Cooch Behar revives an old demand in West Bengal

A land of their own: As polls approach, Cooch Behar revives an old demand in West Bengal

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It eventually took police action, including tear gas shells against stone throwing mobs, to clear the railway tracks in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district on Tuesday, ending the four day blockade. But that will not see the end of the demand for a separate homeland for the people of Greater Cooch Behar.

The Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association, or GCPA, was forced to call off its agitation that clogged the tracks and held up trains from Bihar, Assam and North Bengal but not before two rail passengers died and over 16 were injured in a short but furious clash with the police.

Separatist demands in North Bengal are not new – Gorkhaland is the best known, because it succeeded in carving out of West Bengal an autonomous territory covering Darjeeling-Kalimpong-Kurseong.

Greater Cooch Behar, for the agitators led by Bangshi Badan Barman, is spread over three districts of West Bengal – Cooch Behar, North and South Dinajpur – and, two districts – Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon – in neighbouring Assam.

The demand for special status for it as a tribal majority area or Union Territory status has been around since 1947, when it was shorn of its special status as a Union Territory under the Articles of Accession.

The movement cannot be described as anti-national, because it is not a demand for separate nationhood unlike the one in Kashmiris or Manipur or even Nagaland.

Cooch Behar’s importance lies in its location – it is the vulnerable chicken’s neck connecting the rest of India to North Bengal and Assam and the rest of the North East by rail and road.

As a place of competing demands for separate homelands, North Bengal and the North Bank of Assam have much in common. Burgeoning aspirations of tribal communities in inaccessible or interior places have bred a new and violent identity politics.

Why now?

With elections likely to be announced soon in West Bengal, the GCPA timed its agitation to attract maximum attention and gain political mileage. The calculation seems to have been to make itself indispensable as a partner to any one of the competing political parties. The Trinamool Congress is desperate to get a foothold in North Bengal, whereas the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have, separately, some presence and some strength.

If the much awaited seat adjustment between the Congress and the Left works out, Cooch Behar is one district where dividing up the constituencies will prove a complicated task, because the Trinamool Congress has managed to lure the Member of Legislative Assembly of Dinhata, once in the Forward Bloc and so a Left Front partner, over to its side.

In this volatile competition for votes, GCPA evidently saw an opportunity to raise its permanent demand for special status in order to have some bargaining rights, by demonstrating its capacity to control a section of crucial tribal votes. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s generous distribution of gifts to the various tribal identity groups in the Darjeeling-Dooars region would of course have been another contributing factor.

Banerjee’s success in dividing and separating the different tribal communities from the dominant Gorkhas with a land of their own by setting up Lepcha, Limbu and Tamang councils and promising the Dooars Adivasis special concessions was yet another trigger for the GCPA reviving its demands for separation from West Bengal at this moment.

The call was guaranteed to get attention, when the idea of India is being debated in the context of the Azadi slogans raised by students that have marked them as anti-national in the eyes of the Narendra Modi government and the Delhi police.