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Bengal: Is Jungle Mahal Becoming a Playground for Caste Politics?

The Kurmi community has reignited its movement for tribal status. In reply, many tribal communities have started counter-movements opposing Kurmis' claims for ST status.

Many members of the Kurmi community of West Bengal's Jungle Mahal areas have once again started a movement to demand recognition as tribals.

This movement is going on through rail and road blockades and strikes. A part of the tribal community opposes this claim, sometimes openly, sometimes behind the scenes, with the counterclaims of the Kurmi movement. Many feel that if the Kurmis are recognised as tribals, other tribal communities are likely to suffer.

Tribal rally in Bankura

Tribal rally in Bankura

While both sides argue, the state government has shied away from taking a stand. The same applies to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre.

The movement for tribal status and the counter-movement has led to a hostile atmosphere in Jungle Mahal, especially Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore, and Jhargam districts.

A few days ago, a Kurmi youth from the Ranibandh-Bandwan border expressed his feelings on Facebook.

He wrote, 'Kurmi movement leader Chunaram Jyatha (uncle) asked all Kurmis to unite to get tribal recognition; I asked about closed schools in our Jungle Mahal area and the fact that we have no work, and if there would be some agitation for that? Chunaram left angrily and told me that he had a lot of work to mobilise people into the movement. The April 26 strike across the Jungle Mahal must be made absolute."

This reporter met the youth a few days ago. He was accompanied by his friend Susil Hembram (name changed); both graduated from Kurta College eight years ago and are still unemployed.

Hembram says, "You are unaware of what is happening and what will happen in the name of identity politics. Arguments and debates have created a hostile atmosphere between the two communities around the caste identity in Jungle Mahal, which was never seen in the past. In this situation, the poor and working people of tribal and Kurmi communities suffer."

Standing before a closed godown of Jhilimily's Large-sized Adivasi Multipurpose Society (LAMPS), they said the kendu leaves (the ingredient of Beedi) worth several lakhs rupees were wasted in this godown.

LAMPS cooperative of the tribal development department of the state government looked after the livelihood of the people of Jungle Mahal.

"In the true sense, LAMPS has not existed for about eight years in the Jungle Mahal area of Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore, and Jhargram. Now private companies come to buy the leaves. You have to take whatever is paid as the wages. People from both tribal and Kurmi communities were involved in this work. Is there any talk of their lost work coming up between the identity rights movement or opposition?"

Hembram further talked about some members of tribal communities (such as Bhumij, Shabar, Kora, and Santhal) feel that the Kurmi movement must be stopped at any cost, or otherwise, they would eat into their share in the ST reservation. However, when enquired about why there are no jobs for the youth of the tribal communities in the Jungle Mahal area, no leader seems to have an answer.

Before the 2018 panchayat elections in the state, the Kurmi communities started the movement for tribal status. On March 6, 2018, chief minister Mamta Banerjee held a meeting in Bankura's Patrasayer area. On the same day, huge gatherings were held in Bankura, Purulia and Jhargram on the call of the Aadivasi Kurmi Samaj Sanghathan for tribal status.

As per sources, on that day, Banerjee had called out Ajit Mahato, a leader of the Kurmi movement, from the meeting stage ad asked him to withdraw the agitation if he wanted the tribal status. She had asked him to visit the CM office on March 8.

After that speech, several Kurmi leaders went to meet the CM.

"Without courtesy, she informed us that a survey had started, and we would get tribal status soon. We had to leave her office in a few minutes. We could understand how the CM saw us by her behaviour," said a teacher and Kurmi movement leader from Purulia. He was a member of the delegation team that met the CM. He said that nothing materialised after that.

"During the Lok Sabha election, BJP candidate from Bankura, Subhas Sarkar, promised us that if he won, he would raise the issue in the Parliament. He is now the Union Minister of State for Education. We know he did not say anything about our demands in the Parliament."

The Kurmi leader further told this reporter how Kurmis were identified as tribals in colonial censuses before independence.

"In 1950, Kurmis were considered a general caste. Now, we are treated as OBCs (other backward classes)."

There seems to be no explanation for why the tribal status was withdrawn.

Now that the panchayat elections are again due, the movement for tribal status has started again.

The Kurmi community members feel they are historically among the country's tribals. Furthermore, Jungle Mahal areas have a large concentration of Kurmi people.

"Why should the Kurmis not be recognised as tribals? We have three key demands. We want inclusion in the ST list from which we have unjustly excluded. Secondly, we want the Indian government to try to save our culture and heritage. Thirdly, we want the Kurmi language to be included in the eighth schedule of the Constitution. Additionally, the next census should include " Sarna " as a separate religion for the indigenous groups," said Badal Chandra Mahato, a leader of the Kurmi movement in Bankura.

With these demands, several organisations of the Kurmi community blocked rail and road tracks from April 5-10. The agitation led to the cancellation of 496 trains in the southeastern Railway division. The agitation was withdrawn after they were assured of a meeting with the chief secretary of West Bengal.

"Amid the movement, we were called for a meeting with chief secretary Harikrishna Dwivedi and other officials. The outcome of the meeting was disappointing as the state government is yet to send a justification on their behalf to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. We have been left hanging, unaware of what the state government wants. But, the movement will continue," said a leader of the Kurmi Samaj organisation.

The Kurmi leaders are not on the same page about the movement's future course. There are three groups: Adivasi Kurmi Samaj, Purvanchal Kurmi Samaj, and Kurmi Samaj. All of them claim to be leading the movement rightly.

"This is leading to confusion in the community," said Satya Kinkar Mahato (name changed), a professor of history at Purulia College.

Strikes are being called in four districts in the name of the ghaghorghera and hurkajump movements. Locally, these words imply surrounding forcefully.

A huge gathering of the Kurmi Samaj was held on May 1 in Midnapore. There is a demand that no Kurmi leader should content any election. Additionally, Kurmi leaders in elected positions have also been asked to resign. Furthermore, there is anger against the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the context of the upcoming elections.

May 1 rally in the West Midnapore district

May 1 rally in the West Midnapore district

Keeping the movement in mind, members of the Kurmi community in the region are conducting their social events without any Brahmin priest. They think that to get the tribal status, they must observe their culture and religion.

Taking advantage of the situation, the state government has started Kurmi-specific events.

"An extreme, hateful atmosphere has been created around the movement and the counter-movement," said Dulali Mandi, a native of Birkham Ranibandh.

She further talked about how tribals are prohibited from using ponds owned by the Kurmi community.

There is a growing feeling among tribals that some communities do not get as many opportunities as Santhals. Moreover, there is a general frustration with both TMC and BJP governments.

The writer covers the Bankura region for the ‘Ganashakti’ newspaper in West Bengal.


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