The Mahisya community in West Bengal has become central to the aspirations of the Trinamool Congress and the BJP in the state. Home Minister Amit Shah, announcing the BJP’s manifesto for the assembly elections, promised that the Mahisya community and Tilis will receive the benefits of OBC reservations should the BJP come to power in the state.
The Mahisyas dominate constituencies in South Bengal, in areas from where the BJP primarily derives its strength in the state. It is numerically significant in the border areas of North and South Bengal, where the BJP has performed extremely well in the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections.
The Trinamool Congress has promised OBC reservations for the Mahisyas as well, however, since they have been in power for a decade and yet, not implemented the same, it is likely to work in BJP’s favour.
The Mahisyas themselves have a complicated relationship with the backward class categorisation. Jogendranath Bhattaharya in his book on the castes and sects in 1896 described the Mahisya community as a ‘fairly advanced caste’ with a fair number of quasi-royal families in Medinipur and lawyers and University graduates.
Anirban Bandyopadhyay, a scholar on Mahisyas, writes that it was the Chashi Kaibartas who assumed the Mahisya surname sometime in the 1890s. The name itself indicates descendants of an inter caste marriage between a Kshatriya man and Vaishya woman.
Until 1931, however, the Mahisyas were considered a “depressed class”, the term that was substituted by “Scheduled castes” in independent India. Birendranath Sasmal, the most popular Mahisya leader and a rival to Netaji Bose for the position of Mayor of Kolkata in the 1920s, had written to census authorities saying that he did not wish for the Mahisyas to be counted among the “depressed class”.
Sasmal wanted the Mahisyas to be considered as equal to the Upper Castes. The family of Rani Rashmoni, who appointed Ramkrishna Paramhans as the chief priest of the famous Dakshineshwar Temple in Kolkata, belonged to the community. The Mahisya community is greatly diverse and in the 1960s, emerged as the King maker in Bengal politics.
However, since the 1970s, their influence has been on the wane. But the community itself has been divided on the matter of reservations and some well-off among them had gone to Court against the initiative. They have, nonetheless, appeared to have come around since then.
Once again, the Mahisya Community is at the center of Bengal politics. The OBC reservations, if it so happens in the future, would impact others currently in the OBC category. Muslims, who enjoy OBC reservations in West Bengal, could end up being the most impacted.