Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently lashed out at Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at three different rallies. “How could a person close to Mamata Banerjee call dalits beggars?” he thundered in Krishnanagar.
He was referring to Trinamool leader Sujata Mondal, who had allegedly made the remark in an interview. “Bengal’s chief minister remains a mute spectator because she approves this,” Modi said in two other rallies in North 24 Parganas and Siliguri.
Several other BJP leaders, including Home Minister Amit Shah, also slammed Mamata on the issue. Mondal, the Trinamool candidate from the reserved seat of Arambagh, was stopped from entering a village in the constituency on the day of the election, April 6.
For the first time in recent history, the BJP has made caste an election issue in Bengal. Scheduled castes make up around 24 per cent of the state's population; scheduled tribes account for about 6 per cent. According to the BJP's internal estimates, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party had won about 80 per cent of the tribal and 60 per cent of the scheduled caste vote in the state.
This had hurt Mamata, who then began to woo the Matuas, one of the more populous lower castes, and the Kurmis, the biggest tribal community in the Junglemahal region.
The BJP had done well in Junglemahal in 2019 largely thanks to the Kurmis; the group is part of the other backward classes list, but has been demanding scheduled tribe status for a while.
Many observers thought that, under the 34-year rule of the left, caste divisions had faded. Apparently, that is not the case. Said tribal activist and teacher Upen Mahato: “The division has come back in a new avatar. There is a sharp economic gap between different tribes. Kurmis have got help from the BJP and the Modi government. Others have not. So, they are also trying to get closer to the BJP.”
Sukhdeb Mistry, of Dakshin Dinajpur’s Gangarampur, said he was a scheduled caste by birth. “I am from a family of construction workers,” he said. “We are not given caste certificates; the state government says we need to prove our background.”
Many others in the northern district said they were deprived of government benefits. “My children can get government jobs in the future if I get the certificate,” said Mistry, who has three school-going children.
The BJP first began wooing the scheduled castes in Bengal in 2015, shortly after Shah became party president. He not only activated the state BJP, but also brought together several organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The BJP focused on economic disparity as part of its caste and tribe outreach programme. The work paid off in 2019. Two years since, the support seems to have only grown.
When THE WEEK spoke to various people from the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe community, they kept their cards close to their chests. However, in areas such as Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura and Cooch Behar, where scheduled castes form a large chunk of the population, dalits and tribals have thronged the rallies of tall BJP leaders such as Modi and Shah.
In Cooch Behar, for instance, the BJP’s vote share jumped 200 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. A similar surge was seen in Midnapore, Junglemahal, Bankura, Purulia and Paschim Bardhaman. In North 24 Parganas and Nadia districts, where most of the Matuas live, the BJP won three seats in 2019, that too with a huge margin. The support among Matuas is only expected to rise; in his recent visit to Bangladesh, Modi visited Orakandi, where the Matuas are originally from. There are around 1.5 crore Matua voters in Bengal, and they hold sway in about 30 seats.
“He was the first Indian prime minister to assert the Hindu religion in Bangladesh,” said BJP state vice president Biswapriya Roychowdhury.
Said Deepak Soren, a teacher in North Bengal: “[The scheduled castes in Bengal] are not really marginalised. But perhaps their voices had not been heard. This time, the BJP has focused on them out of political compulsion, perhaps. The party has given prominence to many backward leaders, and they are part of the decision-making body. The TMC failed to do that.”
Tribal and scheduled caste voters were the harbingers of change in the 2011 state elections; they had helped Mamata topple the left government. Ten years on, many of them seem to be miffed with the chief minister. “Why should I tell you whom I will vote for? My vote will go to the progressive party. I would not vote emotionally,” said Sarathi Manna of Haldia in East Midnapore.
Some people say it was the fear of the scheduled castes leaving the Trinamool that prodded Mondal into making the controversial statement.
In the ten years under Mamata's rule, the economic condition of the neglected people seems to have hardly improved. A lot of them see the BJP as more pragmatic, despite its religious politics.
To counter the apparent resentment among the tribals, Mamata released Kurmi leader Chhatradhar Mahato from jail last year. Soon after, she inducted him into the Trinamool. Mahato had been in jail for 11 years on charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and allegedly had Maoist links. However, on March 28, the National Investigation Agency arrested him from his village in Junglemahal. In an interview with THE WEEK, hours before the arrest, he said that he had done enough damage to the BJP's chances in his region. “But he could not do much,” said Sukhamoy Satpathy, a BJP leader in Jhargram.
Chhatradhar's wife, Niyati, once a critic of Mamata, has changed her stance. “Under Didi’s rule, many people will get new houses,” she said. “Past mistakes would be sorted out. My husband is not the only one who would have got [a new house].”
To get a sense of what the tribals in Junglemahal thought of the elections, THE WEEK visited Chotopelia, a village in Lalgarh in Jhargram district. In 2009, at the height of the tribal movement, Chotopelia had no electricity. More than a decade later, it still does not. Most houses are made of mud; there are a few brick houses with tin roofs. Gurupada Murmu owns one of these.
The house has the words “This house is part of the Bangla Awas Yojna of the government of West Bengal” painted on one of its walls. The BJP, however, said that the state government's scheme was a repackaging of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna. It has been making the beneficiaries “aware” of this.
Gurupada was allotted the house last year, apparently in a bid to win over the tribals who had voted for the BJP in 2019. But, as the nine members of Gurupada's family could not live in the one-room house, he left the house to his youngest, Polen, and continued to live in a hut. Their two other sons were angered, and stopped looking after their parents.
“I got the house today only because my plight was highlighted,” said Gurupada. His wife, Chintamani, had lost her eyesight to police brutality in 2009; it had become a huge controversy. Gurupada and his family were accused of sheltering Maoists who had plotted to kill then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. The state came down on the Maoists, which led to a widespread tribal movement in the area.
But the house is the only improvement Gurupada has seen in his life. “You will be surprised to know that Mukul Roy, who was then a Trinamool leader, sat in my courtyard,” he said. “But nothing happened even after that.”
Chintamani, whose eyes are yet to be treated, works in a field 20km away. She walks there with a couple of other women, and sometimes has to stay there overnight. She earns Rs120 a day. Gurupada also works in a field, but age is catching up with him. Polen works as a carpenter, but the money he earns is not enough to feed the family.
THE WEEK, which was the first publication to report on Chintamani, could not meet her as she had not returned from work. Given all that has happened in a decade, which party would Gurupada vote for? “I do not know,” he said. “The village elders will decide.”
On the road to Lalgarh, once the hotbed of left extremism, stands a big statue of Hanuman. Villagers say Bajrang Dal supporters erected it. “They are chanting Jai Shri Ram everywhere and they ask us to chant it, too,” said Naren Mahato of Jhargram.
Polen said the villages in Lalgarh have seen increased BJP presence. “I do not know who will win this time. Both the BJP and the TMC are active. Last time, the villages went for Modi.”
The villagers say that the BJP now has a solid grip on the tribal bodies in Bengal's villages. People in these hamlets usually listen to the village head. Above him is the mandal chief. The decision of which party to vote for comes from the top. The tribal bodies tell villagers the symbol they need to vote for.
The BJP has also infused religion into its outreach programmes. Though the tribals do not worship idols, a lot of them seem to have been attracted to various Hindu festivals. The Kurmis, who are originally nature worshippers, today treat Hindu gods and goddesses as their own. The RSS has reportedly been encouraging people in lower caste communities to enter temples along with the upper castes. It has also been trying to bring various tribes, such as Santhals, Oraon and Bhumij, closer to the Hindu religion. Many tribal leaders close to the Trinamool have criticised such attempts.
“Do not relate our work to the elections,” said Nivaran Mahato, an RSS pracharak who had earlier worked with the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in western and northern Bengal. “Our movement is almost a decade old. Our job is to empower the tribals, adivasis and other backward communities. We did not sell anti-Mamata stories to them.”
At the same time, the BJP and its affiliates have been telling people that members of their own communities, who have supported the Trinamool, have now formed a creamy layer. That only they were getting benefits.
In Belpahari village, about 40km from Chotopelia, the villagers are more open in their criticism of the Trinamool. Many Trinamool workers have recently joined the BJP. Joy Karmakar, a dalit leader, said he did not know whether the BJP would win, but he left the Trinamool because he could not stand the comfortable lives of local party leaders. “The leaders have gone from poor to middle class to rich,” he said. “From huts, they now have two- to three-storey houses.”
The BJP has also used the “creamy layer” argument to gain supporters in western and northern Bengal.
In Bardhaman, once the stronghold of the left, the scheduled castes and the tribals had switched to the Trinamool in 2011. But the allegedly rampant corruption forced many of them into the BJP fold. Two months ago, around 5,000 members of the scheduled caste community joined the BJP from the left and the Trinamool in Purba Bardhaman. Said Bibhuti Gayen, a former Communist Party of India (Marxist) worker in Raina, Purba Bardhaman: “Mamata’s party tortured us just because we used to be part of the CPI(M). The BJP has not only sheltered us, but has also given us free medical help and money to fight false cases slapped against us.”
He claimed that development under the Trinamool was selective. “The backward community would get help only if it did the party's work,” he said. “We refused to do that and had to pay a heavy price. Look at the villages; only TMC people would get houses under government housing schemes.”
Though Mamata has reached out to the Kurmis, there have been mixed signals. For instance, in the Kurmi-dominated Jhargram, her party fielded actor Birbaha Hansda, a Santhal, in one of the seats. Both of Hansda's parents are former MLAs. “It is very difficult to predict who would win this time,” said her mother, Chunibala. “People are silent, and that is a matter of concern for us.”
The Kurmis have been under-represented in Bankura, Purulia and Midnapore, too. In Bankura, where there are a lot of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, the Trinamool has given tickets to television and film actors. The few tribal candidates it chose were apparently already well-off.
The BJP, on the other hand, has chosen political and social activists, or someone underprivileged. Its Saltora candidate, Chandana Bauri, works as a maid; she took four weeks leave from her employers to contest the election.
“I will go back to work after the election is over,” she said.
What would happen if she wins? “I do not know,” she said with a smile.