Amit Shah meets Koch Rajbongshi leader ahead of Assam, West Bengal polls: Here's why it's important
Their political importance can be gauged from the fact that not only did Amit Shah made a stop at the residence of the community's leader, but Assam's Budget presentation was deferred because the state's finance minister was to accompany Shah
The upcoming Assembly elections in states of West Bengal and Assam have once again brought to the fore the long-standing issues of the ethnic communities. Among these, the focus seems to be primarily on the Koch community. The politically aware group, with sizeable numbers and well-defined demands, inhabit parts of Assam and Bengal.
Their political importance can be gauged from the fact that not only did Union Home Minister Amit Shah made a pit stop at the residence of the community's leader, but the Budget presentation in Assam Assembly was deferred because the state's finance minister was supposed to accompany Shah.
Numerically, the community holds importance in more than 15 seats in north Bengal and several seats in the lower region of Assam. According to The Indian Express, they are estimated to number over 33 lakh in West Bengal and the community asserts it has a population of 70 lakh in Assam.
Who are the Koch Rajbongshis?
Koch Rajbongshi is an ethnic tribe originally from the ancient Koch kingdom. The Rajbongshi tribe is referred to as Koch Rajbongshi, Rajbanshi, or Rajvanshi. The word "Rajbongshi" literally means "royal community".
Their ancestral homeland, the Great Kamatapur was divided into Bangladesh, West Bengal, Assam, Nepal, Meghalaya, Tripura, Bihar and Bhutan, during the British rule and after the Independence. A large number of Rajbongshis now live in north Bengal and West Assam, apart from some limited presence in Meghalaya, Bangladesh and Nepal.
The community is also most politically awakened in the two Eastern states, where a large number of political and non-political organisations are already in place. Most prominent among them are Kamatapur People's Party, Greater Coochbehar Demanding Committee, All Koch Rajbonshi Students Union and Koch Rajbonshi Sanmilani.
This mobilisation was the result of the diminishing social status of this historically affluent class in face of migration of upper-caste Hindus into their traditional habitats. Rajbongshis were traditionally land-owners and the dominant community in north Bengal who took pride in their ruling-class status.
However, things began to change for them drastically, both in Assam and Bengal in the years after India's Independence.
According to a paper authored by Paresh Bora for the Sikkim University, Rajbongshi's were at the unfavourable end of several land reforms undertaken by the subsequent Bengal governments (including abolition of Zamindari‘ system in 1953, distribution of land to the landless 1967, Operation Barga land reforms in 1977). The paper also quotes early literature from upper-caste Bengali Hindus at the time that shows Rajbongshi's were considered socially inferior due to their limited exposure to education. Meanwhile, the immigrant Hindus already exhibited strong sense of a cultural identity and knowledge of advanced agricultural practices. They treated Rajbongshis as antyaj's (inferiors).
"With the gradual settlement of the upper caste Hindu gentry in what were traditionally the Rajbanshi dominated areas of north Bengal, the existing balance in local power structure had changed. The immigrant upper caste gentry in course of time become the most dominant group in the local society, economy, and politics," the paper states.
An article in The Times of India, published before 2016 West Bengal elections states that according to 1971 figures, 80 percent of the north Bengal population were Rajbongshis. Now it has come down to a mere 30 percent.
Similarly in Assam, identity consciousness emerged among many small ethnic groups due to the discriminatory attitude of the Hindu Assamese groups. Rajbongshis further felt alienated in Assam after they were caught in crossfires of ethnic clashes between Muslims and Bodo community in Assam that started in the 90s and raged on till early 2000s. Rajbongshis, who primarily occupied mixed villages and maintained a distinct ethnic and linguistic culture from both Muslims and Bodos were the soft target for both sides, their homes in the path of rampaging mobs.
The Koch Rajbanshis are now constitutionally known as Scheduled Castes in Cooch Behar (North Bengal), Scheduled Tribes in some parts of Maghalaya, Most Other Backward Class (MOBC) in Gaolpara district of Assam, Other Backward Class (OBC) in other district of Assam and caste Hindu in Karbi-Aanglong district of Assam.
What are the their key demands?
According to the north Bengal government portal, their main demand, first articulated in the early 1990s, is the creation of Kamtapur, a separate state that includes their home districts. They also want their native language to be included in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution.
In Assam, they are upset over non-inclusion in the Bodoland Territorial Council even though they consider themselves important stakeholders as Rajbongshi population is present in sizeable numbers in the Bodoland Territorial Administrative Districts (BTAD) areas.
The Koch Rajbongshi community has also been demanding the Scheduled Tribe status in the state of Assam.
In West Bengal, they largely used to support the Left Front during its 34-year rule. When the Trinamool Congress came to power in 2011, many supported the new ruling party. But the Rajbongshis have supported the BJP in the 2014 general elections after the party promised to take a sympathetic view of their demand to recognise the Kamatpuri language.
The BJP again cornered an impressive vote share of 28 percent in the 2016 bypolls in Cooch Behar (approximately 150,000 new voters), according to India Today.
In Assam, the Koch Rajbongshi National Convention (KRNC) had offered their support the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the UPPL (United People's Party Liberal) in the BTC (Bodoland Territorial Council) polls held in December 2020.
This time around Ananta Rai, the chief of GCPA in Assam's Chirang district has thrown his weight behind the BJP, possibly after assurance from Shah that the community's long-standing demand of being given the Scheduled Tribes status will be fulfilled.
Rai, who calls himself a descendant of the Coochbehar royal family in Bengal, told media persons that the Union Home Minister held talks with him on the long-pending demands of his community.
Shah, who had arrived in Guwahati on Wednesday night, was accompanied by BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma and Assam BJP president Ranjeet Dass during his visit to Rai's residence at Chatipur.
"All our pending demands were discussed at the meeting, and now I can only say that good days are ahead for the Koch-Rajbongshi community," Rai said.
Rai also clarified that "his outfit, which has the support of 18.50 lakh members, is already a part of the NDA", when enquired if an alliance with the BJP was in the offing, ahead of the assembly polls in Assam and Bengal. Assembly elections in Bengal and Assam are likely to be held in April-May.
With inputs from PTI
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