OBC reservation issue, monk row intensifies polarisation in Bengal

04:27 PM May 30, 2024 | PTI |

Even as West Bengal gears up for the last leg of Lok Sabha elections slated for June 1, intensified communal polarisation over the OBC reservation controversy and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s contentious comments regarding monks from renowned religious institutions kept the state on edge till the very end of this mega electoral exercise.


According to political observers, these developments have not only deepened existing divides but also put the TMC at a strategic disadvantage, with the BJP aggressively capitalising on the situation.

In the final phase, Bengal will vote in nine constituencies across Kolkata and its adjacent South and North 24 Parganas districts. All nine seats are currently held by the Trinamool Congress and are considered party fortresses.

Last week, the Calcutta High Court struck down the Other Backward Classes (OBC) status of several classes in Bengal granted since 2010, observing that such reservations to vacancies in services and posts in the state are ”illegal”.

”Religion indeed appears to have been the sole criterion” for declaring these communities as OBCs, the court said, adding that it ”is of the view that the selection of 77 classes of Muslims as backwards is an affront to the Muslim community as a whole.” The ruling, which Mamata Banerjee said she would challenge before a higher court, has affected nearly five lakh OBC card holders. Alleging that court order was ”influenced” by the BJP’s poll narrative, Banerjee claimed no one can take away the constitutionally protected rights of the OBCs.


Meanwhile, on May 18, Banerjee sparked another controversy by criticising a section of monks from Ramakrishna Mission (RKM), Bharat Sevashram Sangha (BSS), and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), accusing them of political involvement with the BJP.

While the developments triggered different reactions across the state’s political spectrum, they also led to both the TMC and the BJP intensifying their efforts to polarise voters.

Political analyst Maidul Islam suggests that the court’s ruling could exacerbate the communal divide, with the BJP effectively leveraging Hindu OBC grievances to bolster their electoral prospects.

”This ruling affects approximately 5 lakh people, leading to significant discontent among various communities. Muslim OBCs, who had shown signs of disillusionment with the TMC, may now realign with Banerjee’s party in light of the court’s decision. However, Hindu OBCs, who have increasingly supported the BJP since 2019, are likely to consolidate their backing for the saffron party,” he told PTI.

Muslims are a key demographic constituent in 17 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal of which the TMC presently holds 12. The BJP and Congress shared three and two seats respectively of the remaining five.

West Bengal provides 17 per cent reservation for OBCs, divided into two categories — OBC A with 10 per cent for 81 communities (56 of which are Muslims), and OBC B with 7 per cent for 99 communities (41 of which are Muslims).

The current OBC reservation formula owes its roots to the additional 10 per cent reservation for ”economically, socially, and educationally backward” classes which the erstwhile Left Front government announced in 2010 over and above the seven per cent reservation which existed then. The announcement, made a year before the Left was ousted by the TMC, was based on recommendations of the Ranganath Misra Commission Report of 2009.

Of the 77 communities affected by the high court ruling, 42 were earmarked for OBC status by the earlier Left Front government. The remaining 35 communities, 34 of which were Muslims, according to the court’s ruling, were added by the TMC government through a notification issued in 2012.

Capitalising on the opportunity, the BJP lost little time to rake up the issue and claim in its poll campaigns that INDIA bloc parties, including the TMC, would divert OBC, SC, and ST reservations to minorities if brought to power.

”The court ruling has revealed the betrayal of the TMC towards the OBCs, whose rights are being compromised for the sake of appeasement politics. This is the agenda of the INDIA bloc parties, including the TMC, whose political survival hinges on support from minority voters,” BJP leader Suvedu Adhikari told PTI.

The issue of dragging certain monks of RKM and BSS into the vicious political arena of the state has similarly snowballed into a major controversy. The BJP, in its efforts to galvanise Hindu voters and portray itself as guardian of Hindu interests, framed Banerjee’s comments as an attack on revered religious institutions.

”The remarks reflect the anti-Hindu mindset of the TMC. Have you ever heard anyone raising a finger at Ramakrishna Mission and Bharat Sevashram Sangha? Such remarks are being passed to only appease one section,” BJP state president Sukanta Majumdar said.

”Our leader’s words have been misconstrued by the BJP. It was against one or two monks, not against any institution. The TMC and the people of the state have very high regard for these socio-religious organisations,” TMC spokesperson Santanu Sen said.

CPI (M) leader Sujan Chakraborty suggested that the remarks were aimed at ”re-establishing political bipolarity” and were ”a desperate effort to shift the narrative towards communal lines to benefit the BJP”.

Another political analyst Suman Bhattacharya, however, suggested that Banerjee’s remarks weren’t without a political motive.

He explained, ”A segment of the Bengali ‘Bhadralok’ community, or the liberal and elite Bengalis, had been drifting away from the TMC towards the Left and Congress for various reasons. This issue could again sway their support towards the TMC, garnering the backing of a significant portion of the Bengali elite.” It seems evident that in the midst of this fresh brouhaha involving the TMC and BJP, the Left-Congress alliance which was emerging as a strong third force and a key player in many seats, has been somewhat left behind during the final phase of polls.


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