The Matua community which is considered the Dalits of Bengal mostly reside on the Bangladesh border in the districts including Nadia and North 24 Parganas
Matuas, the untouchables in the Bengal caste system, are considered one of the most important voter bases of the BJP in the state. In a first of its kind move, the Matua Mahasangha which is the umbrella organisation of the community has decided to send a delegation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and pan Bengal to protest against the delay in implementing Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
On one hand, this decision has sent the message of dissatisfaction within the community against the BJP and on the other hand, the political observers believe that this is an ultimatum to the ruling party to implement the CAA.
During the campaign for the 2021 Assembly elections, the BJP promised that if the party comes to power in Bengal then in their first cabinet meeting the CAA will be passed.
The Matuas of Bengal believed this promise and vowed their support to the BJP.
The community which is considered the Dalits of Bengal mostly reside on the Bangladesh border in the districts including Nadia and North 24 Parganas. According to the 2021 Assembly election results, the BJP won around 13 seats from the Matua dominated areas whereas Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool Congress won just five seats. However recently the uneasiness within the community came in front of the people after Union Minister of State Shantanu Thakur slammed the BJP over the lack of representation of the community in the Bengal unit of the party.
Who are Matuas?
Matua is a sect that belongs to the Namasudra caste which is considered untouchable in Bengal’s caste system. These people came to West Bengal from Bangladesh after the partition as refugees. The Matua Mahasangha is an umbrella organisation that was formed through religious reforms. The Matua Mahasangha was established by Hatichand Thakur in the mid-19th Century. However, the movement of this sect became popular under the leadership of Guruchand Thakur the son of Harichand.
Why Matuas are politically significant
The exact number of the community’s population is not known. While the community leaders believe that there are more than three crores Matuas the Bengal government believes that there are more than 1.75 crores Matua voters. Initially this community supported the Congress party in Bengal but they gradually shifted their support towards the left front from 1977.
However, there were several disagreements between the community and the Left leaders because the Left Front did not provide them citizenship and land rights. Meanwhile, in 2010 Late Boro Ma the matriarch of the Matua Mahasangha took the side of TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee. Until 2019 the community was completely with Banerjee. The turmoil started after the death of Boro Ma as the family got divided. Her one son and his family stayed with TMC and the other son and his family joined BJP.
Bengal shares a long border with Bangladesh and has a significant amount of voters which belong to the families of refugees. This is why the refugee vote is important to any political party. Matuas are the largest section of Hindu refugees, therefore, they play a key role to determine the fates of political parties during elections.
Reasons behind feeling neglected
Several leaders from the community said that the BJP-ruled central government has not yet accepted any of the demands made by the Matuas. They also pointed out that this behaviour of the party has terrorised a significant section of the community. Senior office-bearers of All India Matua Mahasangh and BJP MLA Mukutmani Adhikari said, “The reality is that we submitted 11 demands from our community in front of the central leadership. The party has not fulfilled a single demand of our community.”
Recently Shantanu Thakur held a closed-door meeting with other BJP Motua MLAs including Adhikari, Subrata Thakur and Ashok Kirtania where they reportedly decided regarding the plan to go forward with their demands.
Adhikari said, “Our community stood beside the BJP because we are hardcore believers of Hindutva. However, for us, the most important thing is our community. If such attitude of the BJP continues then there will be no one to blame if any person from the Matua community shifts the support towards other political parties.”
However, the section of Dalits who are close to the Trinamool Congress believes that these community leaders are just trying to manipulate the BJP to gain more benefits from the party and they are not looking into the development of the Matuas. Noted author and TMC MLA Manoranjan Byapari who comes from the Namasudra community said, “It pains me to see the way these leaders are bargaining with the party for their own benefit. The BJP is a casteist party who will never look after the Dalits.”
Why CAA is a big deal for Matuas
The community has been demanding the amendment of the Citizenship Act of 2003 for a long time. The Matuas believe that the provisions of the Citizenship Act of 2003 made it difficult for the refugees like them to get citizenship. Meanwhile, after the community gave their support to the BJP during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections the party in the same year brought the controversial CAA. The community believed that after the implementation of CAA they will get their citizenship.
A senior office bearer of all India Matua Mahasangh Mukutmani Adhikari said, “We have been fighting for citizenship for the past 20 years. After the CAA was brought we became very hopeful that now we will get citizenship. Starting from the Congress party to the CPM and Trinamool Congress every political party has always made big promises to us but never gave us recognition after they have won. This is why the community has a distrust against the political dispensations.”
Several people from the community opined that there is a tussle between Mamata Banerjee and the Central government which means if the Centre does not take special initiative then the decisions of the state might prevail which will define the fates of the Matuas. Banerjee led state government has already declared that they will not implement the CAA and that is why if the Central government also neglect the issue then the community fears losing their hope of getting citizenship.
Why there is growing discontent within Matuas against BJP
For the past several weeks, representatives of the community have directly attacked the state unit of the BJP. Shantanu Thakur himself has slammed the Bengal BJP. The leaders of the community believe that in the newly constructed state committee the BJP has not given any representation to the Matuas.
Mukutmani Adhikari said, “First of all there is no clash between the Matuas and the BJP. Our caste system and the entire political system must be changed. The Dalits do not get proper representation in any political party and this is a fight our community will always fight. We are hopeful that the central leadership will accept our demands soon. Senior BJP leader BL Santhosh and Bengal BJP chief Sukanta Majumdar have already talked to Shantanu Thakur and we are trying to pacify the discontent within the community.“
Meanwhile, political observers from Bengal opined that this battle is not an easy one. Though the key stakeholders of the community are scared because they have sensed that the Matuas who supported the BJP might shift their backing towards the TMC.
A senior journalist from Bengal with the condition of anonymity said, “The family of Shantanu Thakur is already divided. A section is with the Trinamool Congress and they also have good support from the community. Today due to the attitude of the Bharatiya Janata party the community leaders are scared that with time the grassroots Matuas will shift their support towards the TMC.”
The journalist also explained Mamata Banerjee government has taken several important decisions which are directly helping the community. “Starting from the financial assistance schemes to the talks of Matua development board today chief minister Mamata Banerjee is trying to woo the community. If we look into the margins by which the BJP has won the last election we will find that it is very less. This shows that already a good amount of people from the community supports Banerjee,” he said.
How BJP is trying to pacify discontent among Matuas
Significantly the state unit of the BJP has maintained complete silence over the growing discontent within the community. However, according to sources, the central leadership has already taken initiatives to pacify the discontent within the community.
Adhikari said, “I am hopeful that the central leadership after finishing the campaigns of the upcoming elections will look into our demands and try to bring a possible solution. However, we have decided to plan a nationwide protest demanding the implementation of the CAA. The political discontent is an internal matter but our demand of citizenship has a long history.”
Meanwhile, the sources close to Bengal BJP chief Sukanta Majumdar confirmed that a section of the state unit of the party is not happy with the demands of the community because they feel that these leaders are trying to pressurise the leadership.
A senior state BJP office-bearer who did not want to be named said, “It is indeed an internal matter and that is why the state BJP leadership has not made any comment on the issue. However, some senior members are continuously attacking the party in front of the media which is not a good thing. We have taken action against two such people and if needed we will take more stringent action against others. We have a decorum. If any leader has any issue they must raise these issues internally and not in front of the media.”
The author is an independent journalist based in Kolkata and a former policy research fellow at Delhi Assembly Research Center. Views are personal. He tweets as @sayantan_gh
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