The following conversation between Jashodhara Sen and Kanu Halder took place on May 24, 2022. The discussion focuses on Halder’s research with the Matua. The Matua identity is a part of the Dalit (oppressed) and Namasudra communities. The Dalit or Namasudra community belongs to the lowest caste order and is suppressed by the four-fold Hindu jati or caste system. This community gained visibility through its pursuits of social reform movements. The history of the Matua reformist movement traces back to the 1860s, with the establishment of Matua Mahashangha, which was first established in present-day Bangladesh. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jashodhara Sen: Thank you for writing such a rich and multi-faceted analysis of the Matua community. I think this subject is very relevant, mainly your focus on the contemporary Matua community by tracing a historiographic, religiopolitical lineage, which is quite significant. At the very beginning of your book, you ask whether the Matua religion falls under the category of “protest religion” (প্রতিবাদী ধর্ম), and at the end of that paragraph, you identify the social structure of the Matua as a “progressive religion of and self-improvement” (“প্রগতিশীল আত্মোন্নতির ধর্ম”). I am curious to know, although Matua devotionalism and its inherent belief system and teaching dharma) are identified as a separate (and autonomous) religion, yet, Matua devotionalism has not completely separated itself from Hinduism, and how far is it possible to sustain this autonomous, progressive, and resilient entity without separating from Hinduism? I ask because Hinduism is seen by some as hierarchical and unequal. And I wonder how progressive activism can sustain itself within a structurally unequal domain. Could you please share your thoughts on that?
Kanu Halder: Of course, the Matua community is fiercely progressive. A majority of the Namasudra community considers themselves Matua. As a result, Namasudras and Matua identities are often conflated. They don’t hesitate to embrace Western ideals of advancement. They recognize outdated traditionalism and move past it; they support advancement. For example, the Matua community supports technological expansion. Let me share another critical anecdote. Matua leader Guruchand Thakur had a friendship with the Australian missionary C.S. Mead. Thakur and Mead collaborated on elevating the Matua reformist movement and Namasudra voices by accelerating education plans for the disadvantaged classes. Through this collaboration, they realized the existential dilemma of the Matua and other backward communities [The Central Government of India identifies the Indian citizens based on their social and economic condition as Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), and Other Backward Class (OBC)]. The realities of these communities were that they were forced to stay at the bottom, and if they were not connected with the societal advancements, whether technological or otherwise, their progress and social reform would not be possible.
And for this reason, in West Bengal, when Thakur Nagar was established as a pilgrimage site for the Matua community under the stewardship of Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, he immediately began educational projects for the community. These projects focused on introducing the Matua community to Western/European cultural practices and highlighting the advantages of English language education to improve peoples’ everyday lives. To build an egalitarian collective, Pramatha Ranjan Thakur invited people (by providing lands) from different religious belief systems, such as the Christians, to cohabit with the Matua community. Collectively, they built schools for all and challenged social prejudices, indicating a progressive mindset.
Both Guruchand Thakur and Pramatha Ranjan Thakur focused on progressing through education and established several schools for the Matua and Namasudra communities. That’s why I identify the religion as a “progressive and self-reliant religion” (“প্রগতিশীল আত্মোন্নতির ধর্ম”). They are actively working towards improving lives through education and political rights among the oppressed. Guruchand Thakur was invited to join forces during the non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements that spewed in the 1940s (these movements happened in the later 1910s/early 1920s and 1930s, respectively) along with his followers, who were the representatives of the backward classes (নিম্নবর্গীয়). Guruchand Thakur refused to join these massive uprisings and stated that the Hindu upper-caste society had already exploited the communities he represented. According to Guruchand Thakur, these communities were economically and socially oppressed and needed a collective communal upliftment before joining the political mobilization. The Matua community does not support religious dogmatism and advocates for gender equality. I must emphasize that their search for advancement through technological enhancements, education, and economic growth (অর্থনৈতিক উন্নতি), is ongoing. In this regard, the central issue in this community is the lack of economic development (অর্থনৈতিকভাবে প্রচণ্ড পিছিয়ে), which keeps them on the periphery.
The displacement and migration from Bangladesh to India as refugees are reasons behind the economic instability. It is noteworthy that the migration of the Namasudra and depressed communities from Bangladesh to India is a continuous process, whether the government acknowledges it or not. Perhaps right now, someone is migrating from Bangladesh to India as a refugee. Their only demand is to get citizenship and voting rights. When you don’t have citizenship, you don’t receive government benefits usually given to the population with citizenship. As far as the Matua refugees are concerned, they don’t get any government subsidies. As a result, their uprooted identity impedes them from showing appropriate documents, affecting their employment and directly relating to their economic development. Hence, regardless of other demands to the government, the Matua community primarily seeks to acquire their citizenship rights.
There is an overall confusion and contradiction about the Matua community’s religious affiliation, even within the community. The tension is visible within the community regarding the practice and reception of the Matua religion as an autonomous system, although Matua devotionalism is already a well-established organization with an inscribed methodology that criticizes Hindu Brahminical absolutism and orthodoxy. By doing so, they have instituted a “parallel culture” with a distinct system for organizing ceremonies, birthdays, weddings, funeral rites, etc. My survey suggests that some community participants insist on separating religion and establishing their independent (স্বতন্ত্র) religious identities like Buddhism and Jainism. But others consider themselves to operate within the Hindu religious system, claiming that Matua reform can only be possible within the scope of Hindu solidarity (মূল ধর্ম হিন্দু ধর্ম, এই হিন্দু ধর্মের মধ্যে থেকেই আমাদের জাগরন উন্নতি). The second group argues that if they separate themselves as an independent entity, their movement could not be unified as one movement ([…] বাইরে থেকে আমরা বিচ্ছিন্ন হয়ে পড়বো আর বিচ্ছিন্ন হয়ে গেলে আমাদের আন্দোলন অত শক্তিশালী হবে না). There’s another reason behind this principle.
Many people in Bangladesh believe in the Matua philosophy. Considering the socio-political instability in Bangladesh, these people want to retain their own religio-cultural identity. So, if the Matuas in West Bengal renounce their Hindu identity and the Matuas in Bangladesh hold onto it, it will create a conflict within the community. Ultimately, the community lives and breathes in a dispute on creating their religious identity and composition. In spite of this apparent paradox, the Matua community functions within an organized, strong structure with a clear purpose and objective associated with the collective. In the end, Matuas are not just a religious entity; they are vehemently anti-Brahmin. In Bangladesh, they are primarily identified as the backward class. During the partition, their leaders, such as Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, wanted the community to migrate to India [majority caste-Hindu] as the Indian National Congress pledged to provide opportunities for this community, and another leader, Jogendranath Mandal, asked them to join hands with Pakistan [Muslim-majority] under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Mandal identified the backward classes’ oppression as reminiscent of the Muslims’ persecution at the hands of the caste-Hindu, while Jinnah declared that Pakistan belonged to both the Hindus and the Muslims. The Namasudra people started migrating to India during this conflict and emerged as a refugee collective. At the refugee camps, they were unified under one common “refugee” identity— “Amra kara? Bastuhara” [Who are we? We are displaced]— was their slogan. With that radical thrust of this collective identity, their identity politics started shifting towards a political consciousness. Consequently, we notice that the migrant Matua community is much more politically active than their counterparts in Bangladesh.
In the 1970s, the Namasudras started embracing the Left political sentiments, and many of the community formed an alliance with the Left party politics. With the establishment of সর্বভারতীয় মতুয়া মহাসংঘ [All India Matua Federation] in the 90s, the Namasudra and Matua collective became aware of their ideological axis and Matua identity. As I mentioned, migration from Bangladesh to India is a continuous process, which has escalated since the declaration of independence in Bangladesh . Many marginalized people, the Namasudras from Bangladesh, were part of the Vaishnava sect. When these people migrated to India, they identified as Matua, not Vaishnava. The main reason was that they were insecure about their positionality in India and, as a result, wanted to be a part of an already organized identity. This alliance resulted in a massive boon in the Matua community. Placed as one large group, the Matua community is fundamentally progressive; whether they believe in spiritual progress, political-economic growth, or advancing their understanding of life after death, they constantly seek advancement through strategic religiopolitical possibilities.
Jashodhara Sen: This book provides some excellent insights into Bengali cultural and religious history. Especially the history of Dalit/backward caste movements. I am curious to know what some connecting factors between religious and political movements are and if you could talk a little bit about how the Matua movement expanded the religious and political exchanges between other backward castes/Dalit movements.
Kanu Halder: Not all religious reforms are political movements. If you take the examples of Baba Loknath or Balak Brahmachari [Hindu gurus], they don’t have any political location. These organizations intend to strengthen their popularity amongst the public. On the one hand, Matua devotionalism spreads the teachings of Guruchand Thakur [1846-1937] and Harichand Thakur [1812-1878]; on the other hand, as an organization, they recognize that those who identify as Matua are socially marginalized. It is the organization’s responsibility to improve the devotees’ economic, political, and social conditions—this is one of the critical elements of the Matua movement and separates them from the other religio-cultural movements.
Jashodhara Sen: The subaltern studies lens is critical in the methodological analysis of this book. For those who have not read the book yet, please explain how you analyze the Matua community’s subaltern status.
Kanu Halder: Yes, for that reason [because Matuas are deprived], they are standing up against the hegemony by organizing socio-politically for advancement. The Matuas do not want to claim any “upper-caste” status; they are proud of their distinctive Matua identity. [All they want is] to earn their rights as Matua through activism. They want their rights and recognition as a citizen of an independent nation. Their Matua philosophy leads them, and they uphold the emancipation of the common people. Of course, when we discuss the rights of the common people, we cannot avoid talking about the subaltern. Also, we can trace a fundamental difference with Marxian theory because some people are born into poverty and economically deprived because they are born into that family. The rise of the free-market economy might have affected this situation, but not in India. We recognize that caste-based discrimination is prevalent all over India, although I believe that Bengal is in a slightly better position in this regard.
In my opinion, the Bhakti Movement in Bengal has influenced social egalitarianism. Since the nineteenth century in Bengal, we have noticed a rise in caste consciousness among the lower orders. With the rise of caste consciousness, the lower caste Namashudra movement slowly started to develop in Bengal. The Matuas were the catalyst for this change. Again, Bengal is the birthplace of personalities like Swami Vivekananda and Ramkrishnadev, who propagated equality in their work and rhetoric. Also, the left-leaning politics affected Bengal and criticized Brahminical repression, unlike other Indian states.
In the case of the Matua movement, it can be said that it is a struggle of the working class. They are fighting for a change in the quality of life through education, advanced healthcare, and a collective upliftment of their community. Better education will provide opportunities so the generations can venture out to find their own path and not be discriminated against for their familial affiliation to a profession. The present-day Matuas in India are more politically conscious than practicing devotionalism, and through that, they hope to achieve emancipation. Perhaps because of their tireless pursuit, they are rising as a powerful political organization in Bengal, and many established political groups respect the Matuas and want to develop a relationship with them.
Jashodhara Sen: Your answer makes me curious. Is the Matua organization’s recent relationship with the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party, right-wing conservative] an expression of their dissatisfaction with leftist and centrist politics?
Kanu Halder: The relationship between Matuas and the Left Front changed even before 2011. The reason is that the Left Front lost its footing in the primary location of the Matuas, Thakurnagar, two elections before the state government came to power. Thakurnagar holds Matua sentiments. Therefore, what happens in Thakurnagar significantly impacts what could happen in the other areas where Matuas live. Starting in early 2000, we noticed an increasing distance between the Matua and the Left Front. Recently, the growing relationship between the Matua and BJP is primarily due to the passing of the CAA or Citizenship (Amendment) Act. As I said before, the main appeal of the Matua community is acquiring citizenship. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act has undergone several changes; the last time it was amended was in 2019. Many Matuas live in India without citizenship, and due to their non-citizen status, they are deprived of many constitutional rights and privileges. The BJP leadership [ruling party] addressed this need, and the Matuas realized that being in the vicinity of that party would benefit their citizenship status. The need for citizenship has shaped the Matua and BJP alliance.
The CAA is not the only reason. The BJP has acutely focused on the Matuas. Starting from the Prime Minister [BJP elected] and the Union Home Minister [BJP elected] of India held public meetings in Thakurnagar, and the Prime Minister reached out to the Matua community while visiting the Matua temple in Orakandi in Bangladesh—all these efforts attracted the Matua community towards BJP. The “think tank” of the Matua community noticed that the Prime Minister of India is listening to their demands and, as a result, are getting global traction. This “think thank” influences the common Matua people.
Another main factor is the Government of West Bengal, Trinamool Congress [abbr. TMC] lost their connection with the Matuas. And the Matuas were also looking for new leadership, and Matua representative Shantanu Thakur [a Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, party affiliation, BJP] realized that. Shantanu Thakur’s coalition with the BJP has influenced the larger Matua community. I think the most considerable sentiment that fostered a relationship between the Matuas and the BJP is the anti-TMC attitude.
Jashodhara Sen: In my experience, women are continually oppressed in patriarchal societies and systematically forced to stay that way. Because of their minority status, they are particularly unable or unwilling to talk about their organizations and political views. Of course, economic and social situations play a part in standing against authority. Tell us about your research experience, particularly ethnographic research methods, and how you have analyzed Matua’s political philosophy by foregrounding Matua women.
Kanu Halder: My focus is on the rise of the political consciousness of the Matua in post-independence Bengal. If I do not acknowledge the participation of the women, then it will be incomplete research. That’s why my research foregrounds the participation of Matua women in the political movement. I prioritized and arranged interviews and surveys in four villages and collected almost 300 responses from women. The survey had 30 questions, which gave me an insight into the usual age for marriage and whether or not they were married as a child. The survey was also for young women (14-15 years). I also learned about how many women work independently in different professions, such as farmers and small-scale entrepreneurs. It’s already established that there’s not much work on the Matua, let alone Matua women.
My research centered on the interior village communities where women are involved in cooperative professions. For example, in one village, all women tie and package biri [ or বিড়ি dry tobacco leaves are wrapped without a filter for smoking]; in another village, all women are involved in tailoring—the areas become known for their craft. The community from where I collected data was known for the women’s tailoring work. I also wanted to see how the young women feel about their education, whether they wish to continue their education, and what kind of career they are interested in.
When we look at the statistics collected by the government indicating women’s participation in grassroots governance, there is a space reserved for women to strengthen women’s political empowerment. But it is not that simple. If we pay careful attention, we will see those women, especially women from the backward castes, have some sort of familial ties with politics. For instance, that woman’s husband holds a position in the panchayat [village assembly/council], and they cannot run for a particular position; hence, the woman is a proxy for her husband. I am speaking from my own experience while researching the Matua community. It is also noticeable that the woman is a member of the panchayat, and during the policy-making discussions, the husband attends the meetings on her behalf. So, the woman participates only on paper, but her husband’s voice is the one that is heard. So, there is a contradiction between government statistics and what happens in reality. A woman is empowered when she makes decisions autonomously for themselves and others, but the Matua women still do not have that consciousness. I have tried to point that out in my book.
Jashodhara Sen: Thank you for your insights and transparency. Here’s my final question for you. We live in an age of mass media. It is safe to say that consumers gather information from social media platforms regardless of age. Many people are unaware of the Matua community in India, let alone in the global sphere. How do you think the Matua people are represented in India’s popular media [including social media]?
Kanu Haler: I don’t think that there’s enough representation. There could be two perspectives: one from the Matua community’s view and two from the people representing Matuas. See, our society is still under the control of the upper caste. The lower orders are systematically excluded from reaching their full potential. This could be a controversial opinion. The Matuas emerged and established themselves as a political organization, and due to their extraordinary organizational strength, they are compelling people to pay attention to them. Those media intermediaries through whom we get to see the Matua community did not have the goodwill to feature the Matuas, but they could not ignore the organization’s rise.
Historically, nobody knew about the cultural festivities organized by the Matuas, such as barunir mela [baruni folk fair]. Print and social media are much more active in covering and featuring the Matua voices. In my opinion, this is entirely a political tactic. The Matuas politically organized themselves to a certain extent so that the popular media couldn’t avoid them. If the media do not feature the Matuas, their TRP [target rating point] will drop, and they will lose business. They have to promote the Matua organization, especially before the election. It’s nothing but a profit and loss situation for the media outlets. The Matuas continue with their activism, political campaigns, and social advancement, as I mentioned before, and they are moving in the right direction. At this moment, they possess tremendous agency, and one cannot disregard their presence in Bengal’s politics.
Jashodhara Sen: Thank you so much for writing this book and for your time today. I learned a lot from our conversation.
Kanu Halder: My pleasure. Thank you.
Dr. Kanu Halder is a MAKAIAS Fellow at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Kolkata. Dr. Halder received his Ph.D. in Modern Indian History from Calcutta University and published his first book স্বাধীনতা উত্তর পর্বে বঙ্গীয় সমাজে মতুয়াদের রাজনৈতিক জাগরণ এবং উত্তরণ (১৯৪৭-২০১১) (Political Awakening and Ascension of the Matuas in Post-independence Bengali Society [1947-2011]) in 2021. Dr. Halder explains his positionality and relationship with his research in his own words: “As I researched, I found that I lacked all the qualities required to be a Matua. Matuas have a deep connection with spirituality. My father practices Matua devotionalism, although he does not believe he is an ideal Matua. I support the political and social movement of Matuas and find their current demands worthy of support” (আমি গবেষণা করতে গিয়ে দেখেছি মতুয়া হওয়ার জন্য যে সকল বৈশিষ্ঠ্য থাকতে হয় সে সকল গুণ আমার নেই। মতুয়াদের সাথে আধ্যাত্মিকতার একটা গভীর সম্পর্ক আছে। আমার বাবা এ পদ্ধতিটি প্রাকটিস করেন (যদিও আমার বাবা ও বিশ্বাস করেন না তিনি একজন আদর্শ মতুয়া)। আমি মতুয়াদের রাজনৈতিক এবং সামাজিক আন্দোলন কে সমর্থন করি এবং তাদের বর্তমান দাবী গুলিকে সমর্থন যোগ্য বলে মনে করি).
 The Matua community’s founder, Sri Harichand Thakur, was born in Orakandi, Gopalganj, in Bangladesh. Later, his son, Guruchand Thakur, took over the leadership role, and the Matua community began the Namasudra Movement (also known as the Matua Movement). The present nations India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Myanmar have a shared past as they were constructed inside colonial and imperial state structures. At the time of independence of India in 1947, the country was divided into Hindu majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan, and Muslim majority Pakistan comprised two separate territories: West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). With the division of the subcontinent, political discontent rose expeditiously, resulting in bitter relationships between these nations, and, finally, East Pakistan demanded its independence as the state of Bangladesh in 1971. For more background on the religio-political migration of the Matuas, see Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India: The Namasudras of Bengal, 1872-1974and Rajni Kothari’s Caste in Indian Politics.
 Bengal and its neighboring regions in the eastern part of India experienced a cultural emanation between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries. The Bhakti Movement in Bengal came out of that cultural and literary shift, which was led by Sri Chaitanya (1486-1533). Chaitanya’s preaching intersected with devotion and anti-discriminatory values and allowed all individuals, irrespective of their caste, class, sex, gender, and lineage, to practice absolute bhakti. Hence, Chaitanya Bhakti moved from the traditional Vaishnava orthodoxy to an unorthodox philosophy, engendering a sense of collectivism among the common people. See S. Krishnaswami Ajyangar’s The Early History of Vaishnavism in South India; Gautam Bhadra’s “Introduction”; Barbara A. Holdrege’s Bhakti and Embodiment; and Varuni Bhatia’s Unforgetting Chaitanyafor further insight into this movement.