A seven-decade-old ethno-socio demand has put Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal in a fix. The Kurmi community in the state is up in arms, accusing the government of “betraying” it by not “adequately presenting” its demand for Schedule Tribe status to the Centre.
The community is angry over the alleged failure of the Cultural Research Institute (CRI), a government body that conducts ethnographic research, to send a comprehensive report to the Union government justifying the ST demand.
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“The state government is taking us for a ride by making false promises. Ahead of the 2021 assembly elections, the chief minister herself assured us that her government would send a proposal to the Centre for the re-inclusion of the community in the ST list,” advisor to the Adivasi Kurmi Samaj (AKS), Ajit Mahato, told The Federal.
He said going back on its promise, the CRI did not send “comments of justification” as was sought by the Centre, thus holding back the process of granting ST status to the community.
In Bengal, the Kurmis (not to be confused with Kurmis of Bihar) were delisted from the ST category in 1950 though the community was included in the Primitive Tribe List of 1931. The ST list of 1950 was prepared by amalgamating the Primitive Tribes List of 1931 and the Backward Tribes List of 1936. Since then, the Kurmis enlisted as OBC in West Bengal have been raising the ST demand without much success.
“All these years, we have patiently waited for the government to do justice. We have been submitting memoranda to the government. In return we only got false promises, forcing us to choose the agitational path,” the AKS leader said.
For the state government, the demand poses a different challenge. Santhals and other Adivasi communities, who constitute the majority of West Bengal’s tribal population, are against granting ST status to Kurmis.
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They argue that the Kurmis are not only far more advanced in education and economic prosperity than the Adivasis but also lack distinct tribal traits. “Kurmis mostly follow Hindu rituals and culture. They are not nature worshippers like the Adivasis. Their social rituals do not match Adivasi rituals. Moreover, they speak the Aryan language,” said Ganesh Murmu, a leader of the West Bengal unit of the Adivasi Sengel Abhijan, a leading tribal organisation.
The TMC government is in a dilemma because it cannot afford to favour the Kurmis antagonising the other Adivasi groups. At the same time, it cannot completely ignore the Kurmis, whose population comprises around 35 per cent of the state’s tribal-dominated Jangalmahal area that is spread across the districts of Purulia, West Midnapore, Jhargram and parts of Bankura and Birbhum. Jangalmahal elects 35 of the state’s 294 legislators.
Faced with the conflicting stand of the Kurmis and non-Kurmi Adivasi groups, the ruling TMC is dealing with the issue with extreme caution, sources in the party said.
The party leaders officially, however, claim the ball is in the Centre’s court as only it has the authority to accord the ST status and not the state government. “The state government does not have constitutional authority to grant ST status. The state government did whatever it could by sending the proposal to the Union government,” said TMC MLA Ajit Maity.
Kurmi leader Ajit Mahato said the state government proposal was incomplete and was intended to buy time rather than to address the issue. Protesting the state’s “dilly-dallying ploy,” AKS and other organisations representing Kurmi community have enforced rail and road blockades in some parts of the state for the past five days.
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The agitation crippled Bengal’s rail and road connectivity with states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. About 500 long and short-distance trains had to be cancelled from April 5, according to the South Eastern Railway. Nine trains had to be suspended on Sunday.
Hundreds of vehicles carrying goods remained stranded on National Highway 6 (connecting Surat with Kolkata) in West Midnapore and Jhargram districts. From Sunday morning, however, there has been slight improvement in the situation as AKS, the most influential organisation of the community, has decided to pause its agitation until September 20 considering the difficulties faced by the common people due to the blockades.
A few groups, however, continued the stir at a rail station each in Purulia and West Midnapore district, indicating that the movement is going out of control of its leaders as passions run high. “We have waited for 70 years for justice. Now there is no going back until our demand is fulfilled,” said Sudip Kumar Roy Mahata, a youth leader of the community.
Leaders like Mahata who favour continuation of the protests pointed out that on September 20 last year they had lifted the blockade on the assurance of the state government but nothing was done to fulfil their demand.
The AKS said it is not suspending the stir. “We have just kept it on hold. We will launch a more vigorous agitation if our demand is not met by September 20,” Mahato said.
He further said that the AKS even rejected the state government’s offer for chief secretary-level talks because there is nothing to discuss now. “The state government just needs to send the CRI report to pave the way for our ST status,” he added. It’s easier said than done.