When 100-year-old Binapani Debi was declared dead at 8.52 pm on Tuesday evening at SSKM Hospital in Kolkata, Mamata Banerjee was among the first to reach the hospital. With Trinamool MP and Debi’s daughter-in-law Mamatabala Thakur by her side, the Chief Minister left six ministers in charge of the funeral, which was conducted with full state honours on Thursday.
Within minutes of Debi’s death, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted a photo of his meeting last month with the Matua matriarch. “Boro Maa Binapani Thakur was an icon of our times. Her emphasis on social justice and harmony will never be forgotten… I will always cherish the interaction I had with her,” Modi wrote.
The importance of ‘Boromaa’ Binapani Debi, whose word is said to be sacrosanct among the 1.5 crore voters of the Matua Mahashangha, a Hindu sect of the OBC (Namashudra community), cannot be overstated in these times — with the state headed for elections and where the BJP and Trinamool Congress have locked horns in a bitter battle.
The murder of Krishnaganj Trinamool MLA Satyajit Biswas last month was speculated to have been linked to Matua politics — Biswas was Trinamool’s link with the Matuas.
There are at least six parliamentary constituencies — Krishnanagar, Ranaghat, Barrackpore, Barasat, Bongaon and Coochbehar — where the Vaishnavite sect has the numbers to swing results.
The Matuas trace their roots to Faridpur in Bangladesh, with Debi’s family crossing over with their followers at the time of Partition. But it is only in the last three decades or so that they have become a political force to be wooed.
Says a Trinamool source: “The 1.5 crore Matua voters vote almost en masse to whoever their leader asks them to. That is what makes them such a formidable force.”
With Debi’s passing away, it’s being speculated that her daughter-in-law Mamatabala will take on the mantle of spiritual head.
Though the Matuas have traditionally gone with the incumbent political party, many say that as a Hindu sect, they are a natural votebank for the BJP, which is why the saffron party has been wooing them.
Last month, Modi held his rally in the Matua stronghold of Thakurnagar. The party already has Debi’s son Manjul Krishna Thakur among its ranks, and his son Santanu too is said to be “willing”. As Hindu “refugees” from Bangladesh, they are also living validation of the Citizenship Bill that the BJP has tried so hard to push through in the Northeast.
The only hitch is that Banerjee has assiduously cultivated the Matuas.
To complicate matters, however, a few days before her death, a letter — purportedly written by Debi and with her signature on it — surfaced. The letter, addressed to CM Banerjee, asked her to support the Citizenship Bill. The authenticity of the letter was challenged by many, citing the steady hand with which the ailing woman seemed to have signed it. The matter is now in court.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines