MATUAS of Bengal-Before and After Partition

  • By Dr. Subhas Biswas
  • April 6, 2024
  • 926 views
  • Here is the brief history of the Matua community of undivided Bengal during the 19th century going up to 1947.

In colonial Bengal, a large section of the Hindu population was low caste. They were commonly known as 'Scheduled Caste' (term introduced by the Government of India Act, 1935). The majority of these Hindus belonged to the Namasudra community. 90% of the Hindu peasants in East Bengal (modern day Bangladesh) belonged to the Namasudra community. 

 

Namasudras were a majority in the districts of Dhaka, Mymensingh, Khulna, Jessore, Faridpur, Bakerganj etc. They were generally associated with professions such as farming, fishing, weaving, and working as day laborers in other people's homes and fields. Illiteracy, lack of healthcare, poverty, and lack of political and social awareness were their constant companions. 

 

During British rule, the government and their loyal landlord class severely exploited and oppressed the Namasudra community. The upper-caste Hindus looked down upon the Namasudras, called them Chandal. At that time, the term "Chandals" was used to refer to those who cremated bodies in the crematorium, worked as cobblers and sweepers, etc.

 

The Namasudra movement began in 1872-73 in the Faridpur-Bakharganj region (East Bengal modern day Bangladesh) when upper-caste people refused to attend the cremation ceremony of a prominent Namasudra leader in this region. The Namasudras broke off social and economic ties with them and refused to do agricultural work, thatching, or other work for the upper castes. 

 

After some time, the Namasudras started to organize themselves through a religious organization called MATUA. “It was a new devotion or Bhakti-based religious philosophy known as Matua.” Haate Kaam Mukhe Naam (performing worldly tasks while singing God's name), Garhasthya Dharma (home duties), rejection of caste system, and 'Gurubad' are examples of its religious code of belief.” Source

 

 

The Namasudra movement gained new momentum in the late 19th century, centered on the Matua thought. Harichand Thakur (1811-1877 CE), the founder of the Matua sect, united the Namasudras through religious ideals and made them aware. The ancestral village of his son Guruchand Thakur (1847-1937 CE), Orakanadi, became the main center of this movement.

 

Guruchand inspired his Namasudra followers with the ideology of work in hand, name in mouth. He advised them by saying 'those who have no party have no strength' in order to increase the unity and strength of the Namasudras. 

 

Under the initiative of Harichand and Guruchand Thakur, education spread among the Namasudras and they became aware of the social and economic exploitation by the upper castes. Yatragans, weekly Musht collections etc. were started to spread the message of the Namasudra movement.

 

The Namasudra movement spread widely in East Bengal between 1872 and 1947. Under the leadership of Harichand Thakur, Guruchand Thakur, Rajendranath Mandal, Mukundbihari Mallick, Biratchandra Mandal, Jogendranath Mandal, Pramath Ranjan Thakur and others, the Namasudras became politically conscious, united and carried on the movement.

 

It is important to mention here that the Chandals of Bengal (later Namasudras) were a majority in their own districts. They were quite intelligent, and many of them were even richer than the upper caste people. However, despite the progress of this community, the upper caste still looked down upon them.

 

In order to overcome this situation, some scholars and intellectuals of the community tried to prove, by searching history, that the Chandals were once upper caste people, even a branch of the Brahmins. In order to prove their high social status, some Chandals even gave scriptural evidence to call themselves Brahmins, started wearing Upanayana and observed 11 days of impurity. However, the attempts to prove the Chandals as upper caste were un successful since the proof was weak. 

 

Various organizations were formed with the aim of organizing the Namasudras. Guruchand Thakur (1847-1937) established the Namasudra Welfare Association. The 'All Bengal Namasudra Conference' (1881 CE) was held under his chairmanship in Khulna district. Later, organizations like 'Unnayan Sabha' (1902 CE), 'Bengal Namasudra Association' (1912 CE), 'Nikhilbang Namasudra Samiti' (1926 CE) were established. 

 

At a conference of the Namasudra community held in Kanchrapara, the 'Bengal Depressed Classes Association' or Bangya Dalit Shreni Samiti (1926 CE) was formed. Its first president was Mukundbihari Mallick. The movement gradually merged with the movement of the 'All India Depressed Classes Association' or 'Nikhil Bharat Dalit Shreni Samiti'. Namasudra leader Birat Chandra Mandal became the representative of Bengal (1930 CE) in the committee of this All India organization.

 

The Namasudras gradually became active in various movements.

 

In 1906, when the Swadeshi movement started protesting against Lord Curzon's partition of Bengal, the Namasudras under the leadership of Rajendranath Mal supported partition. In 1907, Guruchand Thakur petitioned the Bengal and Assam governments to demand the appointment of Namasudras in government jobs. 

 

It is important to mention that as a result of the movement led by Guruchand Thakur, the British government changed the name of the Chandala community to "Namasudra" in 1911. A large section of these Namasudras became followers of the Matua sect. 

 

This means that not all Namasudras in Bengal are Matuas. Some Namasudras are Vaishnavas, some Shaivas, and so on.

 

However, the leaders of the Matua Thakurbadi claim that all Namasudras are Matuas. They make this same claim to the government in Delhi. However, this claim is not true. The author is a Namasudra but not a Matua.

 

In order to gain social status and freedom from economic exploitation, the Namasudra peasants sometimes raised movements against the zamindars- government (1909), and sometimes against Muslims (1911, 1925 and 1938).

 

As a result of the Namasudras' demand for 'communal representation', the government nominated only one Depressed Classes (DC) representative in the Bengal Provincial Legislative Assembly under the Montagu-Chelmsford Act (1919). The Namasudra leaders demanded the reservation of a number of representatives for DC at the Round Table Conference in London (1930-32). The Namasudra leaders first demanded the removal of untouchability, and then the right to self-government. 

 

In 1930, Guruchand Thakur declared at a conference in Khulna district that political empowerment was essential for the social and material progress of the Namasudras.

 

The Bengal Depressed Classes Association and the All Bengal Namasudra Association supported Dr. Ambedkar's demand for separate electorates for the Depressed Classes, as well as the British government's announcement of 'communal division' (1932 AD). The All Bengal Namasudra Association submitted a memorandum to the government, claiming that if separate electorates were created for DCs, they would gain a significant amount of political advantage that would also free them from social and economic bondage.

 

When Dr. Ambedkar withdrew his demand for separate electorates for DC, through the 'Poona Pact' (1932 AD) with Gandhiji, the All Bengal Namasudra Association strongly criticized him and reluctantly accepted the pact later. In the Government of India Act of 1935, 20% of the seats in the Legislative Assembly were reserved for SC in Bengal. In 1938, Jogendranath Mandal, Pramatharanjan Thakur and others formed the 'Independent Scheduled Caste Party' and decided to cooperate with the Congress. In his presidential address at the All Bengal Namasudra Conference (1939 AD), Pramath R Thakur called for joining the National Congress and fighting for India's independence.

 

In the 1937 elections, under the umbrella of the Matua movement, the Scheduled Castes achieved great success. However, in the 1946 elections, held about a decade after Guruchand Thakur's death (1937 CE), the Scheduled Castes could not replicate that success. In the 1946 Legislative Assembly elections, the Scheduled Castes won only 4 seats. The winners were Jogendranath Mandal (Bakharganj South-West constituency), Mukundabihari Mallick (Khulna South-East constituency), P. R. Thakur (Faridpur South constituency) and Nagendranath Roy (Rangpur constituency). 

 

Pramath Ranjan Thakur won the Bengal Legislative Assembly elections of 1946, as stated above, as an independent candidate and became a member of the Constituent Assembly with the support of the Congress. From this time on, he continued to work with loyalty to the Congress. In the Constituent Assembly, he opposed the reservation policy for Scheduled Castes and argued for comprehensive social reforms to remove discrimination between man and man. He joined the Indian National Congress on the eve of partition.

 

Partition related events

The Muslim League (formed in Dacca in 1906) was adamant in its demand for a separate country for Muslims, i.e., partition before 1947. Although Congress leader Gandhiji initially thought partition was impossible, various political parties including Gandhiji agreed to partition later. Read   Who was responsible for partition  

 

When the situation of partition of the country and Bengal arose in 1947, Matua leader P R Thakur, like Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, initially opposed the partition of Bengal. Because, at that time, Orakandi in Faridpur district of East Bengal was a popular Matua pilgrimage site. He was worried about the future of the Namashudras of East Bengal if the country was divided.

 

But when partition became inevitable, Pramath Ranjan Thakur, head of the Matua Mahasangha, launched a strong movement demanding the inclusion of the Namashudra-Matua inhabited districts of East Bengal, especially Faridpur, Jessore, Khulna and Bakerganj, in West Bengal, i.e., India. They, Pramath R Thakur and his wife Binapani Devi, even met Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the top Congress leaders, to make a claim in this regard. But there is no evidence that Jawaharlal Nehru supported the demand for the inclusion of these districts in India or that he took any initiative to help the Matuas.

 

In the general sense, the political protest movement of the Namashudras, as understood, was not at all like Pramath R Thakur's movement. Rather, Jogendranath Mandal had tried to build such a movement.

 

The strange thing is that when Jogendranath Mandal was organizing a protest movement against the government's policy of sending Namashudra refugees for rehabilitation outside Bengal, Pramath R Thakur supported this rehabilitation policy. 

 

It was J Mandal who, had asked the SC in Pakistan to look upon Jinnah as their savour, was shaken from his dream. 1 Pg 399 Although he became the first law minister of Pakistan but facing religious persecution fled to India. Ambedkar was upset as SC were not allowed to come to Hindustan and they were being forcibly converted in Bengal, Hyderabad etc.

 

In 1947, when East Bengal, which was inhabited by Namasudras, became part of Pakistan, a large number of Namasudras residing there became refugees and took shelter in West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Dandakaranya, Andaman and other places. Thus, the Namasudra movement lost its momentum.

 

In this context, Gandhiji and Jawaharlal Nehru assured Sri Pramath Ranjan Thakur that if the Scheduled Castes had to come to India from East Pakistan after partition, arrangements would be made for their careful rehabilitation in India.

 

However, the Matuas were not spared from this persecution of Hindus. In this situation, Pramath Ranjan, thinking carefully about the future life and Matuas migrated to West Bengal with his family.

On the other hand, due to the continuous migration of persecuted Hindus from East Bengal, the Hindu population there has decreased drastically. As a result, the Matua pilgrimage site of Orakandi is not as vibrant as before.

 

Post partition and Thakurnagar settlement

Along with the Thakur family's departure from East Bengal, about fifty thousand Matuas came to West Bengal. He came to Bagula in Hanskhali block of Nadia district, West Bengal. Here he decided to settle down and build a house. For this purpose, he also bought forty-two bighas of land in Bagula.

 

With the arrival of the Thakur family, at least fifty thousand Matuas left their homeland and came to West Bengal. Sri Pramath Ranjan Thakur soon moved from Bagula and bought some land in the Chandpara and Gobardanga area, about 63 kms north of Kolkata, in the 24 Parganas district. Gradually, this place became known as Thakurnagar. With the arrival of the Thakur family, at least 300 Matua families came to Thakurnagar. He established the Matua Ashram in Thakurnagar. Following him, over the next 75 years, a large section of the Matuas of East Bengal took shelter in West Bengal and other states of India. As a result, Thakurnagar has gradually become a vibrant pilgrimage site for the Matuas.

 

At this time, the Thakur family was specially assisted by the philanthropist Gopalchandra Sadhu Thakur and Matua Gosai Mahananda Haldar in setting up the settlement and Matua Thakurbadi in Thakurnagar. Pramath Ranjan Thakur and his wife Binapani Devi together formed the 'Thakur Land and Industries Private Limited' with the Matuas in Thakurnagar. Pramath Ranjan Thakur himself became the chairman of the seven-member board of directors of this institution.

 

After the partition of India, the Thakur family of Thakurnagar i.e. the successors of Harichand-Guruchand Thakur, were quite successful in leading the Namashudra community under the banner of the Matua religion in West Bengal. The leadership in West Bengal was spearheaded by Guruchand Thakur's grandson, Pramath Ranjan Thakur (1904-1990 CE). His brand of Namashudra politics was different from that of Jogendranath Mandal. Pramath Ranjan Thakur returned to the country after passing the bar from England. The current BJP MP Shantanu Thakur is the grandson of Pramath Ranjan Thakur.

 

Guruchand Thakur had adopted a policy of distancing himself from the Congress party, but his grandson P. R. Thakur later brought about a change in this political line.

 

Thakurnagar gradually emerged as the cultural center of the SC refugees. Centered on Thakurnagar, a large section of the Matua devotees of East Bengal started coming to the 24 Parganas and its neighbouring districts in the following years. In this way, Thakurnagar became the first Namashudra and Scheduled Caste colony in India due to the initiative of the Thakur family. Within the next decade, at least 50,000 Namashudra refugees came to this area and settled down.

 

In order to develop the roads, water supply and other services of this colony, Pramath Ranjan Thakur received a grant of Rs 80,000 from the government in 1951. In addition, each refugee family was given two bundles of tin and Rs 200 in cash for the purpose of house construction.

 

The majority of Namashudras who follow the Matua religion of the Thakur family prefer to live in the area near Thakurnagar. Therefore, most of the Namashudra refugees settled in the districts of 24 Parganas and Nadia. Currently, more than half of the total Namashudra population of West Bengal live in just two districts, North 24 Parganas and Nadia.

 

Pramath Ranjan started working for the refugees in West Bengal. But his views and path as a Namashudra leader were different from those of Jogendranath.

 

Matuas supported Dr Ambedkar’s election to the Constituent Assembly  

In accordance with the Cabinet Mission's plan, the process of forming the Constituent Assembly for drafting the constitution of independent India began in 1946. The Constituent Assembly had a total of 296 seats, of which 31 seats were reserved for Scheduled Castes. 

 

For this purpose, elections by the Provincial Legislatures were held in July 1946. Ambedkar had no men in the Bombay Assembly to support his candidature, so his name was put up through the SC representatives in the Bengal Assembly. 1 Pg 381

 

In this difficult situation for Ambedkar, an unknown Namasudra lawyer from Bengal, 42-year-old Jogendranath Mandal from Barisal, invited Dr. Ambedkar to contest the Constituent Assembly elections from the Jessore-Khulna constituency of Bengal. At that time, Jogendranath Mandal was the only member of the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF) party founded by Ambedkar in the Bengal Legislative Assembly.

 

Dr. Ambedkar accepted this invitation. When Ambedkar reached Kolkata after accepting the invitation, only three weeks were left for the election. Jogendranath proposed Dr. Ambedkar's candidature and Congress MLA Gaynath Biswas supported it. Both were Namasudras.

 

There with the backing of the Muslim League he was elected to the Constituent Assembly. 1

 

Once the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act, the Constituent Assembly early for undivided India, now became a sovereign body for a mutilated India. So many of its members lost their seats as did Ambedkar who was chosen by the Bengal Assembly. He was now chosen by the Bombay Legislative Congress Party to fill the vacancy in the Assembly caused by the resignation of Dr M.R. Jayankar. Nehru offered Ambedkar the job of Minister of Law.

 

After partition, when East Bengal became East Pakistan, communal oppression of Hindus by Muslims started in East Bengal (then East Pakistan). The Matua community continues to be faced with challenges esp. in Bangladesh where fundamentalism shows little signs of abating.

Guruchand and Harithakur were to the Namasudras what Dr Ambedkar was to the Mahars of Maharashtra.

 

Yet the Thakur’s of Bengal are hardly known across the country unlike Ambedkar! Why is a question worth pondering about? 

 

Another good thing about Indian society is the willingness to accept social reforms and change.

 

Author Dr. Subhas Biswas  is Associate Professor of History, Dept. of History, University of Kalyani, Kalyani, Nadia, West Bengal, India.

 

References

1. Life and Mission Dr Ambedkar by B Kheer

 

Also read

1. History of the word Dalit

2. Why are Hindu Bengalis celebrating notification of CAA

3. Journey of Matua community

4. Matuas in WB hail CAA. Who are they

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