Political temperatures in West Bengal are yet to cool even more than a month after Assembly election results were announced. Since then, the Central Bureau of Investigation has arrested senior ministers, the Union government has tried to recall – unsuccessfully – Mamata Banerjee’s right hand bureaucrat, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national vice president has defected to the Trinamool Congress.
To add to this frenetic activity is a controversial demand by some BJP leaders calling for a partition of West Bengal, with the creation of a new Union territory of North Bengal.
What is the demand?
The matter was first raised in any official capacity during a Jalpaiguri meeting of the BJP on June 13, reported Bartaman. National security was pushed as the main reason with arguments that infiltration from Nepal and Bangladesh was allegedly continuing unchecked. The meeting was attended virtually by BJP president JP Nadda.
Since then, some BJP leaders have come on the record, asking for the division. Member of Parliament from Alipurduar, John Barla, said the creation of a North Bengal Union territory is “imperative in response to people’s demand”.
“I made the demand as there have been movements here for a separate Kamtapur, a greater Cooch Behar and for Gorkhaland,” Barla told PTI, referring to the statehood movements in North Bengal, whether Gorkhaland for Nepali speakers or Kamtapur for the Rajbongshi ethnic group, or nostalgia for the erstwhile princely state of Cooch Behar. “My belief is that North Bengal should be detached and made into a separate Union Territory,” he said.
Along with Barla, another MP, Jayanta Roy, had brought up the demand in the meeting with JP Nadda, reported India Today. The BJP’s district vice-president of Jalpaiguri, Aloke Chakraborty, also backed the demand, telling the Times of India that the issue would be raised in the upcoming monsoon session of Parliament by the BJP.
While this is the first time there is a chorus asking for a separate North Bengal to be carved out, BJP MP Raju Bista had raised the demand of a separate Gorkhaland in Parliament in 2020 in the run up to the Assembly elections.
What is driving the demand?
While the BJP has argued that Bengal be partitioned due to security reasons, the actual driver might be more prosaic: the northern region is the BJP’s stronghold in the state.
In the state’s northernmost five districts – Cooch Behar, Alipurdaur, Jalpaiguri, Kalimpong and Darjeeling – the BJP won 78% of MLA seats. It is thus the only region of West Bengal that the BJP dominates. However, given that the population of the five districts is low, the BJP would struggle to win the state, unless it gains substantially in South Bengal. A separate state would thus allow the BJP to rule in North Bengal.
However, even apart from the BJP’s calculations, there are long simmering resentments in the region which feels slighted by Kolkata given the state government’s focus on the south. For example, in the new Trinamool cabinet, as many as half of the ministers are from the Greater Kolkata region while only a tenth are from the north.
Moreover, this is an old issue. During the Left era, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) would – like the ruling Trinamool today – struggle in north Bengal. The movements for statehood often turned violent. Those advocating for Kamtapur, in fact, even raised demands for secession from the Indian Union.
What will be the political impact?
At least in the short term, the demand helps the Trinamool Congress by further sharpening its Bengali nationalist positioning. “We will never allow Bengal to be divided again,” chief minister Mamata Banerjee said on Friday, referring to deep sentiments around the two earlier partitions of Bengal in 1905 and 1947. She also went on to compare the demand to the Modi government’s actions in Kashmir, where the state was divided with both halves converted to Union territories.
How important the Trinamool thinks this is can be gauged from the fact that multiple leaders have spoken out against the move with Banerjee herself addressing two press conferences on the issue recently.
As a reaction, the state president of the BJP, Dilip Ghosh has called this “lies spread by the chief minister”. “The BJP has said nothing officially on the decision of Bengal,” Ghosh said in a statement.
However, at the same time, the BJP has initiated no action against its own MPs and office bearers who have publicly raised the demand. This strategy is probably meant to help the party keep its support in the region, which appreciates a confrontational stance with respect to Kolkata.
Of course, while any actual division would mean the BJP gaining power in North Bengal, since union territories are ruled from New Delhi, the nationalist sentiment against a division of Bengal would also mean the party would permanently kill its chances of coming to power in the new “South Bengal” state. A poor bargain given that the south would be much larger and one which would only make sense from the BJP’s point of view if it thinks that its chances of winning an Assembly election in West Bengal are very dim.
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