Refugees or infiltrators? BJP's balancing act leaves Matuas in West Bengal angry and confused

The dread that thousands of members of the Matua community feel in West Bengal stems from the implementation of the NRC in Assam.

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Thakurnagar: Mihir Mondal (42), currently a tea seller, came with his family from Bangladesh's Khulna to Thakurnagar in 1991. A Hindu of the Matua sect, he fears a BJP victory would leave him, and many others like him, facing an uncertain future. "I have been living in India since 1991 and I still have not got any official ID,” said Mondal. “My son has got an Aadhaar card but my wife and I do not have any identity cards. We feel quite threatened to see the current political scenario in the country.”

The dread that Mondal, and thousands of other Matuas like him feel, stems from the implementation of the NRC in Assam, an exercise that, several BJP leaders say, needs to be held in Bengal too. Mihir’s relatives in Assam were left out of the NRC’s first draft, like many other Matuas in the state. “It will be a very stressful time for families like ours,” he said on the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in January to kick off the 2019 election campaign in the state.

That Modi chose this small town on the Bangladesh border, that also happens to be the headquarters of the Matua Mahasangha, is telling. It shows his intention to take on the TMC and Mamata Banerjee, long considered the "protectors" of the Matua community.

Matua women during a protest march. Image: Satwik Paul

Matua women during a protest march. Image: Satwik Paul

The sect, comprising members of the Namasudra caste, was founded by social reformer Harichand Thakur in Bangladesh in the late 1800s. His grandson Pramatha Ranjan established the sect's headquarters at Thakurnagar. The Matuas first started moving into West Bengal in the 1940s. They formed the Matua Sangha in North 24 Parganas in West Bengal and spread out to South 24 Parganas, Dinajpur, Nadia, Cooch Behar and Malda, and parts of the North East. Many still have relatives in Bangladesh and they essentially remain a refugee community even after living in India for many decades.

Matuas in Bengal are mostly involved in unskilled and unorganised labour. Krishnapada Mondal, who works as a rickshaw puller, says, "I came here alone, and had no one with me from my family. My wife hails from Bangaon. My wife and children could get their IDs showing her paternal side's ID proofs and I was left out. Now, my family fears that if the NRC is implemented, I will have to leave this country."

The same fear haunts Shakti Panda, whose wife and children have voter IDs, but he doesn't. The BJP leaders of Thakurnagar had reached out to them and said there will be no deportation and gave other assurances before Modi’s visit. Panda was told that the Matuas will get incentives, Modi would help the Matuas get citizenship, and he would give the Matua guru Guruchand Thakur ( a descendent of Harichand Thakur) a Bharat Ratna. He said, "So we all rushed to hear him. However, to our disappointment, he said nothing in the community's favour."

Govinda Chandra Ghatak, a former school teacher and Matua activist, explained, "The Matuas who came to India were tortured in communal riots in Bangladesh, and in such a situation, you don’t stop to think of first collecting documents like birth certificates or IDs and then take refuge. There would be approximately 75,000 people who don’t have voter rights in Shukiapur, Thakurnagar and Ichapur I and II. Even in Thakurnagar, 40 percent of the Matuas don't have IDs, as per my research. The problem the Matuas confront to acquire a voter ID is the linkage voter rule. "If the father is an Indian voter, then you may become a voter,” said Ghatak. “Many don't have proper documentation. If someone has an Aadhaar number, he/she may not have a ration card; if someone else has a ration card, he/she may not have an Aadhaar number. Now what do you do? You call all these lakhs of people infiltrators?"

Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee has been particularly helpful to the Matuas, claim the people of the community. She flagged off a project to give Thakurnagar its very own university, the Harichand Guruchand Thakur University named after the sect’s founder and his son. When Mamata Banerjee was railway minister, Thakurnagar got its only railway station. Concrete roads were built. Further, Banerjee put funds into a number of devotional activities of the Matuas, helped the community get better educational infrastructure, with Thakurnagar recently getting a government college.

Given the Matua community’s support for Banerjee, the BJP sought to push the argument that only one family, the descendants of the founder of the Matua sect, are getting all the political mileage. Earlier, Matua godmother Binapani Devi (Guruchand Thakur’s wife) had helped Mamata Banerjee enter the Mahasangha and in 2009, she made Banerjee the chief patron of the All India Matua Mahasangha.

Consequently, a splinter group of the Matua Mahasangh has emerged that is more right-leaning and not as sympathetic to the TMC. Dilip Ghosh, BJP West Bengal state president said, "If anyone ever has used Matuas as a vote bank, it is Mamata Banerjee. The BJP wants NRC in Bengal in order to make the lives of people better". In BJP’s calculations is also the fact the Matuas, the second largest Scheduled Caste community in the state, are an influential voting segment in about 74 Assembly segments. Modi’s BJP sabha was obviously an attempt to weaken the support for the TMC, and downplay this refugee-versus-infiltrator argument.

Narendra Modi arriving in Thakurnagar. Image: Satwik Paul

Narendra Modi arriving in Thakurnagar. Image: Satwik Paul

Saikat Halder, a member of the All India Matua Mahasangha, said, "Didi has promised that she won't let a single Matua be evicted and we believe her. My children don't have IDs yet. Many Matuas are scared. Modi came and increased our fear”. It was perhaps to assuage these fears that Modi decided to focus on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Thakurnagar; a tactical move to balance the kind of anger caused because of NRC, which he completely omitted to bring up. The prime minister said, “After independence, many people stayed where they were. But after being tortured, they left and came back to India. They had to as Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians have nowhere else to go but India. And that’s why we are bringing the citizenship law. I urge the Trinamool to support it in Parliament. My brothers and sisters here need it.”

Will this move be helpful for the BJP to tone down the desperation about NRC? Santanu Thakur, leader of the BJP-aligned faction of the Matua Mahasangha said, "Why not? Modiji's hard work is reflecting in our country's development. We have written to the state BJP leadership about our Matua brothers whose names were excluded from the NRC list of Assam. We have been assured that no Matua will be sent away. And now, Modiji also spoke of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. I believe if this bill is passed, many Matuas will be able to acquire voter IDs and citizenship."

Mihir Mondal, however, rejected this claim and said, "If the BJP was here to help people like us, then why in the first place would they want to come up with a policy like this, which would leave so many people stateless? These are all poll gimmicks."

Meanwhile, in PR Thakur Colony, the 50 makeshift houses that are home to many Matuas were either locked or vacant, their residents gone to see what Modi had to say. It looked like a ghost colony until we met Kanchan Samaddar. "Sobai khichuri khete gache (all of them have gone to join the feast),” she said, explaining the deserted look. We asked her why she did not go. She shot back, "What will happen? I have no faith. I heard Modi came by helicopter. My son and his family have gone to the ground. They said they will bring some khichdi for me. No cooking for the day,” she said with a smile on her face.

(The author is a Kolkata-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.)

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