The conundrum of citizenship: The Matuas and identity and statehood in West Bengal

The conundrum of citizenship: The Matuas and identity and statehood in West Bengal

Sadananda Biswas, 68, from West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, breaks down while recalling his childhood at Faridpur district in Bangladesh. “Our house was set on fire before my own eyes. We had to run away from Bangladesh with nothing but what we were wearing,” he says. Now, 10 days after the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) notified the Citizenship (Amendment) Rules, 2024, Sadananda, who belongs to the Matua sect, is relieved that his long wait for “authentic nationality” has finally come to an end.

The Matua sect comprising Namashudras or Dalits was set up by Harichand Thakur at Orakandi, Bangladesh, in the mid-19th century, to question the practices of Brahminical Hinduism. Millions of Matuas have migrated to India both before and after the war in 1971 that liberated what was then East Pakistan from West Pakistan, laying the foundation of Bangladesh.

Sadananda Biswas, a resident of Baduria in North 24 Parganas,  believes that the Citizenship (Amendment) Rules are necessary.

Sadananda Biswas, a resident of Baduria in North 24 Parganas, believes that the Citizenship (Amendment) Rules are necessary.
| Photo Credit:
Debasish Bhaduri

Wearing garlands of wooden beads, considered holy, around his neck, Sadananda stands outside the office of the All-India Matua Mahasangha, the headquarters of the Matua order, in Thakurnagar town in Bongaon. He has travelled about 35 kilometres from his village, Baghjhola, in Baduria, in preparation for the annual Matua mela, which was attended by about 20 lakh people last year. During the mela in April, the Matuas will offer prayers at the temple of Harichand Thakur and his wife Shantidevi, bathe in the nearby pond, and participate in kirtan (religious chanting and singing) for days.

During the mela in April, the Matuas will offer prayers at the temple of Harichand Thakur and his wife Shantidevi, bathe in the nearby pond, and participate in kirtan (religious chanting and singing) for days.

During the mela in April, the Matuas will offer prayers at the temple of Harichand Thakur and his wife Shantidevi, bathe in the nearby pond, and participate in kirtan (religious chanting and singing) for days.
| Photo Credit:
Debasish Bhaduri

Like the majority of the people from the Matua sect, Sadananda, a local trader of Ayurvedic medicines, has all the documents of Indian citizenship, including a voter identity card and an Aadhaar card. His older son is working in West Asia on an Indian passport. Yet, he believes that the Citizenship (Amendment) Rules are necessary. “It is not about what we get under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). It is about not allowing Muslims to keep coming to India,” he says. “We fled Bangladesh because of persecution. Now, you want us to allow them to follow us here?”

Hindu or Matua?

Sustained politics over many decades by the Sangh Parivar and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and now the CAA, 2019, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Rules, are nudging more people like Sadananda to think of their identity.

“India should be a Hindu Rashtra,” contends Nipa Biswas, a woman in her 40s, who also hails from Baghjhola and has come with him to the headquarters of the Matua Mahasangha.

The same sentiment is echoed by Manoj Gosai, an office-bearer of the Mahasangha, who is busy issuing pink slips to people gathered for membership inside the office. “You know everything but you want me to say it. Muslims have not faced any religious persecution in the countries mentioned in the CAA. That is why the law does not allow them citizenship,” says Manoj, who sports a white beard, a saffron towel, and a garland of wooden beads.

Women outside the office of All-India Matua Mahasangha.

Women outside the office of All-India Matua Mahasangha.
| Photo Credit:
Debasish Bhaduri

The CAA, which was passed by Parliament on December 11, 2019, facilitates citizenship to undocumented migrants belonging to six non-Muslim communities — Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian — from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, who entered India on or before December 31, 2014. The Rules were notified on March 11, 2024, coinciding with the birth anniversary of the founder of the Matua sect.

For Sadananda and Manoj, the CAA and the subsequent Rules are about establishing their identity and keeping Muslims at bay. However, they have no clear answers about whether they consider themselves Hindu or Matua.

All about Citizenship Amendment Rules, 2024

“I am a Matua first. But my religion is Sanatana Dharma. It is not a question of religion but identity. There are more than 3 crore Matuas across India,” says Manoj. Others around him are not sure where they stand.

Sadananda says he lives his life according to the teachings of Harichand Thakur. He says, “I am a Matua first and a Hindu later. We may be Hindus by religion, but Matua is our sect. For us, Harichand Thakur and Guruchand Thakur are our gods. Our prayers are answered here. Why should we not believe in them?”

Applying for citizenship

The Matuas are euphoric over the CAA Rules being notified, but they are also confused about how to apply for citizenship. Drigen Biswas, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) booth president from Gopalganj in Bongaon, has been going around the office of the All-India Matua Mahasangha asking whether camps will be set up to help people fill in the CAA forms.

“Since the government wants us to apply, we will do so. But we will need a little help. We do not have the documents that the portal is asking for,” he says. However, Drigen emphasises that the CAA will help the BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Rules specify several documents that are to be uploaded on an online portal (indiancitizenshiponline.nic.in/) in order to process the application. A sworn affidavit declaring the country of origin and date of entry into India along with an eligibility certificate to be issued by a locally reputed community institution certifying that a person follows one of the six faiths are mandatory.

Manoj says the process of filling in the forms should be simplified. “The Rules are welcome, but it is not possible for people who have been persecuted on religious lines to provide documents relating to their residence in another country,” he says.

Sadananda says there are about 25-30 families from Bangladesh residing for decades at Baghjhola. All of them, too, are not sure how to apply for fresh citizenship through the MHA portal. “If the government wants us to apply through the portal, we will. But at this moment, how to apply is not our concern,” he says.

Reaching out to the Matuas

The Rules have been the subject of debate, discussion, and also confusion in the political circles of West Bengal. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who reacted soon after the Rules were notified, said that Matuas will become refugees the moment they apply on the portal. “Those who are being asked to apply… the moment they apply, from becoming citizens they will become illegal refugees. What will happen to your properties, your jobs, and the studies of your children? Everything will be declared illegal,” she said, while addressing a gathering on March 12 at Habra, 15 km from Thakurnagar.

Bongaon BJP MP and Union Minister of State for Shipping and Waterways Shantanu Thakur, who hails from the family of the founders of the Matua sect, emphasised that the CAA is necessary. Hindu refugees from Bangladesh will have to suffer a fate like the Rohingya if they do not apply through the MHA portal, he said. “In future, if there is a government that says as per the law, those who have entered the country after 1971 are not citizens and they and their children will be identified and driven out, can Mamata Banerjee save them? The Rohingya have been driven out. Has she been able to do anything,” he asked.

The Minister added he would apply for citizenship under the CAA to counter the “false propaganda” of the Trinamool Congress. While BJP leaders have maintained that the CAA and the Rules are not meant to take away anyone’s citizenship, Banerjee said that the CAA will lead to a National Register of Citizens (NRC), like in Assam, and the establishment of “concentration camps”.

The Matua community has a considerable influence not only in the Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency, but also in nearly half a dozen Lok Sabha seats in areas bordering West Bengal and Bangladesh. Both the BJP and the Trinamool are trying to win the support of the community.

Kapil Krishna Thakur, an author and social worker who has worked with the Matuas for decades, says the sect, which was mostly a reform movement, has now been appropriated by the larger Hindutva fold. “Upper caste Bengalis came from Bangladesh before 1947-48. The Matuas, who were dependent on land and agriculture, came to India at a much later date,” he points out.

For more than five years, the Matuas have been at the centre of the BJP’s politics around the CAA. Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in West Bengal by addressing a gathering at Thakurnagar. On March 27, 2021, the first day of polling for the West Bengal Assembly polls, he was at Orakandi, the birthplace of Harichand Thakur.

The Trinamool Congress has not lagged behind. It recently nominated Mamatabala Thakur, the aunt of BJP MP Shantanu Thakur, who also hails from the family of founders of the Matua order, to the Rajya Sabha. The party has also fielded Biswajit Das, a BJP legislator who defected to the Trinamool and has significant influence over Matua votes, to contest against Shantanu Thakur from the Bongaon Lok Sabha seat.

Debabas Mondal, the BJP president of the Bongaon organisation district, admits that the delay in framing the Rules had put the party in a difficult position. “Wherever our MP (Shantanu Thakur) used to go, he would face the same question (When will the Rules be framed?) Now, we will definitely win,” he says.

As far as the issue of applying for citizenship on the portal is concerned, the BJP leader says the people are not “getting a proper way to apply”. He explains that people will not require all the documents. “Any one of the documents will be enough,” he says. On being asked why people who are already citizens and are availing themselves of all the privileges as citizens need to apply for citizenship, Debdas says, “It will wipe out the stigma that they are refugees.”

Debdas Mondal, BJP Bongaon district president, says people will not require all the documents to apply for citizenship.

Debdas Mondal, BJP Bongaon district president, says people will not require all the documents to apply for citizenship.
| Photo Credit:
Debasish Bhaduri

Recently, The Hindu reported that a local priest may issue an “eligibility certificate” under the CAA to validate the religion of an applicant. Many in the Matua community feel that the membership cards issued by the All-India Matua Mahasangha may be used as a document to apply through the MHA portal. However, there are no reports of people applying for citizenship under the CAA through the portal. While there is a rush for membership cards, Krishna Thakur says leaders of the sect have discouraged their supporters from filling any form through the portal.

Fear and apprehension

Krishna Thakur believes that more than the issue of citizenship, the attempt to divide people on religious grounds is becoming more pronounced through the CAA and the Rules. He also questions the claims that everyone who crossed the border was persecuted along religious lines. “When the country (Pakistan) was partitioned, it was a matter of right (of rehabilitation) for those who had come (to India) from East Pakistan. Now, the CAA narrative has shifted from the rights-approach to giving something to a guest or outsider,” he says.

While fear and apprehension have prevailed among different sections of people who have come from Bangladesh to India, there were no incidents of violence. However, when the CAA was passed in Parliament in 2019, the State witnessed arson and violence across several districts.

Mir Abdul Hashem, a trader from Bongoan, who exports and imports goods between Bangladesh and India, believes that the exercise is to target Muslims. “No one is a fool. The exercise is to create fear and panic among Muslims. We need to understand why the Rules were announced before the elections,” he says. Muslims form 27.01% of the population of West Bengal.

The confusion surrounding the CAA is not limited to Bongoan. On March 21, a 31-year-old man in Kolkata died by suicide in south Kolkata’s Netaji Nagar. His family members alleged that he was panic-stricken about the CAA and the new Rules. Netaji Nagar is among the many colonies in Kolkata where people from Bangladesh have settled over the last few decades. In a complaint letter to the Netaji Nagar police station, Tapan Sengupta, the man’s father, wrote, “Since the announcement of the CAA, my son has been suffering from tremendous mental trauma and agony.” The Trinamool leadership sent a five-member delegation to the house of the deceased and said that the Rules were creating panic.

Bibhas Chandra Saha, 77, a retired government employee, has been restless since the Rules were notified. He fears that he does not have the relevant documents to apply for citizenship. “Unlike many who stayed in refugee colonies, I stayed at the house of a relative in Jalpaiguri when I entered the country in 1964. I have a letter from the District Magistrate, but do not think that will work,” he says.

Saha is not sure whether he should apply for citizenship or just wait and watch. “After so many years of staying in the country, applying for citizenship afresh is nothing but harassment,” he contends. Even if the lakhs of people like Bibhas Chandra Saha who came from Bangladesh and settled in West Bengal decide whether they want to apply for citizenship or not, they have little clarity on the process and whether the State government can stop it or slow it down. The Trinamool government has ruled out any need to apply for new citizenship under the CAA. As a result, there is no infrastructure in the State to help the people. As the political temperatures rise with the Lok Sabha polls drawing near, the CAA and the recently notified Rules pose more questions than answers for the people.

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