Ground Report From Bengal: The Story Of How A Large Tribal Pocket Bordering Bangladesh Turned From Red To Saffron

Jaideep Mazumdar

Apr 23, 2021, 03:31 PM | Updated 03:31 PM IST

Joyel Murmu campaigning in Habibpur. (Twitter)
Joyel Murmu campaigning in Habibpur. (Twitter)
  • The BJP started making inroads in Habibpur in the 1990s when the Scheduled Castes were the first to turn saffron.
  • For nearly seven decades, more than 1 lakh tribals of Habibpur Assembly segment in Bengal’s Malda district have been waiting for the promise of ‘liberation’ to come true.

    ‘Liberation’ from poverty, hunger, disease, unemployment, illiteracy and backwardness. This is the ‘liberation’ that the communists had been promising them for the past 70 years.

    Far from this Left promise from coming true, the condition of the tribals have only deteriorated. So much so that an overwhelming majority of the able-bodied among them have to migrate to other states in search of employment as labourers.

    Realising that they have been taken for a ride for all these decades, the tribals of Habibpur turned decidedly saffron two years ago. And their loyalty to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has only deepened since then.

    History Of Tribal Settlement In Habibpur

    The presence of a large number of tribals in Habibpur may seem incongruous given the fact that this place is far away from the Chotanagpur plateau which is home to the tribals.

    The British started recruiting tribals, mostly as indentured labour, to work in the tea plantations of North Bengal and Assam, and also as menial labourers in what was then East Bengal.

    The forefathers of the tribals living in Habibpur were taken to East Bengal to work as construction labourers in East Bengal (which became East Pakistan in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971).

    However, ill-treatment of their womenfolk, persecution and concerted attempts to convert them to Islam by Muslims in East Bengal led to many tribals from there trying to flee to present-day Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh (the Chotanagpur plateau) where they had originated from.

    Their flight from East Bengal started in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century itself, and continued till a decade or so after Independence.

    But for various reasons, they couldn’t return to their ‘homeland’ and settled down in what is called Barendrabhumi (the Barind tract), a pleistocene-era geographical feature comprising low-lying alluvial mounds that stretch from this part of Malda to Rangpur in northern Bangladesh and Rajshahi in western Bangladesh.

    According to historians, the tribals settled down in Barendrabhumi since this place resembled their original homelands in Chotanagpur plateau.

    Subsistence Farming

    After settling down here, the tribals started tilling the land. The yields were moderate. But over the years, lack of irrigation, steady decline of groundwater levels, erosion of topsoil and the alluvial soil turning sandy, lack of access to fertilisers and high-quality seeds led to a steady decline in yields.

    “Farming is mostly unprofitable now and, at best, subsistence. So many of our youths have been forced to seek work in other states,” said Bishu Soren, a former member of Madnabati gram panchayat of Bamangola community development block.

    Due to lack of irrigation facilities and the sinking of the groundwater table, agriculture is wholly dependent on monsoons. Thus, farming is confined to only kharif crops (sowing in end-May to harvesting around October) and is seasonal, forcing even farmers owning land to seek employment in other states in the rest of the year.

    Empty Promises By Communists

    The communists established an early presence here by promising the moon to the gullible and simple tribals.

    “They (the communists) made many promises. They said they would construct irrigation canals so that farming could become a round-the-year practice. They promised to set up rural banks to extend credit to farmers to buy agricultural implements, good quality seeds and fertilisers,” said Sukumar Murmu, a former Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) loyalist who was a panchayat samiti member from Garnramari village in Habibpur community development block.

    Murmu, 67, says that the communists promised to make agriculture a profitable occupation. “But instead of all that happening, many communist leaders became money-lenders who extended credit to us at extortionist rates. Many of us had to mortgage our lands to them and work as labourers in other states to repay our loans,” he said.

    Lands owned by the tribals cannot, under the law, be sold to non-tribals. But during the 34 years of Left misrule from 1977, non-tribal communist leaders falsified land records and took over lands belonging to tribals, said Bishu Soren of Madnabati.

    The communists promised to create employment opportunities by setting up industrial units here. Not a single such unit has been set up and there have been no private investments, said Bishu Tudu, 69, a former zilla parishad member who resigned from the CPI-M in 2018 after getting completely disillusioned with that party. Tudu is now a BJP loyalist.

    “A number of other measures were announced to develop Habibpur, especially the tribal areas. But such measures remained only on paper. Nothing was done to develop Habibpur’s physical infrastructure, set up health centres and schools and take other concrete steps for the socio-economic development of the people,” said Malda Uttar Lok Sabha member Khagen Murmu.

    Khagen Murmu was with the CPI-M and represented Habibpur Assembly seat thrice (2006, 2011 and 2016) before getting thoroughly disillusioned with his party and joining the BJP in early 2019.

    He was fielded by the BJP from Malda Uttar Lok Sabha seat in May 2019. Murmu defeated his nearest Trinamool rival — Mausam Noor, a niece of former Malda strongman and ex-railway minister A B A Ghani Khan Choudhury — by more than 84,000 votes.

    In the bypolls necessitated by Murmu vacating the Habibpur Assembly seat, the BJP’s Joyel Murmu defeated Trinamool’s Amal Kisku by more than 30,000 votes.

    The Habibpur Assembly seat has been held by the CPI-M a dozen times since elections were first held to the seat in 1962. The Congress won the seat only once (1967) while an Independent candidate won it in 1971.

    “But despite winning this seat so many times, the communists did nothing. There was no development at all. The socio-economic condition of all people, the tribals included, went from bad to worse,” said Sangeeta Biswas, a former teacher at Habibpur High School.

    “Our party leaders were never serious about improving the socio-economic plight of the people. The focus was only on retaining power and exercising power over people’s lives. I had made many attempts to take up many development plans for Habibpur and proper implementation of the many announced social and economic development projects. But I was rebuffed each time,” complained Khagen Murmu.

    The statistics speak for themselves. In the Habibpur community development (CD) block, a mere 29 per cent of the villages are connected by paved roads while in Bamangola CD Block (Habibpur Assembly segment comprises these two CD Blocks), 41 per cent of the villages are connected by paved roads.

    But many dispute even these figures. “These are just on paper. The actual number of villages connected with all-weather paved roads is much less. Only about 40 per cent of the villages have access to piped drinking water and the state government has not started implementing the Union government’s Jal Jeevan Mission (piped drinking water to every household) in Habibpur,” said Joyel Murmu.

    More than half the people in both the Bamangola and Habibpur CD Blocks live below the poverty line and about 55 per cent people are unemployed. Most households don’t have attached toilets since the state government has not implemented the Swachh Bharat Mission seriously.

    The 1.55 lakh residents of Bamangola CD Block do not have any college to go to, and just one ill-equipped rural hospital with absentee doctors and paramedical staff, and two primary health centres which would put healthcare facilities even in sub-Saharan Africa to shame. One third of the villages in this CD Block do not have functional schools.

    The condition of the Habibpur CD Block is not better. The 2.4 lakh people here have to make do with only one rural hospital, whose condition is no better than the two non-functional primary health centres here. There is no undergraduate college (though there exists a teachers’ training college and an industrial training institute).

    Habibpur remained loyal to the CPI-M even during the 2011 wave in Bengal that brought Mamata Banerjee to power. Khagen Murmu (then with the CPI-M) retained the seat very narrowly by defeating his nearest Trinamool rival by a little over 2,200 votes.

    But the CPI-M has let down Habibpur very badly. “The plight of the people, especially the tribals, has actually worsened over the last few decades. As agricultural productivity declined and land alienation increased, and with no jobs or employment avenues available, poverty levels increased,” said Khagen Murmu.


    Tribals account for a little over 20 per cent of the population of Bamangola CD Block and over 30 per cent of the population of Habibpur CD Block. Scheduled Castes account for a little over 50 per cent of the population in both the CD blocks.

    The condition of the scheduled castes mirrors that of the tribals. “Many people belonging to the SC category are descendants of those who fled religious persecution in East Pakistan. They have no lands and are in a very sorry state,” said Biswanath Banerjee, a retired bureaucrat, who served as the in-charge of Malda’s Chanchal subdivision which has Habibpur and Bamangold CD blocks under its jurisdiction.

    Hindus form more than 88 per cent of the population of Bamangola CD Block and 91.06 per cent of the population of Habibpur CD Block.

    Though Muslims form just about 8.87 per cent and 1.23 per cent of the population of the two CD blocks respectively, their numbers are growing steadily, thanks to the porous international border facilitating a continuous stream of Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh.

    The Trinamool government, and the Left before it, have covertly encouraged this illegal influx with an eye on increasing the Muslim population and turning them into a valuable vote bank.

    The Trinamool government has been giving them documents like ration, Aadhaar and voter ID cards, thus fuelling more illegal influx from across the border.

    State patronage has emboldened the Muslims, though very few in numbers in Habibpur, to flex their muscles and become assertive.

    Turning Saffron

    The BJP started making inroads in Habibpur in the 1990s. The Scheduled Castes were the first to turn saffron.

    “We were completely neglected by the CPI-M who treated us as mere voters who were to be used only during elections and discarded and kept in poverty always. They (the CPI-M) kept us poor and backward since an improvement in our socio-economic conditions would trigger more aspirations amongst us and the CPI-M knew it would not be able to meet those aspirations,” said Rina Devi, a resident of Jagdala, a village in Bamangola CD Block who retired as the head teacher of a state-run secondary school.

    The BJP started posting creditable performances in elections from Habibpur from 2001, bagging a few thousand votes. In the 2006 assembly polls, Khagen Murmu won very narrowly against his BJP rival Ramlal Handsa, who got a 37 per cent vote share.

    In the 2011 polls, the BJP’s performance went down with its candidate Krishna Chandra Munda getting a vote share of a little over 20 per cent.

    In 2016, BJP’s Pradeep Baskey came third with a 22.59 per cent vote share while in the 2019 bypolls, BJP’s Joyel Murmu bagged 92,300 votes and a vote share of 50.93 per cent.

    Joyel Murmu has been re-nominated by the BJP, while Pradeep Baskey (who was the BJP candidate in 2016) has been fielded by the Trinamool after he switched over to that party from the BJP.

    Apart from poverty, unemployment, backwardness and lack of development, the fear of being marginalised by Bangladeshi-origin Muslims has also led to a surge in support for the BJP in recent years.

    Joyel Murmu, thus, looks all set to not only retain Habibpur, but also improve his 2019 winning margin of 30,613 votes.

    Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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