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Bengal’s new Telangana?

It’s the story of a ‘selected’ maharaja of the people of an ancient kingdom. At a time when the demand for Gorkhaland is back with renewed vigour in Bengal after the UPA cleared Telangana statehood, the latest is for Greater Cooch Behar. Ravik Bhattacharya reports.

india Updated: Aug 06, 2013 08:56 IST
Ravik Bhattacharya
Ravik Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times

It’s the story of a ‘selected’ maharaja of the people of an ancient kingdom, the aspirations of an almost forgotten linguistic group and expansionism of an outdated variety.

At a time when the Gorkhaland and Kamtapur demands came back with renewed vigour in West Bengal just after the UPA cleared Telangana statehood, a repackaged Greater Cooch Behar movement is fast gathering momentum.

The movement — the first phase began in 1998 and gradually dried up by 2006 — is now being driven by Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association (GCPA) president Nirmal Roy and Ananta Roy, a ‘king’ not related to the erstwhile royal family but ‘selected’ by the people.

The ‘king’ and his men had a series of meetings with Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde — the last being in New Delhi on July 31 just after the UPA’s Telangana decision.

Nirmal Roy told HT: “We’ve been talking to the Union home ministry since November last year and got the promise of either a separate state or a union territory. Now that Telangana has been granted, why not Greater Cooch Behar? Our demand is justified and legitimate.”

The demand: A new state, comprising Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar and North and South Dinajpur districts of Bengal and the undivided Goalpara district in Assam that includes today’s Bongaigaon, Dhubri and Kokrajhar districts — with Darjeeling as its capital.

Besides these areas being Rajbongshi-dominated, the GCPA argues that the British government took charge of the then Cooch Behar kingdom through various treaties during 1773-1902 and returned the land to the royals 27 days before Independence. On August 28, 1949, the kingdom finally merged with India.

Roy argued although the land returned to the royals included five districts of Bengal and one of Assam and was recognised as a centrally administered state in 1949, the government later merged the districts with West Bengal and Assam on January 1, 1950.

On Darjeeling, the GCPA claim is even more perplexing. It says Darjeeling was included in the Cooch Behar kingdom through a treaty between the royals and the British. Roy, however, could not provide any document to support the claim.

But GCPA general secretary Namita Burman said, “We are planning agitations and indefinite hunger strikes to get our demand taken seriously.”

The politics surrounding the greater Cooch Behar demand is also quite twisty. Earlier, both the Trinamool Congress and the Left were seen siding with the movement, but now the mainline parties have distanced themselves.

Before the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, TMC leaders even visited some jailed leaders of the movement, who were arrested in 2005, when the police opened fire on about 15,000 hunger strikers and killed two people.

It was in 2011, when the Mamata Banerjee government came to power, that the cases were dropped and agitation leaders released. Now, TMC minister for north Bengal development Gautam Deb said, “This (the renewed movement) is a Congress conspiracy. It wants to spread violence in north Bengal.”

The Left is also playing it safe. Udayan Guha, Forward Bloc MLA from Dinhata, said, “Whatever they are saying has to be supported by documents. We do not support the separate statehood demand.”