Caste-identity politics taking roots in once 'secular' West Bengal

Caste-identity politics taking roots in once 'secular' West Bengal

Posters at Swarupnagar in North 24 Parganas in West Bengal stated that all Matuas should rally behind a specific candidate because he is a Matua and will represent their cause during the recently-concluded panchayat polls.

Strange as it may seem after more than three decades of Left rule, aspirations of individual communities, sects and sub-castes have left their mark in the politics of West Bengal since the murmurs over the recently concluded panchayat elections in the state were first heard some months back.

The Left Front took pride in having erased such lines, the subalterns being their sole electorate, with class — particularly the “have not” — being their only identity. Since the tables started turning on the CPM in 2005, when Singur was first named as the site for a proposed automobile factory, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, then leader of the Opposition, also made the right noises for those she claimed were being rendered disempowered.

A disenchanted electorate hence followed suit, nodding to every word Mamata said and voted her in power. She, however, had already laid the seeds of factionalism and the politics of identity in Bengal, with a lot of help from the Left, who refused to back down from the level playing field. So, when Boroma, matriarch of the Matuas, a lower caste Hindu sect, addressed her subjects at maidan in the heart of the city, both Mamata and erstwhile chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee ensured they were there.

As political leaders of all hues made beeline for her blessings, hoping to garner support from the 4.5 lakh voters she controls by virtue of being their communal mother, Mamata promised Boroma a portfolio in her cabinet, if she won. Manjul Krishna Thakur, the matriarch’s youngest son, was made the minister for refugee rehabilitation, a rather cushy and lucrative department after Mamata came to power in 2011.

Identity politics has never been as important in Bengal as it has been since the last panchayat elections in 2008. Several communities, from the Kurmis to Matuas, have been exerting pressure on political parties to uphold their cause. Not unlike the Matuas, the Kurmis demanded that all political parties planning to contest the 42 seats in Junglemahal, spread across West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia, should nominate candidates from their community because of their significant presence in the region.
Particular lines

Similarly, the Mahatos of Junglemahal, the landed and affluent Agoris of Burdwan district, the Sapuis of Birbhum and several other communities, traditionally known for particular lines of work and all of them otherwise low in the Hindu pantheon of castes, have demanded their pound of flesh. The political parties, be it Mamata’s Trinamool Congress or the initially-reluctant Left Front, obliged with favours, promises and poll tickets. The most to gain, however, has been the Muslims of Bengal.

At nearly 28 per cent unofficially, Muslims should have been the most to gain from this. Political parties across India have always tried to keep them in good humour for decades, understanding the extent in numbers, as well as aspirations. In Bengal, parties went a step ahead. If they felt secure under Left rule, with the communists not allowing any Hindu right-wing presence in the state for years, Mamata promised to usher them into a new golden era in her reign.

While an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the state are dependent on agriculture, their disenchantment with the Left was complete when Bhattacharjee’s government started forcible acquisition of agricultural land for industry. With Banerjee spearheading the movement against land acquisition, she became the obvious choice for the community.

After coming to power, however, Banerjee indulged in tokenism instead of setting long-term goals to improve the lot of the backward minority class. She announced monthly allowance of Rs 1,500 for poor imams, a privilege which less than 50 per cent of 30,000 imams in the state availed. Political insiders and analysts believe that in the days to come, Bengal will witness increasing claims of identity politics.

While the BJP is trying to consolidate a Hindu vote bank in areas bordering Bangladesh, taking advantage of Banerjee’s minority-appeasement politics, Muslims, on the other hand, seem fed up with tokenism. They are looking at the possibility of floating political parties to safeguard their interests, with Siddiqulla Chowdhury’s United Democratic Front (UDF) being such a platform.

With Muslims having the power to decide the fate of 140 Assembly seats in a House of 294, they are trying to use this to their advantage. While the violence over the panchayat polls has halted the growth of community-specific parties for the time being, polarisation at the grassroots is a reality that cannot be wished away.

The emerging signs of politics of identity as a new trend in Bengal became apparent with the Jangipur Assembly by-poll in February where community-centric mobilisation of votes was noticed, with BJP and UDF showing a rise in vote share, more than the leading parties. Identity politics also witnessed a recent emergence with the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha and the Adivasi Vikas Parishad in north Bengal.

The association Trinamool has with the identity politics of Gorkhas, Kamtapuris, Matuas, tribals and Muslims will be set to test when it comes for the ruling party to deliver on its promises.