Explained: Why The Matua Vote Is Crucial For Bengal Elections

With a population of over 3 crore, the Matua community is being courted by every political party in Bengal.

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Politics
6 min read
 <p>Explained: Why The Matua Vote Is Crucial For Bengal Elections</p>
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In the run-up to the West Bengal elections this year, caste has become a major talking point. At the centre of this caste vote bank politics is the Matua community – a scheduled caste group with a population of over 3 crore across the state, having influence in over 70 assembly constituencies, and spread across the districts of North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Nadia and other smaller pockets of North and South Bengal.

That apart, West Bengal has 10 out of its 42 parliamentary constituencies reserved for the scheduled castes and has the second highest SC population in the country. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won four of these ten scheduled caste seats, swaying the Matua vote on the back of one thing only- the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which, after the party came to power, became the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Explained: Why The Matua Vote Is Crucial For Bengal Elections

  1. 1. Matuas And The CAA

    To understand why the CAA has caught the Matua community's imagination, let’s do a short refresher on the history of the community.

    The Matuas are Namashudras - a caste group that falls outside the four-tier Hindu varna system. They were earlier referred to as “Chandals”, often used as a slur in most parts of Bengal even today. The Matua movement started as a caste uprising in undivided Bengal, originating in the Faridpur district of East Bengal in the mid 19th century. It was led by Harichand Thakur, who was born into a peasant Namashudra family. He established the Matua Mahasangha, or the Matua sect of Vaishnavite Hinduism which did not adhere to the varna system. After Harichand’s death in 1878, his son Guruchand Thakur provided a boost to the movement and increased its infuence over large sections of the community. The movement also attracted some other Dalit groups.

    Both the Namashudra and the Matua community grew in the years leading up to Independence. In the Partition of Bengal that followed, West Bengal saw a large-scale influx of these social groups from East Bengal, now Bangladesh.

    The Matuas, therefore, are refugees…operatively for the BJP, they are Hindu refugees who were “persecuted” in some other country and will be granted “citizenship” under the CAA in a country in which they have been living in since Partition.

    In Bengal, the Matua caste group in the south and the Rajbongshi caste group in the north, became the main target groups for the BJP in terms of its CAA push, 2019 onwards.

    Expand
  2. 2. Why Do Matuas Want Citizenship?

    In Bengal, just like the CAA has become a demand for the Matua community, it has also resonated with certain sections of Hindus, who are now demanding justice for their brethren who were "persecuted" in other countries. At at a BJP rally in Thakurnagar in the North 24 Parganas district, which is considered to be the epicentre of Matua politics in Bengal, people tell The Quint why the CAA is important to them. The rally was led by BJP leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. They say that a voters' card or an Aadhar card is not enough. What they want is a “citizenship card”.

    “A few days ago I had gone to get my mother’s passport made. The BDO asked my mother for her parent’s papers. My mother got married a year before 1971. She came here after that. If she’s being asked for her parent’s papers, then what citizenship do we have here? Our Chief Minister, in a meeting, said that Matuas are already citizens, then why do they need to be made citizens? I have just one question, if we are citizen then why are our SC cards and voter cards not enough? Why are we asked for so many additional documents? If we are citizens of India, why are we always scrutinized?”, asked Ranjan Biswas, a member of the Matua community, who was at the rally.

    “I don't have a separate citizenship for India. I have a voter card, I have a Aadhar card, but that it not proof of nationality in any country. Look at western countries. There they have a citizenship card. They have their identity as citizens and the card proves that. No one has thought about this in our country before. People have been given voter cards and kept as voters to win elections", said Abhishek Chowdhury, also at the rally.

    The genesis of this thought goes back to what the Matuas refer to as the kala kanoon of 2003, the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2003, which was implemented by the then NDA government led by PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

    The Act had made a provision to declare those refugees who had come to India after 1971 as “illegal migrants” and also to disenfranchise their children who were born on Indian soil. The Act also mandated the Union government to create a National Register of Citizens (NRC). This got the Matua community stuck on a sticky wicket because many of them who were in West Bengal had shifted to the state after the Bangladesh War of 1971. The 2019 CAA, in a way, undoes the 2003 Act.

    Expand
  3. 3. Matua Politics In Bengal

    In West Bengal, the influence of the Matua Mahasangh was increased and propagated by Guruchand Thakur’s son, Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, and his wife Binapani Devi, popularly known as “Boromaa”.

    After PR Thakur’s death, Boromaa was considered to be the chief matriarch of the Matua community till her death in 2019. Over the years, while many political parties and leaders have sought the blessings of Boromaa and Thakur the family, many from the family have also entered politics.

    Initially behind the Congress in the state, the community turned towards the Left Front from 1977. In 2009, both Left leaders and Mamata Banerjee approached Boromaa separately, and she chose the latter. Thereafter in 2010, Boromaa made Banerjee the chief patron of Matua Mahasabha. For her part, Mamata continued to make efforts to win over the community first as Railway Minister when she spruced up the Thakurnanagar Railways station, and then as Chief Minister, when she made schools and colleges, named after Matua leaders, in Thakurnagar.

    She also gave Trinamool Congress tickets to Boromaa’s two sons, Kapil Krishna Thakur and Manjul Krishna Thakur for the Lok Sabha and the West Bengal assembly respectively.

    The split in the Thakur family comes after Kapil Krishna Thakur’s death in 2014, when his wife Mamata Bala Thakur took over his parliamentary seat. In 2015, Manjul Thakur joined the BJP, along with his sons Subrata Thakur and Shantanu Thakur. However, in the 2016 state elections too, the Matua community voted overwhelmingly for Mamata.

    Just before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Boromaa in Bengal, coincidentally just a few months before her passing, and promised citizenship to Matuas, if they came to power. He was invited by Shantanu Thakur, who fought against Mamata Bala Thakur on a BJP ticket for her Bongaon seat. Shantanu won that election.

    Speaking to The Quint, Mamata Bala Thakur says that the reason for her defeat, however, was not the CAA. She also believes that she, and not Shantanu, is the true heir of Boromaa’s legacy.

    "At that time, the people in the CPI(M) shifted to the BJP. If the party’s Matua votes would have reduced, the after I stood for the 2015 elections, when I stood in 2019, my votes would have reduced. In fact, I got about 37,000 votes more", says Mamata Bala.

    “When she (Boromaa) was dying, she said “Mamata I will stay inside you.” She said this many times in front of many in the Matua community", she adds.

    Interestingly, after the Assam NRC and reports that a large number of Hindus were left out of the final NRC list, the Matuas became a little circumspect about the CAA.

    Shortly thereafter, the BJP stopped mentioning the CAA or the NRC in its elections campaigns in Bengal after an internal survey by the party showed that both these issues were not cutting much ice with the electorate. This irked Shantanu Thakur who made his disappointment with the party public. After repeated attempts to pacify him by the BJP high command, he seems to be back on party lines, however sources say, he is not willing to let the CAA issue go.

    Expand
  4. 4. What Next For The Matuas?

    The Matua community is now being showered with poll sops and constant visits from leaders of both the BJP and the TMC.

    In November last year, Mamata Banerjee announced land rights for 25,000 refugee families in the state and said that ultimately 1.25 lakh families would set to gain from this announcement. She also allotted Rs 10 crore to the Matua Development Board and Rs 5 crore to the Namashudra Development Board.

    Meanwhile, after circumventing the CAA issue in many rallies lunches with the Matua community, Home Minister Amit Shah has announced that the CAA in Bengal will be implemented after the “COVID vaccination drive is over”.

    So while some in the community are vehemently opposing the Act, others seem to be in agreement with what Shah has said and his plan of action.

    Will the BJP hold on to its Matua vote from 2019? Or will the TMC's caste strategy bear fruit? Well, as they say in Bengal these days, in the coming months- Khela Hobe.

    (The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

    Expand

Matuas And The CAA

To understand why the CAA has caught the Matua community's imagination, let’s do a short refresher on the history of the community.

The Matuas are Namashudras - a caste group that falls outside the four-tier Hindu varna system. They were earlier referred to as “Chandals”, often used as a slur in most parts of Bengal even today. The Matua movement started as a caste uprising in undivided Bengal, originating in the Faridpur district of East Bengal in the mid 19th century. It was led by Harichand Thakur, who was born into a peasant Namashudra family. He established the Matua Mahasangha, or the Matua sect of Vaishnavite Hinduism which did not adhere to the varna system. After Harichand’s death in 1878, his son Guruchand Thakur provided a boost to the movement and increased its infuence over large sections of the community. The movement also attracted some other Dalit groups.

Both the Namashudra and the Matua community grew in the years leading up to Independence. In the Partition of Bengal that followed, West Bengal saw a large-scale influx of these social groups from East Bengal, now Bangladesh.

The Matuas, therefore, are refugees…operatively for the BJP, they are Hindu refugees who were “persecuted” in some other country and will be granted “citizenship” under the CAA in a country in which they have been living in since Partition.

In Bengal, the Matua caste group in the south and the Rajbongshi caste group in the north, became the main target groups for the BJP in terms of its CAA push, 2019 onwards.

Why Do Matuas Want Citizenship?

In Bengal, just like the CAA has become a demand for the Matua community, it has also resonated with certain sections of Hindus, who are now demanding justice for their brethren who were "persecuted" in other countries. At at a BJP rally in Thakurnagar in the North 24 Parganas district, which is considered to be the epicentre of Matua politics in Bengal, people tell The Quint why the CAA is important to them. The rally was led by BJP leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. They say that a voters' card or an Aadhar card is not enough. What they want is a “citizenship card”.

“A few days ago I had gone to get my mother’s passport made. The BDO asked my mother for her parent’s papers. My mother got married a year before 1971. She came here after that. If she’s being asked for her parent’s papers, then what citizenship do we have here? Our Chief Minister, in a meeting, said that Matuas are already citizens, then why do they need to be made citizens? I have just one question, if we are citizen then why are our SC cards and voter cards not enough? Why are we asked for so many additional documents? If we are citizens of India, why are we always scrutinized?”, asked Ranjan Biswas, a member of the Matua community, who was at the rally.

“I don't have a separate citizenship for India. I have a voter card, I have a Aadhar card, but that it not proof of nationality in any country. Look at western countries. There they have a citizenship card. They have their identity as citizens and the card proves that. No one has thought about this in our country before. People have been given voter cards and kept as voters to win elections", said Abhishek Chowdhury, also at the rally.

The genesis of this thought goes back to what the Matuas refer to as the kala kanoon of 2003, the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2003, which was implemented by the then NDA government led by PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The Act had made a provision to declare those refugees who had come to India after 1971 as “illegal migrants” and also to disenfranchise their children who were born on Indian soil. The Act also mandated the Union government to create a National Register of Citizens (NRC). This got the Matua community stuck on a sticky wicket because many of them who were in West Bengal had shifted to the state after the Bangladesh War of 1971. The 2019 CAA, in a way, undoes the 2003 Act.

Matua Politics In Bengal

In West Bengal, the influence of the Matua Mahasangh was increased and propagated by Guruchand Thakur’s son, Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, and his wife Binapani Devi, popularly known as “Boromaa”.

After PR Thakur’s death, Boromaa was considered to be the chief matriarch of the Matua community till her death in 2019. Over the years, while many political parties and leaders have sought the blessings of Boromaa and Thakur the family, many from the family have also entered politics.

Initially behind the Congress in the state, the community turned towards the Left Front from 1977. In 2009, both Left leaders and Mamata Banerjee approached Boromaa separately, and she chose the latter. Thereafter in 2010, Boromaa made Banerjee the chief patron of Matua Mahasabha. For her part, Mamata continued to make efforts to win over the community first as Railway Minister when she spruced up the Thakurnanagar Railways station, and then as Chief Minister, when she made schools and colleges, named after Matua leaders, in Thakurnagar.

She also gave Trinamool Congress tickets to Boromaa’s two sons, Kapil Krishna Thakur and Manjul Krishna Thakur for the Lok Sabha and the West Bengal assembly respectively.

The split in the Thakur family comes after Kapil Krishna Thakur’s death in 2014, when his wife Mamata Bala Thakur took over his parliamentary seat. In 2015, Manjul Thakur joined the BJP, along with his sons Subrata Thakur and Shantanu Thakur. However, in the 2016 state elections too, the Matua community voted overwhelmingly for Mamata.

Just before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Boromaa in Bengal, coincidentally just a few months before her passing, and promised citizenship to Matuas, if they came to power. He was invited by Shantanu Thakur, who fought against Mamata Bala Thakur on a BJP ticket for her Bongaon seat. Shantanu won that election.

Speaking to The Quint, Mamata Bala Thakur says that the reason for her defeat, however, was not the CAA. She also believes that she, and not Shantanu, is the true heir of Boromaa’s legacy.

"At that time, the people in the CPI(M) shifted to the BJP. If the party’s Matua votes would have reduced, the after I stood for the 2015 elections, when I stood in 2019, my votes would have reduced. In fact, I got about 37,000 votes more", says Mamata Bala.

“When she (Boromaa) was dying, she said “Mamata I will stay inside you.” She said this many times in front of many in the Matua community", she adds.

Interestingly, after the Assam NRC and reports that a large number of Hindus were left out of the final NRC list, the Matuas became a little circumspect about the CAA.

Shortly thereafter, the BJP stopped mentioning the CAA or the NRC in its elections campaigns in Bengal after an internal survey by the party showed that both these issues were not cutting much ice with the electorate. This irked Shantanu Thakur who made his disappointment with the party public. After repeated attempts to pacify him by the BJP high command, he seems to be back on party lines, however sources say, he is not willing to let the CAA issue go.

What Next For The Matuas?

The Matua community is now being showered with poll sops and constant visits from leaders of both the BJP and the TMC.

In November last year, Mamata Banerjee announced land rights for 25,000 refugee families in the state and said that ultimately 1.25 lakh families would set to gain from this announcement. She also allotted Rs 10 crore to the Matua Development Board and Rs 5 crore to the Namashudra Development Board.

Meanwhile, after circumventing the CAA issue in many rallies lunches with the Matua community, Home Minister Amit Shah has announced that the CAA in Bengal will be implemented after the “COVID vaccination drive is over”.

So while some in the community are vehemently opposing the Act, others seem to be in agreement with what Shah has said and his plan of action.

Will the BJP hold on to its Matua vote from 2019? Or will the TMC's caste strategy bear fruit? Well, as they say in Bengal these days, in the coming months- Khela Hobe.

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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