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The Matuas

As in 2021

March 27, 2021: The Times of India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is on a two-day visit to Bangladesh, is set to meet members of the Matua community – a Hindu minority in the country – on March 27. The decision to set aside time for them, in the midst of a tight schedule, is interesting because it comes in the midst of the West Bengal Assembly elections, where the scheduled caste group has a strong presence in at least seven seats.

The Bangladesh visit is Modi’s first foreign trip since the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak. He has been invited by his counterpart Sheikh Hasina to attend the celebrations of Mujib Borsho, the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (the father of the nation of Bangladesh) and the 50 years of the country’s war of liberation.

PM visits Hindu temple, meets Matua community in Bangladesh

The PM plans to not only spend time with the family of Harichand Thakur, founder of the Matua community, who was born at Orakandi in 1812, but also pray at the Matua community’s Shri Shri Harichand temple and the Hari temple of Guruchand at the Orakandi Thakurbari under Kashiani upazila, Gopalganj. Ahead of the visit, security around Orakandi has been beefed up and a makeshift helipad has also been set up for his arrival.

Kashiani upazila parishad chairman Subrata Thakur, also a descendant of the Thakur family, told the Times of India that the Matua followers are eagerly awaiting the PM’s visit.

Who are the Matuas?

The Matua community was founded in the mid-1800s by Harichand Thakur. Harichand was born in Gopalganj in the Faridpur province of present-day Bangladesh to a family of peasant farmers of the untouchable community of Namasudra (a scheduled caste group; known pejoratively as Chandals).

Harichand’s father, Jashobanta Thakur, was a devout Vaishnava devotee. But, right from childhood, Harichand knew he had a different calling. As he grew older, he began to develop a deep empathy for the socially disadvantaged and depressed sections of Bengali society, chiefly the present-day scheduled and backward castes. He soon started preaching about the importance of love, tolerance, gender equality, and the non-distinction of caste, creed and class, and found wide acceptance. When his followers began to swell into thousands, drawing from Faridpur, Khulna and other neighbouring provinces, he formed Matua, a religious sect of Vaishnavite Hinduism, which means ‘to remain absorbed in meditation’.

By the mid-19th century, he became a major community figure, leading to an awakening in the Namasudra community. The movement also started attracting other oppressed communities. His followers started to consider him god.

Harichand’s legacy was carried forward by his son Guruchand Thakur, whose social reform policies are said to have ushered in a “renaissance for the downtrodden”. He consolidated the sect, both socially as well as politically.

Matuas, by nature, don’t practice Vedic rituals, even though they are Hindus. They are monotheists, and believe that salvation lies in only faith and devotion, expressed through singing hymns in praise of their deity, which is their way of prayer and meditation.

In 1948, Guruchand’s grandson, Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, a barrister at the Calcutta High Court and Congress minister in 1962, established the sect’s headquarters at Thakurnagar in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, as thousands began to pour into the state as refugees after partition.

Why are they politically significant?

Today there are around two crore Matuas in India, according to reports, with several crores estimated to be outside the electoral rolls. This is because many Matuas who migrated to India from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 have been denied citizenship after the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 came into effect.

In 2019, the community is considered to have shifted its allegiance to the BJP once Modi promised them citizenship.

Last year in a bid to woo the community, BJP national general secretary and in-charge of West Bengal Kailash Vijayvargiya even promised the implementation of the CAA in January. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee shot back, at a public rally in Bongaon’s Gopalnagar, by saying: “I am not like BJP that says many things ahead of polls. I keep my word. We have already set up Matua Development Board and allotted Rs 10 crore for its functioning. The work on Harichand-Guruchand Thakur University is [also] on. I have also decided to mark Matua leader Harichand Thakur’s birthday on April 9 as a state holiday.” She further reiterated that there was no need for CAA because Matuas, and refugees from East Pakistan and later Bangladesh, already enjoy all the rights and amenities a citizen is entitled to.

On February this year, PM Modi, in fact, kicked off the BJP’s homestretch campaign in Bengal with a rally in Thakurnagar, which is a Matua stronghold, after offering prayers at the temple of Harichand Thakur and meeting Matua matriarch ‘Barama’ Binapani Devi (PR Thakur’s widow). In a 17-minute speech, Modi focused on the proposed citizenship law by solely keeping the community in mind.

Whether the wooing of Matuas pays off will now be seen in the results of at least the seven seats in North 24 Parganas and Nadia, where the community plays key, as it goes to polls on April 17 (fifth phase) and April 26 (seventh phase).

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