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West Bengal Polls: Reserved Seats May See Intense Fight, Signs of Mamata Under Strain

JMM’s intention to put up candidates in Jungle Mahal region and Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui’s overtures to Cong-Left Alliance are among significant developments.
Mamata Gets Taste of Public Outrage

Kolkata: Significant moves and indications mark the evolving political situation in West Bengal, where the seven crore-plus electorate stares at what may turn out to be one of the fiercest electoral battles in the country for gaining control of the state secretariat, Nabanna.

The announcement of the Assembly poll schedule by the Election Commission (EC) is just days away and its full bench, after extensive review meetings here recently, hinted at assigning a larger  than usual role to the Central security staff. 

Significantly, on Friday, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) team met the EC in Delhi and urged it to deploy only Central Armed Police Forces for the

West Bengal Assembly polls to ensure “fairness, dignity and sanctity of the process”, said a PTI report.

In the past 10 days, there have been four politically significant moves in the state.

First, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the senior partner of the Congress in the neighbouring state, announced its intention to seriously try for a toehold in West Bengal’s tribal habitations, particularly in the Jungle Mahal region. To the JMM goes the credit of raising a constitutional issue citing the Fifth Schedule when the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and BJP -- which is eyeing its maiden rule in the state -- are engaging themselves in a slugfest.

Second, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) – Liberation has ‘liberated’ itself from the seat adjustment exercise of the Left Front, of which it is an associate under the 16-outfit umbrella. Further, the CPI (M-L) has made an ‘offer’ to the Left Front that will require the latter to spend more time on seat-sharing deliberations. Already, the Left Front and Congress, which have stitched an alliance, have a lot of catching up to do in their seat sharing exercise.

Third, in a concrete step towards formalisation of an arrangement with the Indian Secular Front (ISF) of the Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui, the Congress has sought a green signal from its high command.

Fourth, the Adibasi Kudmi Samaj (AKS) – usually referred to as Adivasi Kurmi Samaj – has vented its impatience and discontent over non-fulfilment of its long-pending demand for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list.

There are two more indications that convey a lot and qualify themselves to be labelled as ‘surprise of surprises’. It is a coincidence that both have their origin in the recent observations of chief minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee.

Mamata, who frequently uses intemperate language against Opposition leaders, has counselled “civility” in campaigns to her party leaders. Then, while targeting BJP for its brand of politics, she quoted from a speech of Communist Party of India (Marxist) veteran and ex-chief minister of Tripura, Manik Sarkar, who referred to the overall deterioration in his state after BJP formed the ministry there. Also, after continuously labelling CPI (M) and Congress as ‘sign boards’ and not worth reckoning as rivals, Banerjee and TMC spokesperson and Lok Sabha member Saugata Roy are now saying that both parties will be able to win ‘’some” seats.

The JMM rally on January 28 at the Jamda Circus Maidan in West Bengal’s Jhargram was described by the Jharkhand chief minister and the party’s working president, Hemant Soren, as marking the launch of his party’s election campaign in West Bengal.

From the JMM rally, which triggered an outburst from Mamata Banerjee against Soren, an important constitutional issue was raised. The JMM leaders demanded that tribal habitations in West Bengal should be brought within the purview of Scheduled Areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Although West Bengal does have a Tribes Advisory Council, as provided in the Fifth Schedule, yet the tribal habitations are not designated as Scheduled Areas.

When formally notified as Scheduled Areas, the Supreme Court’s landmark judgement in the Samatha vs State of Andhra Pradesh case delivered on July 11, 1997, will automatically be applicable. The judgement, inter alia, bars transfer of tribal land to non-tribals and private sector companies for mining and other industrial purposes. That should remain the preserve of cooperatives formed by tribals and government-controlled public sector. Samatha is a social action group.

The Fifth Schedule also provides : “........., such regulations may (a) prohibit or restrict the transfer of land by or among members of the Scheduled Tribes in such area ; (b) regulate the allotment of land to members of the Scheduled Tribes in such area ; (c) regulate the carrying on of business as money-lender by persons who lend money to members of the Scheduled Tribes in such an area.

Thus, by raising the demand for action under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, the JMM is stressing the need for protecting the culture and distinctive features of the tribals, according to informed quarters.

Throwing light on JMM’s election plans for West Bengal, its general secretary, Supriya Bhattacharjee told NewsClick that they propose to put up candidates in 25-30 constituencies, a majority of which obviously will be those reserved for STs and that too in the Jungle Mahal region. Candidates may also be put up for two Scheduled Caste (SC) seats.

The districts identified by JMM for fielding candidates are : Jhargram, Pashchim Medinipur, Bankura, Purulia in the Jungle Mahal area and Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Dakshin Dinajpur and Malda in North Bengal, according to Bhattacharjee (In the 2016 Assembly elections,  JMM had fought  in 22 seats; it came second in Madarihat and Kumargram – two ST seats in Alipurduar district, he said).

Confirming the CPI (M-L)’s move to delink itself from seat adjustment talks, its general secretary, Dipankar Bhattacharya, told News Click: “We stick to our assessment that the BJP today is the main political force in the country that has to be fought in the interest of the country. It does not make sense to equate BJP and TMC and target them together for our political fight. If we do that, our fight against BJP may not be as strong as it should be. In view of the difference with the Left Front on this count, we have decided to go it alone”, Bhattacharya said.

But, simultaneously, the party has made an offer to the Left Front. In the light of its proposal to contest 12 seats in eight districts, the CPI (M-L) has offered to extend support to the Left Front in 15-20 constituencies. “It is now for the Left Front either to reciprocate or ignore our offer”, the CPI (M-L) general secretary said. Of the 12 seats, one each is in Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Malda and Murshidabad districts and two each are in  Purba Bardhaman, Bankura, Nadia and Hooghly districts. The list of 12 includes two ST and four SC constituencies.

Meanwhile, a letter written by Congress legislature party leader Abdul Mannan to party president Sonia Gandhi seeking her nod for a tie-up with the ISF suggests a fast-paced movement by the party, since Siddiqui launched his party only on January 21 and in a matter of days, the cleric clarified in his first public meeting that he considers both BJP and TMC as two sides of the same coin. Informal contacts between the Left Front and Siddiqui, too, have been happening.

The AKS, in its representation to the chief minister, has pointed out that after the Union tribal affairs ministry sought further comments and justification in respect to the AKS demand for ST status and the state government’s endorsement of that demand in April-May 2017, there has been no further movement as the state did not get back to the Centre.

The chief advisor to the AKS central committee, Ajit Prasad Mahto, told NewsClick from Purulia 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 Anthropological Survey of India.

The AKS has contended that the community was part of the ST list of 1931 and remained so till 1950. The outfit has pointed out that then Prime Minister  Jawaharlal 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, vagueness has persisted since then. Sensing that this has become a sensitive issue at election time, the state government strongly recommended to the Centre on January 20 that the community be included in the ST list.

Certain inferences are possible from the recent developments. BJP did unexpectedly well in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Junglemahal and North Bengal, which together account for over 90 seats or 30% plus of the total 294 seats. A sizeable number of the state’s 87 reserved seats are in these two regions. BJP will, therefore, try hard to defend the gains. Mamata Banerjee is already active to recoup the loss. Then, there are the JMM, CPI (M-L) and AKS factors. The state’s Kurmi population is about 30 lakh, according to Mahto. Therefore, the reserved seats should see intense fight.

The likelihood of the Left-Congress and ISF alliance and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen opting to fight in some seats under the guidance of Siddiqui, suggest erosion in TMC’s minority vote bank which, at over 27%, constitutes a critical mass.

Mamata Banerjee’s citing CPI (M) politburo member Manik Sarkar’s critical remarks about BJP and her sudden counselling to her party leaders to practice civility in electioneering shows she is under strain and on a difficult wicket this time round.

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