Sunday, June 4, 2023
Support Our Journalism
HomeOpinionJunglemahal is a West Bengal BJP bastion now. Ghar wapsi, temple prayers...

Junglemahal is a West Bengal BJP bastion now. Ghar wapsi, temple prayers for tribals

The Sangh Parivar played a key role in cementing the BJP’s presence in Junglemahal. It worked relentlessly to mobilise the tribal and Hindu population.

Text Size:

In November 2022, BJP Bankura MLA Niladri Shekhar Dana said that West Bengal’s Rarh region — comprising the districts Purulia, Bankura and parts of Birbhum and Junglemahal should be declared a Union Territory. Earlier, the party’s Bishnupur MP Saumitra Khan had demanded the creation of Junglemahal state consisting of Purulia, Jhargram, Bankura, parts of Birbhum, East and South Medinipur districts among other areas.

Although the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) brushed these claims away, it’s worth asking why BJP MLAs and MPs from the Junglemahal region were able to broach the hitherto taboo subject so candidly. They are able to pull these punches with no serious pushback from the TMC because this region has become a BJP bastion.

Saffronisation of Junglemahal

The BJP’s electoral rise in the region dates back to the 2018 panchayat election when it won 33 per cent of the seats in Purulia and nearly 40 per cent of the seats in the Jhargram sub-division of Paschim Medinipur. This was followed by the party’s stunning performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in the state and particularly in the region where it captured all but one constituency.

Indeed, a post-election study observed that the surge in BJP’s West Bengal vote share in the Lok Sabha election, relative to the 2016 assembly polls, was highest in Junglemahal. Even though the party did not perform as well as TMC in the 2021 assembly election where the latter won a strong majority, it still performed markedly better in Junglemahal, winning 14 of the 40 assembly constituencies.

In a pro-TMC state, why has this region turned so deeply saffron?

From 2005-2014, Junglemahal experienced a violent rebellion from the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and retaliatory violence by joint central-state government forces and armed vigilantes. In 2010, when the insurgency was at its peak, West Bengal had the highest number of insurgency-related fatalities (425) among the affected states. The insurgency started ebbing, however, once the TMC came to power in 2011 in a landslide win against the Left Front. The number of fatalities drastically dropped to six in 2012, and not one has been reported since 2014.

Most importantly, the insurgency ended partly because the local TMC chapter absorbed several ex-Maoists in its fold. It happened either through strong compensation packages or, in the case of those who tried to avoid surrendering, the threat of crackdown by the central and state government armed forces and networks of local informants, according to Biswajit Roy’s edited book War and Peace in Junglemahal: People State and Maoists. 

The flow of events in Junglemahal followed the same script as any other civil war-affected region. The people of Junglemahal voted for the TMC again in 2016 in no small measure. The presence of ex-rebels in the party’s ranks implied the promise of permanent stability, which was the most important requirement under the circumstances for rebuilding lives and livelihoods destroyed in the conflict. Yet, within one electoral cycle, the TMC lost political control of the region.

Also read: Do poor voters punish parties for pre-election violence? BJP-TMC tussle in Bengal has clues

Junglemahal, post-civil war

In a recently published journal article, we study this issue more specifically through the empirical lens of Junglemahal’s experience with conflict and post-conflict reconstruction. The central argument of our study is that the long-term success or failure of rebel-aligned political parties in post-civil war elections will ultimately hinge on the type of violence used by the rebels during the conflict. Specifically, for rebel groups that engage in indiscriminate violence during the civil war, the first election success after the war is an aberration. The organisational weaknesses that both cause and result from the use of such violence constrains their vote mobilisation strategies in post-civil war party competition and tilts them towards voter intimidation—eventually leading to a reversal in mid-term.

Conversely, discriminate rebel violence will be associated with electoral success in the short and mid-term, thus promoting supportive attitudes towards pro-rebel parties in the long term.

Using a combination of statistical methods and multi-site ethnography, we demonstrate that Junglemahal’s experience is consistent with our theoretical framework.

Our multi-site longitudinal ethnographies in Junglemahal centered around questions of grassroots power in Ashna Shuli, Goaltor, Garbeta, Jhargram and Lalgarh villages in Paschim Medinipur, Khatra and Ranibandh villages in Bankura, and Baghmundi and Joypur villages in Purulia since the onset of Maoist violence in 2005.

Our research shows a rather quick transition from the Left Front’s party-based organisational structure of governance to a leadership vacuum around 2009-2010 because of Maoist activities. Most of our contacts from the Left Front were either killed, went missing or left the villages and took shelter mainly at party offices in nearby towns. A few of them used warehouses as temporary shelters. By 2010, these shelters were all protected by armed mercenaries popularly known as Harmad Bahini. There was an informal and concealed agreement between the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), village-level Left Front cadres, and their armed mercenaries to work against the Maoists jointly.

In each of our ethnography sites, we observed the coeval nature of indiscriminate violence. First, the Maoists often carried out unrestrained violence against Left Front workers, a sizeable proportion of whom were tribals and people from other weaker sections. These attacks were made under the guidance of ‘outside’ leadership of Maoists. The ‘outside/inside’ dichotomy was invoked by our interviewees to refer to the external social origins of major Maoist leaders in the region such as Kishenji aka Koteswara Rao, whose killing at the hands of security forces was a turning point for the insurgency.

Second, the Harmad Bahini in the name of giving protection to the Left Front leaders targeted Maoist sympathisers, TMC leaders, and workers. Villagers rejected both the Maoist violence and the ‘protection’ offered by the mercenaries. Insecurity and feelings of disgust over the violence was a recurrent point in the in-depth interviews we conducted in the region between 2008 and 2012.

One of the major outcomes of the years of violence and counter-violence was the complete destruction of the Left Front’s local party organisation. In the course of its three-decade rule over West Bengal, the Left Front had developed a complex three-tiered party structure in every locality that included a booth committee, a local committee, and a branch committee. While this party structure, albeit with some important modifications, was taken over by the TMC in other areas of West Bengal, its disappearance in Junglemahal meant that post-conflict politics had to be constructed from scratch.

Additionally, the subsequent (sometimes coerced) incorporation of erstwhile Maoists, with a reputation for indiscriminate violence, implied that the TMC emerged from the insurgency as the dominant party in the region. But it was hamstrung by serious organisational weaknesses. Voters’ desire for security and the benefits from local public goods saw the TMC sweep the assembly constituencies in Junglemahal in 2016. However, the party’s inability to control its local-level cadres soon became a salient political issue. The lack of organisational control resulted in unrestrained corruption not only in the delivery of public services, but also in getting white-collar government jobs. Soon, a popular counter-mobilisation ensued as constituents started demanding more services such as widening of roads and stable jobs for the rural youth.

The families affected by Maoist violence also started asking for compensation, revealing how the inclusion of ex-Maoist leaders and workers in the TMC and the offers of jobs and social security extended to them had been silently resented by a substantive portion of the villagers in Junglemahal.

Also read: Bengal BJP MP renews demand for separate ‘Junglemahal’ state

Enter BJP

It was in this political vacuum at the grassroots that the BJP stepped in, offering a much-awaited space to a range of opposition forces crosscutting ethnic boundaries, including a substantive portion of Left Front cadres and villagers, who disapproved of the adoption of the Maoist rehabilitation package. Here, the Sangh Parivar — the network of non-party service organisations affiliated with the BJP — played a key role in cementing the BJP’s presence in the region. The various local chapters of the Saraswati Shishu Mandir School and organisations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Vanabandhu Parishad, and the Hindu Jagaran Mancha, worked relentlessly to mobilise the tribal and Hindu population through a series of initiatives, ranging from everyday evening prayers at the local Hanuman temples to grand celebration of Shivratri Utsav and ‘Ghar Wapasi’.

Sensing a clear political threat from the BJP, the local brokers of the TMC, acting with little oversight from the top-level party leadership, resorted to intimidation of potential opposition voters prior to the 2018 panchayat election. A critical conjuncture was reached when the results were announced, showing that the BJP had made stunning inroads into the electorate in all the three districts of Junglemahal. What followed was a protracted period of retributive post-poll violence. The incidents that particularly garnered local as well as national attention was the death of two BJP workers in Purulia district—18-year-old Trilochan Mahato and 32-year-old Dulal Kumar. Both men were hanged, a form of killing known to the local population from the heydays of the Maoist insurgency.

The panchayat poll violence played a key role in BJP’s victory in Junglemahal in the 2019 Lok Sabha election as well. The party turned the violence into a focal point of its election campaign. Then-BJP president Amit Shah launched the campaign with a trip to Purulia on 29 June 2018, which included, among other events, meetings with the families of the two deceased BJP workers. Most importantly, senior TMC leaders themselves admitted to the breach, noting that “top BJP leaders had raised the violence ahead of the 2018 panchayat elections to evoke voter sympathy ahead of the last Lok Sabha elections.” And it had affected the TMC adversely. Thus, the eventual saffronisation of Junglemahal was set in motion.

Subhasish Ray is Professor and Associate Dean at the Jindal School of Government & Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana; and an editor for the Journal of Genocide Research. He tweets @subhasish_ray75.

Suman Nath is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Govt. College, West Bengal (affiliated to the West Bengal State University). Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular