Other States

In West Bengal, the die is cast here

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With 75 per cent of the Assembly seats, the southern regions — home of the Matuas — traditionally decide the winner.

As the elections are under way in the crucial southern parts of West Bengal, all eyes are on a 94-year-old woman. For, millions of Matuas, a sect founded by the 19th-century social reformer Harichand Thakur in today’s Bangladesh, venerate Binapani Devi, called Boro Ma or elder mother.

“Matuas reside in at least 78 Assembly segments in six districts of West Bengal. Boro Ma and the Matua Mahasangha [a socio-religious body of the Namasudra caste] have reasonable control over them,” says Ms. Devi’s daughter-in-law and Trinamool Congress MP, Mamatabala Thakur. The Mahasangha is an apolitical organisation.

While the size of the sect is not known, Ms. Devi’s son, former Trinamool Minister Manjul Krishna Thakur, sets the figure at “over 30 million” in south Bengal. A lot would thus depend on Boro Ma and the community’s wishes, as the region, with 75 per cent of the seats, traditionally decides the winner in the State.

About 80 kilometres northwest of Kolkata, Thakurnagar town, adjacent to Bangladesh, is considered the Mecca of Matuas as Harichand’s great grandson and Ms. Devi’s husband, Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, a Congress leader, settled here. Eventually, millions arrived from East Pakistan after Partition to settle in eastern and central Indian camps. Many of them were Matuas, and Thakurnagar remained their nerve centre.

“Thakurnagar and Matuas’ relationship with elections is multi-layered,” said Praskanva Sinharay, a Ph.D. scholar researching the sect. “At one level, they are members of a ‘non-party organisation’ [Matua Mahasangha] mobilised autonomously over the past decade, whereas at another level they are ‘Dalit refugees’ who are yet to receive full citizenship and vote as D [doubtful] voters, under the Citizenship Amendment Act,” Mr. Sinharay said. The 2003 Act identifies a majority of Matuas, who arrived after 1971, as “illegal migrants”. It is an issue hardly addressed by parties.

“It is an issue but voters know it is settled. The Bill to amend the Act will be mooted in Parliament soon,” Ms. Thakur said.

But getting citizenship may not be easy.

“There are dalals [middlemen] who can smuggle you to Bangladesh or Bangladeshis to India without papers for a few thousand bucks. It is impossible to challenge this economic model by specifying a cut-off date for refugees under a new law,” said a resident. The other factor is connected to realpolitik.

“Amendment may put an end to this labelling of Muslim migrants as ‘illegal immigrants’, but Hindus as ‘refugees’ to polarise communities for electoral advantage,” said a former Vice-Chancellor.

A 42-year-old disciple of Boro Ma, Sunirmal Biswas [name changed], a landless farmer of Thakurnagar, has studied the Matua-election relationship like a diligent social scientist. He said that while the Matua Mahasangha is “an apolitical body”, it has evolved into a powerful “election-influencing network” as it can issue identity cards to Matuas from Bangladesh. The card initially helps an immigrant get a ration card and eventually an identity as an Indian voter. “This has made Mahasangha exceptionally powerful,” Mr. Biswas said.

Mamata’s master plan

Realising Mahasangha’s potential, Mamata Banerjee launched her “Matua master plan.” In 2009, Ms. Banerjee landed up literally at Boro Ma’s feet, nominated family members to appease the Mahasangha and bagged the majority of Dalit seats in 2011. The Left was caught off guard. “Mamata Banerjee lacked the Left’s network and used the Mahasangha’s network to consolidate,” Mr. Sinharay said.

Many within the Trinamool said Ms. Banerjee replaced “class politics with politics of identity”, which paid off in south Bengal where the party bagged 191 of the 218 Assembly segments in 2014. However, owing to terrible infighting in Boro Ma’s family and the ruling party, the Trinamool may not get as many Dalit seats in 2016, say leaders of the Left-Congress alliance.

“Battle for Matua seats thus is even, like in the rest of Bengal,” says Mr. Biswas.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 12:17:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/in-west-bengal-the-die-is-cast-here/article8520737.ece

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