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 Thakur’s followers in Orakandi, Faridpur, Bangladesh in the early 19th century. “Harichand Thakur preached love, tolerance, gender equality and non-discrimination on the lines of caste, class or creed,” says Manjul.
After 1947, thousands of Matuas arrived in West Bengal, and Harichand’s grandson Pramatha Ranjan established the sect’s headquarters at Thakurnagar. “While a lot of low-caste Hindus sought refuge with the Matua sect, many Muslims and Christians also joined us, since we do not discriminate on the basis of caste, creed or religion,” says Manjul.
A primary school and a hospital founded by Pramatha stand tall near the temple. “When we arrived from Bangladesh in 1948, I was just a boy. Thakur saheb (Pramatha) helped us set up our home and got us our rights. He used to say education was the only way to uplift one-self,” says Mistri Kalicharan, 72, a senior member of the Matua sect. The fact that Thakurnagar has the largest concentration of IAS and ICS officers in Bongaon district, perhaps, reflects the Matua obsession with education, says Manjul.
Modi’s attempt to woo the Matua votebank wasn’t without reason. The Matuas, who live in 74 assembly segments spread over eight districts, had voted for Trinamool Congress during the last Lok Sabha polls and helped them win the 2011 assembly elections. It’s a well-known fact that the Trinamool chief went all out to woo the sect’s 96-year-old “godmother” Binapani Debi, known as Boroma.
“Modi probably thought that he will get away with the sweet talk. He thinks the public doesn’t remember BJP’s attitude towards Bangladeshi refugees. In 2003, the BJP government took up a draft law for strict action against migrants, without considering their stories. It was decided that people who moved here post 1971 will not get citizenship. The fact is that thousands of Matuas and Hindus are persecuted in Bangladesh every year and seek refuge in India. How do we turn them away?” asks Subrata Thakur, panchayat samiti member and son of Manjul.
In 2010, the head patron of the sect, Binapani Debi initiated a movement against the “pushback” of villagers from the Burdwan district of West Bengal. “More than 85 people
from the same village were targeted. We stopped the persecution by organising systematic protests and dharnas,” says Sanatan Pande, 41, a Matua priest. He adds that the Matuas are still victims of “identity politics”. “A lot of Matuas are Bangladeshis, who have settled around India over the past 60 years. Not all of them have documents granting them Indian citizenship. So it’s easy to dangle the citizenship card to lure them,” he says. The BJP’s 2014 manifesto states, “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.”
So, do they reject Narendra Modi’s gesture of including them in the “persecuted Hindus” category? “It’s true that most Matuas are low-caste Hindus and a lot of them face persecution in Bangladesh because of that, but you will have to remember that we are a sect. We don’t discriminate against caste, creed or religion. Nobody knows if all the Matuas in India are Hindus,” says Manjul. n