An interesting battle is on the cards in Sitarganj as Congress has pitted a Bengali candidate against the son of former chief minister Vijay Bahuguna who recently switched allegiance to BJP.
Given Sitarganj’s substantial Bengali population, Congress has fielded Malti Biswas – the wife of former Pradesh Congress Committee member Shyam Vishwas. Malti is a zilla panchayat member from Shaktifarm area for two terms. Meanwhile, Saurabh Bahuguna, a Pahadi candidate, is taking care of the constituency for last five years.
Of the 1.05 lakh voters in Sitarganj, Bengalis number around 33,000. In 2012, BJP fielded a Bengali candidate, Kiran Mandal, who defeated BSP’s Narayan Pal by a margin of 12,612 votes. But Vijay Bahuguna (then with Congress) won the by-election in July 2012 defeating BJP’s Prakash Pant with a large margin of 39,954 votes.
Former BSP legislator Narayan Pal had held this seat twice in the past. The scale is slightly tipped in the Congress candidate’s favour as there are around 22,000 Muslim voters in the constituency.
“There is no such thing called the Bengali factor. People vote on developmental issues. There are more than 80,000 votes outside Shaktifarm area where the Bengali community is concentrated and this constituency has a mix of all communities. I have worked for the past five years and earned love of all communities,” Saurabh says.
Biswas is confident that people will vote on the agenda of development. “My aim is to work for the betterment of all communities and not just focus on some . Yes, there is a sizeable population of Bengali’s here but we represent all communities.”
Amit Biswas, who recently resigned as BJP Yuva Morcha president, admit Bengali voters are crucial in Sitarganj. “There is high voting from the Bengali community and the candidate who gets their votes becomes the winner. Muslim votes get divided among Congress and Independent candidates.” He, however, rejects the assumption that a non-Bengali candidate faces disadvantage. “Our community votes for development and not on regional lines because we want progress.”
Former Lok Sabha MP Balraj Passi, a member of BJP National Council, says the ‘Bengali factor’ will not mar BJP’s prospects as Saurabh is popular for the work he did in last five years. “Gone are the days of casteism and regionalism. People vote for development.” He adds Saurabh enjoys good rapport with the community.
Bengali settlers started arriving in Udham Singh Nagar district from East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) to escape atrocities in the 1960s. The trend continued even after the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. The settlers were given shelter here by the then Uttar Pradesh chief minister and later home minister Govind Ballabh Pant under instructions of Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru.
Now, their descendants are vying for quota under Scheduled Caste category but their efforts have not borne fruits. The early settlers were given six acre of land each but those arriving after 1971 didn’t enjoy the benefit. In Udham Singh Nagar district, there are around 1.25 lakh Bengalis living in Dineshpur, Shakti Farm, Khatima, Sitarganj, Gularbhoj, Gadarpur, Kichha among others.
The community is demanding landholding rights, which were given partially to them. Premanand Mahajan, also from the community, was earlier elected twice from Pantnagar-Gadarpur seat.