In a community hall that doubles as a marriage venue, somewhere in the twisting by-lanes of Uttar (Northern) Panchanna gram, on the outskirts of Kolkata, a heated meeting was on over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

The overgrown, concretised “village” standing between a busy highway and lush green paddy fields and fish farms is one of many where the Matua community, or followers of a Vaishnavite sect from the depressed classes, founded by 19th-century reformer Harichand Thakur, live. 

Community Response

The BJP promised the community, which is influential in 8-9 parliamentary seats and in over 60 assembly seats, the benefits of CAA.

The question being debated furiously in the Matua village was: will the new rules announced by the central government help them or bring more trouble for the refugees who came in staggered intervals since partition from East Bengal?

“The documents they want for a CAA application are difficult to come by. Many are asking us, Since most Matuas anyway have voter IDs and Aadhar cards, why get into this hassle?” asked Dilip Biswas, 69, who came over to India in 1965 from Faridpur district of East Pakistan.

Relatives had set up a Matua village in Panchanna gram (village of 55 households) in 1952. Since then, with every riot or disturbance on the other side of the border, waves of Matuas have come over to settle on the marshy land near it.

In all, there are about 2.5- 3 million Matuas who live in the border districts of North and South 24 Parganas and Nadia.

“Some say the CAA law has been crafted keeping communities like ours in mind, but how it will be implemented is the big question that everyone is asking and we remain confused,” said Swadesh Suta, the Matua community’s local unit president.

The CAA has promised Indian citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and Christian refugees from religious persecution in South Asian countries, with a cut-off date in 2014.

Biwas pointed out that in Assam, those who have been disenfranchised or put in detention camps after being suspected of being foreigners were overwhelmingly Hindu Bengalis, many from the Namashudra caste to which most Matuas belong.

The community has split up between followers of Shantanu Thakur, now a BJP minister, and his rival, TMC MP Mamata Bala Thakur. The two have a running battle for the mantle of the last community matriarch, Binapani Devi, popularly called ‘Boro Ma’ (Elder Mother). While Shantanu is the grandson of the matriarch, Mamata Bala is the daughter-in-law.

“Bengal has not witnessed the kind of caste-based politics that is seen in north India; however, in the last few decades, the Matua community has become a politically significant factor,” said Prof Sabyasahi Basu Roy Chowdhury, former vice chancellor of the Rabindra Bharati University.

Since independence, caste-based politics have had little play in West Bengal except in the choice of candidates, partly as a result of Bengal’s 19th-century renaissance.

“In the 2000s, the Matuas, some of whom faced police harassment when they sought official documentation or for their continued cross-border links, started a movement for citizenship rights for community members... Initially, political parties ignored it and then jumped onto the bandwagon, taking up their cause,” explained Praskanva Sinharay, ethnographic researcher and political scientist.

“The community largely supported the BJP in 2014 and 2019 elections on the back of these promises, which partially satisfy the demands of this community,” pointed out Sinharoy.

Voter Sentiment

The BJP’s leadership consequently has taken great pains to attack the Congress’s promise to tear up the CAA law. Home Minister Amit Shah asserted at a rally last week that “as long as the BJP is around, it will not let the Congress even touch the CAA.”

Statistics from the 2021 assembly elections, however, seem to indicate that the TMC managed to win back many Matuas to their side, partly because of its welfare measures and partly because of disenchantment with the implementation of CAA.

The big question that is still troubling the Matua community and now the politicians of West Bengal is: which way will the CAA cake cut? Will the Vaishnavite sect take the law at its face value and back the BJP or will its people listen to Mamata Banerjee’s claims that CAA is an “unnecessary evil”?

(The writer is an independent journalist)