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Will Rajbanshis play kingmaker in West Bengal assembly polls?

The community that is influential in nearly half of the state’s assembly constituencies, has been fighting a long battle for recognition and respect

Deborah Grey 11 Jan 2021

RajbanshisRepresentation Image
 

Last week, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that the School Education Department would inspect 200 informal schools where the medium of instruction was Rajbanshi language, in a bid to pave the way for their induction into the formal education system.

The Rajbanshi language is spoken by over 1 crore people in Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Malda and Murshidabad as per official census records. The community has been demanding recognition for not only the Rajbanshi language, but also Kamatapuri, a variant of it. Banerjee also named the University of Cooch Behar after Rajbanshi leader Panchanan Burma.

Banerjee’s interest in the Rajbanshis perhaps stems from the fact that they have a sizable presence in North Bengal, and could affect electoral results in at least half of North Bengal’s 54 seats. 15 of these seats are reserved for Scheduled Caste (SC) candidates in constituencies with a high Rajbanshi population. The community is likely to have a huge impact in at least 10 more constituencies. West Bengal has a total 294 assembly seats and is all set to go to polls in a few months.


Who are Rajbanshis?

The Rajbanshis are an ethnic group found in North Bengal, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. They originally hail from what was once called Kamatapur. According to the Bengal Government’s North Bengal Development Egiye Bangla website, “Koch Rajbongshi is an ancient tribe originally from the ancient Koch kingdom. The Rajbongshi tribe is referred to as Koch Rajbongshi, or Rajbanshi, or Rajvanshi. The word ‘Rajbongshi’ literally means ‘royal community’. They have a rich cultural heritage and their own language.” It adds, “The Great Kamatapur was divided into Bangladesh, West Bengal, Assam, Nepal, Meghalaya, Tripura, Bihar and Bhutan, during the British rule and after the independence of India. A large number of Rajbongshi people now live in North Bengal, West Assam, Meghalaya, Bangladesh and Nepal.”

Egiye Bangla further informs, “The Kamata kingdom appeared in the western part of the older Kamarupa kingdom in the 13th century, after the fall of the Pala dynasty. The rise of the Kamata kingdom marked the end of the ancient period in the history of Assam and the beginning of the medieval period. The first rulers were the Khens, who were later displaced by Alauddin Hussain Shah, the Turko-Afghan ruler of Bengal. Though Hussain Shah developed extensive administrative structures, he could not maintain political control and the control went to the Koch dynasty. The Koch Rajbongshis called themselves Kamateshwars (the rulers of Kamata/Kamatapur Kingdom), but their influence and expansions were so extensive and far reaching that their kingdom is sometimes called the Koch kingdom. Under His Highness Maharaja Naranarayan the then King of Kamatapur, the Koch dynasty flourished to the highest extent and his brother Shukladhwaj Singha (famous as Chilarai) was one of the greatest heroes of that time and he prominently dominated the eastern part of Kamatapur which now known as Assam.”

 The question now is, will this community whose name translates into "descendants of royals", play kingmaker in the upcoming West Bengal state assembly elections?


Political aspirations of Rajbanshis

There are several socio-political groups that claim to represent Rajbanshi interests in the region. Most notable among these is the All Kamatapur Students’ Union (AKSU) that has been demanding a separate state of Kamatapur. It is active in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri and 1,000 of its members had taken out a rally in November last year asserting this very demand.

Another major organisation is the Kamtapur Progressive Party (KPP) led by Atul Roy. The KPP is now part of the Bhumiputra Aikya Mancha (BAM), a forum comprising various groups that represent interest of Rajbanshis in North Bengal, including another influential group the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association (GCPA) led by Banshibadhan Burman. Both Roy and Burman are at the helm of BAM, which appears to have now thrown its weight behind the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC), after growing disaffection with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The fact that their demand for a separate state has also not elicited a desired response from the BJP-led Central government, has added fuel to the fire, also pushing them to form a close bond with the Gorkha community that has been demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland. They Mancha has grown close to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM)’s Prabal Gurung faction that recently severed ties with the BJP.

Roy told The Telegraph, “The state government has done a lot for different communities of North Bengal but the Centre has ignored us. Whether it is the Kamtapuris (Rajbanshis) or the Gorkhas, the central government has not met any of our demands. That is why we have floated a common forum. We are with Mamata Banerjee.”

This shift in political allegiance also seems to stem from the unique position held by the community with respect to the citizenship issue. Rajbanshis want the National register of Citizens (NRC), along the lines of the exercise carried out in neighbouring Assam. However, just like their Assamese counterparts, Rajbanshis of Bengal are also opposed to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The BJP has been pushing for both CAA and a national NRC.

In fact, it was the main reason for the community’s announcement last January of wanting to contest all 54 seats in North Bengal. At a public meeting held at Rashmela Ground in Cooch Behar, Bangshibadhan Barman was quoted by The Telegraph as saying, “Whether it is Dada, Didi, Neta (leader) or Comrade, none has done any good for us. Now, time has come to teach these people a lesson. All those who are the sons of the soil of north Bengal will join hands and we will field candidates in all 54 Assembly seats of the region. We will ensure that none of the political parties get any seat.”

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Assam, the BJP-led state government had announced its decision to set up an autonomous council for Rajbanshis as far back as in September 2020. The Assam Assembly passed three bills to set up autonomous councils for Rajbanshi, Moran and Matak communities, stepping up the pressure on the TMC government in Bengal to take measures to show its commitment to the community. Banerjee has formed a Rajbanshi Development and Cultural Board, and also a Rajbanshi Bhasha Academy.

It is noteworthy that state assembly elections are scheduled to take place in both, Assam and West Bengal, this year. While BJP already controls the state government in Assam, it has never hidden its desire to form a government in the state of West Bengal where it has been making slow but steady political gains, albeit these are mainly due to votes split in three-cornered contests.

For example, in the 2019 General Elections, the BJP improved its tally in the state from a mere two seats in the previous elections to 18. In North Bengal, BJP is said to have benefitted from a division of “secular votes” thus registering wins in Cooch Behar, Alipuduars, Jalpaiguri and Raiganj, all Parliamentary constituencies with large Rajbanshi populations. The party would want to repeat the performance in the assembly elections, but TMC is unlikely to just roll over.


Controversy over death of Rajbanshi party worker of BJP

On December 7, 2020, during the BJP’s Uttarkanya Abhiyan protest in Siliguri, a man identified as party worker Ulen Roy of Rajganj, Jalpaiguri, was killed. BJP party workers allegedly clashed with the police during the rally, leading to use of water cannons and tear-gas by the police for crowd control. However, BJP alleges that their party worker was killed in police firing.

The first autopsy report revealed the cause of death as shotgun fire from close range and the West Bengal Police quickly asserted that they do not use shotguns.

 

 

The Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Jalpaiguri ordered a second autopsy on December 8, but was later rejected by the District and Sessions Court, prompting the family to move High Court.

Ulen Roy was a Rajbanshi, as were two others, Jogesh Roy of Alipurduars, and Amerdip Roy of Haldibari, who were injured in the incident, reported The Telegraph. As many as five BJP MPs and local party leaders have pledged support to Roy’s family in a purported bid to showcase concern for not only a fallen party worker, but one who hails from a politically influential community.

 

Related:

One dead as BJP rally turns violent in Bengal

WB post poll analysis: Saffron fades as one heads South along the Bangladesh border

WB bye elections: TMC knocks the wind out of BJP, wins all three constituencies

‘I’m your paharadar, nobody can displace you from Bengal’: Mamata on NRC

Will Rajbanshis play kingmaker in West Bengal assembly polls?

The community that is influential in nearly half of the state’s assembly constituencies, has been fighting a long battle for recognition and respect

RajbanshisRepresentation Image
 

Last week, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that the School Education Department would inspect 200 informal schools where the medium of instruction was Rajbanshi language, in a bid to pave the way for their induction into the formal education system.

The Rajbanshi language is spoken by over 1 crore people in Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Malda and Murshidabad as per official census records. The community has been demanding recognition for not only the Rajbanshi language, but also Kamatapuri, a variant of it. Banerjee also named the University of Cooch Behar after Rajbanshi leader Panchanan Burma.

Banerjee’s interest in the Rajbanshis perhaps stems from the fact that they have a sizable presence in North Bengal, and could affect electoral results in at least half of North Bengal’s 54 seats. 15 of these seats are reserved for Scheduled Caste (SC) candidates in constituencies with a high Rajbanshi population. The community is likely to have a huge impact in at least 10 more constituencies. West Bengal has a total 294 assembly seats and is all set to go to polls in a few months.


Who are Rajbanshis?

The Rajbanshis are an ethnic group found in North Bengal, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. They originally hail from what was once called Kamatapur. According to the Bengal Government’s North Bengal Development Egiye Bangla website, “Koch Rajbongshi is an ancient tribe originally from the ancient Koch kingdom. The Rajbongshi tribe is referred to as Koch Rajbongshi, or Rajbanshi, or Rajvanshi. The word ‘Rajbongshi’ literally means ‘royal community’. They have a rich cultural heritage and their own language.” It adds, “The Great Kamatapur was divided into Bangladesh, West Bengal, Assam, Nepal, Meghalaya, Tripura, Bihar and Bhutan, during the British rule and after the independence of India. A large number of Rajbongshi people now live in North Bengal, West Assam, Meghalaya, Bangladesh and Nepal.”

Egiye Bangla further informs, “The Kamata kingdom appeared in the western part of the older Kamarupa kingdom in the 13th century, after the fall of the Pala dynasty. The rise of the Kamata kingdom marked the end of the ancient period in the history of Assam and the beginning of the medieval period. The first rulers were the Khens, who were later displaced by Alauddin Hussain Shah, the Turko-Afghan ruler of Bengal. Though Hussain Shah developed extensive administrative structures, he could not maintain political control and the control went to the Koch dynasty. The Koch Rajbongshis called themselves Kamateshwars (the rulers of Kamata/Kamatapur Kingdom), but their influence and expansions were so extensive and far reaching that their kingdom is sometimes called the Koch kingdom. Under His Highness Maharaja Naranarayan the then King of Kamatapur, the Koch dynasty flourished to the highest extent and his brother Shukladhwaj Singha (famous as Chilarai) was one of the greatest heroes of that time and he prominently dominated the eastern part of Kamatapur which now known as Assam.”

 The question now is, will this community whose name translates into "descendants of royals", play kingmaker in the upcoming West Bengal state assembly elections?


Political aspirations of Rajbanshis

There are several socio-political groups that claim to represent Rajbanshi interests in the region. Most notable among these is the All Kamatapur Students’ Union (AKSU) that has been demanding a separate state of Kamatapur. It is active in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri and 1,000 of its members had taken out a rally in November last year asserting this very demand.

Another major organisation is the Kamtapur Progressive Party (KPP) led by Atul Roy. The KPP is now part of the Bhumiputra Aikya Mancha (BAM), a forum comprising various groups that represent interest of Rajbanshis in North Bengal, including another influential group the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association (GCPA) led by Banshibadhan Burman. Both Roy and Burman are at the helm of BAM, which appears to have now thrown its weight behind the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC), after growing disaffection with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The fact that their demand for a separate state has also not elicited a desired response from the BJP-led Central government, has added fuel to the fire, also pushing them to form a close bond with the Gorkha community that has been demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland. They Mancha has grown close to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM)’s Prabal Gurung faction that recently severed ties with the BJP.

Roy told The Telegraph, “The state government has done a lot for different communities of North Bengal but the Centre has ignored us. Whether it is the Kamtapuris (Rajbanshis) or the Gorkhas, the central government has not met any of our demands. That is why we have floated a common forum. We are with Mamata Banerjee.”

This shift in political allegiance also seems to stem from the unique position held by the community with respect to the citizenship issue. Rajbanshis want the National register of Citizens (NRC), along the lines of the exercise carried out in neighbouring Assam. However, just like their Assamese counterparts, Rajbanshis of Bengal are also opposed to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The BJP has been pushing for both CAA and a national NRC.

In fact, it was the main reason for the community’s announcement last January of wanting to contest all 54 seats in North Bengal. At a public meeting held at Rashmela Ground in Cooch Behar, Bangshibadhan Barman was quoted by The Telegraph as saying, “Whether it is Dada, Didi, Neta (leader) or Comrade, none has done any good for us. Now, time has come to teach these people a lesson. All those who are the sons of the soil of north Bengal will join hands and we will field candidates in all 54 Assembly seats of the region. We will ensure that none of the political parties get any seat.”

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Assam, the BJP-led state government had announced its decision to set up an autonomous council for Rajbanshis as far back as in September 2020. The Assam Assembly passed three bills to set up autonomous councils for Rajbanshi, Moran and Matak communities, stepping up the pressure on the TMC government in Bengal to take measures to show its commitment to the community. Banerjee has formed a Rajbanshi Development and Cultural Board, and also a Rajbanshi Bhasha Academy.

It is noteworthy that state assembly elections are scheduled to take place in both, Assam and West Bengal, this year. While BJP already controls the state government in Assam, it has never hidden its desire to form a government in the state of West Bengal where it has been making slow but steady political gains, albeit these are mainly due to votes split in three-cornered contests.

For example, in the 2019 General Elections, the BJP improved its tally in the state from a mere two seats in the previous elections to 18. In North Bengal, BJP is said to have benefitted from a division of “secular votes” thus registering wins in Cooch Behar, Alipuduars, Jalpaiguri and Raiganj, all Parliamentary constituencies with large Rajbanshi populations. The party would want to repeat the performance in the assembly elections, but TMC is unlikely to just roll over.


Controversy over death of Rajbanshi party worker of BJP

On December 7, 2020, during the BJP’s Uttarkanya Abhiyan protest in Siliguri, a man identified as party worker Ulen Roy of Rajganj, Jalpaiguri, was killed. BJP party workers allegedly clashed with the police during the rally, leading to use of water cannons and tear-gas by the police for crowd control. However, BJP alleges that their party worker was killed in police firing.

The first autopsy report revealed the cause of death as shotgun fire from close range and the West Bengal Police quickly asserted that they do not use shotguns.

 

 

The Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Jalpaiguri ordered a second autopsy on December 8, but was later rejected by the District and Sessions Court, prompting the family to move High Court.

Ulen Roy was a Rajbanshi, as were two others, Jogesh Roy of Alipurduars, and Amerdip Roy of Haldibari, who were injured in the incident, reported The Telegraph. As many as five BJP MPs and local party leaders have pledged support to Roy’s family in a purported bid to showcase concern for not only a fallen party worker, but one who hails from a politically influential community.

 

Related:

One dead as BJP rally turns violent in Bengal

WB post poll analysis: Saffron fades as one heads South along the Bangladesh border

WB bye elections: TMC knocks the wind out of BJP, wins all three constituencies

‘I’m your paharadar, nobody can displace you from Bengal’: Mamata on NRC

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