WITH LOK Sabha bypolls set to be held in Cooch Behar, following the death of first-time Trinamool Congress MP Renuka Singh in August, the BJP is mulling to field Ananta Rai — the self-proclaimed king of the district.
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Rai, who had taken on the title of ‘maharaja’ 18 years ago, heads a faction of Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association (GCPA). The objective of the organisation has been to ensure that the Greater Cooch Behar area is recognised as a separate state or union territory.
Recently, Trinamool had alleged that BSF was providing training to Narayani Sena — an alleged militia being raised by GCPA in support of their demand for Greater Cooch Behar on “ethnic grounds”.
Narayani Sena had planned to present a guard-of-honour to Rai on August 28 — the day in 1949 when Cooch Behar had joined India. However, the state government had denied permission to the event. Trinamool leader and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Partha Chatterjee has described the move as a “deep rooted conspiracy against the state government”.
The BSF too has denied that it was training Narayani Sena.
Now, a section of the BJP is looking to support Rai — either on a BJP ticket or as an Independent candidate — in Cooch Behar, which had traditionally been a stronghold of Forward Bloc.
“There has been no decision yet, since the poll date has not been announced. But elections need to be held within six months, as per rules, and he is a possible candidate,” a BJP leader said.
A source close to Rai said: “We are in touch with BJP leaders and there has been a suggestion (to field Rai). Nothing concrete has happened yet.”
In the run-up to the state polls earlier this year, Rai had said: “Our people attend BJP’s rallies and while I can’t ask anyone to vote for a party, I have asked the Koch Rajbanshis (indigenous population) to consider BJP’s promises.”
In the past, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not acknowledged Rai as the ‘maharaja’, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh — before the state elections — had said that NDA would do “whatever possible” for the GCPA movement. “The people of Cooch Behar, for a long time, have been fighting to preserve their identity and culture. I want you to believe that our government will do whatever is possible to ensure that your identity is preserved… I have told Maharaja Ananta Rai that the government is with you,” he had said.
The movement for a separate Cooch Behar has at its heart the allegation that the inclusion of the district into West Bengal was “illegal” and against the treaty signed between the Union government and Maharaja Jagaddipendra Narayan on August 28, 1949.
While Trinamool has alleged that BJP has been fanning statehood demands in Cooch Behar for political reasons, Rai has said: “I will do what my people want me to do”. The BJP hopes that Rai’s candidature would allow them to capitalise on the Koch Rajbanshis — deemed Scheduled Castes in West Bengal — who have been ignored by both Delhi and Kolkata.
The GCPA movement believes that by not giving Cooch Behar separate statehood, the poor in rural Cooch Behar — particularly the ethnic group of Rajbansis — were denied opportunities of economic self-assertion. Almost 50 per cent of the rural population in the district consists of SCs, primarily landless labourers. Of this, Rajbansis are the largest ethnic group at about 40 per cent. In 2005, when the movement had reached its zenith, a Bengal government report had noted that rural poverty in the district was as high as 25.62 per cent.
Renuka Sinha, a first-time MP of Cooch Behar, had died following a heart attack. The 68-year-old retired school teacher had joined Trinamool in 2014 before the Lok Sabha elections and had won by 87,107 votes.