As Bengal rail blockade continues, BJP sees ‘plot’, says Kurmi protest riding on TMC steam

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Amidst the fast-changing political equations since the Bihar upheaval blew the Opposition space wide open, an agitation by Kurmi groups seeking Scheduled Tribe reservation is now emerging as a flashpoint.

For the fourth day on Friday, members of the Adivasi Kurmi Samaj carried out a rail and road blockade in Paschim Medinipur and Purulia districts in West Bengal, seeking ST status and inclusion of the Kurmali language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Train services continued to be affected in the South Eastern Railway (SER) Division, with over 205 trains cancelled so far, while hundreds of goods carriers and buses were stranded on the blockaded NH-6.

The unsaid backdrop to this is JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar’s status as the tallest leader of the Kurmi community, which has presence across eastern India, including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal. The Kurmi stir, also observed in Jharkhand and Odisha, has coincided with Nitish’s split from the BJP and tentative foray into national politics.

In a speech earlier this month, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee named Nitish as one of the leaders her party would come together with to fight the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

On Friday, the West Bengal BJP accused the ruling Trinamool Congress of “instigating” the Kurmis to continue their protest. BJP national vice-president Dilip Ghosh said, “Kurmis are seeking ST status. This is their long-standing demand. Today we have a specific commission for these communities, which looks after such things. It takes into account social and economic aspects before granting ST status to a community. It is not possible to get reservation by putting up road blockades. There is a procedure. The matter has to go through Parliament as well.”

Saying that this kind of protest affects the economy of the state and the country, Ghosh said the TMC was ensuring that it continues. “They want political mileage out of it. This is a conspiracy to malign the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There should be a limit to politicising everything.”

The TMC hit back, asking why the Centre had been sitting on the Kurmi demands for so long, and noting that the ball was in its court. “It is a sensitive issue… The state government is sensitively looking into their demands. But one has to understand that the state government cannot solve their problems, the Central government has the powers and position to do so. Unless the Centre approves their demand, the state government cannot take any constitutional measures regarding it,” TMC state general secretary Kunal Ghosh said, adding that the protest was affecting the livelihoods of people.

TMC Rajya Sabha MP Santanu Sen said the Centre was to blame for the protest continuing. “The Railways falls under the Centre. Why are RPF (Railway Protection Force) personnel not acting to remove the blockade from the tracks?” Sen asked.

Escalating the row several notches up, the West Bengal Backward Classes Welfare Department Secretary, Sanjay Bansal, wrote a letter to the Central government’s Tribal Research Institute (TRI), and Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Anil Kumar Jha Friday, requesting them to look into the demands of the Kurmi Samaj. A copy was sent to the protesting Kurmi group by the West Midnapore district administration, requesting it to withdraw its blockade.

Kurmis were not included among the communities classified as ST in the 1931 Census, and also excluded from the list of STs in 1950. In 2004, the Jharkhand government recommended that the community be added to the list of STs rather than Other Backward Classes (OBC).

Following the recommendation, the matter went to the TRI, which held that Kurmis are a sub-caste of Kunbis and were not tribals. Based on this, the Centre rejected the demand of Kurmis to be considered ST. As a result, Kurmi members are now recognised as OBC in several states, including West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha and UP.

However, members of the community continue to insist that their ancestors come from Indian tribal groups.

The chief adviser of the Adivasi Kurmi Samaj, Ajit Mahato, acknowledged receiving a letter from the West Midnapore district administration. “We are looking at the contents of the letter. Talks are going on to decide whether to lift our blockade or not. I cannot comment on anything right now unless we discuss the matter in depth,” he said.

Asked about the Kurmi demand, JD(U) national spokesperson K C Tyagi said: “We are not opposed to the demand for ST status for Kurmis in Orissa and Jharkhand. But Bihar is a different case. Plus, Nitish Kumar has done enough for OBCs and EBCs.” Tyagi also said that Bengal has a very small Kurmi population.