Updated: March 31, 2021 8:18:52 am
The most visible and vocal fight in West Bengal is for the Muslim vote — 27% of the state’s population as per Census 2011. But there is another community, forming the second largest chunk at 23.51%, who are set to be as decisive a factor. Long ignored in the state’s Left-dominated politics focused on class, the Scheduled Castes were first recognised as a game changer by the BJP. Now, the TMC is playing catch-up.
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The SC vote
At 23.51%, West Bengal ranks third in the country in terms of SCs proportionate to its population. In terms of absolute numbers, Bengal far outranks the other two states, with its 60 recognised SC groups making up above 25% of the population in more than nine districts. Together, these nine districts account for 127 Assembly seats. Besides, in six districts, with 78 Assembly seats, the SCs constitute 15-25% of the population.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when it won 18 seats, the BJP led in 33 of the total 68 SC-reserved Assembly segments in the state. Out of these 33 seats, 26 are Matua-dominated. The TMC led in 34 segments, and the Left plus Congress in only three.
This indicated a massive swing of the SC vote to the BJP from the 2016 polls, when the Trinamool had won 50 of the reserved seats, the Left 10, Congress 8, and BJP 0.
In the 2011 polls, the TMC had won 37 of the reserved seats, the Left 20, Congress 10 and SUCI (Communist) 1. The BJP was a virtual non-presence at the time.
The Namasudras form the second largest chunk of SCs in Bengal (17.4%), just below the Rajbanshis (18.4%). The BJP has been wooing the Namasudras (with Matuas its biggest group), who together comprise around 1.5 crore voters, with presence in 42 seats. PM Modi offered prayers during his visit to Bangladesh at a temple marking the birthplace of the Matuas’ spiritual guru Harichand Thakur — this coincided with voting in the first phase in Bengal.
Originally from East Pakistan, the Matuas migrated to India after the creation of Bangladesh. However, a sizeable number are yet to get citizenship. The BJP’s CAA promise was one of the reasons the Matuas swung behind the NDA in 2019.
This election, the BJP kept mum on the CAA — with the Act still to be implemented — till it unveiled its manifesto.
The Mamata Banerjee government, on its part, has set up development boards for the Namasudras and regularised 244 refugee colonies, spread across North 24 Parganas, Nadia, South 24 Parganas, Kolkata and Cooch Behar, giving them land titles.
In the current Assembly polls, the Trinamool has fielded 79 SC candidates, 11 more than the total SC-reserved constituencies.
Harichand Thakur was born in Orakandi in Bangladesh in a Thakur SC farmer family in 1812. Thakur, whose family were Vaishnavite Hindus, founded a sect of Vaishnavite Hinduism called Matua. This was adopted by members of the Namasudra community, who were then known by the pejorative name of Chandal.
Married to ‘Jagat Mata’ Shanti Mata, with whom he had two sons, Harichand Thakur died in Faridpur in Bangladesh in 1878. Later, one of his sons collaborated with English missionary doctor Cecil Silas Mead, who worked with Namasudras, to get Chandals recategorised as Namasudras.
Other SC groups
The Mamata government has formed a Narayani Battalion for the Rajbanshis in North Bengal. The battalion was named after the Narayani Sena of the erstwhile princely state of Cooch Behar. Amit Shah has now promised a Narayani Sena CAPF battalion.
In West Bengal, Rajbanshis are concentrated in Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling, with some presence in Malda, Murshi- dabad (54 seats in north Bengal).
The Mamata government has also set up a separate development board for Rajbanshis, apart from boards for Kurmi, Kami and Bagdi communities.
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