On his two-day visit to Bangladesh starting Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have a lot on his plate. He will be the chief guest at Bangladesh's National Day celebrations on Friday, which will commemorate the birth centenary of the father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He will offer prayers to Goddess Kali at the ancient Jashoreshwari Kali Temple, one of the 51 shaktipeeths in the Hindu puranic tradition. He will also hold an interaction with representatives of the Matua community at Orakandi, from where the founder Sri Sri Harichand Thakur disseminated his pious message.
Who are the Matuas, and what is the political significance of his meeting the community in light of the West Bengal assembly elections which will commence on March 27?
Who are the Matuas?
The Matuas, backward caste communities who originally hail from Bangladesh, faced religious persecution in their homeland. Around 2 crore Matuas flooded into West Bengal after partition and even after the 1971 Bangladesh war. Many of the Matuas even today do not have citizenship in West Bengal.
They have voting rights and other documentary evidence, but they lack full citizenship, which has resulted in land ownership issues. They are a Vaishnavite sect, founded by a former untouchable Sri Sri Harichand Thakur, whose reformist messages to completely reject the concept of caste elevated him to an almost divine figure before his followers. One of their main pilgrimage sites is at Thakur Nagar in Bongaon district.
Political significance of Matuas
If they are ever to cripple the TMC in South Bengal, and have a chance of winning the state, Matua votes are crucial for the BJP. The community has significant presence in districts like Nadia and North 24 Parganas, and can turn the election in over 30 assembly seats—from places like Bongaon, Bagda, Ashok Nagar, Bhatpara, Gaighata, Kalyani, Haringhata, Ranaghat and Krishnagunj. Originally, the Matuas stood strongly with the Left parties, but defected in favour of the TMC after the latter appeased them with land rights and official recognition. Currently, the BJP—with promises of full citizenship in the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)—have bitten into a large chunk of the votebank.
The saffron party has made significant inroads in the refugee and the subaltern belts. The BJP has over the years expanded its support base in tribal-dominated Junglemahal and in border areas that have a sizeable population of refugees from Bangladesh, especially the Matuas and Namashudras.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the reverberations of the Matua shift were clear-cut; constituencies like Barrackpore, Bongaon and Ranaghat shifted to the BJP, courtesy the Matuas. As The Indian Express reported, the BJP in 2019 had led in 33 of 68 SC assembly seats, of which 26 are Matua-dominated.
Will the community vote as a monolith for the BJP?
That does not look probable. The delay over the implementation of the CAA has alienated a section of Matuas, who had voted for the BJP in 2019. Morever, Mamata has gone hard into appeasing the community, in an attempt to bring them back into the TMC fold. In November 2020, the state government had granted land rights to 1.25 lakh refugee families, allotted Rs 10 crore to the Matua Development Board and Rs 5 crore to the Namashudra Development Board. Mamata had also announced that the history of their founding fathers Harichand Thakur and Guruchand Thakur would be a part of the state curriculum.
In an address before the community, Mamata had said that BJP's plan to implement CAA would be an unmitigated disaster for the Matuas. Reported Economic Times: "I am asking my Matua brothers and sisters. How long have you been in Bengal? You are safe and secure under this state government. Matuas are already citizens. After the Citizenship Bill will be applied, you will have no land/no identity,” she said.
The Matua clan is also split politically. Binapani Devi, popularly known as Boro Ma, was the late matriarch of the community, whom both the BJP and the TMC aggressively wooed. Boro Ma's recent passing has left the family split on the issue of political affiliations. One group of the family of Boro Ma is close to the Trinamool Congress with a daughter-in-law, Mamata Bala Thakur, being a Lok Sabha MP. The other group in Boro Ma's family has allied with the BJP. This group is led by one of her sons, Manjul Krishna Thakur, a former minister in Mamata Banerjee's first government and now a BJP leader.
-Inputs from Rabi Banerjee