Is There A Second Wave of Dalit Upsurge in West Bengal?

The Matua movement that lost momentum after raising hopes of Dalit awakening in West Bengal appears to have received fresh impetus again. But is it too early to pass verdict on the future trajectory of the movement and Dalit politics in general? 

Is West Bengal witnessing renewed political mobilisation along the lines of caste? This question was exhaustively debated in the pages of Economic & Political Weekly a few years ago. [Click here to read excerpts from this debate.] The electoral decline of the organised left provided the vantage point from which the relationship between politics and community in West Bengal came to be re-examined. Since then, there has been a growing interest in the politics of caste in West Bengal and it has grown proportionally to the steady electoral decline of the left front since 2009.

Rising Caste Politics: A Contested Hypothesis

The decline of the organised left wing in West Bengal politics has inspired renewed debates about many of the taken-for-granted assumptions about the political role of caste. The initial optimism about the enhanced role of caste in politics was based upon the political ascendancy of the Matua Mahasangha (MM). Matua is a Hindu religious sect founded by Harichand Thakur at Orakhandi in Faridpur district of present-day Bangladesh. After independence, Harichand’s grandson, P R Thakur, established the sect’s headquarters at Thakurnagar in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. The Matuas, belonging mainly to the lower-caste Namasudra community, migrated to India as refugees in successive phases after partition. MM is a religious organisation of the Matuas as well as their political mouthpiece. According to official estimates, there are two crore Matuas in India, but as per the estimate of the MM, there are almost five crore Matuas, mostly outside the electoral rolls. This is due to the fact that those who migrated to India from Bangladesh after 25 March 1971 have been denied citizenship in accordance with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003. The main demand of the MM is, therefore, citizenship for all the Matuas. With this demand, the MM burst onto the political scene before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, leading to the anticipation that such developments would ultimately pave the way for the emergence of caste-based identity politics in the state. The main advocate of the view that caste politics had finally arrived in West Bengal was Sinharay (2012). 

While Sinharay was confident about the beginning of a “new politics of caste” in West Bengal, other scholars appeared to be more cautious in endorsing the “rise of caste” thesis. One viewpoint has tended to suggest that the upper-caste parties dominating the political scene of West Bengal still have vested interests in making the language of caste irrelevant and therefore, they will continue to work towards sustaining an order of hegemonic control of the upper castes (Bandyopadhyay 2012; Sen 2016). Another powerful perspective has pointed out that the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has more or less co-opted the left’s mode of functioning, leading to the continuing marginalisation of social identities like caste in mainstream party politics. Bhattacharyya (2016: 148–49) has observed that the end of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] rule has not resulted in the termination of the coercive structure of “party society;” it has only passed into the hands of the TMC, which has exhibited utter ruthlessness in marginalising autonomous voices of dissent in rural localities. According to Chatterjee (2016: 96) 

“the recent political transition has not or not as yet meant a reassertion of the autonomy of local social institutions. Rather, the Trinamool Congress, in the districts of Southern Bengal, where it is now dominant, appears to be keen to adopt the left front model of the dominance of the political over the social and exclude the Communist Party of India- (Marxist)- CPI(M) from local power.” 

The resulting scenario is that of continuing inconsequentiality of caste in mainstream party politics. Thus, these critiques did not go to the extent of proclaiming a radical break from the past while engaging with the nature of post-left politics. Their scepticism of the “rise of caste” thesis was somehow vindicated by subsequent developments.

Caste-based identity politics, despite its initial promise in the post-left era, failed to make any real impact on the organised politics of the state. Both TMC and CPI(M) before the 2011 assembly elections, reached out to the MM hoping that it could ensure en bloc support of the entire Namasudra community. The TMC succeeded in gaining the backing of the MM and after winning the 2011 assembly elections, the TMC chief, Mamata Banerjee, reciprocated by appointing Manjul Krishna Thakur, the Saha-Sanghadhipati (vice chief) of the MM, as the Minister of State for Refugee Rehabilitation and Relief. Thus, the MM attained some political prominence as it showed the potential of developing the clout to mobilise the support of the entire Namasudra community in favour of a single political party. However, it gradually became evident that the organisation, beset with internal bickering, was in no position to guarantee the support of the entire community. Accordingly, its political significance also declined.

The Matuas are generally expected to vote according to the wishes of "Baroma" or Binapani Devi, who is the spiritual leader of the sect, if she decides to hold before them a clear-cut political choice. Baroma put her weight behind Mamata Banerjee before the 2011 elections. Thereafter, the movement became afflicted with internal feuds with the MM unable to give clear political directions. Manjul Krishna Thakur, the son of Baroma, and Subrata Thakur, the son of Manjul Krishna Thakur, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) just before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Subrata Thakur contested elections on a BJP ticket from the Bongaon constituency against his aunt and TMC candidate, Mamatabala Devi, the wife of late Kapil Krishna Thakur, Baroma’s elder son. After the defeat of Subrata Thakur, his father Manjul Krishna Thakur passed into political oblivion, losing his ministerial position and previous political prominence. However, the entire episode sent the wrong political signals. It divulged the inability of the MM to mobilise the support of the entire Matua or Namasudra community in favour of a single party. In the 2016 assembly elections too, the internal feud prevented the emergence of a clear-cut political choice equipped with the backing of all sections of the Thakur family. Accordingly, the entire community became subject to the debilitating experience of political fragmentation. As a result, the MM steadily became isolated from mainstream politics. All political parties appeared to be losing interest in the MM and turned non-committal on the citizenship demand of the Matuas. While the pre-election rally organised by the community before the 2011 assembly elections had seen the participation of high profile political leaders like the CPI(M)’s Gautam Deb and TMC’s Mukul Roy, the pre-election rally organised by the community in Kolkata before the 2016 assembly elections did not generate any political interest with even the mainstream media skipping the coverage of the event.

Recent Developments

After being politically dormant for some time, the Matuas have, very recently, started to make political headlines again. The issue of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) appears to be aiding the revival of political relevance of the MM. More than 40 lakh of the 3.29 crore applicants in BJP-ruled Assam have been left out of the NRC. This 40 lakh is largely comprised of Muslims, but, reportedly around 10 to 12 lakh Bengali Hindus have also been excluded from the draft list. A vast majority of them are Namasudras. According to the MM, nearly 6 lakh persons among the excluded belong to the Matua sect. The BJP has also made clear its intention to implement the NRC in West Bengal. The BJP’s stance on the NRC has become a cause of concern for the Namasudras in West Bengal. Many belonging to the Namasudra community have migrated to India after 1971 and hence, they are afraid that their names might not appear in NRC list if a similar exercise is also undertaken in West Bengal. This apprehension has led many community leaders to speak out against the BJP. Protests are also being organised against the NRC across West Bengal. In August 2018, the All India Namasudra Vikas Parishad (AINVP) staged large protests against the NRC by organising blockades at railway and road junctions in various parts of North 24 Parganas and Nadia districts and held up Assam-bound trains (Hindu 2018; Chandra 2018). The representatives of the organisation also met Mamata Banerjee at Uttar Kanya (branch secretariat) in Siliguri asking for her help (Indian Express 2018a). As a result, the NRC issue has opened up opportunities for the TMC to consolidate the support of the Namasudras and the party seems to have promptly seized this opportunity by positioning itself as the saviour of the Namasudras. 

The TMC government has recently also announced a number of development measures for the Matua community (Indian Express 2018b; Firstpost 2018). In early November 2018, the West Bengal government declared its plan to set up development boards for the welfare of the Namasudras and Matuas (Statesman 2018). Most importantly, Mamata Banerjee paid a visit to the MM headquarters at Thakurnagar on 15 November 2018 to attend an event held for the commencement of year-long celebrations of the birth centenary of Binapani Devi. This visit came after a long gap of almost five years. Mamata Banerjee last visited Thakurnagar while she was campaigning for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Therefore, this visit itself could be seen as an indication that the Matua factor is back in political reckoning again. At the event, Banerjee conferred Bengal’s highest civilian award, the Banga Vibhushan on Binapani Devi. She also promised to set up a new university to be named after Harichand Thakur and Guruchand Thakur, the founding fathers of the sect, at a place named Chandpara, just five kilometres from Thakurnagar. She raised the citizenship issue in her speech and vociferously castigated the BJP for playing politics over the issue and promised full support to the Matuas from her side. 

The timing of these initiatives seems to suggest that it is politics, rather than development that has acted as the primary propellant. The Namasudras, mostly concentrated in the vicinity of Kolkata, have experienced much greater social mobility and economic development than other Scheduled Caste (SC) groups. While the literacy rate of the Namasudras has reached close to 80%, the level of literacy still remains low among other major SC groups (Table 1). The dependence of the Namasudras on agriculture has come down from 56.7% in 1991 to 40.89% in 2011 with opening up of new avenues of social mobility for them (Chatterjee 2016: 100), while a much larger proportion of the population of other SC groups is dependent on agriculture (Table 2). If development indicators are to be believed, then other SC groups like the Bagdi, Bauri and Rajbanshi are more in need of development boards and educational institutions than the Namasudras. Hence, it seems that political considerations are shaping government’s current concern for the Namasudras. On one hand, these measures have been announced a few months before the crucial 2019 Lok Sabha elections. On the other, all these measures have come on the heels of the NRC issue that has a great bearing not only upon the fate of many members of the Namasudra community, but also on the state politics in general.

Table 1: Status of Literacy among Major Scheduled Castes as per Census 2001 and Census 2011

Caste

Literacy Rate (2001) (%)

Literacy Rate (2011) (%)

Rajbanshi

60.14

70.66

Namasudra

71.93

79.52

Bagdi

47.72

61.41

Pod

72.10

79.75

Bauri

37.47

50.50

Chamar/Muchi

46.99

60.04

Source: Census of India, 2001 West Bengal, Data Highlights: The Scheduled Castes, Census of India, 2001 available at http://censusindia.gov.in/Tables_Published/SCST/dh_sc_westbengal.pdf; Primary Census Abstract Data, 2011, Table A-10.

Table 2: Dependence on Agriculture for Major Scheduled Castes of West Bengal as per Census 2011

Caste

Percentage of Total Population Dependent on Agriculture

Rajbanshi

63.45

Namasudra

40.89

Bagdi

69.64

Pod

44.68

Bauri

60.78

Chamar/Muchi

51.39

Source: Primary Census Abstract Data, 2011, Table A-10.

The refugee issue has the potential to influence electoral outcomes in West Bengal because it concerns not only the Namasudras, but also Muslims. After the release of the final draft of the NRC in Assam in July 2018, migration has become an issue of intense political debate in West Bengal. Calling the whole NRC exercise as an “anti-Bengali move,” Mamata Banerjee pledged to oppose it tooth and nail, a stand that is possibly directed towards gaining the support of Muslims who comprise 27% of West Bengal’s population. But as the news spread that even Bengali Hindus belonging mostly to the Namasudra community had also been left out of the NRC, the TMC also saw the possibility of mobilising the support of the low-caste Hindu refugees whom the BJP traditionally see as a potential support base, particularly in the border areas of West Bengal.

After 2014, when the BJP started to make inroads into West Bengal, it tried to gain political mileage by driving a wedge between the Hindu and Muslim refugees. It made illegal infiltration a massive issue before the 2014 national elections. With an eye on gaining political mileage, the BJP tried to accommodate Hindu refugees by making a distinction between refugee and infiltrator. In an election rally, Narendra Modi said that the people worshipping Maa Durga could remain in this country, while the others who crossed over with ulterior designs would have to leave (Indian Express 2014; Guha 2015). This was nothing but a shrewd strategy to bring the low-caste Namasudras who had migrated to India after 25 March 1971, within the larger Hindu fold. As part of this strategy the BJP government at the centre introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 seeking to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 in order to provide citizenship to illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian. It aims to minimise the requirement of eleven years of continuous stay in India to six years for the purpose of obtaining citizenship by naturalisation. The focus on Hindu Bangladeshi refugees brought some political dividends to the BJP. The first seat the BJP won on its own in the West Bengal assembly was Basirhat (South) in 2014. The constituency is adjacent to the India–Bangladesh border and inhabited by a large number of Namasudras.

Concluding Observations

For the last few years, the BJP has been working hard in West Bengal to cultivate the support of the Hindu refugees whom it considers to be potential supporters. A section of the MM also responded to the BJP overtures, and this led to political fragmentation of the Matua community. However, the NRC exercise now seems to have created a favourable situation for not only the TMC, but also for MM. It has created opportunities for the MM to mobilise the support of the entire Matua community by overcoming political fragmentation, and thus rediscover its relevance in West Bengal politics. Hence, the present scenario throws up some interesting questions: Are we witnessing a second wave of Matua upsurge? Are recent developments symptomatic of the rise of caste at the centre stage of electoral politics in West Bengal?  The recent developments discussed in this essay provide a vantage point to re-engage with these questions. However, it may not be possible to provide satisfactory answers to these questions at this point. We need to keep an eye on the events that are going to unfold in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and afterwards. 

It is, however, still possible to provide some insights. First, even if the MM succeeds in reviving its political relevance to some extent before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, its impact is likely to remain limited. The Namasudras account for only 3.84% of the total population of West Bengal and almost 50% of the total population of the Namasudras is concentrated in two adjacent districts of Nadia and North 24 Parganas. The demographic weight and geographic spread of the Namasudra community are limited. Therefore, it is not in a position to be as politically significant as castes like the Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh (comprising 8.7% of the population),[1] Chamars in Uttar Pradesh (11.26%),[2] Patidars in Gujarat (12.3%),[3] Maratha-Kunbi in Maharashtra (32%),[4] Lingayata (15%) and Vokkaligas (11%) in Karnataka,[5] that are more or less spread over the entire state or concentrated in a large region or sub-region.

Further, the extent of politicisation of caste identity must be assessed by looking at the trends of lower-caste representation that have so far received scant scholarly attention. Caste politics or politicisation of caste identity in various parts of India, particularly since the late 1970s, has manifested in the rising political representation of the lower castes, and this has hailed as the “second democratic upsurge” (Yadav 2000), “silent revolution” (Jaffrelot 2003) and the “rise of plebeians” (Jaffrelot 2009). For making a reasonable assessment of the real potency and forcefulness of politicisation of caste identity, it is imperative to find out whether lower castes have started to get mobilised into political participation in West Bengal in the same way as in many other states. While tall claims were made about the rise of caste politics during the period of political transition in West Bengal, no efforts were made to find out whether rising political representation of the lower castes had occurred or not. 

An empirical analysis of political representation of lower castes in West Bengal will demonstrate that contrary to Sinharay’s (2012) claim, the rise of the lower castes is yet to occur in West Bengal. There has not been any considerable increase in the proportion of SC members of legislative assembly (MLAs) since 2011. Most importantly, an overwhelming proportion of SC MLAs (94.44% in 2011 and 98.55% in 2016) continues to get elected from the reserved seats (Table 3). 

Table 3. SC MLAs in Assembly Elections (1952–2016)

 

1952

1957

1962

1967

1969

1971

1972

1977

1982

1987

1991

1996

2001

2006

2011

2016

Total Number of MLAs

238

252

252

280

280

280

280

294

294

294

294

294

294

294

294

294

Total Number of SC MLAs

47

52

59

60

55

56

60

65

62

63

66

68

62

66

72

69

Percentage of SC MLAs of Total MLAs

19.74

20.63

23.41

21.43

19.64

20

21.43

22.11

21.09

21.43

22.45

23.13

21.09

22.44

24.49

23.47

Total Number of SC MLAs Elected from Reserved Seats

41

42

42

54

54

54

54

59

59

59

59

59

59

59

68

68

Percentage of SC MLAs Elected from Reserved Seats

87.23

80.77

71.19

90.00

98.19

96.43

90.00

90.77

95.16

93.65

89.39

86.76

95.16

89.39

94.44

98.55

Total Number of SC MLAs Elected from General Seats

06

10

17

06

01

02

06

06

03

04

07

09

03

07

04

01

Percentage of SC MLAs Elected from General Seats

12.77

19.23

26.67

5.17

1.81

3.57

10.00

9.23

4.84

6.35

10.61

13.24

4.84

10.61

5.56

 

1.45

Source: Data from 1952 to 2001 has been calculated from Lama-Rewal (2009); data from 2006 to 2011 has been calculated from Election Commission of India’s Statistical Reports on General Elections, 2006 and 2011 from the Legislative Assembly of West Bengal. Data of 2016 elections has been calculated from Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD).

Data relating to parliamentary elections also brings out the similar picture of severe and continuing political exclusion of the lower castes in West Bengal. The proportion of SC Members of Parliaments in West Bengal has remained close to the proportion of SCs to total population due to the existence of reserved seats. But the declining strength of the left front has not brought about any increase in lower-caste representation. In the last two Lok Sabha elections, not a single SC candidate was elected from general seats in West Bengal (Table 4). 

Table 4. SC Members of Parliament (MPs) in Lok Sabha Elections (2004–14)

 

2004

2009

2014

Total Number of Elected SC MPs

9

10

10

Number of SC MPs Elected from Reserved Seats

8

 

10

10

Number of SC MPs Elected from General Seats

1

0

0

Percentage of SC MPs of Total MPs

19.05

23.81

23.81

Percentage of SC MPs Elected from Reserved Seats

88.89

100

100

Percentage of SC MPs Elected from General Seats

11.11

0

0

Source: Election Commission of India’s Statistical Reports on General Elections, 2004, 2009 and 2014.

Further, the mainstream political parties have shown little effort in enhancing lower-caste representation by giving SC candidates the opportunity to contest from general seats, both in the assembly as well as Lok Sabha elections (Tables 5 and 6).

Table 5. SC Candidates of Major Political Parties in the Last Three Assembly Elections

 

Indian National Congress

         CPI(M)

                         TMC

 

2006

2011

2016

2006

2011

2016

2006

2011

2016

% of SC Candidates

20.99

28.78

15.21

24.06

27.70

31.08

21.40

22.57

23.89

% of SC Candidates

in Reserved Seats

94.55

94.74

100

90.20

86.44

89.13

87.27

96.08

97.14

% of SC Candidates

in General Seats

5.45

5.26

0

9.80

13.56

10.87

12.73

3.92

2.86

Source: Election Commission of India’s Statistical Reports on General Elections, 2006 and 2011 to Legislative Assembly of West Bengal; data of 2016 elections has been calculated from TCPD.

 

Table 6. SC Candidates of Major Political Parties in the Last Three Lok Sabha Elections

 

Indian National Congress

         CPI(M)

                         TMC

 

2004

2009

2014

2004

2009

2014

2004

2009

2014

% of SC Candidates

0

0

0

19.23

55.56

0

0

15.79

29.41

% of SC Candidates

in Reserved Seats

0

0

0

80

100

0

0

100

100

% of SC Candidates

in General Seats

0

0

0

20

0

0

0

0

0

Source: Election Commission of India’s Statistical Reports on General Elections, 2004, 2009 and 2014.

A negligible percentage of SC candidates of the three major political parties of the state have contested from general seats. All of this reflects that a caste-based social engineering strategy is still not a political reality in West Bengal.

Thus, since 2008–09 when the organised left in West Bengal started to decline, there has not been any escalation in the political representation of the lower castes. It is imperative to see whether, in the near future, the current sporadic activism of the Matuas translates into increased political representation of the lower castes in West Bengal. Till the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and perhaps the 2021 assembly elections, we have to reserve the verdict on whether the current scenario qualifies to be called as the second wave of Dalit upsurge in West Bengal. 

 

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