The BJP leaders have made an impact on the Matua community, and the promise of citizenship to the long-suffering migrants could be the ultimate game-changer in Bongaon.
The Matuas — a well-organised community of Namasudras, or lower-caste Hindus — are a divided lot. Divided between a lady and her nephew. The lady — Mamatabala Thakur — is the widow of the great-grandson of their highly-revered Harichand Thakur, the founder of the Matua sect. Her nephew is the vice-president of the influential Matua Mahasangh. And what could tilt the balance is the lapsed Citizenship Amendment Bill, which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promises to re-introduce and ensure its passage this time.
Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency, which borders Bangladesh, is a Matua stronghold. Matuas account for nearly 67 per cent of its 12.47-lakh strong electorate. The Matua movement started in the late nineteenth century among Namasudras, who were hard-working peasants concentrated in western and central parts of East Bengal (now Bangladesh). While Harichand Thakur founded the sect, his son Guruchand Thakur organised the order and gave shape to the Matua Mahasangh.
In the run-up to Independence and Partition of the country in 1947, the Matua movement suffered a split of sorts with Pramatha Ranjan Thakur (Guruchand’s grandson) siding with the Congress and migrating from East Bengal to West Bengal while another section led by Jogendranath Mandal sided with Jinnah’s Muslim League and influenced many Namasudras to stay back in the newly-formed East Pakistan. Mandal was an early proponent of chimera of ‘Dalit-Muslim’ unity.
But soon after 1947, the Namasudras who heeded Mandal’s call found themselves being attacked by the majority Muslim community. They realised the utter falsity of the ‘Dalit-Muslim unity’ myth. They were dispossessed of their meagre land holdings, found themselves being socially and economically boycotted, their properties looted and soon enough, they became the target of Muslim zealots, who tried to forcibly convert them to Islam. Hundreds of Namasudras were killed and maimed and their womenfolk abducted, raped and married off to Muslim men by force.
Faced with such genocide, lakhs of Namasudras fled East Pakistan from the late 1940s in waves. The pogrom launched against Hindus by the Pakistani Army and their Islamist collaborators in early 1971 triggered another wave of migration, and the continuing atrocities against Hindus (most who didn’t or couldn’t migrate to India after Partition were lower-caste Hindus) in Bangladesh has kept the migration a continuing process.
In independent India, the Matuas who migrated from East Pakistan found themselves unwelcome and with little means of sustenance. There was a call for an exchange of population — Muslims of West Bengal should migrate to East Pakistan while the Hindus from there would find place in West Bengal — but prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru vetoed the proposal.
Thus, while Muslims in West Bengal continued to live happily in the state, Hindus (mostly lower-castes) of East Pakistan were driven out or fled atrocities and tremendous persecution from East Pakistan. In Bengal, they could not be given lands or proper rehabilitation.
Nehru, who opposed the transfer of population, formulated the highly controversial Dandakaranya Project under which lakhs of these migrants from East Pakistan were to be forcibly settled in the arid and remote adivasi areas of present-day states of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. This forcible relocation triggered massive protests, but tens of thousands of refugees were nonetheless packed off by force to those remote areas. Most of the refugees returned to Bengal, while many migrated away to other parts of the country. In Bengal, they faced persecution and penury.
There are an estimated 5 crore Matuas in India and of them, nearly 3 crore are non-citizens. They are considered illegal migrants under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, which set 25 March 1971 as the cut-off date for granting citizenship to migrants from Bangladesh.
Becoming Politically Organised
Meanwhile, Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, who opted to migrate to India before Partition, founded Thakurnagar, which became the headquarters of the Matua Mahasangh. Pramatha Ranjan Thakur successfully contested the 1962 assembly elections from Hanskhali assembly constituency on a Congress ticket and after his death, his widow Binapani Devi took over the reins of the Matua Mahasangh.
She continued organising the Matuas politically, and the sect played a significant role in ensuring the victory of the Left Front, which sided with them in 1977. And again, in 2011, ‘Boroma’ (as Binapani Devi came to be called) sided with Mamata Banerjee and influenced a shift of Matua votes from the Left to the Trinamool. The Trinamool swept to power in Bengal that year and an analysis of the results will reveal that it was the Matua factor, besides the support of Muslims, which brought the Trinamool to power.
The Matuas are a decisive factor (between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of the electorate) in at least 14 Lok Sabha constituencies, including Krishnanagar, Ranaghat, Malda North, Malda South, Burdwan East, Burdwan West, Siliguri, Cooch Behar, Raiganj and Joynagar. Matuas are a majority in Bongaon and form a huge chunk of the electorate in the Basirhat and Barasat Lok Sabha constituencies. The Matuas decide the electoral fortunes of candidates in at nearly a hundred assembly seats in Bengal.
Mamata Banerjee And The Matuas
Grateful for their support, Mamata Banerjee forged very close ties with the Thakur clan and often visited ‘Thakurbari’, the house, where ‘Boroma’ and her children and their families, reside. The Trinamool chief also fielded Binapani Devi’s younger son Manjul Krishna Thakur from Gaighata assembly seat (a segment within the Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency) in 2011 and made him a minister of state.
In 2014, Banerjee also fielded his elder brother and Binapani Devi’s eldest son Kapil Krishna Thakur from the newly-created (by the Delimitation Commission in 2009) Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency. Kapil Krishna Thakur was the sanghadhipati of the Matua Mahasangh. However, Kapil Krishna Thakur died after a brief illness in October that year.
Manjul Krishna Thakur had wanted the Lok Sabha ticket for Bongaon from the Trinamool for his younger son Subrata. But some senior leaders within the Matua Mahasangh, who had differences with Manjul Krishna Thakur, influenced Mamata Banerjee to give the party ticket to Kapil Krishna Thakur. They managed to convince Mamata Banerjee that ‘Boroma’ also wanted her elder son to become a Lok Sabha MP. Manjul Krishna had argued that his elder brother was ailing and would not be an effective parliamentarian.
Unhappy with the ticket given to his elder brother, Manjul Krishna Thakur dumped the Trinamool and joined the BJP along with his younger son Subrata just before the February 2015 bypolls to the Bongaon Lok Sabha seat necessitated by the death of his elder brother. Mamata Banerjee was instrumental in getting Kapil Krishna Thakur’s widow Mamatabala Thakur nominated as the sanghadhipati after her husband’s death.
Manjul Krishna had expected the title for himself, being the son of Pramatha Ranjan Thakur. Manjul Krishna had also reportedly developed a dislike for the mercurial Mamata Banerjee and got disillusioned with the Trinamool chief’s failure to keep her promises to the Matuas.
The Trinamool fielded Mamatabala Thakur in the 2015 bypolls while the BJP fielded Manjul Krishna’s son Subrata. Mamatabala won by a handsome margin and Subrata came third, after Communist Party of India – Marxist’s or CPI-M’s Debesh Das. This time, the BJP has fielded Shantanu Thakur, another son of Manjul Krishna Thakur.
BJP’s Rise Among Matuas
The BJP has been assiduously cultivating the Matuas for a long time and started gaining ground within the community soon after 2011. The BJP’s promise of granting citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh captured the imagination of the Matuas and for the first time in Bengal, it won an assembly seat on its own in a byelection in 2014. The BJP’s Shamik Bandopadhyay won the Basirhat assembly seat where the Matuas are a decisive factor.
The victory was sweeter since it came in the face of Mamata Banerjee’s open vow to prevent the BJP from winning the seat. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls (a few months before the assembly bypolls), the BJP had gained a lead of 30,000 votes from the Basirhat assembly segment and the Trinamool chief deployed senior ministers and all the resources at her command to prevent the BJP from bagging the seat.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had come first in 21 assembly segments (of various Lok Sabha seats) and a close second in 40 assembly segments. Matuas form a decisive segment of the electorate in all these assembly segments.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill And NRC
The BJP gained a lot from its advocacy of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that it introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016. The bill had promised to grant citizenship to Hindus (and five other non-Muslim communities) fleeing persecution from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The bill, had it become an act, would have reduced the waiting period for getting Indian citizenship for the persecuted who fled to India from these three countries from 11 years to six years.
However, while the Lok Sabha, where the BJP-led NDA is in a majority, passed the bill, Opposition parties stalled its passage in the Rajya Sabha and the bill could not even be taken up for discussion in the Upper House. The Trinamool Congress was the most shrill opponent of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
The BJP has successfully painted the Trinamool as anti-Matua since it opposed the bill that would have granted Indian citizenship to lakhs of Matuas, who are considered illegal migrants in India. That the Trinamool apparently opposed the bill in order to increase its popularity among Muslims is an aspect that the BJP has been relentlessly highlighting.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) updation exercise in neighbouring Assam was sought to be made an election issue by the Trinamool since last year. In the second draft NRC published in June last year, the applications of about 40 lakh residents of Assam who had applied for inclusion of their names in the NRC were revealed to have been rejected. While most of the 40 lakh are believed to be Muslims, about 12 lakh are believed to be Bengali Hindus.
Mamata Banerjee started highlighting this and blaming the BJP for trying to deprive these Bengali Hindus — most of them Dalits — of their Indian citizenship and deporting them to Bangladesh. With the BJP promising to update the NRC in Bengal too, the Trinamool started spreading fear among the Matuas that they would also meet the same fate.
However, the BJP has been successful in countering this false campaign by the Trinamool. “We have told the people that the NRC updation exercise is required for Bengal too in order to detect illegal migrants from Bangladesh. But Hindus (and Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis) among the illegal migrants have nothing to fear since they will be protected by the Citizenship Bill that we are determined to reintroduce and pass this time. It is Mamata Banerjee who is opposing both the Citizenship Bill and updation of the NRC,” said Shantanu Thakur, the BJP candidate.
“The NRC updation exercise will lead to identification of all illegal migrants, and after that the Hindus and other non-Muslims among them would be granted citizenship. Only the Bangladeshi Muslims will be disenfranchised and deported, and Mamata Banerjee does not want that. So she is anti-Matua. We will not start work on updating the NRC in Bengal before the Citizenship Bill is enacted. The Matuas have understood this and have seen through the Trinamool’s lies,” he said.
The Bongaon Lok Sabha seat comprises seven assembly segments: Kalyani, Haringhata, Bagda, Bongaon Uttar, Bongaon Dakshin, Gaighata and Swarupnagar. All are reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates. In the 2009 polls (the first after the formation of this new constituency), the Trinamool’s Gobinda Chandra Naskar won by garnering a 50.69 per cent vote share while CPI-M’s Asim Bala came second with 42.08 per cent votes and the BJP’s Krishnapada Majumdar came a distant third with just 3.95 per cent votes.
In the 2014 polls, the Trinamool’s Kapil Krishna Thakur won the seat, but the party’s vote share had declined by 7.75 per cent to 42.94 per cent. The CPI-M’s Debesh Das came second, but the communist party’s vote share has also declined by a significant 10.56 per cent (from 42.08 per cent in 2009 to 31.52 per cent in 2014).
However, the BJP’s vote share increased by a handsome 15.12 per cent to 19.07 per cent. In the 2015 bypolls that saw the victory of Trinamool’s Mamatabala Thakur, the CPI-M’s vote share declined by another 2.8 per cent while the BJP’s vote share increased by 3.7 per cent.
The Battle Now
The Matuas are divided between Mamatabala and her nephew Shantanu. Mamatabala, though, is on the defensive and tries to bat, often unsuccessfully, to justify her party’s opposition to the Citizenship Bill. The BJP has also met with significant success in projecting Shantanu, a suave, English-speaking person, who spent time in Australia, with Mamatabala who is not an effective communicator.
“We need an MP who can speak in Parliament and highlight issues we Matuas face. Shantanu Thakur is best-suited for that. Mamatabala, in the four years that she has been in the Lok Sabha, has hardly spoken because she cannot speak. Also, there are good prospects of Shantanu getting some ministerial portfolio if he wins. It is quite apparent that the NDA will form the government at the Centre once again and it will help us Matuas and all of Bongaon if our MP is made a minister. The Trinamool has no chance of being anywhere near power at the Centre, so there is no point in electing Mamatabala, who will be a silent MP in the opposition benches,” reasoned Sourangshu Mondal, a buildings material supplier in Bongaon town.
Amarendra Kumar Das, a retired professor of chemistry who resides close to ‘Thakurbari’ in Thakurnagar town, is “fed up” with the Trinamool. “They (the Trinamool) are a party of goons. They are corrupt and extortionists. And they have divided the Matuas by interfering in the affairs of the Matua Mahasangh and injecting poisonous politics into it. They have created a division in the Thakurbari,” fumed Das.
His septuagenarian neighbour Bishnupada Haldar says that the Trinamool has vitiated the atmosphere in Thakurnagar. “The Trinamool is a highly authoritarian party where the wishes of just one person (Mamata Banerjee) matter. The manner in which Shantanu Thakur was arrested on false charges last year, and the suspicious road accident in which he suffered serious injuries on Sunday, smack of vendetta politics. The Trinamool’s politics is distasteful and needs to be rejected,” said Haldar.
There are some, of course, who support the Trinamool. “Mamata Banerjee has done a lot for us. She has given us recognition and has now promised a development board for Matuas. She has promised a university after our revered gurus Harichand and Guruchand. ‘Boroma’ was accorded the highest civilian honour, ‘Banga Vibhushan’ by her, and ‘Boroma’ was also given a state funeral. A lot of development work has taken place,” says Sumit Majumder, 43, who runs an automobile service centre at Kalyani town.
But his friend, college teacher Saumitra Kar, counters him: “All the development that has taken place has happened with funds provided by the NDA government. Had Mamata Banerjee been civil towards the BJP, we could have benefitted much more. Bongaon, and Bengal, has suffered due to Mamata Banerjee’s unnecessary clashes with the Union government. And she opposes the NDA in order to gain popularity amongst Muslims, caring little if the state’s interests suffer as a result”.
Like other parts of Bengal, the extortion and hooliganism by Trinamool workers and leaders, the faction feuds within that party, the high handedness and autocratic attitude of senior Trianmool leaders and the party chief, their undemocratic acts and acts of political intolerance, and the perceived tilt of Mamata Banerjee towards Muslims at the cost of Matuas has angered the electorate.
The visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders, including party chief Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, to Bongaon, have made an impact. And the promise of citizenship to the long-suffering Matua migrants could be the ultimate game-changer in Bongaon.