In Bengal polls, all eyes on the Dalit and tribal vote
While most discussions on the imminent eight-phase polls in West Bengal revolve around how Muslims, who comprise around 30% of the state’s population, may vote — and whether they would consolidate or fragment — all parties in the fray are equally, if not more, focused on voters belonging to the scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) communities.
The tribal population in the state stood at 5.29 million during the 2011 census, accounting for about 5.8% of the total population. The SC population, according to Union ministry of social justice and empowerment, stood at 21.4 million, or 23.51 % of the total population of 91.3 million, which is now projected to be 101.9 million.
The highest concentration of the tribal population is found in the districts of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar, South Dinajpur, West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia. There are 16 reserved seats for STs. For the much bigger SC population, which is spread across Bengal, 68 assembly seats, out of the state’s 294, are reserved. But their influence extends beyond reserved seats.
The 2019 Lok Sabha poll showed this expansive influence of the communities. Analysts and political leaders maintain that without the support of the SC and ST communities, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could not have set the record of winning 18 of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2019.
The BJP’s Dalit push
There are around 60 Hindu sub-castes that come under the SC category. Of these, the three major ones are the Rajbanshi who account for 18.4 % of the total SC population, the Namasudra (17.4 %) and the Bagdi (14.9%). The Matua community, which has been in the news since 2019, is part of the bigger Namasudra community. Originally from East Pakistan, most of the Namasudras came to India, first during the Partition, and, then, after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 to escape religious persecution.
Union home minister Amit Shah’s announcement on February 11 that the Centre will enforce the Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA, after the drive for vaccination against the coronavirus disease gets over in the country, has become a factor in the elections. Shah made the statement in Bengal while reaching out to the Matua community that is credited with helping the BJP in 2019.
He was at Thakurnagar in North 24-Parganas district. Thakurnagar is part of the Bongaon Lok Sabha seat that the BJP won in 2019 by fielding Matua leader Shantanu Thakur against his aunt and then incumbent, Mamata Bala Thakur of the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Shah’s message on CAA was seen as an attempt to address an unease that has set in among a section of the Namasudra community due to the delay in the implementation of the legislation that was passed by the Parliament to fast-track citizenship of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis who arrived from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh before 2015.
Once a TMC leader, Dulal Bar, the BJP legislator from Bagdah assembly constituency in North 24 Parganas, is president of the Bengal BJP’s SC morcha.
“For the first time, the state’s SC community is backing only one political party only because of the CAA and the Centre’s welfare measures of which it has been deprived by chief minister Mamata Banerjee. While most of the higher caste Hindus left Bangladesh before the Partition, the SC population stayed back. They arrived in India over the years. Of Bengal’s total SC population, 90 % have origins in Bangladesh,” Bar told HT.
Bar also claimed that out of 130 BJP workers killed in political clashes in Bengal in recent years, 90 belonged to the SC community. “Backward class Hindus are always targeted first. It was Banerjee who created a divide among people by announcing allowance for imams of the mosques and setting up welfare boards for different Hindu backward communities. Bengal never witnessed such classifications.”
The TMC’s counter plan
TMC leaders said that after analysing the erosion in the TMC’s Hindu vote bank in 2019, Banerjee took remedial steps.
She formed the Namasudra Development Board and launched the party’s refugee cell with units in all districts since the BJP had been carrying out its pro-CAA campaign among the Namasudras. She also gave land ownership papers to people living in refugee colonies. In January this year, the TMC formed separate cells for SC and ST.
More visible administrative work started in December last year when the state government began distributing caste certificates through the Duare sarkar (government at the doorstep) programme. It claims that more than 8.4 million caste certificates were distributed till February this year.
The tribal factor
A key concern among people belonging to ST communities has been the lack of development in regions where they live in large numbers since centuries. The BJP made inroads in these areas in 2019 with promises of better governance.
Yet, a tribal movement that is gathering momentum since 2020 has become a cause for concern for the BJP. A number of outfits, some of which have bases in neighbouring Jharkhand, want Sarna, which is quite distinct from Hinduism, to be recognised by the Constitution as a separate religion. Numerous agitations have already taken place.
Followers of Sarna worship nature instead of idols. In 2020, the Jharkhand assembly passed a special resolution and sent it to the Centre, seeking a separate religion code for the tribal population. Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren recently visited Bengal and addressed a Santhal rally where he spoke against the Centre.
“A section of tribal leaders is misleading the masses. It was our first Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who included the Santhali language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. We can always have discussions on Sarna. The BJP never said people cannot have their own religious beliefs. However, development of the tribal people is our first priority,” said Khagen Murmu, president of Bengal BJP tribal morcha. He claimed that those leading the Sarna movement were asking tribals to vote for the TMC. “The ruling party is misleading people because we won two Lok Sabha seats in tribal dominated districts.”
Popular cleric Abbasuddin Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (ISF), which is a partner of the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) against the BJP and the TMC in the coming polls, has promised to fight for the rights of tribal people as well. ISF general secretary Simul Soren is a member of the tribal community. “If the BJP says the Constitution allows people to practice religions of their choice then it is opposing the Constitution by not recognizing Sarna,” said Soren.
TMC Lok Sabha member Saugata Roy however claimed that the BJP’s efforts at winning over the marginalised segments won’t work. He said, “The BJP may make all efforts to fan identity politics but it will not work in Bengal. The SC and ST communities know that they have their reserved seats from where only their representatives will get elected. Why will they be misled?”
Kolkata-based political science professor and election analyst Udayan Bandopadhyay said members of the SC community are confused about CAA right now.
“It is not possible to predict which way the tribal votes will go but as far as the SC communities are concerned, they seem to be confused. They voted for the BJP in 2019 because they hoped to see a solution to the problems they face while establishing their Indian citizenship. The Centre says it will frame rules but the process may not be an easy one. We are talking of millions of people here,” said Bandopadhyay.