The Grand Mother of Bengal Politics

On a scorching Sunday afternoon, Kalidas Pandey sat cross-legged inside his tinned-roof shop in Thakurnagar, about 80 kilometres from Kolkata, waiting for customers to buy framed pictures of gods and goddesses. As Kalidas, a Matua — a sect propounded by 19th-century social reformer Harichand Thakur — waited, local Dipen Biswas and a few others gathered and blurted out the question that was troubling everyone in the community: after the demise of Binapani Devi — affectionately called Boroma, meaning ‘elder mother’ — what will happen to them? With a bitter internecine political war engulfing the Thakur family, who will hold the umbrella for millions of Namasudras (a sub-caste within scheduled castes) and fight for their cause?

Matuas have always looked up to the Thakur family for some kind of deliverance. Boroma had been the backbone of the organisation, sewed the community in a single string and made them a force to reckon with. In the past, someone from the Thakur family would have assuaged their doubts. After the matriarch’s death, however, the family and the Matua Mahasangh — the highest decision-making body — appears split into two.

The Grand Mother of Bengal Politics

Binapani Devi with grandson Santanu Thakur

The centenarian had a distinct and, at times, discreet way of dealing with political parties and their leaders. While it was essential for the downtrodden community to side with the ruling elite, the family made it a point to remain apolitical, lest it would invite the wrath of the opponents. In 2010, when Matuas, under Binapani Devi’s aegis, held a protest demanding citizenship, leaders across the political spectrum — TMC, BJP, Congress and Left Front — visited her, promising support. She was even lauded by the then state minister for housing and CPI (M) leader Gautam Deb for bringing disparate political forces together. The timing was significant as the Left had lost considerable ground and the Trinamool Congress under Mamata Banerjee was going for the kill. Bengal, which was bereft of any caste-based polarisation, for the first time, saw leaders courting the organised sect to cross the finishing line. It was a milieu which established the role and influence of Boroma but, more significantly, it sent out a clear message — after years of being subsumed by class politics controlled by the upper-caste gentry, identity politics had made its grand entry into the state. And it persuasively established the legitimacy of the first family as not only being the caretaker of their religious tradition but also the guiding star for asserting their claim in the scheme of larger political empowerment.

Inside Thakurbari, as the house is referred to by its members, Binapani Devi’s daughter-in-law Mamata Bala Thakur, widow of her late son Kapil Krishna Thakur, and her grandson Santanu Thakur, born of her younger son Manjul Krishna Thakur, were pondering over the nitty-gritties of the shradh ceremony but separately. The two warring factions live in the same compound but in different houses. Named The Exile and Expulsion, the modest dwellings stand as a constant reminder of the refugee status of a sizable section of the Matuas who still live under the fear of deportation. While Mamata Bala claims it was Binapani Devi who herself had anointed her to carry on with the work of the Sangh, the rival faction led by Santanu wants to have its own say on the matter. The fight became so ugly that Santanu publicly accused his aunt and other leaders from West Bengal’s ruling TMC of having a hand in his grandmother’s death, as she had written to chief minister Mamata Banerjee asking her to support the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, which the Centre had brought in. The letter, which contained her purported signature, is now under investigation. Mamata Thakur says the community has reposed its faith in her, while the younger Thakur scion predicts she will bite the dust in the upcoming polls for betraying the cause of the Matuas and eliciting TMC’s support for narrow political gains. When asked about his familiarity with the saffron outfit, Santanu was unequivocal: any support is contingent on meeting the long-standing demand of providing citizenship to Matuas irrespective of their migration to India, and that he wants keep the family out of the purview of party politics.

Boroma’s family has been the go-to for the devotees since the mid-19th century when Harichand Thakur formed the sect in what is now Bangladesh, to fight against the oppression of zamindars and escape from the scourge of untouchability. Matuas have their own temples, priests from within the community with the underlying basic tenet of equality being the cornerstone for attracting others. The sect’s motto is empowerment through education and, with the state’s help, end discrimination. During the Swadeshi and Non-Cooperation movements, Guruchand, Harichand’s son, decided against supporting the Gandhi-led campaigns despite the icon’s earnest exhortation, as they saw it as a grave injustice for the family to ask votaries to buy expensive clothes. Besides, siding against the British would have had its own repercussions for a caste which had always been at the receiving end of the Brahminical cannon. Guruchand’s grandson, PR Thakur, was the first barrister from the community who marked a turnaround in the political firmament, with the Mahatma, Netaji and Jinnah all seeking their support.

Born in Barishal district of Bangladesh in British India, Binapani Devi was married off early to PR Thakur. Her initiation into the organisational aspect of the social movement began under the guidance of Guruchand himself, but it was only after Partition that she was forced to take the plunge. In the tumultuous years leading up to it, Boroma along with her kids, fled East Bengal, arriving in Kolkata in 1946. The social movement was in complete disarray as issues of housing, land, jobs took centre stage with members dispersed all across the state and beyond. The establishment of Thakurnagar in 1948 by PR Thakur as the first refugee colony ensured that her primary responsibility was to touch base with those who had been ripped apart by Partition. In 1952, when barrister Thakur decided to join the electoral fray, Boroma strategised the campaign and formed a group of carefully chosen advisers to assist the Matua leader. Though Thakur lost, Boroma started laying the groundwork which resulted in subsequent victories in the 1957 and 1962 assembly polls as a Congress candidate. The jubilation was short-lived as differences with the Congress arose due to its treatment of refugees from the then East Pakistan. The barrister was put behind bars along with other leaders. Binapani Devi sat on a fast, demanding release of the leaders and intervention from the government to accept the refugees. Since the beginning of the 1970s, the next two decades were spent spreading the faith and extending the organisation into other parts of India where Matuas had been resettled since Partition.

Currently spread across Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, the community has more than a crore votes in Bengal alone, while being the determinant factor in 60-70 assembly seats in the state. In Assam, their numbers are a few million. Some even lost their lives in the violence during implementation of the NRC. Though generally it’s the ‘lower castes’ which form the core and majority of the sect, the community also boasts of Brahmins and Kshatriyas. The recently-lapsed Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016 was not a panacea for the Matuas as it also put a cut-off date, though it was better than any of the previous bills.

After PR Thakur passed away in 1990, eldest son Kapil Krishna was made the president of the Mahasangh, while Boroma became the chief adviser. Since then, Binapani Devi’s doors remained open to all political leaders, but she was careful not to endorse anyone. It was partially because of the CPI (M)-led Left Front’s hold over every organisation and institution in the state, perpetuated through the now-infamous party-society culture, and partly due to lack of political alternatives which could have challenged the suzerainty of the Jyoti Basu government.

But things started to change in the run-up to 2009 general elections when Mamata Banerjee managed to get the matriarch’s blessings. The spiritual and political head did not publicly ask her followers to support the challenger but the photo-ops were a hint enough. Though the Left Front tried to nullify the Trinamool chief’s influence, the damage was already done. Left leaders have admitted despite their ideological aversion to identity politics, the loss of Matua votes cost them dear. To cement the relationship, Mamata Banerjee gave ticket to the matriarch’s youngest son Manjul Krishna for the assembly polls, and he became a minister in the government. It was only in 2014, when the late Kapil Krishna decided to stand for parliamentary polls on a TMC ticket that the rift became apparent. A year later, Kapil passed away and his widow was asked to contest the bypolls. A disgruntled Manjul hobnobbed with the BJP who fielded his eldest son Subrata against Mamata Bala, but he lost. Santanu has termed his father’s entry into politics a mistake. But, he doesn’t hide the fact that Prime Minister Modi’s visit was a watershed moment in the annals of the Matua movement. The sitting TMC MP, however, denied that Boroma was miffed with her or her husband’s decision to join the firebrand leader. People who have kept a close watch on the ferment in the family term Kapil Krishna’s death as the beginning of the fight for legacy.

While a section of the community is still loyal to the ruling party, others have started shifting their allegiance to the BJP. As the fight for Boroma’s legacy intensifies, the internal rumblings in Thakurbari might precipitate the unravelling of one of the largest scheduled caste communities in India with political fence sitters waiting to grab any opportunity.

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Updated Date: Mar 18, 2019 14:59:38 IST

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