By bending his knee at the Black Lives Matter protest in Ottawa, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, beamed a healing message of unity at a time of racial tension. Amit Shah is trying to foment caste conflict in far more febrile India with his taunting “Mamataji, don’t you think people from the Matua and Namasudra community should get citizenship?”
It is a mischievous jibe. Although Mamata Banerjee’s opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act is both heartless and foolish, it does not specifically affect the approximately 30 million Namasudras, most of whom belong to the 19th-century Matua Mahasangha formed by Harichand Thakur to reject Brahmanism. Shah’s mockery makes one wonder if the CAA’s formal application to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan who came to India before December 31, 2014 is a smokescreen, the real purpose being only to woo Namasudras to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bengal’s next election.
One would have thought the home minister of a country in dire distress would have had too much on his plate for such intrigues. The Chinese are mobilizing troops all along the Line of Actual Control. Nepal is nibbling at Uttar Pradesh. With or without Pakistani help, terrorists are tearing apart the national fabric. While criminal rapacity seems to have been rampant during the lockdown, the slightest relaxation means a surge of infection making India the world’s fourth most crippled nation. Millions of migrant workers remain stranded. Millions face destitution. The economy is on its knees and may soon be grovelling in the dust. Social distancing is a farce. It’s hardly a time for playing politics. It’s certainly no time to exploit any lingering sense of grievance among Namasudras whose first family is as dynastic as Gwalior’s Scindias and as voracious in its political appetite.
It is for Trinamul Congress supporters to tell Shah bluntly that far from disdaining Namasudras, the chief minister courts them diligently though not perhaps as ostentatiously as Narendra Modi. They were called the Depressed Classes at one time, and the story goes that when Britain’s Prince Philip visited Calcutta in 1959, B.C. Roy presented a particular cabinet colleague as “a Depressed Minister.” The prince took one look at the beaming politician and exclaimed, “He doesn’t look at all depressed to me!” Namasudras have taken a robustly independent line on many issues ever since Harichand’s son, Guruchand, organized the All-Bengal Namasudra Conference in 1881 in a Khulna village. The British perked up at their demand for reserved facilities and separate electorates, undoubtedly seeing another divide-and-rule opportunity.
The community’s indefatigable capacity for action to improve its image was brought home to me in late 1989 or early 1990 when two readers took exception to an article I had written demanding New Delhi do more for East Pakistan/Bangladesh refugees who were unable to help themselves because 95 per cent of them were “Namasudra destitutes”. Like Anna’s outraged King of Siam who thought that in calling him “a spare man”, The Times (London) meant he could be spared, the complainants felt I was belittling a community that had produced kings. The Press Council rejected the complaint although the president did read a homily on not hurting people’s sentiments. Unbeknownst to me, the tenacious plaintiffs then turned to another forum. Months or maybe years later — I left India at the end of 1990 and returned only intermittently — I received a judgment of the chief judicial magistrate, Barasat, rejecting a petition under Section 500 of the IPC read with 7(1)(c)(d) Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 that I had “defamed” Namasudras. Having read my article, the CJM concluded it had been written in “good faith and absence of malice” and that “Namasudra destitutes” did not mean a destitute community but only those members of it “who are economically crippled… and educationally backward.”
Harichand’s great-grandson, Pramatha Ranjan, set up the Matua Mahasangha’s West Bengal branch at Thakurnagar in 1947 and became a Congress parliamentarian. His widow, the revered Boroma, Binapani Devi, the creator of Bengal’s first private refugee colony, appointed Banerjee the Mahasangha’s chief patron. Politically omnivorous, Boroma blessed Modi only a month before she died last year. One son was a Trinamul Congress minister. His son Shantanu, Saha Sanghadipati of the All-India Matua Mahasangha, represents the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Lok Sabha, having defeated his aunt, Mamata Bala, the sitting Trinamul Congress member.
The group cannot be taken for granted. Guruchand declined Surendranath Banerjea’s request to boycott British imports over the 1905 Partition of Bengal. Pramatha Ranjan thought separate electorates were more important than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s life. Opposing the Congress’s civil disobedience movement, Birat Chandra Mandal urged Britain not to concede dominion status while social inequality persisted. Arguing that the scheduled castes would get a fairer deal from the Muslim League than from any party led by caste Hindus, Jogendranath Mandal was a minister under Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in undivided Bengal and in Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan.
Namasudra importance lies in numbers. The 1937 elections revealed that no political party could form a government without their support. They are credited with a key role when the Trinamul Congress defeated the Left Front. They are also seen as a decisive factor in at least 14 Lok Sabha constituencies. Banerjee showered them with land pattas and regularized their colonies long before Modi had heard of them or been advised that a publicized pranam for Boroma might be worth its weight in votes. But her opposition to the CAA plays into the hands of opponents who level the absurd charge that she — noisy embodiment of the middle class bhadralok ethic — is anti-Bengali at the bidding of Muslims, what Bengal’s governor, Jagdeep Dhankhar, calls her “explicit and awkward appeasement of the minority community”.
If her critics are to be believed, it’s not just indigenous Muslims she placates. She is also accused of smuggling some 100,000 Rohingyas into Bengal. Such charges are not new; a former governor, T.V. Rajeswar, also levelled them at Jyoti Basu. Indeed, even Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s last Congress government (1972-77) was believed to import its roughs and toughs from across the border. By 1974, East Bengal accounted for 13 per cent of the state’s population.
I remember a political officer in the local American consulate-general, who much later twice acted as his country’s ambassador in New Delhi, explaining to his visiting ambassador that an intriguing feature of Calcutta life was that almost everyone of consequence was East Bengali. “I’m not!” burst out a socially prominent boxwallah in one of the few old British managing agency houses that had not yet succumbed to Marwari capital. “That’s what I meant,” the political officer murmured. The East Bengalis he had in mind were assimilated long ago, like Ray. I have not seen any authoritative figures for the number of aliens waiting for their rights under the CAA but reports indicate that more people from Pakistan than from the other two countries will benefit most.
Be that as it may, it is as obtuse of India’s Muslims to insist that fast track citizenship for these six religious groups will somehow affect their rights as it is for Shah to accuse the chief minister of discriminating against Namasudras. This might arguably have been true if the CAA catered only to Namasudras. It does not. Caste looms larger in the home minister’s thinking than it does in law or politics. He may not know either that Namasudras gave short shrift to the Hindu Mahasabha and to attempts to set up an All-India Hindu League.
That does not mean we won’t hear more of the matter as the weeks pass, the Covid-19 emergency seems less urgent and elections draw nearer. There’s always Bengal’s governor to keep the pot boiling. But that’s another column.