A cloying sugar-syrupy smell lingers over the Matua temple grounds in Thakurnagar (North 24 Parganas, West Bengal), a small town that comes under the Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency. “The ground here is sweet,” says 23-year-old Abhijit Biswas, a member of the Matua sect, stomping his feet. “Just taste it,” he adds, with a smile. But that’s not a miracle.
The elders of Matua temple, the spiritual headquarters of the Matua sect spread across India, don’t believe in miracles, which is why Biswas is quick to clarify. “Every year, during the Thakurnagar mela towards the end of April, lakhs of devotees come to the shrine to pay respects to our spiritual leader Harichand Thakur. They shower batasha on their way to the temple. By the time the mela ends, the path is laden with 6 inches of batasha. We shovel them up and dump them in a nearby field because they attract flies,” says Biswas.
On the last day of campaigning before Bongaon constituency goes to vote, Thakurnagar wears a festive air. A procession of women in traditional white-and-red saris arrives at the shrine, amidst the clang of cymbals and the blare of conch shells. They hold up banners proclaiming Manjul Krishna Thakur, a minister in the Mamata Banerjee government, as their pride, and that his elder brother, Kapil Krishna Thakur, would win the Lok Sabha elections.
“We are here to ensure that our leader Kapil Krishna Thakur wins from Bongaon,” says Nandita Haldar, 40, a homemaker based in Thakurnagar. Kapil, the elder son of Binapani Debi, the chief patron of the Matua clan, is contesting from Bongaon on a Trinamool Congress ticket.
Two weeks ago, while campaigning in Krishnanagar, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had asked Mamata Banerjee why Matuas are not considered “Indian citizens”. He had also assured that once he comes to power, he would rehabilitate them. Mamata’s rebuttal was colourful, to say the least. “Who is this Haridas Pal (non-entity) to interfere in our matters. I have a Matua minister in my cabinet. What does he mean when he says he will rehabilitate them?” she asked.
Modi’s statement has angered the Matuas, too. “How dare he (Modi) suggest that we don’t have citizenship rights? He didn’t even do his homework before making such a sweeping statement. My father was a minister of state in the Congress government. I am the minister of state for Micro Small-scale Enterprises and Textiles and for Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation (independent charge). My brother is contesting on a Trinamool ticket from Bongaon. It’s like he (Modi) has denied our achievements over the years,” says Manjul.
Thakurnagar is dominated by low-caste Hindu refugees from Bangladesh and most of them are members of the Matua Mahasangh, a religious reformation movement, which was launched by Harichand continued…