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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Explained: Why Matuas and CAA matter in West Bengal polls

For years, the Matuas were demanding an amendment to the Citizenship Act of 2003, whose provisions made it difficult for refugees to get citizenship. The proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) only added to their insecurity. But the BJP has also provided an antidote — the CAA.

Written by Atri Mitra | Kolkata |
Updated: February 2, 2021 7:44:45 am
Matuas community, CAA, West Bengal polls, Amit Shah rally, Bengal Assembly elections, Kolkata news, West Bengal news, Indian express newsOf late, the Matuas have been upset with the BJP for lack of clarity over when CAA will be implemented.

The Matua community in West Bengal are upset about the cancellation of a rally Union Home Minister Amit Shah was scheduled to address on Saturday. The two-day visit to Bengal was called off in view of Friday’s blast outside the Israel Embassy in Delhi. The BJP has not dismantled the stage put up for Shah, and senior leaders said they will intimate the community within 48 hours about a new date for a visit by Shah, who, the community hopes, will make an announcement about implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Why does the CAA matter to the Matuas, and why does the community’s support matter in the elections?

The community

The Matua community has members on either side of the Bengal border. It is associated with a religious movement begun in the 1870s by Harichand Thakur of a Namasudra (SC) family, who hailed from Safaldanga in East Bengal. In the early 20th century, his son Guruchand organised the movement socially and politically. In 1915, the Matua Federation was established; Guruchand’s grandson barrister Pramath Ranjan Thakur led it in the 1930s.

Peasant members of the community started migrating from East Bengal in droves after 1950, which continued after the formation of Bangladesh. Today, Matuas constitute the second largest SC population of West Bengal. Mostly concentrated in North and South 24-Parganas, they also have a presence in other border districts such as Nadia, Howrah, Cooch Behar, and Malda. Government sources put their number at around 17% of the state’s electorate; Matua leaders estimate themselves at around 20% and say they can directly influence the results in 40-45 of the 294 Assembly seats, and indirectly in another 30.

Political leanings

Just before Partition, P R Thakur joined the Congress, but left in 1984 and worked to reorganise the Matua Federation, primarily as a religious-social organisation outside of institutional politics.

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But the Matuas’ support was always crucial in elections. Amid a tug-of-war between the Left Front and the Trinamool Congress, the community matriarch Binapani Devi (wife of P R Thakur and known as Boro Ma), warmed up towards the Trinamool ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. In 2011, her son Manjul Krishna Thakur became Minister for Refugee Rehabilitation in Mamata Banerjee’s Cabinet. Later, another son, Kapil Krishna, was elected to the Lok Sabha with the support of the Trinamool. Mamata became a member of the Matua Sangha and built a personal relationship with Binapani Devi, now deceased.

Today, the BJP is wooing the community with the CAA. In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his Lok Sabha election campaign for Bengal by seeking Boro Ma’s blessings. Her grandson Shantanu Thakur (Manjul Krishna’s son) won the Bongaon Lok Sabha seat on a BJP ticket.

The family now has two factions — Boro Ma’s grandsons Shantanu and Subrata Thakur on the BJP side, and her daughter-in-law Mamata Bala Thakur (wife of Kapil Krishna) on the Trinamool Congress side.

CAA and citizenship

For years, the Matuas were demanding an amendment to the Citizenship Act of 2003, whose provisions made it difficult for refugees to get citizenship. The proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) only added to their insecurity. But the BJP has also provided an antidote — the CAA.

Of late, the Matuas have been upset with the BJP for lack of clarity over when CAA will be implemented. That is why Amit Shah’s rally was important: the Matuas were hoping for a strong assurance from him.

Mamata Banerjee, meanwhile, addressed a rally in Bongaon last month where she assured the Matuas that the state government recognises them as Indian citizens.

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