Lok Sabha Polls 2024 | BJP, TMC tread cautiously in Bengal's Jhargram where minority Kurmis seek ST status

Both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP have chosen to tread cautiously over this 'extremely sensitive' issue, which, some voices from the ground feel has the 'potential to explode at the slightest provocation'.
Last Updated : 05 May 2024, 08:13 IST
Last Updated : 05 May 2024, 08:13 IST

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Jhargram (WB): The tumultuous days of Maoist violence may now be a thing of the past for residents of Jhargram constituency in western West Bengal but the tribal-dominated seat sits on a powder keg of identity politics which has a direct bearing on the elections.

A long-standing demand for Scheduled Tribe status by the minority Kurmis, a traditional tiller community listed as OBCs in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha, had led to sporadic violence in the recent past and has vertically divided the inhabitants of region with the majority Adivasis, enlisted STs, firmly opposing it.

Both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP have chosen to tread cautiously over this "extremely sensitive" issue, which, some voices from the ground feel has the "potential to explode at the slightest provocation".

While the ruling party in the state has declared in its poll manifesto that it would "actively work with the Centre" to award the desired status to the Kurmi-Mahato community, the saffron party has officially remained silent.

The BJP is defending this ST-reserved seat it snatched from the TMC five years ago but the latter bounced back in the 2021 state elections, winning all seven assembly segments of Jhargram and reducing the saffron camp to naught.

"Unless a quick constitutional remedy to the impasse is found, Jhargram could turn into another Manipur," warned Ashok Mahato, a local Kurmi leader.

"Parties across the board make promises ahead of polls but have hardly taken effective steps to make progress in the matter. The BJP made the same promise in 2019 but barely moved an inch. The state claims it has sent the Cultural Research Institute (CRI) report to the Centre with necessary recommendations but there is no feedback yet from the other side. People are getting impatient," he said.

The Kurmi leader, who had previously unsuccessfully contested the state polls as an Independent candidate, said he has filed for registration for a separate party of Kurmis named Jungal Mahal Swaraj Morcha.

In 2004, the Jharkhand government had recommended listing Kurmis as STs rather than OBCs. Following the Centre's Tribal Research Institute opposition to the proposal, the Union government turned down the state's plea in 2015.

"Kurmis have every right to make their demand but we oppose it," said Samai Hansda, leader of the Bharat Jakat Majhi Pargana Mahal, a social organisation of the Santhal community in Jhargram.

"Mahatos are primarily Kshatriyas and are already entitled to various social opportunities. It's the tribals who need constitutional protection due to their backwardness. As long as the Kurmis agitate in a democratic manner, we have no issues. But if push comes to shove, we won't stay silent," Hansda added.

Over the past year or so, Jhargram and its neighbouring areas have witnessed multiple instances of long periods of road and railway track blockades by agitating Kurmis who were joined by their counterparts from adjoining Jharkhand.

"This matter must be resolved by making all stakeholders, including the state and central governments, sit across the table for discussions. I will do everything in my limited powers to facilitate that process, should I win the elections," said BJP candidate Pranat Tudu.

Tudu was named as candidate after the party's sitting MP Kunar Hembram resigned from the BJP on March 9, barely days before the polls were announced, citing "personal reasons".

TMC's nominee, Kalipada alias Kherwal Soren, a noted Santhali playwright and author recognised with Sahitya Academy and Padma Shri awards, said his party has already taken a principled stand on the issue which it clarified in its poll manifesto.

"We stand by the Mahato demands and have sent our CRI recommendation. The ball is now in Centre's court," he said.

"In my sustained interactions with the Adivasis during my campaign, I found no adverse repercussions on the ground over this," he claimed.

A hotbed of ultra-Left Maoist activities during 2008-2011, Jhargram and its adjacent Bankura, Purulia and Paschim Medinipur districts witnessed wanton blood spill where victims included militants, security personnel and ordinary people.

Following the encounter killing of Maoist commander Kishenji in November 2011, the Naxals lost grip over the region resulting in steady subsiding of turbulence.

Despite acknowledging the benefits of peace returning to the region, Tudu was reluctant to give credit to the Mamata Banerjee administration for it.

"Everyone knows that the Maoist problem was the TMC's own creation. The rebels helped the party to come to power," he alleged.

The sharp differences over ST status demand aside, both Kurmis and the tribals broadly agree on the other pertinent issues of Jhargram over which the elections are likely to be fought.

"People of Jhargram are looking forward to better facilities in sectors such as education, health, employment and environment protection," Mahato said, stressing on the need to build a dedicated elephant corridor to address increasing instances of man-animal conflict in the region.

Hansda said, "Adivasis are sensitive about their indigenous religion and associated social practices. We want no interference from governments in our traditional and personal lives and expect both the Centre and the state to honour our rights to water, forest and land."

"If the BJP implements Uniform Civil Code, like they say they would, the tribals would be the hardest hit," the TMC nominee chipped in.

"We have long fought for our rights to self control and never bowed before the British. Any attempts to impose social codes from above will meet stiff resistance from the Adivasis," Soren said.

A radiologist by profession, BJP candidate Tudu highlighted "crippled health infrastructure" of the region, calling it an issue of "paramount importance".

"The Jhargram Medical College, the only facility which is supposed to provide tertiary healthcare to patients, does not even have an MRI machine nor performs echocardiogram on patients," he alleged.

The 15 lakh-odd voters of the seat would exercise their franchise on May 25 during the sixth phase of polls.

Published 05 May 2024, 08:13 IST

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