Caste, migration and identity

PRASKANVA SINHARAY

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ON 11 March 2012, a public meeting was organized at Mahajati Sadan in Kolkata by the Harichand-Guruchand Thakur Research Foundation on the eve of the 200th birth anniversary year of Sri Harichand Thakur, the founder of the Matua sect. The meeting was not a mere annual gathering of the followers of the sect; rather it was an assembly with specific political demands of the community – ‘Chai Nagorikotyo, Chai Jatipatro’ – the twofold demand of issuing of citizenship and caste certificate. (Image I)

Two years before, on 28 December 2010, the Matuas had rocked the streets of Kolkata and the Matua Mahasangha, their frontal organization, held a huge public gathering at Esplanade before the state assembly elections which was attended by the representatives of all the major political parties. The purpose of the gathering was to demand the repeal of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2003 that denied citizenship to those refugees who migrated to the Indian side of the border after the Bangladesh war in 1971. (Image II)

Poster of the national conference held on 11 March 2012 in Kolkata.

 

The Matuas have gained immense popularity in recent times, both in the media as well as in public debates and discussions in West Bengal, as the community has emerged as a ‘force’ under the banner of Matua Mahasangha that no political party could ignore in order to ensure electoral benefits.1 This, I believe, has introduced ‘a new politics of caste’2 in West Bengal and has also changed the erstwhile urban, upper caste dominated political character of the state.

 

The Matuas, almost entirely composed of the lower caste Namasudras, are mostly refugees who have migrated to India in successive waves – the first wave after partition of Bengal in 1947, a large bulk after the 1954 riots and a third wave after the 1971 war.3 The Namasudras, which had been the largest caste group in undivided eastern Bengal as well as the most organized and politically active force, had time and again resisted the Brahminical social hierarchy and the upper caste dominated nationalist hegemonic politics.4 This historic movement of the Namasudras, however, suffered a major setback and was entirely disoriented when Bengal was divided in 1947. It has been argued by historian Sekhar Bandyopadhyay that in ‘post-colonial West Bengal the Partition violence and refugee influx had led to a rephrasing of the idioms of victimhood and resistance, placing less emphasis on caste and focusing more on the predicament of migration and the struggles of the refugees’ and hence, in spite of perpetuation of caste based discrimination, ‘"caste" as an idiom of protest disappeared from public space.’5

Poster of the public meeting held on 28 December 2010.

 

The present politics of West Bengal, however, is marked by a ‘resurgence’ of organized dalit political assertion which has surprisingly brought the bhadralok leaders to their knees. The political mobilization of the Matuas indicates the reconsolidation of the lower caste Namasudra community once again, which no longer strictly remains ‘the other world of collective social thinking and practice little touched by the orderly process of organized party politics.’6 This article thus seeks to narrate how partition destabilized the organized force of lower caste people and tells the stories of victimhood and struggles of the dalit refugees. Moreover, it tries to understand the issues, demands and politics of the dalit refugees in contemporary West Bengal.

 

Much has already been written on the partition of Bengal – both on the causes as well as consequences of ‘a seminal event of the 20th century, which led to unprecedented upheavals, massive shifts in population and unexpected transformation of the socio-political landscape’, and by now, we have before us a buffet of literature on partition and refugee studies.7 However, the focus of the dominant literature on the partition of Bengal has been quite one-sided, dominated by the ‘traumatic and nostalgic memories of a lost homeland in East Bengal’ of the urban, upper caste bhadralok.8 This genre of literature has mostly dealt with the tales of the refugees who settled mostly in Calcutta and its fringes where ‘the dominant image of the refugee is that of the Bengali Hindu fleeing from East Pakistan to Calcutta in West Bengal.’9

The massive bulk of refugees who were resettled outside Bengal in Orissa, Bihar, Dandakaranya, Andaman Islands and elsewhere had received least attention, not only from the government and political parties, but also from the supposedly sensitive academia. The continuous influx of the refugee-population has posed a governmentality problem emanating from the social security concerns of the state, and ‘the response of the Indian state towards the refugees and their needs has been a matter of calculation, discrimination and discretion.’10 Since the category of refugee that came into being as a result of partition is not homogenous, this paper has chosen to focus on those ‘refugees who settled in rural areas, on those who never became beneficiaries of government "rehabilitation programmes", on those whose class background was not bhadralok.’11

 

The Namasudras had been the prey of such calculative discriminatory responses of the Indian state which quite overtly followed a caste line vis-à-vis its rehabilitation policy. Unlike the upper caste Hindu refugees who were settled in and around the city of Calcutta, the Namasudra migrants were either resettled in the uninhabitable camps in districts of 24 Parganas, Nadia, Burdwan, Midnapur or Cooch Behar or deported mostly to inhospitable areas of Dandakaranya and Andaman Islands.12 Being utterly confused and disillusioned by the factionalism in its leadership on the eve of partition, and largely lacking the family/caste connections and other means to survive on their own, most of the Namasudra refugees had to depend on government relief schemes and hence were meticulously scattered in small pockets in different parts of India.13 In other words, the earlier organized dalit movement was effectively broken and the dalit refugees were strategically not allowed to unite. And quite obviously, we hardly came across or could imagine the image of the dalit refugee in the canvas of partition stories.

 

On the eve of partition, the Matuas did not compromise with their distinct identity as the followers of Harichand and Guruchand Thakur, and remained loyal to their leader Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, the heir of the Thakur family who was elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1946 as a Congress candidate. Being loyal to his party during the days of partition, P.R. Thakur came to West Bengal and settled in a small village about 63 kilometres from Calcutta, which later came to be known as Thakurnagar. In order to materialize the dreams of his ancestors, he tried to revive the Matua Mahasangha since 1949,14 the organization founded by his grandfather Guruchand Thakur.

Though initially he supported the Congress scheme of refugee resettlement, later on, after a rift with his party, he entirely engaged himself in the task of rehabilitation of the Namasudra refugees and reviving the organization. Thakurnagar eventually came up as the first Namasudra refugee colony in West Bengal encircling which more than 50,000 Namasudras settled down within a span of ten years.15 Finally, it is in 1986 that the Matua Mahasangha regained its full life and in 1988, the organization got registered.

 

Here, it must be noted that immediately after partition, the Left parties endeared themselves to the refugees and gained their confidence as they launched a movement under the banner of United Central Refugee Council (UCRC) to voice the cause of refuge-rehabilitation under proper conditions.16 The communists strongly attacked the Congress policy vis-à-vis rehabilitation of refugees and offered resettlement in West Bengal.17 But there was a quick policy reversal as soon as the CPI(M)-led Left Front came to power in Bengal in 1977. Following the prophetic promises of the Left Front, the dalit refugees who had come to settle in Marichjhapi, a deltaic region in the Sunderbans, were met with an economic blockade backed by the state government and finally with bullets, where 4128 families perished; the rest were sent back to Dandakaranya.18

‘Caste’, as Aditya Nigam has noted, ‘is a blot that has affected the psyche of the mutated modern in ways that can be best expressed in Freudian terms…the suppressed/ repressed… the unconscious… of the modern moral self… [It] is the hidden principle that gives it the access to all kinds of modern privileges precisely because it functions as cultural/ symbolic capital.’19 The Marichjhapi massacre quite blatantly exposed the urban, upper caste bhadralok dominated ideology of the Left Front leadership.

 

In context of the Matuas, Sandip Bandyopadhyay observed that the Congress made a populist move by incorporating them mostly as ‘unrecognized refugees’, the BJP though initially targeting the Muslim migrants eventually took a hard stance towards all those who migrated after 1971, whereas the regional government led by the Left Front recognized them in a clandestine manner. It provided them with ration cards and other benefits for securing a vote bank, though they were not keen to settle the migration issue.’20 However, since the Left Front successfully broke the erstwhile political authority of the old Congress regime at the rural level that derived its privileged status from landed property (older relations of production) or caste loyalties or religious associations, and themselves derived ‘their authority from their participation in political movements and by the fact that they represented the "party"’;21 it is understandable that the Left Front managed to seek the allegiance of the dalits due to an absence of any political alternative. Although the Left did not take any initiative to address the problems of migration, refugee rehabilitation and citizenship of the Namasudras, they became the ‘nearest’, if not the ‘dearest’, political choice of the dalits amidst the ‘party-society’22 that emerged during the decade-long Left Front rule.

 

In 2003, the Government of India, under the BJP-led NDA, introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act which denied Indian citizenship to those who migrated after 1971.23 The new law posed a serious threat to the identity of the Namasudra refugees, as a large section of them had crossed the border after the Bangladesh war in 1971. The Matua Mahasangha, which by now had emerged as the frontal organization of the Namasudras, opposed the new law and their leaders organized a hunger strike in 2004 at its headquarters at Thakurnagar.24 Quite surprisingly, the Left Front government in West Bengal stood by the central government’s decision to pass the new law in order to check the refugee influx. The then Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, commented, ‘…on the question of dealing with illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh, our state government is in agreement with the Government of India that whenever such infiltration is detected, the foreign nationals should be pushed back forthwith.’25 Thus, the Left which had begun its journey as being pro-poor, pro-dalit and supported the cause of the millions of refugees, was to eventually end up alienating them.

 

The Matua Mahasangha, particularly since 2004, has gradually emerged as the mouthpiece organization of the Namasudras with a membership of about 100,000 to 120,000 families,26 not only in Bengal but also outside. Being an autonomous disciplined community organization, the Mahasangha gradually drew up with its own constitution, issued identity cards to its members, held periodic gatherings, published books, journals and pamphlets and thereby encouraged a dalit literary movement, and organized other mass-mobilizing activities to resist the bhadralok hegemonic politics. The Mahasangha also allied with other dalit refugee organizations, like for example, the Joint Action Committee for Bengali Refugees, in a common battle to repeal the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2003 and arrive at a permanent settlement of the refugee problem, including proper rehabilitation and consequent Indianization of the bulk of refugees who migrated due to the partition of Bengal.27 Today, ‘the Mahasangha and the Thakurbari have provided the rootless Namasudras an identity’, according to Sukumar Halder, a Matua follower.28

Since 2006 onwards, the stable ‘party-society’ of the Left Front regime which had its roots in the class based movements of the poor peasants entered its crisis phase precisely because it failed to reproduce its initial revolutionary conditions of being.29 The sudden policy of crass industrialization virtually turned the Left into ‘an apologist for corporate capital’30 and the incidents of forcible land acquisitions in Singur and Nandigram seriously hampered its erstwhile pro-poor image.

Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, quite correctly anticipated that postcrisis of party-society, arguing that future popular politics in rural West Bengal is likely to be characterized by the identitarian politics of the community, based on locally constituted networks of caste, ethnicity and religious associations.31 The Matua Mahasangha capitalized on this crisis phase to vent their grievances, posed an organized resistance and advanced the political demands of the Namasudras. As it had already emerged as the frontal community organization of dalit refugees, it could now easily allure all the political parties by promising en bloc support of the Namasudras and negotiate with the formal institutionalized world of politics.

 

The issues of migration, refugee rehabilitation and citizenship lie at the heart of the present politics of the Matuas. Before the 2003 law was passed, as we know from Ranabir Samaddar’s study, the Indianization of the Namasudra refugees who had migrated and settled in India after 1971, was largely on illegal grounds as they received wide support from the local people due to caste and other affinal ties.32 The situation still remains unchanged. An interesting instance regarding the issue of migration, citizenship and consequent Indianization of the dalit refugees that I learnt from a cycle-van puller that should some-one in Thakurnagar want a voter card, they can get it from a broker close to government officials in Chikanpara, for a charge of 6000 rupees. The Mahasangha extends initial support to these refugees, and once you are a Matua, it’s easy to get other things done. Swapan Biswas, the editor of Matua Mahasangha Patrika, told me that the Mahasangha continuously resists the arrest and torture of refugees marked as ‘illegal migrants’ by the new law.33

 

After the much desired poribortan (change) in the seat of power at Writers’ Building, for which the shifting vote bank of the Matuas was largely responsible, the younger son of the Thakurbari and a Saha-Sanghadipati of the Mahasangha, Manjul Krishna Thakur, has been appointed as the Minister of State for Refugee Rehabilitation and Relief. During an interview on the present state of dalit refugees, he remarked quite surprisingly, ‘There is no problem on the issue these days. Earlier there were arrests and all, which has now been absolutely stopped. We cannot change the law; it’s a central government issue. As of now there is no problem.’34 What is implied in the first place is that the refugee problem is dealt with largely on the grounds of illegality. The national law still holds that those who have migrated after 1971 must be treated as ‘illegal migrants’.

The Mahasangha has also declared the repeal of the 2003 Act as its primary demand. But according to the minister, there is no problem these days. If we consider the minister’s version of the situation to be true, then it is evident that the refugee problem is presently addressed by the state administration through ‘temporary, contextual and unstable arrangements’35 by moving beyond the scope of legal-bureaucratic rationality of the modern liberal state. Moreover, such adjustments have been arrived at through political negotiations by the Mahasangha on behalf of the Matuas with the organized world of politics. In other words, the role played by the Mahasangha is that of a mediator, a negotiator that positions itself in the middle of the ‘institutionalized’ world of modern liberal politics and the ‘uninstitutionalized’ world of popular politics of the Matuas. This politics of ‘mediation’, I think, is new in rural politics that has reunited the Namasudras and is definitely a reason for the present salience of the Matuas in the politics of West Bengal.

 

In 2001, looking at the prolonged absence of the caste factor from the formal institutionalized public domain of the state election scene, Anjan Ghosh, in an article published in Seminar, came up with a formulation – ‘Cast(e) out in West Bengal’.36 However, after witnessing the organized dalit political assertions in contemporary West Bengal, we must admit that caste is ‘in’ with the present politics of the Matuas.

 

Footnotes

1. The Times of India, 29 December 2010.

2. Praskanva Sinharay, ‘A New Politics of Caste’, Economic and Political Weekly 47(34), 2012.

3. Partha Chatterjee, The Present History of West Bengal. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997, p. 74.

4. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India: The Namasudras of Bengal 1872-1947. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2011.

5. Ibid., p. 248.

6. Partha Chatterjee, 1997, p. 83.

7. Pradip Kumar Bose made a comprehensive study of the literature on refugee studies in his essay, ‘Refugee, Memory and the State: A Review of Research in Refugee Studies’, Refugee Watch 36, December 2010.

8. Mahbubar Rahman and Willem van Schendel, ‘"I Am Not a Refugee": Rethinking Partition Migration’, Modern Asian Studies 37(3), 2003, p. 556.

9. Ibid., p. 559.

10. Pradip Kumar Bose, op cit., p. 21.

11. Mahbubar Rahman and Willem van Schendel, op cit., pp. 556-557.

12. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, op cit., 2011, p. 255; Ross Mallick, ‘Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves: West Bengal Policy Reversal and the Marichjhapi Massacre’, The Journal of Asian Studies 58(1), February 1999, p. 106; Manoranjan Byapari and Meenakshi Mukherjee, ‘Is There Dalit Writing in Bangla?’ Economic and Political Weekly 42(41), 2007.

13. Pradip Kumar Bose, op cit., p. 7.

14. Kapil Krishna Biswas, Sree Dham Orakandi, Thakurnagar O Matuader Nana Prasongo. Nirbhik Publication, 2010, p. 89.

15. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, op cit., p. 264; Ranabir Samaddar, The Marginalization: Transborder Migration From Bangladesh to West Bengal. Sage, Delhi, 1999, pp. 96-106.

16. Prafulla K. Chakrabarti, The Marginal Men: The Refugees and The Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal. Lumiere Books, West Bengal, 1990, pp. 65-78 and pp. 208-328.

17. Ross Mallick, op cit., February 1999, pp. 105-107.

18. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, op cit., 2011, p. 262; Ross Mallick, op cit., 1999, pp. 107-115.

19. Aditya Nigam, 2010, ‘The Many Lives of Caste in Modern India’. See link: http://kafila.org/2010/09/27/the-many-lives-of-caste-in-modern-india/; accessed on 09/02/2013 at 2.00 am.

20. Sandip Bandyopadhyay, ‘Who Are the Matuas?’ Frontier 43(37), 27 March-2 April 2011.

21. Partha Chatterjee, ‘The Coming Crisis in West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly 44(9), 2009, p. 44.

22. Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, Party Society, its Consolidation and Crisis: Understanding Political Change in Rural West Bengal, in Anjan Ghosh et al. (eds.), Theorizing the Present: Essays for Party Society. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2011, pp. 227-231.

23. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, op cit., 2011, p. 249.

24. Matua Mahasangha Patrika, Issue 66, 1 April 2011, p.9.

25. Cited in Sumanta Banerjee, ‘Bengal Left: From Pink to Saffron?’ Economic and Political Weekly 38(9), 2003.

26. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, op cit., 2011, p. 267.

27. http://refugeesprobleminindia.blogspot. in/search?q=meeting+with+prime+minister accessed on 10.04.2013 at 3:53 pm.

28. Interview with Dr. Sukumar Halder, President, Ashokenagar Block Matua Mahasangha, on 12.11.2012.

29. Dwaipayan Bhattachatyya, op cit., 2011, pp. 232-238.

30. Ibid., pp. 238-240.

31. Ibid., p. 245.

32. Ranabir Samaddar, op cit., 1999, p. 101.

33. Interview with Swapan Biswas, Editor, Matua Mahasangha Patrika, on 13.11.2012.

34. Interview with Manjul Krishna Thakur, Saha-Sanghadipati, All India Matua Mahasangha, Minister of State for Refugee Rehabilitation and Relief, on 13.11.2012.

35. Partha Chatterjee, ‘Democracy and Economic Transformation in India’, EPW 43(16), 19 April 2008, p. 57.

36. Anjan Ghosh, ‘Cast(e) out in West Bengal’, Seminar 508, December 2001.

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