The Matua community in West Bengal is 3-crore strong but the cloud on citizenship has only made them mere political pawns for decades
She could no longer roll bidis for a living. And his construction sites stood still. For Putul and Nanda Maulik, a couple in their late 50s, coronavirus -induced lockdown should have been the most unsettling period of their lives. But they have seen worse. “We lived the first 20 years of our lives in insecurity and fear,” says Putul, 57, while making bidis at the door of her tin-roofed house. “As a woman, I would always be afraid to step out of my home.”
Until 1984, they lived in Bangladesh, enduring hostility and persecution from the majority Muslims in the country. “I have been harassed and manhandled,” says Nanda, 59, a daily wage labourer. “Our locality had very few Hindus. We did not complain to the cops fearing a backlash. When we could not take it any longer, we decided to escape.”
Eight hours on foot, followed by a nervous bus journey, took them to Shishir Nagar, a small, quiet village located in the district of Nadia in West Bengal, which shares its eastern border with Bangladesh. That is where they have eked out a living for the past 37 years. “I get Rs 140 for rolling 1,000 bidis in a day and he gets Rs 250 as daily wage,” says Putul. Her eyes still on the bidis.
With the Assembly elections going on in West Bengal, she has her eyes on another thing: citizenship.
Putul and Nanda belong to the Matua community. Classified as a scheduled caste group, Matuas are the lower caste Hindu refugees that trace their ancestry to erstwhile East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh after the partition in 1971. Operating as agriculturists in Bangladesh, they have been migrating to West Bengal for decades since partition to escape persecution, and are concentrated in the districts of Nadia, South and North 24 Parganas, and Malda, among others. With a population of over 3 crore, Matuas have the ability to influence around 70 Assembly seats in West Bengal.
In the 2019 general elections, BJP had bagged a significant chunk of the Matua vote, which was overwhelmingly in TMC’s corner until then. Narendra Modi had begun his Lok Sabha campaign from Thakurnagar in South 24 Parganas — the mecca of Matuas — by seeking blessings from Boro Ma, the matriarch of the community. She belongs to the family of Harichand Thakur, who formed the Matua Mahasangha in East Pakistan in the mid-1800s.
Winning four of the 10 SC reserved seats in West Bengal, BJP’s main plank to woo Matuas was promising citizenship under the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which has now become the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
For all practical purposes, though, the Matuas are citizens of India, says Kapil Krishna Thakur, Dalit writer and CPI politician from North 24 Parganas. “They have the voter card, Aadhaar card and all the relevant documents,” he says. “There is no law that supports their discrimination. But people on the ground are sometimes threatened or blackmailed. Not everyone is aware of their rights. And there are elements that exploit that.”
Putul says that is precisely the uncertainty they want to do away with. “We are always scrutinised more than the others during verification drives,” she says. “We are always asked for more papers and documents at government offices to prove we are citizens of India.”
About 10-15 years ago, Nanda’s brother landed a government job. The jubilation of having secured a job soon turned into a sour experience. “We were asked for bribes because we are refugees. We were told if we don’t pay, we will lose the job,” says Nanda. “We come from a poor family. People exploit that because we don’t have much agency.”
Over a decade after that bitter experience, Putul and Nanda are now worried about their son, Raju, 28, who is working hard for the exams that can land him a job in civil services. “What if he cracks the exam but fails to get the job because we came from Bangladesh?” asks Nanda.
The BJP has successfully tapped into that insecurity. Mukul Adhikari, 31, BJP candidate from Ranaghat South Assembly constituency in Nadia, says the refugees back the BJP because it is the only party that is fighting for their citizenship. “70 percent of people in my constituency are Matuas,” says Adhikari, who himself belongs to the community. “CAA will happen and they will get citizenship.”
However, over a year since the passage of CAA, the Central government has not even framed the law, let alone implementing it. At a rally in Thakurnagar, Amit Shah in February said the CAA will be implemented after the COVID-19 vaccination drive concludes, and the Matuas will be “respected citizens” of India. In late March, Modi visited Bangladesh and interacted with the Matua community.
Critics, however, say that the BJP is bluffing and misleading the community.
“The Matuas want unconditional citizenship, but no such provisions contained in the law that has been passed. This is the reason why framing of rules is being delayed. Union home minister is telling lies to the people of Bengal and bluffing the Matuas,” Prasenjit Bose, convenor of The Joint Forum Against NRC, was quoted in The Wire.
To counter BJP’s surge among the Matua community, Mamata Banerjee announced 1.25 lakh ‘pattas’, or land titles, to the refugees in West Bengal. Banerjee has carefully cultivated this vote bank for years and has even been appointed the chief patron of the community. She has reiterated that their voting rights automatically establish them as citizens of India. As far as political overtures are concerned, Boro Ma’s son, the late Kapil Krishna Thakur, became an MP in 2014 on the TMC ticket.
However, his brother, Manjul, who was a TMC minister, joined BJP along with his two sons Subrata and Shantanu. The family, which still wields considerable influence in the Matua community, is divided along party lines. However, the citizenship card tilts the equation in favour of the BJP.
Harshit Mondol, 70, a halwai with his shop near Shishir Nagar, says the CAA corrects the “kaala kanoon” of 2003, which was passed under the then NDA government led by Atal Bihar Vajpayee. The Citizenship Amendment Act of 2003 had a provision. Those that sought refuge in India after 1971 were tagged as illegal migrants. “People in our community have often faced harassment while getting passports or caste certificates issued,” says Harshit. “We are often labeled as outsiders. Members of our community have been arrested as foreigners as well. If you want to get a job or get any work done, you cannot circumvent police or bureaucracy. And we are always scared that something will go wrong for us because we are refugees.”
Raju, Putul and Nanda’s son, who has been studying day in day out to get into civil services, says he does not know anyone in his community that has been denied a job but has heard that “it is tougher for us than the rest”. “If we get the citizenship card, it will be a huge burden off our chest,” he says. “Even though we have all the documents, we feel like infiltrators. Citizenship will put an end to it.”