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Once a Victory Weapon in 'Secular' Bengal, the Sword of Caste Now Hangs Over Mamata Banerjee's Neck

File photo of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

File photo of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

Mamata Banerjee, buoyed by a wave of caste-based identity politics, rode to power in 2011 — a wave that is now threatening to be her biggest challenge.

In 1980, former CM of West Bengal Jyoti Basu had famously argued that caste was a “legacy of the feudal system” and viewing society through the lens of caste was simply “no longer relevant”. Nearly three decades later, Mamata Banerjee, buoyed by a wave of caste-based identity politics, rode to power in 2011 — a wave that is now threatening to be her biggest challenge.

The seeming irrelevance of caste in the state was linked to two key factors: the ‘secular’ image of the earlier Congress and Left Front governments and the leftist argument that class politics had subsumed “caste politics”. But this absence of articulation of political demands along the lines of caste didn’t mean that caste itself had disappeared, just that it remained dormant.

A TMC MLA from south Bengal explained, “The caste factor was suppressed. It was like a volcano waiting to erupt. Just have a look at how many ministers from the state have been from any community, apart from the educated upper-caste elites or bhadraloks.”

As per the 2011 census, the Dalit population in the state accounts for 23.49% of the state’s total population – and 12.88% of the country’s. Moreover, the Dalit population in the state is not homogenous, instead dominated by five major sub-castes — Rajbanshi, Namasudras, Bagdis, Poundras and the Bauris – that account for 76% of the total.

What this resulted in was mobilisation of Dalits by political parties along the lines of these sub-castes, instead of their Dalit identity. So, for instance, from 1952 till 2001, the MLAs from Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, North Dinajpur and South Dinajpur have been Rajbanshis by caste.

Banerjee, aided by her then-trusted lieutenant Mukul Roy, crafted a plan to fracture this. Key to this were the Matua community – members of the Namasudra sub caste who have significant sway over six parliamentary seats, with an estimated population of over 3 crore. Electoral gains followed: first in the 2008 Panchayat elections, 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the 2011 and 2016 Assembly elections.

But this also opened the gates for the BJP. As early as 2014 campaign, Narendra Modi targeted Mamata Banerjee in an election rally at Krishnanagar asking why “Matuas aren’t treated as Indians”. His 2019 campaign in Bengal also began at the Matua-stronghold of Thakurnagar in Bangaon.

Two key developments have, however, potentially changed the BJP’s fortune. The death of the Matua community’s spiritual leader ‘Boroma’ Binapani Devi and the consequent split of the family into two factions, one siding with the BJP and the other remaining with TMC. Secondly, the fact that Mukul Roy is designing BJP’s electoral plan in the state.

The ‘Alliance’ that Changed Bengal

When Mamata Banerjee received a lifetime membership card of the Matua Mahasangha from Binapani Devi in December 2009, some were surprised while others grimaced at the use of ‘identity politics’. Banerjee said, “"I shall work for the Matuas as long as I am alive. I was moved when baro ma told me how her people were being looked down upon as most of them belonged to lower castes. I do not believe in casteism and have no problem if people call me low-caste.”

The Matua Mahasangha – a religious and political organization that looked to propagate the teachings of the community while acting as a pressure group to secure the demands of the community. Binapani Devi was the widow of Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, the great-grandson of Harichand Thakur who joined the Congress and was elected twice to the state legislature and once to the Lok Sabha.

Guruchand Thakur stressed on the formation of community, education and employment as his teachings. Namasudras were asked to earn money and collectively fight against the upper-caste and demanded that they be recognized as Namasudras and not ‘Chandal’, which was eventually dropped in the 2011 census.

Leaders like Jogendranath Mandal, Pakistan’s first law minister and the second minister of Kashmir affairs, aligned with BR Ambedkar and were able to mobilise the community to build resistance against upper caste dominance. But as the communal tensions soared in Pakistan, the community migrated into West Bengal and settled along the border districts. “In consequent decades, the Left, like the Congress, argued that the community, now Bangladeshi refugees, were ‘burden’ on the state’s resources, while unofficially incorporating them and giving ration cards and other documents. In exchange they got votes,” said a close aide of Mukul Roy.

But in spite of this, the Matua Mahasanga had so far maintained a largely apolitical stance and relegated to the margins of power. This changed with Mamata Banerjee, who as rail minister upgraded the Thakurnagar railway station, promised government jobs to the Matuas, a hospital but perhaps most importantly, offered a candidature to Manjul Krishna Thakur, Binapani Devi’s son. He continues to be the minister for Refugee Relief & Rehabilitation.

But even then, faced by the community’s demand of an amendment to the Citizenship Act of 2003 to allow the community to register land in their name, Banerjee had sidestepped the issue. “Everything is not in my control. I don’t make false promises,” she had said, maintaining that she would do what she could.

After coming into power in 2011, Banerjee extended her formula of identity politics elsewhere. In Darjeeling, she fractured the Gorakh identity by creating development boards across caste and community. But the unanswered question about the amendment to the Citizenship Bill has come back to haunt her and the Trinamool Congress a decade later.

The Turning Point

The turning point, TMC admits, was when Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned at Bongaon, and met the Matua matriarch. Flanking him were Boroma’s younger son Manjul Krishna, and his son, Santanu Thakur — both linked to the faction of the family that now supports the BJP. According to a member of organisation, who didn’t wish to be named, “It was a very brief interaction. She was very old. But the Prime Minister came and touched her feet, sat down next to her. The family explained that she was old and hard of hearing.”

The five-minute meeting was key. Before this Mamata Banerjee had been the only political leader that Boroma had met in decades. As Modi left her room and proceeded to begin his speech, chants of ‘Modi-Modi’ rang alongside the ‘Jai Boroma’. In his speech, Modi said, “This movement spread across Bengal and enriched the state. In the country’s social fiber, the efforts of Harichand Thakur for right of the oppressed and downtrodden. The mission to unite them is a landmark. This ground is hallowed.”

Within minutes of the Matua matriarch’s death, Modi tweeted a photo of his meeting and wrote, “Boro Ma Binapani Thakur was an icon of our times. Her emphasis on social justice and harmony will never be forgotten. I will always cherish the interaction I had with her.”

That her death is likely to have significant impact on the fate of the state’s elections is something that neither the BJP, nor the TMC deny. A TMC Rajya Sabha MP admitted, “As of now, the way things stand, I won’t be surprised if the BJP does well in as many as 10 seats, especially in the seats of south Bengal with the Matua vote.”

The battle has been bitter and fierce. The murder of TMC MLA Satyajit Biswas last month was alleged to have been linked to Matua politics, with the TMC accusing Mukul Roy of orchestrating the death — a charge he denies. To muddy the waters further, a few days before her death, a letter - written purportedly by Debi and with her signature - surfaced. The letter addresses Banerjee and asks for her support on the citizenship bill. The authenticity of the letter has been challenged by the TMC and the matter is now in the court.

The Bengal CM, on her part, has taken counter measures. After her death, the Bengal cabinet hurriedly formed a panel to look into issues of rehabilitating refugees from east Bengal. She has also declared Rupali Biswas, the murdered MLA’s widow, as the candidate for the Ranaghat seat. The candidate, who is still days short of being old enough to file her candidature gave her first speech last week at Nadia from the state of the Matua Mahasangha and said, “I bow to Tharak Harichand-Gurchand. I want to convey my respect for Boroma and I hope that you will be beside me to fulfill the responsibility that the chief minister Mamata Banerjee has asked me to fulfill.”