Kolkata: In the fiery poll battle that is building up in West Bengal, one Hindu minority community’s demand for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is turning up the heat.
The Matuas, who came to the state as refugees during partition, are in the spotlight now given that they could be a deciding factor across 40-45 assembly constituencies.
While Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been trying to woo the community by recognising their founding spiritual leaders, BJP’s Amit Shah is due to meet members of the community when he visits the state in January, a third time in just weeks.
Besides being electorally significant, the Matuas have also been part of the state’s politics over the years. Currently, it has a BJP camp and a Trinamool camp. The BJP camp, which makes up for a significant part of the community, has a primary demand — citizenship.
The Matuas have been agitated by the delay in the roll out of the CAA provisions.
“We have voting rights, but if any government ever decides to implement the 2003 Act, we will all be illegal migrants. We want security and the CAA can give us the citizenship right,” said Santanu Thakur, a descendent of the sect’s founder Harichand Thakur and a BJP MP.
Speaking to ThePrint, he said Home Minister Amit Shah had promised to resolve their demand. If he doesn’t, “there will be consequences”, said Santanu.
Shah, who was scheduled to visit Bongaon, a Matua dominated constituency, skipped it when he was in the state last weekend. However, he is set to visit the constituency located in North 24 Parganas district in January.
The BJP has been facing resentment from the community, with Santanu leading protest rallies too.
Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee is making sure she’s covering all grounds. She has held rallies in the constituency and even announced development projects for the Matuas.
Finding status through citizenship
According to Santanu, the Matua population in the state is around 2 crore (approximately 30 per cent), however senior officials of the state government maintain that it’s 20 per cent. The community is spread across four to five districts, including North 24 Parganas, Nadia, Murshidabad and Dinajpur (north and south).
The refugee community, which traces its ancestry to East Bengal, has voting rights and Aadhaar cards too, but has been demanding permanent citizenship in the country.
“Our ancestors entered India without valid passports or travel documents and they became illegal migrants in the eyes of the law, after the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2003. Moreover, the 2003 amendment has made it impossible for children born in refugee families to become Indian citizens by birth, if either of their parents is deemed to be an illegal migrant,” explained Santanu.
A minority group among Hindus, Matuas had moved to West Bengal after partition.
A sect of Vaishanvite Hindus, the community was founded in the mid 19th century by Harichand Thakur who belonged to a Namosudra family, a caste that is treated as untouchables. Thakur, a disciple of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, had started a reformist movement in Faridpur (now in Bangladesh).
Matuas shun the Chaturvarna system that segregates society into four groups — Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras. Also, they worship Thakur as an avatar of Lord Krishna.
Beenapani Devi, who was the wife of the great grandson of Harichand Thakur, is considered the Matua matriarch and sect leader. ‘Baro Ma’, as she is popularly known, brought the following to Bengal when she moved with her family and others during partition.
The Matuas founded their second organisation and temple in Bongaon, near Indo-Bangladesh border after partition. The area has come to be called Thakur Nagar, and is now considered the headquarters of Matua Maha Sangha.
Mamata’s Matua policies
With the poll battle heating up, CM Mamata has been warning Matuas that the CAA will not benefit them, claiming that its implementation will lead them being identified as “illegal”.
“BJP is trying to mislead you on CAA. All of you are citizens here. If any of you apply for citizenship, you will be identified as an illegal Matua … do not fall into the trap,” she said at a rally in Bongaon in the first week of December.
In 2019, Trinamool Congress lost two significant Lok Sabha seats — Bongaon and Ranaghat, that is dominated by Matuas — to the BJP. The two seats account for 14 assembly segments. BJP also won in North Bengal constituencies where Matuas have a significant presence.
“This is a dirty game BJP is playing. They are completely misleading the Matuas for their vested political interests. Chief Minister has been trying too hard for the development and upliftment of the community. But BJP is trying to divide them,” Sougata Roy, a veteran Trinamool MP told ThePrint.
In November, Mamata had formed a development board for Matuas and is building a university in the name of Harichand Thakur. Last week, on 16 December, her government notified his birth date as a state holiday and the CM agreed to include a chapter on Matua history and the contributions of Harichand and Guruchand Thakur, the founding spiritual leaders of the sect, in the state curriculum.
Political factions within Thakur family
The Thakur household has held a long association with politics. Through the years, members of the family have fought elections on tickets from Congress, Trinamool Congress and BJP.
The alignment shifted from Congress to Left during the 70s. Later, in 2009, Mamata Banerjee became a member of the sangha and built a personal relationship with Baro Ma. Then in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the matriarch just before the general elections, and before Baro Ma passed away in March.
Now, the Thakur family has two factions — one led by Santanu Thakur, who is a BJP MP, and his brother Subrata Thakur, and the other led by Mamata Bala Thakur, an ex MP of Trinamool Congress.
Mamata Thakur is the wife of late Kapil Krishna Thakur, a former Trinamool MP. Santanu and Subrata are the sons of Manjul Krishna Thakur. Manjul, who was part of Mamata’s cabinet, defected to the BJP in 2015. Santanu became an MP in 2019.
“Two weeks ago, the representatives of Matua Maha Sangha met Union Home Minister Amit Shah. I was there in the delegation. We have made a presentation there and explained why we need the CAA immediately here. Amit Ji has promised to meet us on 14 January again and resolve our issues,” Santanu told The Print.
“If the promises are not fulfilled, there may be some consequences.”
BJP’s national general secretary Kailash Vijaywargiya had met the Thakur family members early this December to reassure them on their citizenship demand. “We will bring CAA and citizenship will be granted to all of them. We have promised and BJP does not go back on words,” he told ThePrint.