Lok Sabha Elections 2024 | Disillusionment with parties, leaders lurk amid Kurmi youths in Jhargram in poll season

The community’s demand for an upgrade to Scheduled Tribe status from its current inclusion in the OBC category has bordered on violence in the forest-covered Jangal Mahal region of the state in the past with sporadic agitations blocking railway tracks and national highways for days on end.
Last Updated : 24 May 2024, 06:06 IST
Last Updated : 24 May 2024, 06:06 IST

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Jhargram: What’s common to Ashoke Mahata, Lokesh Mahata and Abani Mahata, apart from being Kurmi youths from different corners of the Jhargram Lok Sabha seat in West Bengal, is their overarching disillusionment with the mainstream political parties and a sense of hopelessness with the fractures within their community surfacing on the eve of the polls.

The community’s demand for an upgrade to Scheduled Tribe status from its current inclusion in the OBC category has bordered on violence in the forest-covered Jangal Mahal region of the state in the past with sporadic agitations blocking railway tracks and national highways for days on end.

But these Kurmi youths from Jhargram feel they have been as much taken for a ride by the Centre and the state as by its self-professed community leaders.

Questions on who truly represents Kurmi aspirations and whether concerted efforts are being made by mainstream parties to keep the community at loggerheads with the tribals, equal stakeholders in the region who are opposed to the ST demand of Kurmis, seemed to fill the minds of the upwardly mobile new generation of the scheduled caste youths.

“Kurmis need to unite under the agenda of self-determination since traditional parties have left a political and cultural vacuum in our society,” Ashoke said.

President of the Jangal Mahal Swaraj Morcha, an organisation which has applied for political party status that intends to contest the 2026 state elections, Ashoke advocates for “alternative politics” for Jangal Mahal seeking to unify both tribals and non-tribals of the area.

“Political parties, irrespective of their colour, have treated both Kurmis and Adivasis as vote banks who would catapult leaders to power, while ignoring their aspirations for unity. MPs and MLAs don’t really represent the people here, only their parties. The unity we seek will change the political landscape of Jangal Mahal and that’s something no mainstream parties want,” said Ashoke, whose initial foray into politics took place as an activist of DYFI, the youth wing of the CPI(M).

While Jhargram braces for its customary triangular contest when the ST-reserved constituency votes on May 25, with TMC’s Kalipada Soren, BJP’s Pranat Tudu and Congress-backed Left nominee Sonamani Tudu vying for the seat, the Kurmis, who account for about 30 per cent of Jhargram’s population, are not without representation either.

Interestingly, though, politics seems to have divided the community with two candidates cutting into each other’s share of Kurmi loyalty.

Surya Singh Besra is contesting the polls in Jhargram on a Jharkhand People’s Party (JPP) ticket but is actually a candidate fielded by the Ajit Mahata-headed Adivasi Kurmi Samaj which has been spearheading Kurmi protests in the region.

Ajit, the organisation’s veteran chief advisor, is himself a candidate from the neighbouring Purulia seat.

Besra, though, is challenged in Jhargram by Barun Mahata who is fighting the polls as an Independent candidate but flaunts his Kurmi identity in his campaigns.

Mahata entered the poll fray by virtue of the ST certificate he possesses on account of being a member of the Bedia sub-caste, a community of snake charmers.

The fractured equation has dealt a blow to Lokesh Mahata, a vegetable seller from Bhursan village in the Jamboni block of Jhargram.

“I am no longer sure what the future of the Kurmi movement looks like,” Lokesh said, “The lack of homogeneity in our community breaks my heart.” Lokesh sends his only son to a local English medium school nurturing hopes that he would grow up to become a lawyer and break the stranglehold of missed opportunities for the family.

“I have to pay Rs 3000 every month for my son’s school tuition fees. My tribal neighbour, on the other hand, sends his son to the same school for free. ST status is the doorway to education and employment for us Kurmis, but it’s certainly not the end. Our equal rights to land and forests in Jangal Mahal also have to be established,” said Lokesh.

But it’s the alleged overt emphasis on the Santhal versus Kurmi dichotomy by mainstream political parties when there are other more pressing issues to be addressed, that seems to have added to youth disillusionment.

Father to an infant, 28-year-old Abani Mahato from Tengia village in Jhargram block runs a photography store in Jhargram town.

Abani says he is worried about the next generation in his family line.

“My business has nosedived since the Covid pandemic. I have a sister who remains jobless despite completing her B.Ed degree. Unemployment is steadily rising in the community coupled with the brunt of inflation. Development is a sham when it comes to health and education. I am worried about the uncertainty my son will face when he grows up,” he explained.

“I am clueless,” Abani said, forcing a smile, when asked what he felt was the way out.

Insisting that the net result of all hitherto Kurmi agitations was a “big zero”, Abani said he wouldn’t participate in protests organised by the self-professed community leaders any further.

“They have used our movement to climb their own political ladders,” he grudged.

A visible lack of interest in the upcoming polls was therefore evident amongst a section of Jhargram residents despite getting wooed by parties across the political spectrum.

“It’s the lull before a storm,” Ashoke said.

His gaze was fixed on a noisy Trinamool roadshow that shattered the quiet afternoon air of the Jhargram market sizzling at over 40 degrees Celsius.

Published 24 May 2024, 06:06 IST

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