihoods here, is working. which is why the home minister had to cancel his visit to Thakurnagar twice,” Tapash Mandal, who heads the SC Morcha in TMC told ET.

BJP MP from Cooch Behar Nisith Pramanik told ET that Rajbanshi voters are firmly with the BJP, and as long as there are free and fair elections, they will vote for them. “There are issues of livelihood, apart from identity issues. There is also the larger question of safety of women particularly love jihad in some areas, and relief from everyday corruption that the community is concerned about,” he said.

Political experts observe that PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, in their speeches, have been invoking the names of leaders such as Panchanan Barma of the Rajbanshis or Harichand Thakur who has worked with the Namashudras –– so that the party can bring these communities under its fold. The party has also talked about the Hindu Mahishya voters (a dominant peasant caste) being left out from any of the state benefits meant for farmers.

Political researcher Sajjan Kumar says the politicisation of caste identities started with the TMC and Mamata Banerjee to dislodge the Left. A pro-change sentiment, he added was visible now in many areas among the Bauri and Bagdi Dalit castes, Santhal and Munda tribes, OBCs like Kurmi-Mahatos, besides the Hindus like Brahmins, Kayasthas and the peasant castes like Mahishyas and Aguris.

“Bengal is witnessing a new wave of subaltern assertion now, using the instrument of Hindutva to push the narrative. Many of these communities are veering towards the BJP…measures such as the parivartan yatra would connect the dots. The dots are these communities,” he said.

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