Tuesday, Oct 04, 2022

The Koch-Rajbongshi Conundrum And The 2021 Elections

Home Minister Amit Shah’s meeting with the Cooch Behar Royal family underlines the influence of the divided community.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah with Ananta Roy Twitter: @AmitShah

On February 11, Union Home Minister Amit Shah called on Ananta Roy, a descendant of the Cooch Behar Royal family at his residence in Chirang district in Assam. Roy is the present chief of the Greater Cooch Behar Peoples' Association (GCBPA), representing the 19 lakh Koch-Rajbongshi community living in West Bengal and Assam. The visit assumes importance due to the impending elections in both states.

Ananta Roy claimed after the meeting that all their pending demands were discussed, and he expected that “good days are ahead for Koch-Rajbongshi community".

But this is easier said than done, considering the history of their struggle on various demands since long. Their demands swing from being recognized as “Kshatriyas” to being declared as Scheduled Tribe (ST). However, the proposal to confer ST status to them is deeply divisive among other North East tribes. Besides, the November 1, 2020 meeting of the Koch-Rajbongshi Sangram Samity (KRSS) at Doom Dooma had warned the BJP not to use this issue as an agenda in their 2021 Election manifesto.

Nearly 1 crore people speak the Rajbongshi/Rajbanshi language, according to the North Bengal Development Department which quotes the 2001 census. They are spread over West Bengal (Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Malda and Murshidabad), Assam, Bihar, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Also, there are different groups in the field other than GCBPA like Kamatapur Peoples’ Party, Greater Coochbehar Demanding Committee, All Koch Rajbonshi Students’ Union and Koch Rajbonsi Sanmilani who are pressing for a separate Kamatapur State comprising parts of North Bengal and West Assam. Since 1995 All Kamatapur Students’ Union has been organizing armed struggle through their terrorist wing “Kamatapur Liberation Organization” (KLO). South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) has catalogued KLO’s linkages with ULFA, Maoists and Naga outfits.

The Koch-Rajbongshi community has had an illustrious past. According to a long paper prepared in 2007 by the Centre for Koch Rajbongshi Studies & Development (CKRSD), they date back to the Epic period when their kingdom was known as “ Pragjyotishpur”.R.C. Majumdar says that in the 15th Century, the kingdom of Kamata by the “Khens” was existing at their capital “Kamatapur” along with the Ahom kingdom in “Kamarupa”. “Khens” ruled the kingdom for 75 years, till their last ruler Nilambar was overthrown by Husain Shah of Bengal in 1498.

However, CKRSD says that “Khiens” were none other than the Koch-Rajbongshi community. It says that Hindu Kayastha kings preferred to adopt the title of Muslim “Khan” or “Khiens” to denote their martial status, being deprived of proper place in the ‘Varna’ system in Hindu caste hierarchy. It says that Assamese saint scholar Sankar Deb had relatives named Bura Khan and Kketai Khan.

Another Koch- Rajbongshi studies paper of October 31, 2012 says that the Hindu Rajbanshi community is the only ‘Kshatriya Varna’ people in West Bengal, Assam and in the entire Northeast India.

In 1515, one Biswa Simha of the Koch tribe wrested the empire from the Muslims and established the kingdom with Koch Bihar (Cooch Bihar) as his capital. Its famous ruler was Nara Narayan, who however had to cede a portion of his kingdom to his nephew Raghu Dev. Thus, the original Koch kingdom was split as Koch Bihar in the West and Koch Hajo in the East. In 1639 both these states were overrun by the Muslims and Ahoms.

In 1773 the kingdom(s) came under the control of the East India Company under the “Subsidiary Alliance” and was known as “Cooch Behar” state. The last ruler before the state merged with independent India on 30 August 1949 was Jagadeependra Bahadur, who had served in the British army during the Second World War. V.P.Menon says the State became a Chief Commissioner’s province in that year. However, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, our first Home Minister, decided to merge it with West Bengal on 1 January 1950. This gradually created serious problems of identity and land rights.

Fortunately, the BJP has not made any such claim like Ananta Roy. The party appears to be chastened after the blowback of their premature claim on “the end of the Naga problem” after signing an “accord” with a Naga splinter faction NSCN(IM) on 3 August 2015, which was nothing but an MoU and which is still awaiting permanent solution even after 5 years.

(The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)