West Bengal

West Bengal Assembly Elections | Matuas grappling with identity politics

Members of the Matua community at a temple in Bongaon.   | Photo Credit: Subham Datta

On April 14, B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president J.P. Nadda held a road show in Bongaon town. The BJP, for which religious and sub-religious identities have emerged as the most crucial tool of the 2021 campaign in the West Bengal Assembly polls, the date and the place were well chosen.

Since the past two years, Bongaon, a sub-division in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district bordering Bangladesh, is witnessing a new identity politics around the Matua sect, a Scheduled Caste religious group with origins in Bangladesh.

However, a visit to a few areas in Bongaon clearly indicate that the father of the Indian Constitution is not the biggest cultural icon here and not even his birth anniversary is observed widely in the region.

The most important day this year for Matuas fell on April 9, Madhu Krishna Tritiyodashi of the Chaitra month as per the Bengali calendar, the birth anniversary of Harichand Thakur, founder of the Matua sect, said Biswajit Biswas, a resident of ward number 6 of Thakurpally under the Bongoan Uttar Assembly seat, only 5 km from the Bangladesh border.

The house of Mr. Biswas, a retired school teacher, has a temple dedicated to the Matua sect much like the one at Orakandi, which the Prime Minister visited on March 27. On the afternoon of April 14, a number of visitors come to the temple, bowing before the statue of Harichand Thakur, and the conversation veers towards the polls. Most of the constituencies around the area — Bongaon Uttar, Bongaon Dakshin, Gaighata, Bagda and Swaroopnagar — will go to polls in the sixth phase on April 22. All the seats are reserved for Scheduled Caste (SC) candidates.

“There is a lot of misconception about Matuas. It is usually portrayed as the most backward of communities. But as a community, we concentrated on education. Education is something our founders, including Harichand Thakur, emphasised,” Sukumar Das, a retired Indian Air Force officer, said. Mr. Das and a few others also tried to bring in a distinction between the Namashudras and Matuas. “All Namashudras are not Matuas, and Matuas are not Namashudras. The Matua sect is basically a social reform movement,” they said.

Half of those assembled in front of the temple are elderly, mostly retired from government jobs, and for them the promise of citizenship makes little sense. During the campaign, the BJP has been promising the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to end the Matuas’ citizenship woes. Prosenjit Biswas, secretary of the All India Matua Mahasanga, and who backs the Trinamool Congress, said the entire citizenship issue was a hoax.

About 20 km from the habitation is the temple of Thakurbari, the religious headquarters of the order. Besides the five-storey Matua temple on the grounds in Thakurnagar, there are a number of shops that were set up for a fair on April 9. The area falls under the Gaighata Assembly segment, where the BJP has fielded Subrata Thakur, older brother of Bongaon BJP MP, Santanu Thakur. Both of them are members of the Thakurbari family and descendants of Harichand Thakur and Guruchand Thakur, founders of the sect.

The Trinamool Congress has fielded Narottam Biswas from the constituency. He insists that the Matuas are educated enough to counter the narrative of citizenship raised by the BJP. “What documents and proof of citizenship do the rest of the population in the country have that the Matuas do not? The people of the sect are intelligent enough to make a distinction and see through all this,” he insists. Like the TMC candidate, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has also tried to impress upon the electorate that the CAA would not change their lives.

The disadvantage the TMC is facing is that family members of Thakurbari, the members of the sect for whom people have huge respect, are batting for the BJP this time. While Bongaon MP Santanu Thakur and Subrata Thakur are with the BJP, their aunt Mamatabala Thakur is the only person in the family who is siding with the TMC.

It has been almost over five decades since Pramath Ranjan Thakur, a descendant of the founders of the Matua sect, was elected to the West Bengal Assembly on a Congress ticket, and the family members of Thakurbari are making a fresh entry in politics.

It was Trinamool Congress that nominated Manjul Krishna Thakur to the West Bengal Assembly in 2011, and he was also appointed Minister for Refugee Rehabilitation. His brother Kapil Krishna Thakur was elected as MP from Bongaon Lok Sabha in 2014, but he passed away six months after getting elected. Mamatabala Thakur is the wife of the late Kapil Krishna Thakur, while Santanu Thakur and Subrata Thakur are Manjul Krishna Thakur’s sons. While the Matuas have great regard for the members of Thakurbari, a few elderly, educated members of the sect rue the divisions caused in the family by political affiliations.

The temple complex of Thakurbadi, besides the sacred pond called ‘Kamona Sagar’, where devotees can be seen taking a holy dip before offering prayers, is dotted with posters of the BJP nominee Subrata Thakur. An election office of the BJP has come up next to the temple from where Mithun Byaparai, who claims to be one of the assistants to Subrata Thakur, is making arrangements for the campaign.

“CAA is an important issue for us. Though we might have all the necessary citizenship documents, many don’t. Moreover, only having voter cards and Aadhar is no proof of citizenship,” he argued.

To a question on whether the promise of the CAA will help the BJP win, another elderly person came forward with a reply. “The people of West Bengal trust Modi [the PM],” said Tapan Dey, who claimed to have been a BJP worker for the past three decades. Mr. Dey pointed at the grounds where Mr. Modi began his 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign in the State.

From the CAA to Mr. Modi’s appeal, the group of BJP supporters suddenly turn to the “demographic change” which the district has witnessed, and churn out figures that hardly match official Census figures.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 4:11:20 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/west-bengal-assembly/matuas-consider-caa-with-some-confusion/article34352343.ece

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