In the forthcoming West Bengal Assembly election of 2021, the BJP government at the Centre is trying to win in the state by capitalising on the Matua vote bank in addition to other equations. The results of the 2011 and 2016 Assembly polls showed that the once formidable Left Front had decayed. Now, the main contest in Bengal will be between the ruling TMC and the BJP, and undoubtedly, the voters who are inclined to Left ideology in the state will play an important role.
Ignored by the Bhadraloks
Since 2000, we can notice a drastic change in the state politics of Bengal. With the TMC’s decades of protest against the Left and the subsequent downfall of the latter, there has been a new kind of political system in the state, with the definition of a vote bank getting reshaped. The state politics was always dominated by upper-class people. After the changes in the administration, the representation of the Dalit communities and minorities has increased.
Earlier, there was a tight hold over vote banks in the name of non-alignment with caste and religion. This has been dismantled, giving rise to caste and religious equations. This becomes clearer when you see former CM Jyoti Basu’s earlier remark: “Caste is a legacy of the feudal system and viewing the social scene from the casteist angle is no longer relevant for West Bengal.” After Independence, governments resorted to the panchayati raj system for inclusion of lower caste people. Nevertheless, upper-caste domination remained a hard truth from panchayat to Lok Sabha levels.
Among all the voters in Bengal, the votes of the Matua community, which remain under the umbrella of Matua Mahasangha, are particularly significant. The words Namashudra and Matua have become popular in Bengal and the national political scenario in the last two decades. However, from the colonial era itself, the movement for equality was spearheaded by Harichand Thakur and then carried forward by his son Guruchand Thakur. Their thoughts have influenced the whole Matua community. Dispersed and weakened in the aftermath of Partition, the Matuas were gradually reorganised into a significant electoral community by Pramatha Ranjan Thakur and his wife Binapani Devi.
Rise of Matua politics in Bengal
The number of followers of the Matua Mahasangha is approximately two crore and this population can influence votes in more than 70 constituencies. Before the 2011 Assembly election, the TMC started to mobilise Matua votes. Mamata Banerjee started to develop the Thakurnagar railway station, built hospitals and colleges, and also talked about the overall development of the people of the Matua community. She even gave election tickets to the sons of Binapani Devi, Kapil Krishna Thakur and Manjul Krishna Thakur to the Lok Sabha and state Assembly respectively.
The inner conflict in the Thakur family came to the surface after Mamata Bala Thakur succeeded her late husband Kapil in 2014. In 2015, Manjul joined the BJP. Due to this inner conflict, the vote bank split between the TMC and BJP. Manjul’s son Shantanu Thakur staged a dharna in the capital with the demand of citizenship for Namashudra refugees who migrated from East Pakistan (presently Bangladesh) after Partition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about the issues related to citizenship of Namashudras during his visit in early 2019 to the Matua bastion in North 24 Parganas. In the election of 2019, Shantanu was given the BJP ticket from the Lok Sabha seat of Bangaon (SC) and he became an MP, defeating his aunt Mamata Bala.
Changing political scenario
With these developments, the BJP presented the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament, which was subsequently passed. The TMC-led state government strongly opposed it. The BJP has been trying to bring the Matuas under the shadow of Brahmanism by using the issues of citizenship and nationalism and also removing the significance of their historical conflict over caste discrimination. After the Citizenship Bill was passed, the Namashudras had a positive reaction towards the BJP government and experts said this will have a significant impact on the 2021 Assembly election. On the contrary, there now seems to be a reduction in support for the BJP. The incidents regarding the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has been an important factor for this. There has been a direct impact on the Namashudras of Bengal as a lot of Hindu refugees were left out of the Register.
In August this year, grievances were created among Matuas with a controversy over rejection of the soil and water of ‘Thakurbari’ in the ‘Bhumi Pujan’ of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Local BJP leaders had to face pressure from the Matuas. Some Matuas feel the movement that was initiated by Harichand Thakur against Brahminical dominance in society was hurt by this incident. A number of Matuas who support the TMC raised their voice regarding this. In this context, Shantanu Thakur said that this story was baseless and the soil and water were utilised in a proper way in the ‘Bhumi Pujan’.
The importance of Matuas will significantly increase in the next election. The recent visit of Home Minister Amit Shah to Bengal and having lunch at a Matua refugee’s home points to this. The BJP will have to rely on their support in approximately 70 constituencies. Although the strength of the BJP is rising in North Bengal, who the people vote for will also depend on local issues.
Reshaping lost political space
By this time, Mamata Banerjee has taken direct initiatives to establish the Dalit Sahitya Academy, Matua Development Board and Namashudra Bikash Parishad, keeping in view the development of their culture in a comprehensive manner. More recently, the Bengal CM promised to give land rights to 1.25 lakh refugee families. She also granted huge funds for the development of all the boards and assured the Matuas of a holiday on Harichand Thakur’s birthday.
Through these initiatives, the ruling TMC is trying hard to get back its lost political space. Rumours are also spreading about the creation of a political party solely for the Matuas and Namashudras. All these incidents that are happening just ahead of the state Assembly election will be defining factors in reshaping Matua politics.
Research Scholar, JNU, New Delhi
Arghya Protim Bala
Research Scholar, Presidency University, Kolkata