Kolkata: The recent surge in the demand for separate statehood for North Bengal, backed by Bharatiya Janata Party legislators in the state, is not being taken lightly by political experts in Bengal given the record of past turmoil in the region with demands for Kamtapuri, Gorkhaland and Greater Cooch Behar.
The present demand of statehood for North Bengal is being pushed by prominent BJP MP John Barla. Soon after raising the demand for a separate union territory or state of North Bengal, Barla was made into a Union cabinet minister. Along with him, BJP MP from Cooch Behar, Nishith Pramanik, a Rajbanshi leader was also given a cabinet position.
Ahead of the Assembly elections, Home Minister Amit Shah had explicitly focused on wooing the Koch Rajbanshis, an influential community across assembly constituencies in North Bengal. Shah even met Ananta Rai, a self-styled exiled ‘Maharaja’ of Cooch Behar, who has been living in Assam since last year to evade arrest by West Bengal police. Rai heads a faction of the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association (GCPA), which has led violent movements in the past. Following the meeting, Shah held public rallies in Cooch Behar where he praised the heroics of the erstwhile princely state of Cooch Behar and its famous army called Narayani Sena. He even promised that a paramilitary battalion would be named after Narayani Sena.
Shah’s efforts seemed to have borne fruit as the BJP bagged 30 of the 54 seats in the eight North Bengal districts even though the Trinamool Congress won 213 of the state’s 294 seats. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had won seven of the eight seats in North Bengal where its popularity has steadily increased. This political patronage to win in the elections has emboldened the separate-state supporters in the region, and holds ominous portents for the future.
History of Separatism
The earlier demands for separate statehood had died down over time as administrative measures were sufficient to deal with groups whose basic plea rested on the fact that the princely Cooch Behar state has acceded to India under instrument of accessions and was a part of the 660 princely state in the country, which acceded later after Independence on August15, 1947.
The Kamtapur Liberation Organization (KLO), the banned Rajbongshi outfit, was formed in the late 90s with the aim to create the separate nation of Kamtapur carved out of parts of West Bengal and Assam. Led by Jiban Singha, who still lives in Myanmar, and in association with Assamese militant group ULFA, KLO tried to disturb peace along the Bengal-Assam border in North Bengal. Since 2000-2002, murders, extortions and abductions had been common in the area. The violent movement culminated on August 17, 2002, when assailants gunned down five CPI(M) workers after entering their party office in Dhupguri.
However, the KLO, now banned, has become quite dormant. Even Atul Roy, the leader of KLO’s political wing Kamtapur Peoples Party, recently died due to Covid-19. In his later days, he had become reposed about the demands of a separate nation or a state in North Bengal.
Meanwhile, to woo these ethnic communities, the Mamata Banerjee Government had started two different Boards for Kamtapuri and Rajbanshi dialects (giving them recognition as separate language ) as the Pundits of the dialect, such as, Aghor Barma, had demanded in the past. The government also passed a bill in 2018 to make these two dialects into official languages. However, giving them accreditation as separate languages is not scientific, according to internationally acclaimed linguistics expert Prof. Pabitra Sarkar.
Internationally acclaimed linguist Prof Pabitra Sarkar while talking to Newsclick detailed how he had taken part in a Sahitya Sammelan (Literary Meet) on Rajbanshi language, which aimed at starting separate grammar for the language. Sarkar said he had openly professed the scientific evaluation of Rajbanshoi as dialect of Bengali, which is mixed with Ahomiya language due to its geographical proximity to Assam.
He highlighted that the present demand for separate statehood is a ploy to gain political power and for that, Rajbanshi has been given the status of a separate language. In India, the most accepted notion is the formation of a state on the basis of language and hence, they were trying to prove Rajbanshi as a separate language “to fool everybody,” Sarkar said. “If this continues, then there will be thousands of states in the country and furthermore, there is no scientific basis for it being a separate language,” he added.
North Bengal expert and cultural personality Dr Sukhbilas Barma, who had been a prominent IAS officer turned Finance Commission Chairman turned former MLA of Jalpaiguri, speaking to Newsclick refuted Rajbanshi as a separate language and described it as the spoken version of Bengali in the Northern districts of the state .
“Those who had earlier professed for this (separate state) have now all joined the ruling Trinamool Congress and their demands have subsided. Now, those making the demands for a separate state for North Bengal are BJP MPs like John Barlo and Nisith Pramanik and this demand, too, will die a natural death,” Barman said with confidence .
Another North Bengal expert Jeta Sankryatan, former Professor of North Bengal University and member of state planning board, opposed the statehood demands saying that people know there was lack of parallel development in North Bengal and this cannot be solved by separation; it’s only a political demand. “In West Bengal there are three distinct regions -- Paschimanchal , Gangetic Plain and North Bengal. Kolkata and the nearby regions have attracted maximum investment due to historical and geographical considerations,” he said. If there can be growth poles in Alipurduar in the future, then this region too will develop, he said, adding that inequality in development exists in all the states no matter how advanced it is. In Maharashtra, there is a difference in development between eastern and western area, he said giving an example.
In North Bengal, a lot of land is taken by private tea gardens and not forest department and there are plethora of ethnic tribes living in the gardens. ”What we need is regional integration instead of separation. Not political solutions but development solutions that are needed for North Bengal,” he commented .
When asked whether the demand for separate statehood are administrative problems only, former Director Generals of Police, Goutam Mohan Chakraborty and Raj Kanojia remained tight-lipped on the topic, saying that the recent development has taken place after their service period was over.
Retired school teacher and an activist with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, Nirupam Dutta told that North Bengal migrant bengali people who arrived after partition of the state in 1947 known as Bhatia ‘s comprises of 48% of the population while 51% are from schedule castes from where Rajbongshi s too belong People from this segment too speaks in Bengali and do not see themselves as an ingredient of separate state formation. Also the only produces of North Bengal are Rice , Jute and tobacco , with this a separate state cannot be formed . The leaders of the erstwhile movement Nikhil Roy, Deceased Atul Roy andBangshibadan burman has colluded with the ruling party in Bengal and has bury their hatchets .
Talking to Newsclick, Souvik Mukherjee, professor of History at Calcutta University pointed out that certain factors, which distinguish a particular area are there. Every area, however small it is, can have a separate cultural arena, which can be overarching in nature. In every district, there are certain dialects. In Birbhum, people speak in a certain dialect that is different from that of the Gangetic plain. “This cannot be the ground of multiple bifurcation or multiple division of the state. Even for those who are aspiring for it, it wont do them any good “, Mukherjee said.
Sometimes there has been valid demands for autonomous regions but even the success of those regions, like the Boro autonomous region, has been questionable, Mukherjee said. “Ultimately, without going for such divisions, one can ask for the maintainance of regional specifications. In the case of West Bengal, which has seen a painful partition in 1947, there is no rationale for any further division. Any similar kind of partition will not lead to a healthy situation. Rajbanshi is mainly a dialect of Bengali like the one that exists in Birbhum, or in Nadia, where there is Krishnanagari dialect and so on. There is a long process of evolution of a language and emergence of a new language so far has not happened in Bengal,” he said.
Mukherjee further added that there might be a sense of deprivation in Cooch Behar, which was earlier a princely state, but that did not justify demands for a complete statehood. “They have a long history, and with a border with assam, it is kind of a cultural crossroads that should be preserved within the framework of the present truncated Bengal,” he said.
Speaking to Newsclick, Prof Ishita Mukhopadhyay, Senior Professor at the Department of Economics in Calcutta University, said that the economy of North Bengal was highly dependant on Siliguri, a trading hub, as well as other border states for all economic activities. She pointed out that while problems in tea gardens have been long drawn and workers have been suffering, neither the state nor the central government were presenting a solution. “Workers are migrating from Cooch Behar and Dinajpur to other parts of the country. These are economically weaker regions of the state. The rise of identity politics in these regions is a part of economic exclusion of the marginal population,” she said.
Mukhopadhyay said, “A separate state would ghettoise the marginal population more from the mainstream of economic activities. This has already happened in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand when the new states were formed. We do not have good economic experience of newly formed states in economically backward regions. The same will happen here if the state is bifurcated. This region has already been economically distanced from the mainstream in the COVID situation.” She noted that the question was who would gain from such a bifurcation of West Bengal. “It is the corporate capital which needs a captive market and thus, wants to divide regional markets only to occupy and increase profits. People of the region will be the last one to benefit economically,” she saod.
Failed Political Interventions
Former Mayor of Siliguri, Ashok Bhattacharya strongly opposed the demand for North Bengal’s statehood and said that a bifurcation will only compound the problems of the region. ”There has been a sense of deprivation due to the region’s backwardness and this problem should be tackled as a socio economical problem,” he said.
However, another expert on the condition of anonymity said that after Kolkata, Darjeeling district was the most advanced and contributed the most to the state’s domestic product. “So, the logic of backwardness in the extreme north regions like Darjeeling do not apply,” he said, while pointing out that the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council or the Gorkha territorial administration, which was forced upon the region, has not been able to solve the problems in the region, which mainly stem from seeking parallelism in development like how neighbouring Sikkim had progressed after statehood but they have not. However, in many index, Darjeeling is far more advanced than Sikkim or even rest of Bengal apart from Kolkata,” he said.