Incumbent Trinamool Congress and its challenger Bharatiya Janata Party are both facing challenges of competitive identity politics as religion, ethnicity and caste have been dominating political discourse as never before ahead of the ensuing assembly elections.
Along with its Hindutva push, the promise of granting Scheduled Tribe status to the state’s Kudmi community and citizenship rights to the Matua migrants played a crucial role in the BJP’s meteoric rise in the 2019 parliamentary elections in Bengal when it bagged 18 of the 42 seats.
The party’s vote share increased to 40.70 per cent in 2019 from mere 10.16 per cent it had secured in the 2016 assembly elections. It had then won all the four parliamentary seats that fall under tribal-dominated ‘Jangalmahal’ area spread over West Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura and Jhargram.
The Matua communities helped the BJP in winning at least seven of the 19 seats, including the Bongaon parliamentary constituency under which Thakurnagar that houses headquarters of ‘Matua Mahasangha’ is located.
The challenge before the BJP now is to retain the Matua and tribal votes as promises made to them are yet to be fulfilled.
An indication of possible shift in the community’s political allegiance was felt in the two-day religious conclave of the Adivasi Kudmi Samaj (AKS) held at Murguma in Purulia district from February 4.
At the conclave the community made a strong demand before the BJP-led Central government to recognise Sarna religion and include it as a separate code in the Census of 2021 and to grant ST status to the Kudmi community.
The Kudmi (not to be confused with Kurmis of Bihar and other parts of the country) are an Adivasi community of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha and Assam who were classified as a Notified Tribe by the British under the provision of the Indian Succession Act, 1865. But they were omitted from the ST list prepared in 1950.
The community is now classified as Other Backward Class (OBC) in West Bengal though the state’s TMC government in 2017 recommended to the Centre to recognise Kudmis as ST.
Ahead of the 2019 elections the BJP had assured the community that their ST demand would be fulfilled.
“The BJP has not fulfilled its promise. In our religious conclave we have decided to submit a mass petition to all the four BJP MPs who represent Jangalmahal area pressing for our demands,” said Swapan Mahato, president of the AKS’s Purulia district unit.
The Kudmis, along with several other tribal groups, are also seeking recognition for their indigenous religion ‘Sarna’ and provide a separate code for it in the census.
“We have been forced to mark ourselves as Hindus in the census as currently, citizens can choose from only six religions — Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. Once the code is approved, then the census will have a new column for the tribal religion,” Mahato said.
The Samaj is also seeking inclusion of their Kurmali language in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution that lists the official language of the country.
To press for their demands the community that comprises around 50 lakh of the state’s population in the past couple of months held several protest programmes.
Sensing an opportunity to win back the support of the community, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee met leaders of the Kudmi community during her visit to Purulia last month.
After the meeting, the state government sent another proposal to the Centre for the re-inclusion of the community in the ST category.
“The state government has played its part. Now it is for the Centre to take a call on our ST demand,” Mahato said.
The BJP’s Purulia MP Jyotirmoy Singh Mahato, who is a member of the Kudmi community, however dismissed the state government’s recommendation as a political gimmick.
“The state government should pass an assembly resolution seeking ST status for the community. Only after that the Centre can act on the demand,” the BJP MP said.
The AKS, however, said such resolution was not necessary.
The agrarian community, which could decide the outcome of some 35 out of 44 Assembly seats in the four Jungle Mahal districts, is also up in arms against the four farm laws enacted by the BJP government at the Centre.
Dilly-dallying over CAA
The Centre’s dilly-dallying over framing rules to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is alienating Matuas, an influential Scheduled Caste community that comprises about 23 per cent of the state population, who can influence results in at least 74 of the state’s 294 Assembly seats.
The BJP’s most prominent Matua face, Bongaon MP Shantanu Thakur, had written twice to Home Minister and senior BJP leader Amit Shah urging him to announce a deadline for implementing the citizenship law as the community is getting restive over the delay.
“We expect a concrete announcement from the home minister. He should now come out with a timeline to implement the law. We have waited enough,” said Ajay Kirtani, who owns a stationary shop at Bongaon Station Road.
The BJP is already facing the heat over its CAA-NRC plan from a newly formed platform of tribals, SCs and minorities called Dalit Adivasi Minority Andolan League (DAMAL) Bangla.
The organisation, formed by writer and social activist Manik Fakir (Mondal) along with other activists, has been carrying out massive campaigns among the Matuas against the CAA.
The Indian citizenship of the Matua refugees was stuck following the 2003 amendment to the citizenship Act by the then BJP government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Clause 2.1(b) and 3(c) of the 2003 Act had made a provision for declaring refugees as “illegal migrants” and disenfranchising their children born on Indian soil. The Act also mandated the Union government to prepare a National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The 2019 Act seeks to resolve the complications for the Hindu refugees created by the 2003 amendment to the citizenship law.
Section 14(a), created by the same amendment, nationalized the process of mandatory registration of citizens, which was till then limited to the state of Assam.
The TMC this time faces a stiff challenge to retain its total hold over the state’s about 27 per cent Muslim votes. An influential Muslim cleric Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui floated a new political outfit, the Indian Secular Front (ISF).
Siddiqui last month had a meeting with All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM)’s Asaduddin Owaisi for an electoral alliance.
The cleric is also negotiating with both the Congress and the Left Front for a pre-poll alliance, a prospect which can be a concern for the TMC.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC could maintain a slight edge over the BJP only because the Muslims voted overwhelmingly for it. The TMC could manage to win 22 Lok Sabha seats despite BJP cornering 57 per cent of the Hindu votes only because a whopping 70 per cent Muslims voted for it.