The Namasudra community of West Bengal is gradually moving towards the Bharatiya Janata Party, evident from the latter’s win in constituencies dominated by the caste group. In fact, the BJP’s entry in the state was marked by its victory in Namasudra-dominated Basirhat Dakshin assembly constituency in 2014. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Shantanu Thakur became the first non-TMC/non-CPM leader to win from Bongaon, a constituency reserved for the Scheduled Castes. In an obvious attempt to further tap into the community’s vote bank, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, during his November visit to Bengal, broke bread at a Namasudra household.
The growing support for the BJP among the Namasudras is worth examining because the community is known for its anti-Brahmin mobilisation in the past, whereas the BJP is widely recognised as a Brahmin-Bania party. By tracing the genealogy of the evolution of Namasudras, and their problems and pattern of political mobilisation, we can see how the community’s current inclination towards the BJP came about.
Namasudra and Matua movement
Namasudra is a Dalit sub-caste, traditionally known as chandalas. Historically, this caste resided in the eastern and central parts of colonised Bengal, mainly in the regions of Barisal, Faridpur, Dhaka, Jessore and Khulna. After being treated as untouchables for generations, they began mobilising against the Brahmanical caste hierarchy in the 19th century, under a socio-religious protest sect named Matua and acquired their current name Namasudra.
The Namasudras registered their first political protest during the anti-Partition movement of Bengal in 1905 by refusing to participate in it. Later, the group got further organised under the banner of Matua Mahasangha, a religious reform movement. In the 1937 provincial election, majority of the 30 reserved seats in Bengal’s 250-seat assembly was won by independent candidates supported by the Namasudras. Their support would have been crucial for coalition partners Krishak Proja Party and Muslim League to form a government because no political party, including the Congress, had secured a majority. In the 1946 election, members of this community were able to win some seats such as Jessore, Khulna, South Bakarganj among others, which helped B.R. Ambedkar get elected to the Constituent Assembly.
Partition and the division of Namasudras
The Partition of 1947 divided the solidarity of this community because areas inhabited by the Namasudras went in East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). Those areas were a trade-off for the city of Kolkata. P.R. Thakur, then leader of the Matua Mahasangha, decided to side with the Congress and migrated to West Bengal with his followers and settled in Thakur Nagar. Jogendra Nath Mandal, another important Namasudra leader, sided with the Muslim League to become the first law minister in the Mohammed Ali Jinnah government. But he had to return to India in 1950.
Religious persecution of Namasudras
Soon after the Partition, Namasudras started facing religious persecution in East Pakistan. They were landed gentry, so communal violence was unleashed on them in 1950 to evacuate them and settle migrated Bihari Muslims. The community, yet again, faced targeted violence during the struggle for Bangladesh. On both the occasions, Namasudras had no choice but to migrate to India.
The migration status brought them a new refugee identity. They were initially sent to refugee camps for rehabilitation in Dandakaranya, Chhattisgarh. When some of them tried to return and settle in Marichjhapi, Sundarban, the West Bengal police shot them dead in what came to be known as Marichjhapi massacre.
Refugee status and Sanskritisation
Although the Namasudra community had organised under an anti-Brahminical sect, its members faced religious persecution in East Pakistan. The Pakistani State defined them as Hindus, forcing them to identify themselves as Hindus. Their migration to India and the quest for assimilation in the newly formed nation-state further pushed them to swear by the Hindu identity.
Historian Sekhar Bandyopadhyay argues that Sanskritisation began before Partition, but gathered momentum post-Independence. Namasudras adopted Sanskritisation measures to proclaim Hindu identity so that they could live peacefully in India. Sanskritisation seems to have brought the community one step closer to the BJP. However, their identification as Hindus should not be seen in isolation without analysing the social conditions they were subjected to, both before and after Partition.
BJP’s carrot and stick policy
The migration in West Bengal, unlike Punjab, happened in three waves — at the time of Partition, in the 1950s, and then in the 1960s.
In the first wave, it was majorly the ‘upper’ castes who left Bengal. But in the second and the third waves, much of the migration was of the lower-caste Hindus, mainly the Namasudras. The dominant castes, with adequate resources, self-help groups and financial contacts succeeded at resettling in West Bengal. But the opposite happened to the Namasudras who had meagre to no resources, and limited contacts in the state. They had to rely fully on government support systems, failure of which could render them helpless. As a result, the refugee question could not be settled.
The Citizenship Amendment Act 2003, passed by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, denies citizenship to those who migrated to West Bengal after 25 March 1971. The law is a major cause of concern for the members of the Namasudra community. However, the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 provisions that illegal immigrants of Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who entered in India before 31 December 2014, would receive citizenship.
Although the CAA has sparked huge protest among the Muslim minority, it seems to be attracting voters from the Namasudra community towards the BJP. The Act, whose rules Home Minister Amit Shah has promised to implement after the vaccination exercise gets over in the country, seems to be working well for the BJP — as a trade-off between votes and citizenship rights.
Arvind Kumar @arvind_kumar__ is PhD Scholar, Royal Holloway, University of London. Manisha Majumdar @manishamajumdar is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. Her work focuses on the Namasudra community. Views are personal.