Demand for ST Status: Kurmi Community's Struggle Roils West Bengal Politics

Kurmi leaders assert that their inclusion in the ST list dates back to the British colonial era of 1931 but was later removed in subsequent revisions.
Demand for ST Status: Kurmi Community's Struggle Roils West Bengal Politics

Two weeks ago, Manipur experienced intense clashes between tribal groups and the Meitei community due to the controversy surrounding the ST inclusion demand made by the latter. The violence between these ethnic groups has been a cause of concern in the region.

Simultaneously, the Kurmi community in West Bengal is engaged in agitations to support their plea for ST status. Prior to this year's Panchayat elections, the Kurmi community's activities in the areas neighboring Jharkhand have become a source of concern for the Mamta Banerjee government. 

The demand for inclusion in the ST category has led to protests in Bankura, Purulia, and West Midnapore districts, colloquially known as the Junglemahals of the state, effectively halting rail and road traffic for approximately five days. Recently, a Trinamool Congress MLA's comparison of this movement to Khalistan has further incensed the Kurmi community.

Despite an apology from CM Mamta Banerjee regarding the MLA's remarks, the discontent among the Kurmi community has not abated. Local political leaders are also lending their support to the movement. The rallying cry of the Kurmi Samaj is "First ST status, then vote."

Ajit Prasad Mahto, a Kurmi leader, asserts that the CM has disregarded their community. If their demands are not met this time, they will boycott the panchayat elections.

Mahto alleges that the West Bengal Cultural Research Institute, a government institution, has yet to recognize the Kurmis as an indigenous tribe. Furthermore, the state government has failed to provide an accurate report to the central government.

Demand for ST Status: Kurmi Community's Struggle Roils West Bengal Politics
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The lack of government attention has hindered the process of obtaining ST status for the Kurmis. Trinamool leader Ajit Maity, however, argues that Kurmi leaders are wrongly blaming the state government. According to him, the Chief Minister does not possess the authority to grant ST status to any community.

Kurmi community leaders contend that their inclusion in the ST list dates back to 1931 during the British colonial era. This status remained until 1950. However, in subsequent revisions, they were removed from the ST list and placed in the category of Other Backward Castes (OBC). The votes of the Kurmi community hold significant sway over 30 assembly seats and four Lok Sabha seats in the state.

How the controversy triggered off?

Controversy erupted in West Bengal and within the ruling Trinamool Congress party over a controversial comment made by senior legislator Ajit Maiti. In a video that went viral, Maiti compared the Kurmi community leaders agitating for Scheduled Tribe status to leaders of the Khalistan movement. He alleged that the Kurmi movement aimed to defame the Trinamool Congress and the state government and accused them of receiving support from opposition parties, particularly the BJP.

This remark by Maiti comes at a time when the Kurmi community has launched the "All Wall to Kurmi" campaign in the tribal-dominated Jangalmahal areas of West Midnapore, Bankura, and Purulia. Through this campaign, they have declared that the walls of their properties will not be used for political campaigns during the upcoming panchayat polls.

The controversial comment  triggered a backlash and further intensified the discontent within the Kurmi community. The remark has added fuel to the ongoing agitation for Scheduled Tribe status and strained relations between the community and the Trinamool Congress. Despite an apology from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee regarding Maiti's statement, the Kurmi community's discontent remains unresolved, and local political leaders have rallied in support of their cause.

A bipartite meeting took place on April 11 between the leaders of the Kurmi community and the state government at the Nabanna state secretariat. However, the meeting did not yield any positive outcome or resolution. It was during this meeting that the Kurmi leaders expressed their intention to proceed with their agitation, indicating their dissatisfaction with the discussions held.

Eleven Gorkha  tribes in Bengal also demand ST status

The 11 tribes of the Gorkha community residing in the Darjeeling hill region have long been striving for ST status. These tribes include Gurung, Mangar, Rai, Sunwar, Mukhia, Jogi, Thami, Yakha, Bahun Chhetri, and Newar. While seven of the 18 Gorkha tribes acquired ST status after India gained independence, the remaining 11 are still awaiting recognition.

What is the historical context?

  • The Kurmis were not included in the Scheduled Tribes (STs) category during the 1931 Census, and their exclusion from the ST list continued in 1950.

  • In 2004, the government of Jharkhand recommended that the Kurmi community be added to the ST list instead of being classified as Other Backward Classes (OBCs). 

  • Following this recommendation, the matter was referred to the Tribal Research Institute (TRI), which concluded that Kurmis are a sub-caste of Kunbis rather than a tribal community. 

  • Based on this assessment, the Central government dismissed the demand of the Kurmis to be recognized as Scheduled Tribes (STs).

  • As per the Census of 2011, the Tribal Development Department of the state government reports that the tribal population in the state amounts to approximately 53 lakhs, accounting for about 5.8% of the total population.

Who are the Kurmis? 

Kurmis are a landowning farming community whose status varies from place to place. Kurmis are referred to as “progressive farmers” who “avail of maximum benefits of all the development schemes available in the area and region.

Kurmis are distributed across several states — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Goa, and Karnataka. 

Caste Status

In most states, Kurmis belong to the OBC in both the central and state lists for reservations. In Gujarat, Patels, who are linked to Kurmis, are in the general category, and have been demanding OBC status. In West Bengal, Odisha, and Jharkhand — where Kurmi is written as ‘Kudmi’ — Kurmis want to be included among Scheduled Tribes.

Kurmali Language

Kurmali language is a language spoken by the Kurmi community, primarily in the Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha.

The Kurmali language is a member of the Indo-Aryan language family and belongs to the Bihari language family. It shares some similarities with Maithili and Magahi. It has its own script called "Kurmi Kudali" which is a modified version of the Devanagari script.

The Kurmi community is advocating for the inclusion of their Kurmali language in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. This would grant official recognition and support for the preservation and promotion of Kurmali as a regional language. 

The process for inclusion in ST category

The process of inclusion for a community under the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category involves specific steps outlined in set of modalities since 1999. 

Initiation: The respective State or Union Territory government takes the initial step by proposing the inclusion of a community in the ST list.
Review by Union Tribal Affairs Ministry: The proposal is then forwarded to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs for examination and evaluation.

Evaluation by Office of the Registrar General of India (ORGI): If the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry approves the proposal, it is further reviewed by the Office of the Registrar General of India (ORGI) to ensure its compliance with the defined criteria.

National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST): If the ORGI finds the proposal suitable, it is submitted to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) for their evaluation and recommendations.

Cabinet Approval: Upon receiving a positive recommendation from the NCST, the proposal is forwarded to the Cabinet for necessary amendments to the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950. The Cabinet decision is crucial for the final inclusion of the community in the ST list.

It is important to note that the process involves multiple stages of scrutiny and assessment by different authorities before a community can be officially included in the Scheduled Tribes category.

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