As anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests rock Bengal, BJP goes all out to woo Matuas miffed by Assam NRC

  • The political acid test for the BJP lies in getting the support of the Matua community for the 2021 Assembly elections in Bengal

  • The Matua, the largest Scheduled Caste community of Bengali Hindus, are a direct beneficiary of the Act

  • They were miffed after the National Register of Citizens in Assam excluded around 12 lakh Bengalis: a vast majority of them Matuas

As West Bengal is rocked by anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, battle lines have been drawn between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. The political acid test for the BJP lies in getting the support of the Matua community for the 2021 Assembly elections in Bengal.

The Matua, the largest Scheduled Caste community of Bengali Hindus, are a direct beneficiary of the Act. They were miffed after the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam excluded around 12 lakh Bengalis: a vast majority of them Matuas. There are more than one crore Matua voters in West Bengal alone, and their support could be decisive in around 60 to 70 seats.

 As anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests rock Bengal, BJP goes all out to woo Matuas miffed by Assam NRC

Protesters block a railway track at Uluberia Station during their agitation in Howrah district of West Bengal. PTI

The sect, propounded by 19th Century social reformer Harichand Thakur to escape untouchability and discrimination, has its origin in formerly undivided India’s East Bengal, now Bangladesh.

In Bongaon and Ranaghat, two of the most prestigious seats known as the Matua bastion, the BJP had trounced the TMC in 2019 polls. But the long shadow of NRC in Assam and the fate of lakhs of Scheduled Castes being struck off from the NRC instilled in the Matuas the fear of being deported or send to detention centres.

The anxiety was visible at the hustings during the recently concluded Assembly bypolls in Nadia's Karimpur, where the TMC not only retained the seat but increased their vote share to 50.1 percent, up from 36.3 percent during the Lok Sabha polls. Kaliaganj is another seat in Malda bordering Bangladesh that saw Mamata Banerjee’s party increasing its vote share by more than 20 percent. Both seats, especially Karimpur, has a sizeable section of Matuas.

In Bengal, from political pundits in television channels to newspaper columnists and even the odd party worker manning the local office know that without the vote of the Matuas it is tough to defeat any incumbent government. And citizenship is core to Matua struggle as scores of these Scheduled Caste people arrived from Bangladesh through these years.

The importance of the Matua vote can be gauged by the fact that in 2010, when the Matuas, under their spiritual and community leader Binapani Devi, held a protest demanding citizenship, leaders across the political spectrum — TMC, BJP, Congress and Left Front — visited her and promised support. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited ‘boroma’ — the supreme mother — as Binapani Devi is affectionately referred to, and promised to end the plight of the Matuas. By passing the Act, the BJP might have stolen a march its competition.

Matua leaders, on the condition of anonymity, said that before the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, Amit Shah met a Matua delegation who explained to him the need for citizenship and urged him to bring in a bill to grant them the right to live in India. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi, before the 2019 polls, went Thakurbari and promised the Matuas citizenship. We are fulfilling the promises that were made,” Anirban Ganguly, director at Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation said.

To understand why the issue of citizenship is so central to Matua politics one needs to appreciate the distinct reason for their influx from the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The Matua were forced to cross the border due to religious persecution. Their influx has been an ongoing process. “Every time a riot occurred or their land snatched, after the late prime minister Mujibur Rahman’s assassination, these Scheduled Caste people had nowhere to go but to flee to India,” Birat Bairagya, a Matua scholar said.

But it is the poor that lead a hand-to-mouth existence. The more fortunate, by the virtue of bribing officials or political workers, manage to procure some sort of identity or foothold, but the vast majority face an uphill battle. “You won’t believe the extent of poverty and exploitation that some of these refugees face in their day-to-day struggle,” Kanu Halder, a former student of Presidency College who is pursuing his doctorate said. “If I use the word ‘exploit’ in connection to these people it would still be an understatement. The Act in black and white provides some solace or succor to these hapless people.”

People like Bairagya and other community leaders were miffed when the Matuas failed to make the NRC list in Assam. But they believe the CAA is the perfect panacea to address the situation. However, Mamata Bala Thakur, former TMC MP from Bongaon and chief of one of the factions of Matua Mahasangha, the highest decision-making body of the sect, remains skeptical. “The Act is silent about how a Matua will prove that he or she came to India before December 31, 2014. We (Matua Mahasangha) had demanded that anyone who came before the cut-off date should be given citizenship automatically,” Thakur said.

Sources within the BJP said documentation or lack thereof won’t be a stumbling block in gaining citizenship. Even a certificate from the local panchayat office or two Indian citizens attesting in prescribed format that the refugee has stayed more than five years in India will be accepted as a proof. Matua leaders though say that they will keep a close tab as to prevent members of the sect from being harassed in the name of providing citizenship.

Political analyst Maidul Islam says that this step was taken for political mobilisation, to control the discourse and believes that the key for the BJP will hinge upon in its ability to get the message across to the majority community in Bengal. But he has a more pertinent question: “How will the authorities determine whether a person is a Hindu, Sikh, Jain or a Muslim refugee?”

Even the Matuas are not completely waiving off the chances of irregularities when providing citizenship but, for now, politically it’s an advantage for the saffron brigade.

Jagannath Sarkar of the BJP, a Lok Sabha MP from Ranaghat in West Bengal claimed that the whole community is rejoicing the passage of the Act. Sarkar believes that post the CAA, despite TMC’s reservations, NRC will eventually happen in Bengal. “With CAA paving the way to provide citizenship to those Bengali Hindus whose names were struck off from the NRC the Matua are a relieved community today,” Sarkar, himself a Matua, added.

But economist and political commentator Prasenjit Bose begs to differ, “The passage of CAA won't mean Bengali Hindus excluded from NRC in Assam will get an automatic reprieve. BJP minister Himanta Biswa Sharma himself said only 5 lakh out of 12 lakh NRC-excluded Bengali Hindus will benefit. If that's the case, how can the BJP claim that it is protecting Hindu interests? They are duping the Hindu refugees." Though BJP leaders have assured the Bengali Hindus won’t be left out, its government in Assam has to walk the talk.

Nevertheless, with Bengal on the edge over the CAA, the BJP might find it easier to mobilise voters on other issues. The flare up of the protests in Bengal, which professor Biswanath Chakraborty says resulted due to ‘indifference of the administration’, might lead to polarisation.

However, Chakraborty issues a note of caution, “The BJP in Bengal doesn’t have the organisational structure to counter Trinamool’s public relations campaign aimed at instilling fear among the Matuas of being deported or sent to detention centres.” Indeed, Mamata has already hit the ground running by visiting ‘refugee colonies’.

The BJP, according to Chakraborty, has been unable to match TMC’s well-oiled campaign machine. But Ganguly feels that the Matuas have already seen through the machinations of the CPM during its 34-year rule and now the same applies to TMC. “Mamata tailed ‘boroma’ to garner the support of the Matuas. For 30 percent minority votes why are you jeopardizing the future of lakhs of Hindu refugees – a majority of them Scheduled Caste?” he asked.

If the protesters pay little or no heed to chief minister’s appeal for calm, the situation might quickly get out of hand. In the past few years, Bengal  has witnessed a large number of low-intensity riots. The BJP has been quick to capitalise even as the authorities did little to bring the rioters to justice.

If the same thing happens this time, the saffron brigade will gain an upper hand over the TMC. Kolkata mayor Firhad Hakim has blamed the BJP for the unrest but Hakim’s message might lack the punch as the most vehement protests – in Uluberia, Sankrail and Beldanga – were  in areas with a considerable minority presence. Right now, the optics favour the BJP. ​

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Updated Date: Dec 17, 2019 15:15:07 IST