In West Bengal, this summer, the heat is relentless like an eternal furnace, and the ‘mahanagar’ of Kolkata is burning at maximum 44 degree centigrade. This is unlike Bengal, an unprecedented phenomenon.

The state has rarely witnessed such intense and relentless heat, and that too, when it is time for the arrival of ‘kaalboishaki’. This is when the atmospherics are darkened by romantic layers of dark clouds, a soft and erratic drizzle, thunder and lightning, in what is the magnificent theatre of nature.

Everything becomes cool and moist, and humans, animals, birds, trees and plants are all so happy.

‘Shonar Bangla’ too is burning – despite its expanses of green paddy fields, a ‘pukur’ (pond) every few minutes, coconut and banana trees swinging with the wind, flanked by so many rivers, plus big rivers Hooghly and Ganga with their distant shores, where all the rivers of India end their journey.

Even the Bay of Bengal, and the backwaters of Sunderbans with the majestic Royal Bengal Tigers camouflaged in its yellow trees and dense outgrowth of mangroves, are not able to cool the atmosphere, so intense is the heat. And on top of it, in the season of low turn-outs all over India, elections are scheduled here in seven, long, exhausting phases!

At Bongaon in district North 24 Parganas, near the border of Bangladesh, the beautiful, green landscape too is sweltering. In this post-harvest season, peasants are quickly withdrawing back to their humble homes as the sun rises in the noon.

One stop before Bongaon is the obscure little railway station with only two platforms called the ‘Bhibuti Bhushan Halt’. It is the native place of great Bengali writer, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay, who, among other classics, wrote the first, famous trilogy which was turned into world-class, epical, black and white cinema by Satyajit Ray – ‘Pather Panchali, Aparajito’ and ‘The World of Apu’.

This is Matua land. Their headquarters is in Thakurnagar, where they have temples of their presiding deities who were originally committed social reformers in Bangladesh and India.

The new breed in the family tree has mostly turned politicians with no ideological fix. This is also the land dominated by refugees who migrated first after the Partition of India and Bengal in 1947, from across the border.

Since then, the Jessore Road nearby, has seen waves of migrations – mostly of Matuas, in1971, during and after the liberation war of Bangladesh, in the 1980s and 1990s, and later as well.

Elections are still days away, on May 20, and there is no palpable wave in the air, though Thakurnagar and its adjoining areas are a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stronghold. Shantanu Thakur and Subrata Thakur, both belong to the first family of social reformers, are the BJP MP and MLA from the area. Both of them are in the good books of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah.

The BJP government in Delhi suddenly implemented the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), soon after the massive, multi-crore electoral bonds scam made the news. The CAA card flopped everywhere except in the Matua land! Why? It even flopped badly in the rest of Bengal and Assam where the people are opposed to both CAA and National Register of Citizens (NRC),

In Bengal the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government opposes both NRC and the CAA. The state and its people have no animosity whatsoever to the refugees or migrants from across the border who have come and settled down in Bengal since 1947.

They share the same inherited landscape, language, food and cuisine, folk narratives, customs and rituals, festivals and celebrations, dress code, literature, music, cinema, art and aesthetics. More so, they share a shared, collective history, because Bengal was partitioned unjustly by the British in 1905, and it was opposed vehemently at that time.

The angst and nostalgia for an ‘United Bengal’ has been expressed in poetry, songs, literature and cinema. Filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak had depicted a dead-end railway track to show the tragedy of an ‘artificial’ border.

The folk songs of the boat-people and fishing communities, who live near the rivers flowing across the border, are sung with deep passion by ordinary folks in both the countries. Musician Salil Chaudhury had adapted these folk songs into some of the most popular Bengali and Hindi songs as a composer.

The national anthem of India and Bangladesh has been written by the same author: Rabindranath Tagore, and ‘Rabindra Sangeet’, as much as the beautiful songs of Kazi Nazrul Islam, continue to be loved and cherished across the border.

That is why, the slogan of ‘infiltrators’ has just not jelled in Bengal. Migrants from Bangladesh feel largely ‘at home’ on this side of the border. So what is it that makes the Matuas so restless and unhappy about their identities?

Therefore, why is a crisis of citizenship still stalking them, a phenomenon which the BJP is so deft in exploiting? Indeed, if they are not part of the Hindu pantheon as an oppressed community and caste, and when they don’t worship Hindu Gods, why are most of them so desperately clinging on to the Hindutva party?

The reason is political and social, born out of the compulsions of migration. Locals disclose that many of them don’t have valid documents of citizenship, and some of these documents are fake or faulty. Most of them have their original homeland and birth certificates etc., documenting their Bangladeshi origins, including those who arrived much after the 1971 war.

Despite the fact that all political parties earlier, including the Left and the All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC or TMC), have welcomed them wholeheartedly, and told them unconditionally that they have no fear whatsoever, a large number of them have the uncanny fear that they can be “deported if they are found out”.

That is how they fell into the CAA trap, and that is why there were jubilant celebrations when the BJP government implemented the CAA recently.

However, there was an uncanny catch soon after, and they suddenly realised, much to their horror, that they are indeed in a Catch-22 rat-trap. To apply, or not to apply – as the cliché goes.

This is because a rumour soon gained ground that to apply for the CAA, they will have to show their original certificates, including geographical locations of their birth-places. If that be the clause, then they were in a double-trap – if they apply they might be deported, and if they don’t, they are still doomed.

The TMC did not lose a moment to realise this depressing dilemma stalking the Matuas. They made an organised campaign that the CAA is basically a conspiracy to deny them citizenship, and all those who apply will one day, sooner or later, face deportation from India.

This campaign was so effective that the local BJP leadership was in a quandary. They made desperate claims that they had been assured by the Centre that this clause would be removed. And, yet, a cloud of confusion stalks the divided and confused Matuas, and despite their new-found loyalty to the BJP, many of them don’t know which way to vote!

According to a local journalist based in Bongaon (who wished to remain anonymous): “A government employee might lose his job if it is found out that he came to India after the 1980s. So, obviously, he is afraid to apply, though he has an Aadhaar card.

“Others have been plain opportunistic. They will swing to any party which helps them in staying legitimately in Bengal, and in this territory, which is their stronghold. So, they are in a dilemma – whom to choose, the TMC here, or the BJP, out there in far-away Delhi!”

The Matuas were mostly marginalised, landless farmers and sharecroppers in East and West Bengal. They were oppressed Dalits in the British era and after, also called Namashudras.

It is a complex term, because some of them claim not to be Dalits as well. They have titles like Biswas, Mondol, Shikdar, Sarkar and Roy. Some of them got land during the Left regime.

They are extremely hardworking and their skills as agriculturalists are famous all over Bengal. They are also skilled crafts-persons; they do wood-work, are florists and vegetable-growers.

Most significantly, they have absorbed a completely different genre of social reforms – in contrast to the rest of East and West Bengal. Indeed, their ‘religion’ is now outside the Hindu system of worship – and their social reformers have been turned into Gods, who now reside in their temples in Thakurnagar.

Ironically, it is not the BJP, but Mamata Banerjee who built sprawling spaces, water-tanks, clean streets, hostels and a railway station near their temples. Her welfare schemes have benefitted all the Matuas, across the divide.

A BJP supporter had told this reporter during the Assembly polls in 2021 that his daughter, and other girls in his family, all have cycles, given by the TMC government. Most of the girls in the community have got free education, under the successful Kanyashree scheme for girls.

Thakurnagar is the epicentre of the 30 million strong Matua community. It is a massive vote-bank with around 15 million voters, some of them educated.

The sacred citadel of the presiding deities is located here in the revered Thakurbari near the huge water tank and railway station. This is where their annual festival happens in the month of April – with a heady atmosphere dancing and singing on the streets, reminiscent of the dancing and singing by Chaitanya and his followers.

They deny that they are followers of Chaitanya or the Bhakti movement. Their songs and lyrics are indeed indigenous and different, though the influence of Chaitanya, and the Vaishnavite and Bhakti movement, is clearly visible.

Their original sacred space is located at Orakandi in district Gopalganj Bangladesh. This is the main temple and homeland of the founder of the Matua Mahasangh, Harichand Thakur. The Mahasangh is now divided between the TMC and BJP.

Orakandi is the original spot of the social reforms and enlightenment movement of the Namashudras in the early 19th Century, led by Harichand Thakur, whose parents were devout Vaishnavites. His wife was Shantimata, who is given a dignified pride of place in the temples, and is equally revered.

Indeed, the women in this lineage of social reformers too played a crucial role in the liberation of the oppressed castes and communities, both men and women, from the exploitative shackles of upper caste landlordism and the suffocation of untouchability, and orthodox Hindu rituals.

Harichand and Shantimata became iconic because they denied the ossified rituals of Brahmanism, and preached a simple doctrine: that of love for mankind and all earthly beings, peace, harmony and enlightenment, and an end to all forms of social discrimination. Devotion to god, compassion and passion for humanity, and a simple recital of ‘Haribol’ would be enough to attain salvation, he said.

His preachings were thereby opposed by the ‘upper castes’, and even the Vaishnavites. However, the Daltis and other ‘lower castes’, like the maalis and chamars, they all flocked to him, even bestowing on him divine and magical powers.

He was followed by his son, Guruchand Thukur, and Pramatha Ranjan Thakur (P. R. Thakur), a barrister, who were visionaries and highly respected in the community. P. R. Thakur established Thakurbari as the main centre for the Matuas.

He was also a member of the West Bengal assembly as a Congress candidate. He won the elections in 1962, from what was a scheduled caste reserved seat.

Significantly, on March 27, 2021, in an unprecedented move to shift the Matua vote bank, the PM visited Orankandi in Bangladesh, and paid obeisance at the original temple.

Mamata Banerjee then objected and said that this was clearly a violation of the model code of conduct. The Election Commission refused to respond, or act.

In early March this year, there were violent clashes in Thakurnagar. Supporters of BJP MP Shantanu Thakur clashed with the supporters of former TMC MP Mamata Bala Thakur.

The point of contention was the traditional property owned by Binapani Devi, the family matriarch, popularly called ‘Boroma’. She was an ardent ally of Mamata Banerjee. Shantanu is the grandson of Binapani Devi, while Mamata Bala Thakur is her daughter-in-law.

Significantly, as a local journalist said, there has been a unique post-Partition phenomena in Bongaon and its neighbourhood. “We live in a house in the village where my grandfather came and took shelter. It originally belonged to a Muslim family before Partition.

“They gave us the house and their land. In return, we gave them our land and house in Bangladesh, which we were compelled to leave. This, indeed, is a common phenomenon in this secular countryside.”

Others informed that there is no Hindu-Muslim divide here, as is the pattern in the rest of Bengal. There is, however, a simmering unhappiness with the corruption cases in which some TMC luminaries are involved.

In the Bagda area, and its neighbourhood, for instance, almost 15 percent of the population are school teachers or non-teaching functionaries in the primary school education system. The recent Kolkata High Court judgement cancelling the appointment of over 25,000 such staff due to corruption cases would impact them adversely.

As of now, they too are in a dilemma as to whom to vote – because Mamata Banerjee has squarely taken up their cause, rejected the high court judgement, and has approached the Supreme Court.

That is, with the CAA becoming a bitter tablet which they are unable to swallow despite their best wishes, and their loyalty divided between the BJP and the TMC, a wave of uncertainty moves in this green landscape of the countryside, and the laid-back markets of small towns in the area.

The crowded local trains, to and from Kolkata, where vendors sell all kinds of knick-knacks, including masala peanuts with a green chilly for Rs 5, are abuzz with political gossip.

The BJP retains the edge in the land of the Matuas, undoubtedly, but no one is sure which way the wind will blow on the hot summer morning of May 20, the polling day.