In these General Elections, tribals in West Bengal are sparring among themselves over politicising their struggle for tribal rights
This community has not seen even a single case of female infanticide; here no one believes in giving or taking dowry; and the social hierarchy is so well established and democratic that resolving disputes is always a peaceful affair. Santhals in West Bengal’s Jhargram Lok Sabha constituency boast of several such progressive customs.
To get constitutional recognition for their social codes, the community is stepping on political battlefield in the General Elections. It allied with ruling All-India Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Birbaha Soren, a school teacher who belongs to the community, is contesting from the constituency on a TMC ticket.
“Legal recognition may come later, but the government must accept our social codes and rules and adapt them in mainstream social order,” says Nityananda Hembram, disom pargana (all-India supremo) of Bharat Jakat Majhi Pargana Mahal (BJMPM), a social umbrella organisation of tribals.
But this foray into the political theatre has divided the organisation despite the fact that their ultimate aim is the same.
Same goal, different paths
It all began last year in June (and again in September) when this tribal organisation had brought a part of West Bengal to standstill by blocking rails and roads for a few days. The tribals had also gathered at district headquarters with their traditional weapons, bows, arrows, tangi (spears) and sat on a peaceful dharna.
Their demands included proper infrastructure for schools, higher education in Santhali language, maintaining exclusive rights of tribals over their lands, non-dilution of The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, stopping atrocities against tribals among others.
They were also upset with the way the state and the central governments are treating tribal communities. About 200 representatives of the community from eight districts of West Bengal had gathered in Kolkata to discuss the issues surrounding their identity.
In the last panchayat elections, many independent candidates from their community defeated nominees of mainstream political parties in various gram panchayats, sending a strong signal to the ruling establishment. The TMC then realised the growing anger in Junglemahal area, once a stringhold of left-wing extremism. In a masterstroke, the party picked up Soren as a candidate since she is close to the tribal organisation.
The top leaders of the community also believe that they need to send one of their own to Parliament to raise their voice. “We are believers of party-less democracy as preached by Gandhi. However, being in the parliamentary form of democracy we need to be in the system and fight our battle politically to achieve the end goals,” says Nityananda.
However, the decision boomeranged. The nomination has created a huge controversy in the community. Since Soren is the wife of a top BJMPM leader Robin Tudu, a section of the ranks and files of the organisation accused Tudu and Nityananda of bringing politics into the apolitical tribal organisation. While a faction of the organisation says they have expelled the two, Tudu and Nityananda say they are still members of BJMPM.
Instead of supporting Soren, another tribal leader Naren Hembram who claims to be part of the organisation filed his nomination as an independent candidate from the same Jhargram constituency. Naren, who is contesting under the banner of Adivasi Samanway Manch, has almost the same set of demands for the community.
“We want the adivasi right to jal, jungal and zameen (water, forest and land) to be established,” says Naren in the middle of his campaign in a village near Silda in Jhargram district. “Adivasis alone have 3.5 lakh votes in Jhargram constituency and the other SC, ST and Other Backward Classes (OBC) populations add to it. I enjoy the support of a majority of them.”
Accusing Nityananda and Robin of turning a tribal social organisation into a political one, Naren claims TMC and other mainstream political parties are Brahmanyavadi (Brahminical) in nature and in the last 72 years since independence they have neither worked for the rights or the development of tribals. “Yes, they have built roads and some schools, but they have not supported the tribals in achieving their rights,” says Naren.
Those in the community supporting Soren’s nomination as TMC candidate believe the party is politically strong force and an alliance with it would yield dividends in the long run.
Kurmis on neither side
On top of this, Kurmis, one of the OBCs in the region, are demanding their inclusion in the list of Scheduled Tribes. They were part of the list but were taken off it in 1931. They form about 42 per cent of the population in Junglemahal and have not allowed any political party to campaign in their villages.
The Kurmis are neither allying with Soren or Naren as the BJMPM is vehemently opposing Kurmis’ demand for ST status lest they get deprived of the facilities of being in the list. The Kurmi leaders are not calling for a vote boycott, but asking their community not to support any political party.
“We are not saying don’t vote. We have not allowed any political party to write graffitis or campaign in our villages, but if anyone wants to vote on NOTA, we will not stop them,” says Rajesh Mahato of Adivasi Kurmi Samaj.
The Samaj negotiated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Delhi but there has not been any clear assurance to their demands. The local BJP leaders claim the Kurmis will support their candidate Kunar Hembram, a former IITian.
Both the factions of BJMPM say they are not opposed to Kurmis’ demands. “If they get the status, we cannot stop it. But they should realise if BJP, which is not sympathetic to tribals, would really like to add another community into the list of STs,” says Nityananda.
The adivaisis, including the Kurmis, constitute nearly 50 per cent voters of the Jhargram constituency alone. But their fractured organisation has made it difficult for them to achieve their own demands through a political battle they have got into this time.
The common tribal villagers will probably listen to the diktat of their community leaders, but they are the ones suffering the most. “We want jobs and better living conditions,” says Montu Mahato from Belpahari, who has a small farm and is still waiting for funds from government schemes to build a pucca house.
Some want a better return from the forest produce they collect and sell, while some accuse the local leaders of corruption. Still, tribal leaders are fighting a battle among themselves to find a political route to achieve their goals.
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