Religion, Caste, and Displacement: The Matua Community
- Carola Erika LoreaCarola Erika LoreaAsia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
The struggle against untouchability, the religious history of Bengal, and the study of postcolonial displacement in South Asia can hardly be considered without paying attention to a roughly two-hundred-year-old low-caste religious and social movement called Matua.
The Matua community counts at present fifty million followers, according to its leaders. It is scattered across a large area and connected through a trans-local network of preachers, pilgrims, institutions, print, and religious commodities. Most Matua followers are found in West Bengal; in southern Bangladesh, where the movement emerged in the 19th century; and in provinces where refugees from East Bengal have resettled since the 1950s, especially Assam; Tripura; the Andaman Islands; Uttarakhand; and the Dandakaranya area at the border of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. Building upon an older Vaishnava devotional stream, the religious community initiated by Harichand Thakur (1812–1878) and consolidated by his son Guruchand Thakur (1847–1937) developed hand in hand with the Namashudra movement for the social upliftment of the lower castes. Rebelling against social marginalization and untouchability, and promising salvation through ecstatic singing and dancing, the Matua community triggered a massive mobilization in rural East Bengal. Partition and displacement have disrupted the unity of the Matua movement, now scattered on both sides of the hastily drawn Indo-Bangladesh border. The institutional side of the Matua community emerged as a powerful political subject, deeply entangled with refugee politics, borderland issues, and Hindu nationalism. In the 21st century, the Matua community represents a key element in electoral politics and a crucial factor for understanding the relation between religion, displacement, and caste, within and beyond Bengal.