Refugees or infiltrators? BJP's balancing act leaves Matuas in West Bengal angry and confused

Refugees or infiltrators? BJP's balancing act leaves Matuas in West Bengal angry and confused

Refugees or infiltrators? BJP's balancing act leaves Matuas in West Bengal angry and confused


By Amita Ghose



Thakurnagar: Meet Mihir Mondal (42), a tea seller, who came with his family from Bangladesh's Khulna to Thakurnagar in 1991. A Hindu of the Matua sect, he fears a BJP victory would leave him, and many others like him, facing an uncertain future. "I have been living in India since 1991 and I still have not got any official ID,” said Mihir Mondal. “My son has got Aadhar card but my wife and I do not have any identity card. We feel quite threatened to see the current political scenario in the country.”

The threat that Mondal, and thousands of other Matuas like him feel, stems from the implementation of the NRC in Assam, which the BJP said needs to be implemented in Bengal too. Mihir’s relatives in Assam were left out of the NRC’s first draft. “It will be very stressful time for families like us,” he feels, as the 2019 election campaign was kicked off in the state by PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Thakurnagar, a small town on the Bangladesh border, which saw him being hastily hustled off the stage when a stampede broke out among the audience during his speech.

Not that Modi said anything of significance about the NRC or the Matua community in Thakurnagar, headquarters of the Matua Mahasangh, with a population of around one lakh. The sect, comprising members of the Namasudra caste, was founded by social reformer Harichand Thakur in Bangladesh in the late 1800s. His grandson Pramatha Ranjan established the sect's headquarters at Thakurnagar.The Matuas first started moving into West Bengal in the 1940s. They formed the Matuasangh in North 24 Parganas in West Bengal and spread out to South 24 Parganas, Dinajpur, Nadia, Coochbihar and Maldah and parts of the north east. They still have relatives in Bangladesh. Many Matuas work as labourers in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. But they essentially remain a refugee community even after living in India for many decades.

Saikat Halder, a member of Matua Mahasangh, expressed the fears of many of his fellow members. "The BJP's decision to implement NRC in Assam left 40 lakhs excluded in the first draft, and according to reports, 50 per cent of them are Matuas who are now tagged as 'infiltrators',” said Saikat. “Reason enough for the Matuas to hate Modi and the BJP which wants NRC in Bengal too. Didi has promised that she won't let a single Matua be evicted and we believe her." Saikat was referring to the fear of thousands of Matua community members being tagged as infiltrators and getting extradited.

Like Shakti Panda, whose wife and children have voter id but he doesn't. The BJP leaders of Thakurnagar had reached out to them and said there will be no deportation and gave other assurances before Modi’s visit. "The Matuas will get incentives,” Shakti Panda was told. “Modi is the head of the country, he will help Matuas get citizenship, he will give Matua guru Guruchand Thakur Bharat Ratna. So we all rushed to hear him, only to our disappointment he said nothing in the community's favour,” said Shakti Panda.

Given the Matua community’s total support of Mamata Bannerji, the BJP perhaps was trying to push their argument that only one family, the descendants of the founder of the Matua sect, getting all the political mileage. Dilip Ghosh, BJP West Bengal state president said "If anyone ever has used Matuas as a vote bank, it is Mamata Banerjee. BJP wants NRC in Bengal in order to make the lives of people better". In BJP’s calculations is also the fact the Matuas, the second largest scheduled caste community in the state, are an influential voting segment in about 74 assembly segments.

Caught up in this refugee versus infiltrator argument, Manjul Krishna Thakur, TMC MP and daughter-in-law of Matua godmother Binapani Devi, helped Mamata enter the Mahasangh and in 2009. In return, Binapani Devi made Mamata the chief patron of the Matua Mahasangh.

Modi’s BJP sabha was obviously an attempt to weaken that support. Mamata Thakur of the Thakur family said the rally was turned into a BJP sabha by painting everything in saffron and raising pro BJP slogans. "Election is just a month away and now the PM has got time to visit us,” said Mamata. “He thought there will many Matuas joining the sabha, unfortunately the sabha ground was mostly filled by people from other states”. In Thakurnagar and elsewhere, “there are many people who still haven’t been able get any valid ID. But with CM Mamata Banerjee's support, I don't think there's any reason to fear,” said Mamata Thakur. 

In Assam reportedly 5 lakh Matuas were kept out of the NRC list and that has created an impact in West Bengal, simply because it has created a fear of being called 'outsiders'. It has been claimed by the Matua activists that the number of Matuas are only increasing in Bengal as well as in India.

"I have many brothers and sisters in Assam who are now homeless and finding it difficult to even feed their kids once in a day, imagine the situation," says Hemanta Biswas, a Matua activist from Thakurnagar whose relatives in Assam have been left out of the NRC first draft.

Matuas in Bengal are majorly involved in unskilled and unorganised labour. Thakurnagar's close proximity to Bangladesh border has erupted a lot of tension and feeling of insecurity among the Matuas. Krishnapada Mondal who works as a rikshaw puller shared, "I came here alone had no one with me from family and married my wife who hails from Bangaon. Now my wife and kid all of them could get their ids showing her paternal side's id proofs and I was left out. Now my family is living under this fear if NRC is applied I will have to leave this country."

Didi has been particularly helpful to the Matuas, claim the people of the community. She flagged off a project to give Thakurnagar its very own University, the Harichand Guruchand Thakur University named after the sect’s founder and his son. When Mamata Banerjee was railway minister, Thakurnagar first got its only railway station. Concrete roads were built. Also, Mamata put funds into a number of devotional activities of Matuas, helped the community get better educational infrastructure, with Thakurnagar recently getting a government college.

So it was not surprising that Modi’s visit made little impact. The Matua’s disappointment with Modi’s speech was expressed by 65-year-old Bimal Chandra Halder. “Modi said nothing relevant,” said Halder. "We have always been used for votes by political leaders. They come, they go but we remain where we always were. Whenever we have tried raising our voices these political parties have shut us up." Echoing every Matua’s concerns around NRC, Halder added: "My children don't have IDs yet. Many Matuas are scared. Modi came and increased our fear”.

Govinda Chandra Ghatak explained that the Matuas who came to India were “tortured in the communal riots in Bangladesh, and in such a situation, you don’t stop to think of first collecting documents like birth certificates or IDs and then take refuge. There will be approximately 75,000 people who don’t have voter rights in Shukiapur, Thakurnagar and Ichapur I and II. Even in Thakurnagar, 40 per cent of the Matuas don't have ids, as per my research," said Ghatak.

The problem the Matuas confront to acquire a voter id is the linkage voter rule.  "If the father is an Indian voter then you may become a voter,” explained Ghatak. “Many don't have proper documentation. If Aadhaar is there, there is no ration card, if there is ration card there is no Aadhaar card, now what do you do? You call all these lakhs of people infiltrators?"

PM Modi was also found speaking in support of Citizenship Amendment Bill in Thakurnagar which experts say was a tactical move to balance the kind of anger he had caused because of NRC. PM said, “After Independence, many people stayed where they were. But after being tortured, they left and came back to India. They had to as Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians have nowhere else to go but India. And that’s why we are bringing the citizenship law. I urge the Trinamool to support it in parliament. My brothers and sisters here need it.”

Will this move be anyway helpful for BJP to tone down the desperation about NRC? Santanu Thakur, president of Matua Mahasangh said, "Why not? Because It has been Modi ji whose hard work is reflecting in our country's development. We have written to state BJP leadership about our Matua brotehrs whose names were excluded from the NRC list of Assama nd we have been assured that no Matua will be sent away. And now Modi ji also spoke of Citizenship Amendment Bill, I believe if this bill is passed many Matuas will be able to acquire voter ID and citizenship."

Mihir Mondal however discarded this claim and said, "If BJP was here to help people like us then why in the first place they came up with a policy like this that left so many people homeless? All poll gimmicks."

In P R Thakur Colony, there were about 50 makeshift houses most of which were either locked or vacant. It looked like a ghost colony until we met Kanchan Samaddar. "Sobai khichuri khete gache (all gone to join the feast),” she said explaining the deserted look. Why did you not go, we asked? "ki hobe? What will happen?” she shot back. “I have no faith. I heard Modi came by helicopter. My son and his family have gone to the ground. They said they will bring some khichdi for me. No cooking for the day,” she said with a smile on her face.



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