Swaying Matua Votes: Why Modi’s Visit to Bangladesh is Well Timed

Modi is scheduled to visit Orakandi, a sacred place for Matuas – an important electoral group in West Bengal.

Updated
West Bengal
3 min read
Modi attended an event at the National Martyr’s Memorial and the National Day programme in Dhaka.
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first international visit since the coronavirus pandemic with a trip to Bangladesh beginning 26 March, scheduled to last over two days.

The Prime Minister's trip comes as the states of West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the union territory of Puducherry go to polls. In fact, the first phase of elections in Bengal and Assam begin on 27 March, while Modi will be in Bangladesh.

The Prime Minister's visit is of particular interest to West Bengal as his itinerary includes a trip to Thakurbari in Orakandi, a sacred place for the Matua sect, a sizeable population in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. At Orakandi, the Prime Minister will also meet members of the community.

Who Are The Matuas?

The Matuas are a sub-sect of the scheduled Namashudra caste group.

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.

Harichand Thakur was born in Orakandi and also died there in 1878. The Shri Shri Harichand temple and the Hari temple of Guruchand in Orakandi is now a shrine for the founder of the Matua movement.

After Harichand’s death, 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.

Matuas In West Bengal

The Matua community is one of the most important electoral groups in West Bengal with a population of over 3 crore, according to community estimates and 1.8 crore, according to government estimates.

The community is said to have influence over 70 Assembly constituencies in the state, spread across the districts of North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Nadia and other smaller pockets of North and South Bengal.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP swayed the Matua vote in Bengal to its side on the back of one thing only – the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), then the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), yet to be introduced in Parliament.

The assurance of citizenship caught the imagination of the Matuas in Bengal, most of whom are refugees from Bangladesh. More operatively for the BJP, the are Hindu refugees from Bangladesh, who were persecuted for their religious identity.

BJP Influence Among Matuas

While Matuas voted with the BJP in 2019, the community soon started expressing their dissent against the party after the CAA was passed, but no talks on citizenship for Matuas surfaced thereafter.

The Assam NRC, in which several Hindus were reportedly dropped from the final list, also caused a stir amongst the community.

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 invited internal criticism from BJP MP Shantanu Thakur, a member of the Thakur family, the leading family of the Matua Mahasangha.

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.

Meanwhile, at a rally in West Bengal's Thakurnagar, the headquarters of the Matua Mahasangha, Home Minister Amit Shah promised that the CAA will be implemented "after the COVID-19 vaccination is over."

As Matua-heavy zones in the state go to polls from the second phase onwards, the BJP is hoping that Prime Minister Modi's outreach will help consolidate the community's support for the saffron brigade.

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