Maa, Mahasangha and Modi-Mamata conflict: a peek into the Namashudra factor in West Bengal politics
The death of the Matua matriarch saw political rivals reach out to claim her legacy
Last week, the matriarch of a religious sect in remote North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal died, and surprisingly both the West Bengal Chief Minister and Prime Minister were soon tweeting about it.
The lady who died was Binapani Devi or Boroma, the head of the Matua Mahasangha, a Vaishnavite religious sect headquartered in Thakurnagar of North 24 Parganas.
Modi tweeted a picture of him with her, calling her a champion of social justice, while Mamata called her death a personal loss, and deputed six senior ministers to take care of the last rites of Devi, with full state honours. After seeing this, a natural question that comes to anybody’s mind is-- why has the death of a religious sect head forced two big political figures of the country to go into a sort of competition, laying claim to her legacy? The answer to this lies in the Namashudra politics of the state.
West Bengal, which had become famous for the Left Front-led “class” politics never saw a significant, north India-like, caste-oriented political contest in post- independence India. However, this does not change the fact that the state has a significant Scheduled Caste population, which stood around 23% of the total population in the 2001 census.
A little less than half of this belongs to one single Dalit group -- the Namashudras. Formerly called Chandals, the Namashudras were the second biggest Hindu caste group of undivided Bengal. In the 19th century, a social-religious reformer Harichand Thakur started the Matua Mahasangha in today’s Bangladesh to ensure social, economic and educational upliftment of the Namashudras. As Namashudras started rallying around it in region after region, the Mahasangha became a significant tool for their socio-economic mobility. Later, the nationalist parties like Congress tried to rally the Namashudras behind the cause of independence, but not with much success. In fact, a significant portion of the Namashudras was always critical of the independence struggle led by the Congress, which tried to avoid addressing the concerns of Dalits. A significant example of this was Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Namashudra politician who allied with the Muslim League and mobilized Namshudras on the slogan of Dalit-Muslim unity. It was Mandal who ensured Ambedkar’s entry into the Constituent Assembly from Bengal with the support of the Muslim League, after he had lost the election for it from Bombay presidency.
However, the partition changed the fortunes of the Namashudras, as some of them came into India while some remained in the then East Pakistan. Still, the Matua Mahasangha, which now had its headquarters in West Bengal’s Thakurnagar, continued to command their support. Most of them were settled in the politically significant North 24 Parganas district. In an attempt to regain lost political support, late PR Thakur, husband of Binapani Devi, contested assembly elections from the Congress in 1962 and became a junior minister in the Bidhan Chandra Ray cabinet. He, however, later got disillusioned with politics. In the 1971 war, a large number of refugees came into West Bengal from the present Bangaldesh, including a sizable number of Matuas. In the changed political scenario of the state, the Matuas started supporting the Left Front, since the late 1970s. This changed drastically with the rise of Mamata Banerjee in the state’s politics after the Singur agitation.
Mamata Banejee aggressively wooed the Matuas. And the Mahasangha too, under Binapani Devi’s leadership, threw its weight behind the Trinamool Congress (TMC), making Mamata the chief patron of the Sangha. In the 2011 assembly elections, the TMC fielded the younger son of Binapani Devi Manjul Krishna Thakur from one assembly constituency of the district. He won it and was made a Minister of State in the West Bengal Cabinet. In 2014, his elder brother Kapil Krishna Thakur was made the party’s candidate from the Bangaon SC parliamentary constituency of the district and he, too, won that seat. In the mid-term election after his untimely death, the TMC fielded his widow Mamata Thakur, who clinchéd the seat for the party.
But it is not only the left and the TMC that got the Sangha’s support. The BJP has been working aggressively to make inroads into the community and has fairly succeeded in it. In fact, after initial days as a Minister of State in Bengal, Manjul Krishna Thakur joined the BJP and his son Subrata contested against his own aunt in the Bangaon by-election as a BJP candidate. His defeat forced Manjul Krishna to make attempts to get back into the TMC but he could not regain his past position in the party. His younger son Sushanta is still a very aggressive BJP leader in the region.
One of the issues through which BJP has made inroads into the Matuas is the Citizenship Ammendment Bill, 2019. The Bill aims to give citizenship to “persecuted minorities” of the neighbouring countries, meaning non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Currently, the law treats those who entered India from Bangladesh after 1971 as foreigners, who are supposed to be deported. The Matuas, who are Vaishnavite Hindus some of whom also came to India after 1971, will be one of the direct beneficiaries of this Bill. That is why they have a sense of appreciation for the BJP’s efforts to get the bill passed, an endeavour in which it did not succeed in this Lok Sabha.
The BJP also knows the significance of Matua votes, who have high concentration in the North 24 Parganas district. This district is politically the most significant district of West Bengal, as there are 30-plus assembly constituencies and five parliamentary constituencies fully or partially falling under it. That is why PM Modi also addressed a rally in Thakurnagar of the district in February this year, while also going to meet Binapai Devi in person. The votes of Matuas could change electoral fortunes of parties on some of these seats, which is why both TMC and BJP are hell bent to win over the Matuas. The death of Binapani Devi is one instance in which this contest has come out in the public domain.
(Rajan Pandey, who has a PhD in political science, is a political analyst and author of the book Battleground UP)