Kolkata: Taking umbrage at the change in the stand of the West Bengal government within just two weeks on the demand of the adivasi kurmis for according the status of scheduled tribe (ST), their apex organisation Adivasi Kudmi Samaj (AKS) chalked out a three-phase agitation programme – sit-in and submission of memorandum at the block level on February 23, ‘dharna’ and submission of memorandum in the districts on March 1, and 12-hour road blockade from 6 AM in all places with a sizeable population of adivasi kurmis on March 15.
The AKS members from Purulia told NewsClick from Purulia that as campaigning for the upcoming Assembly election has started, the road blockade plan has been postponed. But it will certainly be acted upon at the appropriate time, according to AKS central committee’s chief advisor Ajit Prasad Mahto.
Purulia is one of the four districts that constitute the politically, as well as law and order-wise, sensitive Jungle Mahal region. The other three districts are Jhargram, Paschim Medinipur and Bankura. The region accounts for six Lok Sabha constituencies out of total 42 and same number of Assembly seats in the state’s 294-member House. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party had won four seats – Jhargram, Medinipur, Purulia and Bankura. Two seats – Ghatal (second constituency in Paschim Medinipur district) and Bishnupur (second seat in Bankura district) were won by the Trinamool Congress.
When possibilities of defections to the BJP from the TMC became the talking point about six-eight weeks back, Bishnupur member Saumitra Khan switched over to the saffron camp. With that, the BJP now has in its kitty five of the six Lok Sabha seats from the Jungle Mahal region. That explains Chief Minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee’s anxiety about how she can reclaim her support base in the region. It also explains Banerjee’s efforts to mobilise support of the adivasi kurmis. But twists and turns have left the adivasi kurmis disenchanted and they seem to have, in their own way, asserted their position.
The adivasi kurmis are an estimated 30 lakh-strong population and of them around 10 lakh are voters, who matter in about 25 of the 42 Assembly segments. In a letter dated January 8, 2021, the AKS once again reminded the CM about their long pending claim for ST status and pointed out how matters have been hanging since the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry “had sought further comments on and justification for the state’s endorsement of the ST demand in April-May 2017”.
However, the government had not followed up the matter. Considering that Assembly elections were approaching and it was becoming a delicate issue, the state government had only then written to the Centre on January 20, strongly recommending inclusion of the community in the ST list.
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But, the community’s satisfaction proved short-lived and it became a tale of two letters on the same subject, but a totally different approach on the part of the West Bengal administration. Sixteen days later, on February 6, the state wrote to the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry suggesting that the “Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) be commissioned to recommend identification, classification on etymological bases the constituent clans that make up” the kurmi community. The state also urged the Centre to see that criteria for their inclusion in the state list of ST were laid down. The recommendations resulting from the study will be deliberated by the state’s expert group on the subject and only thereafter further action on the demand will follow, the state’s letter said.
Two versions are available on why the state government acted the way it did on February 6. It seems Banerjee had suggested to the AKS top brass that they ask their community voters to support the TMC nominees at the elections. The AKS pleaded its inability to do so and cited the organisation’s decision made at Chhatna in Bankura district on October 27, 2017, to the effect that it would not take a “political stand / be part of a political narrative for five years and adivasi kumis would be free to exercise their right to franchise according to their individual choice / judgement”.
It goes without saying that inaction on the part of the authorities on the claim for ST status has remained a sore point with the AKS. Also, reply of the type conveyed would not be to the liking of a support-seeking politician, particularly when the politician is seeking to recoup the lost support base, explained informed quarters.
The second version is that, upon coming to know about the state government’s letter of January 20 strongly recommending ST status to the adivasi kurmis, some Santhali outfits brought the issue to the notice of two state ministers – Partha Chatterjee and Purnendu Basu and asked how can benefits resulting from the ST status, as detailed in the relevant provisions of the Constitution, be appropriated only by the adivasi kurmis.
With a “tough Assembly election ahead for the TMC”, the two ministers, perhaps, thought some way out had to be found “to do”, as it were, “a balancing act”. The net result was the February 6 letter and suggestion for a study by the ASI.
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Explaining the discomfiture and resentment in the AKS camp, Mahto had told NewsClick in early February that although the kurmis constitute one of the most primitive tribes of the Chhotanagpur region and West Bengal’s Jungle Mahal, yet their status has been subject to several changes. In 1872, they were treated as “kudmis of woods / jhari kurmi”; between 1911 and 1921, they were classified as “aboriginal tribe”; thereafter they were designated as “animist”, then as primitive tribe in 1931 and then treated as “Hindu tribe” in 1941 by the ASI.
It has been contended by the AKS that the community was part of the ST list of 1931 and remained so till 1950. The organisation has pointed out to the authorities that Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru had declared in Parliament in early September/October 1950 that “only those who were in the list of primitive tribes in the Census report of 1931” were to be included in the ST list. But, clarity about their status is still not there, Mahto had lamented.
Mamata Banerjee has seemingly failed to get a commitment of support from the AKS; but she has succeeded in averting vote split in the same Jungle Mahal by persuading Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader and Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren to give up his party’s move to field JMM candidates in the elections.
NewsClick has learnt that JMM had proposed to put up some 25-30 candidates; a majority of whom were to be for the reserved ST seats in Jungle Mahal. Alongside fielding candidates, the JMM was to press its demand for tribal habitations in West Bengal being brought under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution that, inter alia, curbs transfer of tribal land to non-tribals and private sector companies for mining and other industrial purposes.
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The JMM’s general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharjee confirmed to NewsClick that his party would not put up candidates “for now”. Asked whether the party had shortlisted candidates, Bhattacharjee said, “Yes, the exercise had begun in all seriousness”.
Giving the JMM company in this “pro-Mamata” move and pursuing the objective of giving a “pushback to the BJP’s poll prospects” are Rashtriya Janata Dal of Bihar, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of Sharad Pawar and Shiv Sena of Maharashtra.
Meanwhile, according to a report in the March 8 edition of Bengali daily Ei Samay, having failed to get accommodation in the TMC list a “Kurmi Samaj” faction led by one Rajesh Mahto has decided to fight the Gopiballavpur and Jhargram seats in the Jhargram district on their own “as there are a large number of kurmi voters in the two constituencies”.