Lok Sabha polls: TMC, BJP woo Rajbanshi community in West Bengal | Kolkata - Hindustan Times
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Lok Sabha polls: TMC, BJP woo Rajbanshi community in West Bengal

Apr 13, 2024 03:09 PM IST

According to experts, Rajbanshi community, concentrated in north Bengal, can influence election results in around 20 assembly seats in five districts in the region

Cooch Behar: It was around 1pm and the usual daily bustle at the Ghughumari bazar in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal had died down by then. Around 200 metres away, close to the Ghughumari post office, five to six men were eagerly waiting outside a two storey-house. Another 20 – 25 men were seated at the ground floor of the house. Most of them had a yellow-coloured gamcha (towel) with green-border, hung around their neck.

The Rajbanshis account for 18.4 % of the total SC population of West Bengal. (Representative Image)
The Rajbanshis account for 18.4 % of the total SC population of West Bengal. (Representative Image)

Minutes later, two motorcycles came to a halt in front of the house and as one of the pillion riders got down with a satisfied smile on his lips and folded hands, those waiting outside the house paced towards the visitor to welcome him. Even he had the same green and yellow towel hung around his neck.

Amal Das, a farmer by profession who heads a faction of the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association, explained that the yellow and green towels were a part of the people of the Rajbanshi community - the largest Schedule Caste (SC) group in the state.

Das, who is also an independent candidate contesting the Lok Sabha elections for the first time from Cooch Behar, said, “Unlike the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), we don’t have the strength to organise huge public meetings. We are relying on small khuli sabhas (small meetings arranged in a house). Around 20 -25 people, or maybe a few more, attend each meeting. But we have the blessings of the people. None of the political parties raised our demand in Parliament. Instead, some of our leaders sided with the political parties. We feel cheated.”

According to the 2011 census, the Scheduled Caste (SC) population of West Bengal stands at 21.4 million, which is around 23.5% of the state’s 90.1 million population. There are around 60 Hindu sub-castes that come under the SC category. Of these, the three major ones are the Rajbanshi who account for 18.4 % of the total SC population, the Namasudra (17.4 %) and the Bagdi (14.9%).

“No wonder why every political party tries to keep this community in good faith. Cooch Behar, which goes into polls in the first phase, has a SC population of more than 50%. The Rajbanshis form a major chunk of this SC population. It would be hard to win this assembly seat without their support,” said Kartick Das, head of the Political Science department of Panchanan Barma University in Cooch Behar.

According to experts, this community, concentrated in north Bengal, can influence election results in around 20 assembly seats in five districts in the region – Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, North Dinajpur and South Dinajpur. The first three go into polls in the first phase of the Lok Sabha election on April 19.

While Das was busy in his small khuli sabha at Ghughumari, in the outskirts of Cooch Behar town, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was addressing a huge election rally at the Dinhata sanhati maidan, around 20 km down south in the north Bengal district, in support of her party’s candidate - Jagadish Chandra Basunia, sitting TMC MLA from Sitai, a retired school teacher and a popular Rajbanshi face.

“Who has set up the Rajbanshi Bhasha Academy, the Rajbanshi Development and Cultural Board, the Panchanan Barma University, statue of Chilarai and around 200 Rajbanshi schools? I did. We will do everything and the migratory birds of the BJP will get all the votes? Can this happen? Give me your word. We have to oust the BJP. This is our decision,” Banerjee said, with Basunia on the dais.

While Shukladhwaj Singha, popularly known as Chilarai, was a legendary commander of the Koch dynasty in the 16th century, Panchanan Barma or Thakur Panchanan was a Rajbanshi leader and a reformer from Cooch Behar.

Cooch Behar, which was once a Left Front bastion, was wrested by the TMC for the first time in 2014. In 2019, however, the BJP defeated the TMC by around 54,000 votes. The BJP’s sitting MP from Cooch Behar and Union minister of state for home Nisith Pramanik has been fielded by the party for the second consecutive time.

In the 2021 assembly polls, Pramanik was fielded by the BJP from Dinhata assembly against TMC’s high-profile leader Udayan Guha. The BJP leader won by just 57 votes. Guha won back the Dinhata seat in a by-election later that year with a whopping margin of 1.64 lakh votes, a record in Bengal’s Assembly poll history, dealing a massive blow to the BJP and its Cooch Behar MP Nisith Pramanik.

Another faction of the GCPA headed by Rajbanshi leader Bangshi Badan Barman, who is close to TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee, however, said that the tables will turn this time.

“Earlier during the Left Front regime if someone spoke in the Rajbanshi language he would have been branded a separatist. But after the TMC came to power situations have changed. The Mamata Banerjee government has done many things for the development and education of the Rajbanshis. The TMC will surely sweep this time,” Barman said while listing out a series of measures undertaken by the TMC government to woo the community.

In the past few years the Mamata Banerjee administration has showered sops on this community such as setting up Panchanan Barma University, Rajbanshi Bhasha Academy, Rajbanshi Development and Cultural Board, statue of Chilarai, setting 200 Rajbanshi primary schools, giving recognition to the language, setting up a Narayani Sena battalion in the state armed police and giving financial assistance of 1,000 per month to Bhawaiya folk singers.

“The TMC supremo understands the pulse of the Rajbanshi community. She has declared holiday on the birthday of Panchanan Barma and has even renamed the Cooch Behar Medical College and Hospital after Jitendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur, Maharaja of Cooch Behar. The hospital was set up during her regime,” said Debabrata Chaki, a local resident of Cooch Behar town who runs a magazine.

In the late 90s and early 2000 it was primarily the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) which carried out the agitation demanding a separate Kamtapur state carved out of Assam and north Bengal. After the KLO’s influence faded, the statehood agitation of the GCPA demanding a separate state gained momentum. In 2005 three policemen and two GCPA supporters were killed in a clash. Several leaders including Barman was jailed for around six years.

The TMC, soon after coming to power in 2011, released many of the jailed leaders. It was Mamata Banerjee’s electoral promise to release political prisoners.

“While the TMC has made Barman - a prominent face in the community - the chairman of the Rajbanshi Bhasha Academy and the Rajbanshi Development and Cultural Board, the BJP too is not left behind. It sent Anant Rai ‘Maharaj’, an influential Rajbanshi leader, who leads another faction of the GCPA to the Rajya Sabha. But neither Rai nor Barman raised the issue of a separate state in recent times,” said Mahendra Pramanik, a local school teacher in Dinhata.

It may be remembered that ahead of the crucial assembly polls in 2021 Union home minister Amit Shah went to meet Anant Rai at Chirang distrct in Assam.

Later, while addressing a rally in Cooch Behar on February 11, 2021, Shah announced that a battalion in the paramilitary forces would be named after the famed armed troops of the erstwhile princely state of Cooch Behar - Narayani Sena.

“In the name of Narayani Sena, the Narendra Modi-led government would set up a new battalion named Narayani Battalion in the central paramilitary forces. The training centre would be named after Chilarai,” Shah announced.

This year, with Lok Sabha polls coming, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already kicked off his campaign in the eastern state addressing his first rally in Cooch Behar town on April 4 for the BJP’s candidate Nisith Pramanik.

But Rai, who is the BJP’s Rajya Sabha member, recently expressed his displeasure over the selection of Pramanik as the BJP’s candidate for the coming Lok Sabha polls. He told the media that he was not consulted.

While Rai refused to comment on the developing political equations in the Cooch Behar, Pramanik couldn’t be contacted despite repeated attempts.

“The Rajbanshi community’s support is crucial. Without a Rajbanshi face and without their support it would be impossible to win this seat. But situations are very complex and volatile. He who gets the support of this community will have the last smile. You never know which way things will move,” said Dilip Barman, a tea stall owner at Khalisamari, where the second campus of the Panchanan Barma University is coming up.

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