In Bengal and Assam, BJP-TMC Tussle Over Namasudra Votes Has Reached New Heights

Both the Citizenship Bill and the National Register of Citizen are closely related to this tussle.

Consider three facts. One, the five Bengali men recently killed in Tinsukia district of Assam belonged to a Scheduled Caste. Their names were Subal Das, Shyamlal Biswas, Ananta Biswas, Abhinash Biswas and Dhananjay Namasudra.

On enquiring whether all the five killed were Namasudras, local villagers told me that barring Subal Das, all the rest were. Namasudra is a Dalit sub-caste. The chandalas, who were to be kept out of towns and villages and could only perform menial tasks according to the Manusmriti, gradually transitioned to Namasudras in the late-19th-century East Bengal. They have a history of assertion against the Brahminical caste hierarchy.

Fact two: One of the MPs of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) team who visited the Tinsukia massacre site on November 4 was Mamata Bala Thakur. Thakur heads the Matua Mahasangha, a socio-religious body of the Namasudra caste headquartered in Thakurnagar, south Bengal. She was elevated to the head post after her husband passed away in 2014. Thakur had the blessings of her mother-in-law, the “Baroma” of Matuas, Binapani Thakur. Matuas have a large following among Namasudras.

Many Namasudras migrated to India after 1947. Mamata Bala’s brother-in-law was, in fact, the minister of refugee welfare in the Trinamool Congress government. He joined the BJP later, and is reported to be out of favour of his mother, the Baroma. Matuas were courted assiduously by the CPI(M) when the party was in power and the new ruling party has predictably weaned them off. The family feud mentioned above indicates a keen tussle between the TMC and the BJP over Matuas – and over Namasudra votes in general.

NRC, National Register of Citizens, Assam, Assam news

Relatives mourn the death of a family member killed recently in Tinsukia district of Assam. Credit: PTI

Three, Jogendra Nath Mandal was a maverick leader of the Namasudra movement. In 1946, after Ambedkar was defeated by a hostile Congress party in Bombay in the provincial assembly election, Mandal helped him win in Bengal, which enabled Ambedkar to become a part of the constituent assembly. Ambedkar and Mandal were comrades in the Scheduled Caste Federation which worked closely with the Muslim League in Bengal. Mandal was also a minister in Huseyn Suhrawardy’s Muslim League government in Bengal.

Also read: Why Some Regions Are Angrier Than Others Over India’s New Citizenship Law

That Dalits must make a common cause with Muslim peasants of Bengal against caste Hindu landlords was the tactic that Mandal adopted. Jogendra Nath had many credits to his name, including presiding over the session which elected Jinnah as the first governor-general of Pakistan. In Pakistan aur Aqliatien, Ahmed Saleem wrote:

“Sylhet District was to vote in a plebiscite to join either Pakistan or remain in Assam [the state that was to become part of India]. The Hindus and the Muslims of the district equalled each other in terms of population. However, there were a large number of Untouchables, whose vote could sway the poll to either side.

Following the instructions from Quaid-i-Azam, Mr Mandal arrived in Sylhet to influence the opinion of the Untouchables; when he departed from Sylhet it had voted to join Pakistan.”

Mandal became a minister in the first Pakistani government. Anti-Hindu riots in East Pakistan of 1950, among other things, made him change his mind. His resignation letter to Karachi was sent from Calcutta and he would spend the rest of his life there, amid taunts and oblivion.

Once these pieces of the past and present are put together, a picture of cruel irony emerges. Increasing Islamisation of Pakistan and recurrent anti-minority riots in East Pakistan and Bangladesh drove Namasudras away, and the process is ongoing. The West Bengal government was not exactly welcoming refugees with open arms. To tackle the “refugee crisis,” the new Indian republic tried a number of means – driving Muslims out to East Pakistan was considered by the state chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy and the Union home minister Patel, but Nehru vetoed the proposal.

Refugees were packed up and sent to other parts of the country, such as Dandakaranya. When many of them returned anyway and settled “illegally” in Marichjhapi in Sundarban, the police of the Left Front government shot them dead. Consider that the Left base in Bengal was built on the plank of refugee rights inter alia, and the irony thickens. From Dandakaranya, some fled to Assam. The Assam that Jogendra Nath sought to shun was destined to be a refuge and then a killing field of his fellow Namasudras.

Also read: The NRC and Citizenship Bill Have Fuelled Old, Divisive Anxieties in Assam

For refugees who migrated to Assam, the moment of Partition has not passed. Their transition from refugees to citizens still hangs in limbo. For the Namasudras specifically, the pain of Partition is more bitter. The once politically powerful community fought for a nation, got persecuted and chased out of it and presently lies scattered, fragmented across national and state boundaries. The Namasudras became the “worst victims of the Partition of our country,” as Jogendra Nath Mandal commented.

 Citizenship Bill

The politics over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is being played in this historical terrain of betrayals, massacres and migrations. The Bill, introduced by the BJP, promises to give citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. It may be recalled that the consolidation of BJP votes in Bengal is taking place with the support of refugees. The first assembly seat the BJP won on its own was in 2014 in a refugee, Namasudra-dominated area, Basirhat (South). BJP’s promise that Bangladeshi-Hindus would be given citizenship threatens to undermine the loyalty the TMC has gained among the Namasudras.

The NRC (National Register of Citizen) process in Assam adds an element of complexity to this story. The preparation of the NRC, which seeks to filter out post-1971 immigrants, has spawned distress and suicides among the non-local population of Assam, especially among the poor undocumented segment. The Namasudras are heavily represented in this segment. The Bengal Namasudras are worried – not only for their brethren in Assam, but also because the BJP has demanded an NRC in Bengal as well. The All India Namashudra Bikash Parishad, All India Matua Mahasangha, and kindred groups have demonstrated against NRC in several places in Bengal, including taking out a long march from north Bengal to Assam.

All Bengal Minority Youth Federation activists raise slogans during a protest against Assam’s controversial National Register of Citizen draft, in front of Tipu Sultan mosque in Kolkata. Credit: PTI

The Trinamool Congress’s criticism of the NRC is laudable, for, what the register would achieve is doubtful. But there could be elements of realpolitik in this stand. The first is to project the NRC exercise – which is proving to be distressful to Bengali speakers – as an anti-Bengali conspiracy of the BJP. This helps the TMC corner the BJP in West Bengal. The TMC does not hide its espousal of Bengali nationalism and could be eyeing Bengali votes in Assam as well. Bengali speakers constitute about 29% of Assam’s population, that is, nearly one crore people. This is admittedly a sizable chunk of the electorate but fractured between the Congress, the BJP and the AIUDF. None of these parties has taken a strong stand against the NRC. The vacuum is enticing for an ambitious political force.

Also read: Assam NRC: A History of Violence and Persecution

The second is the question of Namasudra votes. Many of these votes were pocketed by the BJP after the carrot of citizenship to Hindu immigrants was dangled. But the exclusion of genuine citizens from the NRC draft list, anxiety among Namasudras triggered by the NRC are proving to be a headache for the local BJP (at the national stage the BJP is tom-toming it as an anti-ghuspetiye sanitisation exercise though). The TMC wants to turn up the headache. Mamata Banerjee’s tweet on the Tinsukia massacre alludes to the NRC. Mamata Bala Thakur’s visit to Tinsukia is a clear indication that the party is keen to project itself to be the saviour of the Namasudras against the depredation of the BJP.

Debarshi Das is at the Humanities and Social Science Department, IIT, Guwahati.