Cooch Behar is West Bengal’s eastern-most district, located at the far end of the state’s hook-shaped clasp of Bangladesh. Cool and lush green – even in April – the district is geographically part of the North East, although its inclusion in West Bengal doesn’t predispose most Indians to think of it that way. The district capital is only 300 kilometres from Guwahati – less than half the distance from Kolkata.

Here, far away from the heartland of Bengal, a statehood agitation is brewing, pushed by the region’s native population, the Koch Rajbanshi people. The movement has long been suppressed by Kolkata – often violently – and has even been accused of violence itself. But the 2016 West Bengal Assembly election has breathed some fresh air into its sails, with the Bharatiya Janata Party allying with the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association, a party whose principal demand is the creation of a state for the Rajbanshi people.

Rail roko

Cooch Behar rarely enters newsrooms in Delhi or even, for that matter, Kolkata. The Rail Roko in February 2015, though, was an exception. Led by Bangshi Badan Barman from the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association, the protest demanded a Cooch Behar state, carved out of West Bengal, Assam and – in some of the most imaginative versions – even Rangpur district in northern Bangladesh as a home for the Koch Rajbanshi people of the area. The name "Cooch Behar" comes from a princely state that acceded to India after Independence and was absorbed into West Bengal in 1949 to become the Cooch Behar district.

The Koch Rajbanshi are legally recognised as a scheduled caste in West Bengal and as a scheduled tribe in Assam. There is also a linguistic angle: while taken to officially be a dialect of Bengali, the Rajbanshi tongue, many activists claim, is a separate language in its own right. The royal family of Cooch Behar were ethnically Koch Rajbanshis.

Statehood demand

The Koch Rajbanshi statehood demand is properly around two decades old. In this time, it has taken many political forms. Parties such as the Kamtapur People's Party (“Kamtapur” is an alternate name for the Rajbanshi homeland adopted by the more extreme elements, some of which even demand secession from India) and the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association have fought elections over this and led mass movements, often with little electoral support, given the heavy hand of the West Bengal government in crushing their agitations. A section of Rajbanshis have even picked up the gun in the form of the Kamptapur Liberation Organisation, an body supported by the United Liberation Front of Assam – a movement that is close to dead now.

While the English and Bengali press were mostly critical of the February 2015 agitation, blaming the four-day train stoppage for three passenger deaths and attacks on the police, in his village Jarabari, leader of the rail roko Bangshi Badan Barman has a different picture to paint. “We were completely peaceful and it was the police that attacked us and charged us with false cases,” he complained. “In Harayana, the Jats rioted for weeks, and the police didn’t do anything and here even a peaceful protest is attacked. All we wanted was to have a dialogue about someone in the state administration over our Cooch Behar demand. Why assault and arrest us?”

The New Cooch Behar station that was the site of the rail roko.
The New Cooch Behar station that was the site of the rail roko.

BJP support

While the police reaction might differ, like the Jat reservation demands, the Bharatiya Janata Party seems to be sympathetic to Rajbanshi statehood. The BJP has allied with sections of the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association to fight the 2016 West Bengal Assembly elections. As a minnow, unable to break into the Bengali mainland, the BJP is trying to chip away at the state’s edges, supporting ethnic movements with grouses against Kolkata. The largest of these is the Gorkhaland movement in Darjeeling and the BJP is trying to replicate that model with the Rajbanshi people.

On April 7, Narendra Modi’s rally in Siliguri town was supported by a faction of the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association led by Ananta Rai (seperate from the Bangshi Badan Barman GCPA faction), who was responsible for bringing in the crowds. Siliguri is located in Darjeeling district but its countryside is heavily Rajbanshi dominated, even if urban centres have a large number of Bengalis. The rally also saw support from the Namasudra Bikash Party, representing the Namasudra Dalit caste, immigrants from Bangladesh, and the Adivasi Bikash Parishad led by John Barlow. The area has large number of Adivasis working in the tea gardens. In north Bengal, clearly, the BJP’s strategy is to string together a rainbow of marginalised ethnicities. In has even seen some success with this, since Gorkha support has meant that the BJP has held the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat since 2009 – one of its two seats from West Bengal in the current Lok Sabha.

History of the movement

Unlike Gorkhaland, however, the movement for a state for the Rajbanshi people is quite new and therefore electorally not as strong. The first party to espouse the cause of a separate state was the Kamtapur People’s Party, founded in 1996 – around the same time as the militant Kamtapur Liberation Organisation, accused of having links with ULFA. The KPP allied with the Trinamool Congress in the 2001 Assembly elections, even as the Left Front swept Cooch Behar, winning every seat in the district. Already greatly weakened by police action, the militant KLO was incapacitated by raids on its camps by the Bhutanese army in 2003

In 2005, the Greater Cooch Behar Peoples Association, which, like the KPP, espouses statehood, clashed with the police in Cooch Behar town. The incident left five people dead, including two police constables and an additional superintendent of police. GCPA supremo Bangshi Badan Barman was jailed for a decade, released by the Trinamool government only in 2015, in a move widely seen as an attempt to win Rajbanshi votes. In the same vein, the Trinamool government also set up a Rajbanshi Bhasha Academy in 2012, the first official recognition of the Rajbanshi language.

View from Kolkata and Delhi

Of course, as West Bengal’s ruling party, the Trinamool is dead against a separate state – the partitioning of West Bengal is obviously an untouchable issue for any mainstream Bengali party. This hostility to a Cooch Behar state from mainland West Bengal means that the BJP is treading a thin line in soliciting Rajbanshi votes. Anil Malakar, Cooch Behar district president of the BJP ties himself up in knots trying to explain his party's position. “There is no question of having a separate Cooch Behar state,” said Malakar, directly contradicting the raison d’être of its ally, the Ananta Rai faction of the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association. But then he added, “We could look at a separate state for north Bengal taking into account the Gorkhas, the Adivasis and the Rajbanshis." A Gorkha-Adivasi-Rajbanshi state is so fanciful that this amounts to promising nothing.

Given the strength of the Left-Congress alliance as well as the Trinamool in the area, while the BJP might not be able to convert its rainbow collation into seats in Cooch Behar, its support for parties like the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association has raised fears of the statehood agitation gaining momentum in the area – and, with it, violence around the issue. Debabrata Chaki, author and local historian from Cooch Behar town is critical of the politics of Rajbanshi identify. “This will create unrest,” he declaimed angrily. “The BJP is exciting separatist elements and wants to divide West Bengal.”

As part of the Bengali elite of the area, Chaki’s fears mirror those from his community in Cooch Behar, even as the Rajbanshi community looks to use the statehood demand to press for more attention from Kolkata and Delhi at the one time it knows they'll listen – elections.