Bengal’s Namasudras: From Dismissed to Decisive
The frenzy over elections to West Bengal’s Assembly in March-April 2021 has brought into focus a usually ignored community: that of the Namasudras, and the sect most of them belong to, Matua. Often dismissed by political and social snobs on account of being of a low caste, they carry demographic firepower that is only now being acknowledged.
But their influence reaches several decades back into subcontinental dynamics. They changed Bengal’s demographics in the past century, aided the creation of East Pakistan, subsequently became refugees in India—and are now being wooed by Hindu-nationalist political interests and, equally, being warned off by Dalit activists. Here’s a glimpse into their tumultuous history and journey:
In areas dominated by the Namasudra and Matua population, mostly in the nine districts of West Bengal that share a border with Bangladesh, a battle has raged over the history of the communities—and their present heft is now proving to be crucial leverage for political benefit in the elections to West Bengal’s Assembly, scheduled between 27th March and 29th April, 2021.
From being Eastern Bengal’s largest Hindu caste, the Namasudras are now West Bengal’s second-largest Scheduled Caste community, making up 4 per cent of the state’s population, according to the Census of 2001. A majority of the Namasudras are followers of the Matua sect, a reason why the Namasudras and the Matuas are often conflated.
Since 2018, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Jagran Manch, have upped their quotient, delivering fiery speeches and circulating social media posts, reminding members of these communities of the persecution they faced at the hands of the Muslims in East Pakistan, which in 1971 became Bangladesh. As elections neared, the top brass of the BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have specifically reached out to the community.
Equally, members of Dalit-rights groups, such as the Jai Bhim India Network and the more local Namasudra Bikash Parishad, are reminding them of an older history—that of their historic struggle against Brahmanism—and warn them against falling into the trap of a “Manuvaadi BJP”, a reference to the rigid caste hierarchy perpetuated by the conservatives from Hindu upper castes. Unsurprisingly, the incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party strenuously support this position.
There is truth in the argument for both pushes: The community, comprising entirely of migrants from Bangladesh, has a complex history.
The Matua Movement
Once called ‘Chandals’ and treated as untouchables by the Hindu upper castes, the Namasudras shaped Bengal’s destiny to a great extent in the pre-Partition days.
The Namasudras lived primarily in the low-lying swamp areas in the Eastern Bengal districts of Faridpur, Bakerganj, Jessore, Mymensingh, Dhaka and Khulna, and were mostly engaged in fishing and farming. According to British reports, such as the Census of 1872, William Hunter’s 1877 book A Statistical Account of Bengal (Vol. V), James Wise’s 1894 article Muhammadans of Eastern Bengal, and the Census of 1901, the Namasudras were originally a tribe that settled in this region over several centuries.
– Some early Bengali histories refer to them as ‘Brahmin-Buddhists’ who refused to accept Hinduism after the decline of the Pal dynasty and the rise of the Hindu revivalist Sen dynasty, which ruled in the 11th and 12th centuries CE.
They remained outside the varna system of caste. When they subsequently entered the fold of Hinduism, they were admitted at the bottom of the caste structure. They were allowed to live only o
the outskirts of villages. Other histories contend that they were permitted to live in cities of the time. The origin stories of the Namasudras are as complex as their modern history is.
What is clear is that their economic status started improving, though marginally, with the reclamation of swamp and forest land in the early 19th century, paving the path to settle as a farming community. This relative economic prosperity helped generate awareness of their low status in the Hindu society, leading to a consolidation within the community that led to seeking higher social status.
Gradually, from the mid-19th century onwards, this consolidation also took the shape of economic protests, as the land they tilled was mostly owned by high-caste Hindus.
According to historian Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, “The Namasudra movement in Bengal is the story of an antyaja, or untouchable caste, transforming itself from an amphibian peripheral multitude into a settled agricultural community, protesting against the age-old social disabilities and economic exploitation it suffered from, entering the vortex of institutional politics, and trying to derive benefit out of it through an essentially loyalist political strategy.”
By ‘loyalist political strategy’, Bandyopadhyay is referring to the community’s political stance which favoured British rule over the erstwhile one of the upper-caste Hindu and Muslim feudal lords.
The Matua sect evolved as a great unifier for the community during this first phase of Namasudra awakening. The exact year of the foundation of this sect remains unknown but historians estimate it to be around 1860, when Harichand Thakur (1812-1877) initiated this Vaishnava sect that rejected the caste system, the role of Brahman priests, and Sanskrit sloka in rituals, among other things.
– The Namasudras made their presence felt for the first time in 1873, when they announced a boycott of upper-caste Hindus after a few of them refused to attend the funerary shradh ceremony of a Namasudra person respected in the community.
Harichand’s son, Guruchand, took the movement further by insisting on the need for education, especially in English. In 1881, Guruchand presided over All-Bengal Namasudra Conference held at Dattadanga in Khulna district. The welfare and activist organisation, Namasudra Hitaishini Samiti, was formed in 1902. Guruchand initiated the publication of the journal Namasudra Suhrid in 1907, triggering the publication of several other community journals. In 1912, the Bengal Namasudra Association was formed and it promptly opened branches in nearly all districts in undivided Bengal.
Changing Bengal’s Demographics
The Matua movement gained popularity among the Namasudras at a time when the community was experiencing a crucial phase—thousands of Namasudras were converting to Islam, and some to Christianity, ostensibly to get away from caste-based oppression.
This trend was first noted in India’s first census, published in 1872, which expressed surprise at finding a huge Muslim population in Eastern Bengal. Though the census report did not mention the Namasudra caste in particular, it attributed the increase in the Muslim population to conversion from lower-caste Hindus “for whom a rigid system of caste discipline rendered Hinduism intolerable”.
The 1881 Census officially announced Islam as the largest religion of undivided Bengal and the Census of 1901 specially mentioned the castes of Namasudras and Pods, who were converting to Islam “wholesale”.
“The Namasudras aggregate about 1,861,000 and the Pods nearly half a million: but large numbers have been converted into Muhammadanism and now call themselves Sheik,” reported the Census of 1901. “There are ten and a half millions of Muhammadans in the Dacca and Chittagong divisions, and it has been shown that a great majority of them are the descendants of the converts from the ranks of these two castes.”
This demographic change would have several socio-political implications.
As the Muslims outnumbered Hindus in Bengal, the All-India Muslim League’s demand in 1907 for a separate electorate and proportional representation in the Assemblies in British-India jolted the Bengali ‘Bhadralok’, the upper-caste and relatively wealthy, English-educated Hindus, who were alarmed at the prospect of losing their control over socio-economic and political power in colonial Bengal. But this became inevitable as the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1909 accepted the League’s demands.
There was another significant political trend. The Swadeshi movement against the first Partition of Bengal in 1905 was led by the Bengali Bhadralok, and the lower castes, along with the Muslims, especially in Eastern Bengal, not only offered a lukewarm response to the nationalist leaders’ call for the reunification of Bengal but, in places, actively opposed the Swadeshi movement.
That, in a sense, was the beginning of a new political equation—that of Dalit-Muslim unity against upper-caste interests, an equation that remains robust in several regions of present-day India. A factor unifying Muslims and Dalit in Eastern Bengal was that they made up the lion’s share of Eastern Bengal’s peasantry, while uppe- castes Hindus, mostly from Western Bengal, were the landlords.
In his book, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal: 1903-1908, historian Sumit Sarkar refers to a fortnightly report of the British administration in 1907, which recorded that lower-caste Hindus had “testified that they consider the orders of government regarding the admittance to the public service of more members of communities, other-than the high caste Hindu, as giving them their first chance of rising in public estimation.”
That they were making a mark as a community became evident from the Nadia District Gazetteer published in 1910: it reported that the Namasudras “show a considerable aptitude for organisation” and they “appear to have a genuine desire to raise themselves as a class.”
As a consequence of numerous Namasudras converting to Islam, and the community in general allying with the Muslims, a series of essays dealing with the issue of reducing caste conflict appeared in prominent Kolkata-based publications.
In June 1909, Modern Review carried an article titled ‘What Can Be Done for the Namasudras’, written by Binod Lal Ghose. The article noted that some Namasudras had “gone so far as to cease cultivating the lands of the higher-class Hindu landholders as burga tenants [tenant farmers]; and in some places the Namasudras have formed a combination not to render any services to the upper classes of the Hindu community.” In his book, The Decline of the Caste Question on caste politics of Bengal, Dwaipayan, Sen mentions an editorial in Modern Review, published in the same year, titled ‘The Elevation of Namasudras’.
Also in 1909, U N Mukherji’s series of letters published in the Bengalee newspaper highlighted the issue of caste conflict leading to the weakening of the Hindus. The letters were later compiled into a book, Hindu: A Dying Race.
But old wounds still ran deep and the Namasudras continued to organise themselves for social and economic justice.
Apart from establishing an English-medium school in 1908 in Orakandi village in present-day Bangladesh—where Harichand and Guruchand lived—the community reached out to Australian Baptist missionaries to get women teachers for educating the rural women of Bengal. As a result of these initiatives on education, during the 1920s the Namasudra representation in education and government jobs steadily increased.
The Communal Award of 1932 made things more complicated for the ‘caste Hindus’. On account of proportional representation, Muslims were now entitled to 119 seats in the 250-seat Bengal Assembly against 82 seats allotted to the Hindus—and of those 82 seats, 10 were reserved for the depressed classes and two for women. So, upper-caste Hindus effectively had 72 seats. That was a massive decline, as in the existing structure, Hindus had 46 seats against 39 of the Muslims.
This Communal Award was first proposed in 1929 and in the following year, during the Khulna district conference of the Bengal Namasudra Association, Guruchand stressed the need to join institutional politics to gain political power.
Around the same time, Hindu organisations began to make strenuous efforts to integrate the lower castes, especially the Namasudras and the Paundra-Kshatriyas. The Hindu Mission started working among the Namasudras in 1930, Bharat Sevashram Sangh in 1934-35 and the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha around 1937-38. This certainly had some effect, as the Matuas gradually adopted a number of Hindu ritualistic practices that Harichand and Guruchand were opposed to.
The Partition of India
It was the time of Jogendra Nath Mandal, who rose to become among the most prominent Namasudra leaders at the end of the 1930s. He won the 1937 elections to the Bengal Assembly as an Independent, and in the following year laid the foundation of the Independent Scheduled Castes Assembly Party, a political and parliamentary group comprising the majority of Scheduled Caste MLAs in the Bengal Assembly.
In 1943, Mandal initiated the founding of the Bengal unit of the All India Scheduled Caste Federation, launched in Maharashtra by B R Ambedkar the previous year. Acting as the head of the organisation’s Bengal unit, Mandal took a stance against the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha, and sought to allay with the Muslim League. He became a minister in Khwaja Nizamuddin’s Muslim League ministry in Bengal in 1943.
Mandal’s hold over the Namasudra and other scheduled caste communities was not as strong as that of Harichand and Guruchand Thakur, as the Congress, the Hindu Mahasabha and the farmer-oriented Krishak Praja Party had by that time managed to make inroads among these backward classes.
During Mandal’s political ascendancy, the Matua-Namasudras were divided into three camps. One was Mandal’s own. Of the other two, one was the Depressed Classes League led by Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, grandson of Guruchand. It allied with the Congress. The other was the Depressed Classes Association that worked closely with the Hindu Mahasabha.
Even so, Mandal’s sway was not insignificant.
– In 1946, when some senior Congress leaders wanted to ensure Ambedkar’s exclusion from the Constituent Assembly, by denying him a nomination from either Maharashtra or Madhya Pradesh, Mandal guaranteed Ambedkar’s entry to the Constituent Assembly from Bengal.
During the turbulent days leading to Partition, Mandal supported the Pakistan Proposal. In the interim government of India of 1946, which had ministers from both the Congress and the Muslim League, the League had nominated Mandal as one of the ministers. He also chaired the inaugural session of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947. He took part in drafting the Constitution of Pakistan and went on to become Pakistan’s first law and labour minister.
But his experience turned sour, especially after the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1948, as the persecution of Dalits in East Pakistan increased to such an extent that Mandal returned to Kolkata in 1950 after resigning from the Pakistan Cabinet.
This triggered a steady stream of Hindus, predominantly Dalits, the Matua-Namasudras in particular, migrating to West Bengal and Assam from Eastern Bengal—East Pakistan—over the next three decades.
Meanwhile, Pramatha Ranjan, Guruchand’s grandson, relocated from East Pakistan to Bongaon in West Bengal in 1951 and established the refugee town of Thakurnagar to the north-east of Kolkata, not far from the border with Bangladesh. His stars were soon ascendant: he was elected in 1962 as a Congress MLA to the West Bengal’s Assembly, and as a Bangla Congress member to the Lok Sabha in 1967. (His son Kapil Krishna and daughter-in-law Mamata were Trinamool Congress MPs, and another son, Manjul Krishna was a minister in Mamata Banerjee’s government.)
Manjul Krishna’s son was won over by the BJP: Shantanu is currently the BJP MP from Bongaon. Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his campaign for the Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal in 2019 by first visiting the community’s 100-year-old matriarch, Binapani Devi—Pramatha Ranjan’s widow who is referred to as ‘Boro Ma’. The Thakurs remain the most influential family among the Namasudras.)
For his part, Mandal had been nearly forgotten since his October 1950 resignation letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan—which predicted that Hindus remaining in Pakistan were destined to be doomed especially in the wake of the 1950 riots in East Pakistan over February and March that year. Mandal claimed in his resignation letter to Khan that 10,000 Hindus were estimated to have been killed in the riots. Mandal lamented: “I only asked myself ‘What was coming to Pakistan in the name of Islam’.” He described the condition of the Hindus as being “absolutely hopeless” and their future “completely dark and dismal”.
Mandal, who died in 1968, was resurrected as a political fulcrum for Hindu nationalist politics after 2014, initially to counter Dalit-Muslim unity preached by various organisations across the country against the ‘Manuvaadi Hindutva forces’. And, later, as a potent refugee-memory of the Namasudras to defend the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill from early 2019 to its passing as an Act of Parliament in December 2019.
Perhaps nothing symbolises the potent political power of the Namasudra-Matuas as this second coming of a former messiah.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist, researcher and author. His latest book is Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment.
This article is part of our special series the 'Making of Modern India' through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India's exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.