BONGAON/KRISHNANAGAR: With citizenship for refugees having emerged as one of the poll planks of the BJP in its battle for Bengal, Matua bastions and the verdict they present this election will prove to be a test case for the party that had been weighing the pros and cons before implementing a new law enacted for the purpose.
Assembly seats in the Matua strongholds of Bongaon and Krishnanagar, close to the India-Bangladesh border, are set to go to polls in the sixth phase of elections, on April 22.
Matuas, who make for a large chunk of the state's Scheduled Caste population, had been migrating to West Bengal since the 1950s, primarily due to religious persecution in erstwhile East Pakistan and then Bangladesh.
With an estimated three million members in the state, the community influences result in at least four Lok Sabha seats and 30-40 assembly seats in Nadia, North and South 24 Parganas districts.
Apart from the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), two other aspects -- identity politics and regional development -- have also surfaced as decisive factors this election, as bitter rivals TMC and the BJP go all out to woo the community with several promises aimed at solving local problems.
"The TMC and the CPI(M) governments have done nothing for the Matuas. It is the BJP that spared a thought for the community. Hence, it promised citizenship."
"The BJP passed the CAA in Parliament. But the TMC has opposed it tooth and nail in Bengal. We will vote against this injustice," said BJP MP Santanu Thakur, who is also the younger scion of the Matua Thakurbari -- an influential socio-religious sect.
Countering him, Mamatabala Thakur, a former TMC MP and the daughter-in-law of the community's late matriarch Binapani Devi, said the BJP was fooling the refugees with false promises.
"Matuas are citizens of this country. They don't need any other proof of citizenship," she said.
The CAA seeks to grant citizenship to migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Jain and Parsi communities who came to the country from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on or before December 31, 2014.
According to sources in the community, the citizenship law has emerged as a major issue among the community members as they are apprehensive that if the NRC exercise is conducted prior to CAA implementation, they might be branded as "foreigners" who had entered India "without valid documents".
"Most of them fled religious persecution in Bangladesh and migrated to India. Now, if we don't give them citizenship, where will they go? CAA, for us, is not a political issue but a core ideological commitment," Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh said.
Matuas, with their sheer size of the population and tendency to vote en bloc, just like the minorities, make for an enviable vote bank that all the political parties had tried to secure since the nineties.
TMC chief Mamata Banerjee had first reached out to the Matuas and other Schedule Caste communities, such as the Rajbanshis, around a decade ago.
She nominated members of the Matua Thakurbari as candidates in the 2011 elections, and that, in, turn, played a role in paving the way for her victory.
However, the BJP's promise to implement the CAA also paid off and the saffron party won all Matua-dominated Lok Sabha seats in 2019 and took the lead in almost 35 assembly segments.
The TMC quickly went on a course correction drive and regularised all refugee colonies, giving them land rights, besides politically exploiting the delay and confusion over the implementation of CAA.
"The Matua community knows what Mamata Banerjee government has done for their development. We don't need advice from the BJP on what needs to be done. I would want to know why, despite tall claims, the Centre has implemented CAA yet?" TMC MLA from Habra and state minister Jyotipriyo Mullick asked.
Banerjee, who has allotted Rs 10 crore for the Matua development fund, has cautioned Matuas that citizenship law would add to their woes, and the saffron camp may just classify them as foreigners following its implementation.
Although the BJP is confident of pocketing Matua votes this time, the brewing resentment among a section of the community members over the delay in implementation of CAA may cost the saffron camp dearly in some seats.
"In 2019, the promise of citizenship did wonders for the BJP in the Matua belt. But this time, the delay may spoil our chances to an extent. It is to be seen whether our message that CAA would be implemented soon still holds water in this region," a senior saffron camp leader said.
BJP national vice president Mukul Roy, who is contesting the elections from Krishnanagar Uttar seat, however, is certain that Matuas would favour the BJP over its rivals.
"Various political parties, including the TMC, have betrayed Matuas from the beginning; it is only the BJP which is fighting for the cause of their citizenship. Matuas are firmly with us," Roy, who is in the fray after a gap of two decades, said.