Amid Bengal polls PM’s Matua temple visit a poll code violation: Mamata Banerjee
As West Bengal voted for the first phase of assembly elections, chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Saturday accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of violating the model code of conduct by trying to “woo” the politically significant Matua community during his Bangladesh visit. Her attack came on the day the PM paid a visit to Thakurbari, which is the most sacred pilgrimage site for the scheduled caste group.
According to the 2011 Census, Bengal’s population stood at 91.3 million, of which the scheduled caste (SC) communities comprised 21.4 million. There are around 60 Hindu sub-castes that come under the SC category.
Of these, the three major ones are the Rajbanshi who accounted for 18.4 % of the total SC population in 2011. The others are the Namasudra (17.4 %) and the Bagdi (14.9%). The Matua community, which has been in the news since 2019, is a part of the Namasudra community.
The state’s population in 2021 is projected to be 101.9 million. Tracing their roots to the 19th Century undivided Bengal, most of the members of the community came to India during Partition in 1947 and after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. They are considered by experts to have the power to swing elections in around 80 of the 294 seats in Bengal.
The Matua community has strong bases in parts of 24 North Parganas, Nadia, Cooch Behar, South Dinajpur and Burdwan districts, among others. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have an eye on the Namasudra vote bank which includes the Matuas.
In 2019, the BJP wrested two Matua-majority Lok Sabha seats -- Bongaon and Ranaghat -- defeating the TMC by 110,000 and 234,000 votes, respectively.
Hitting out at the PM over his visit to the Matua temple, Banerjee cited the example of Bangladeshi movie star Ferdous Ahmed, whose visa was cancelled by the ministry of home affairs for attending a Trinamool Congress (TMC) rally at Raigunj in north Bengal ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Addressing a rally in West Midnapore district on Saturday, Banerjee said: “When elections are on, he (Modi) has gone to Bangladesh and is making speeches in West Bengal. This is totally a violation of the election code of conduct. Law cannot be discriminative. A film star named Ferdous came here during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He went to one of our rallies to express his best wishes. The BJP moved the Bangladesh government. The Indian government cancelled his visa so that he cannot come here anymore,” she said.
“You scrap a Bangladeshi actor’s visa for attending a rally. What action is being taken when a Prime Minister is visiting a foreign country after the polls are notified and talking about people who matter in the elections here? You went to USA and held a meeting in support of Trump. Your visa and passport were not cancelled. When elections are on you have gone to Bangladeshi to tell lies to a certain section of people for votes. Why shouldn’t your visa and passport be cancelled?” she added.
Saying she will complain to the Election Commission of India, the CM said: “How can a foreign country play a role in the internal matters of another country? Rules apply to us but not to you. What has Bangladesh got to do with elections in Kharagpur? Sometimes you allege that Mamata has brought all the infiltrators from Bangladesh and now you have gone to Bangladesh to market yourself. Who is right and who is wrong? We will go to any extent to get an answer.”
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Modi, who is on two-day visit to Bangladesh to attend the country’s 50th anniversary of independence, addressed the Matua community in Bangladesh’s Orakandi on Saturday. “With the grace of Sri Sri Harichand Thakur, I have got the privilege of bowing down to this holy place of Orakandi,” he said.
Harichand Thakur, referred by the Matuas as Sri Sri Harichand Thakur and is worshipped like a god, worked among the untouchable people of Bengal Presidency. He formed the Matua sect of Dalit Hindus.
Reacting to Banerjee’s allegation, the BJP’s Bengal unit vice-president Jay Prakash Majumdar said: “The chief minister needs to study law. Ahmed violated Indian law while the Prime Minister is visiting Bangladesh to strengthen bilateral relations. He did not violate any law by addressing the Matua community.”
The People’s Representative Act 1951, which governs how elections are conducted in India, does not explicitly deal with foreign nationals campaigning for a party but visa rules forbid foreigners from participating in political activities in India. Ahmed was in India on a business visa.
At the heart of the quest to control the Matua vote largely is the issue of identity and rights. While the BJP is keen to ensure that the discourse stays on the issue of the Matuas being neglected till the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA, which promised citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains coming from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, came to their rescue, the TMC is questioning how those who already have election cards be sold the idea of an identity they already have.
In his Orakandi speech, too, Modi referred to BJP MP and a member of Matua community, Shantanu Thakur, who has demanded immediate implementation of CAA in West Bengal.
Thakur is the grandson of Binapani Devi, the Matua community’s head who died in 2019, during his visit to the Matua headquarters at Thakurnagar in North 24 Parganas district.
“My colleague in Parliament, Sri Shantanu Thakur is making commendable efforts to spread the noble message of Sri Sri Harichand Thakur Ji. At Orakandi, met Shantanu Ji and other members of the Matua community,” Modi tweeted.
Kolkata based professor of economics and political analyst Sarthak Roychaudhury said: “Modi’s Bangladesh visit is a strategic one... It seems he wants to strengthen ties with Bangladesh in view of the situation in Myanmar, the Rohingya problem and India’s relation with China.”