THE PRINCELY status of Cooch Behar may only be living in the hearts of the people, the ‘Maharaja’ resides in his two-storeyed ‘palace’, and waits for the return of the “lost glory”. He holds his court outside; a plastic table and three chairs fill space while the bright yellow flag of the ever-in-making ‘Greater Cooch Behar’ flutters in the wind. It is this “independent state”, the ‘Greater Cooch Behar’, that ‘Maharaja’ Ananta Rai claims to be the “king” of. And the ‘king’ counts Prime Minister Narendra Modi as one of his allies. Not one to regard politics, the ‘Maharaja’ has put faith in the BJP this election season, with hope that the cherished dream of attaining statehood will come true.
That would bring the ‘king’ out of the “exile”.
“I do not have land nor do I have the authority to rule. I am a king because the people here made me the king. I am a king in exile,” Ananta Rai, linked historically to the royal family of Cooch Behar, said. It is this royal history the region could never let go of. Residents believe Cooch Behar’s inclusion into West Bengal was “illegal” and against the treaty signed between the Government of India and their then king, Maharaja Jagaddipendra Narayan, on August 28, 1949.
In 1998 came the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association (GCPA) — and the title of ‘Maharaja’ for Ananta Rai — with the sole aim of ensuring that the ‘Greater Cooch Behar’ area is recognised either as a separate ‘C’ category state or a Union Territory. “Cooch Behar has been a part of a democracy only for a few years. We have always been a monarchy. We have tried and adapted to the Constitution and democracy but it is not in our blood,” Rai says.
While the BJP has never publicly endorsed Cooch Behar’s demand for a statehood, Rai is confident that the saffron party’s government at the Centre will “accept” it. “Elections aren’t for us, but we are supporting Modi and the BJP. They are the only ones who have given us any support. Our people attend BJP’s rallies and while I can’t ask anyone to vote for a particular party, I have asked the Koch-Rajbanshis (the region’s indigenous population) to consider the BJP’s promise,” he said.
An indication of the people’s support was seen in Siliguri on April 7, when thousands of GCPA supporters had turned up for Modi’s rally.
While Modi himself remains reticent on commenting on GCPA’s demand, Home Minister Rajnath Singh promised while speaking in Tufanganj recently that the NDA government would “do whatever is possible” for the movement. “I want you (the people of Cooch Behar) 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 has and will continue to stand with you,” Singh had said.
As the roaring lion and the elephant of the Koch dynasty’s coat of arms stare back from the walls and doors of the palace, Rai digs into his life and politics, comes out with references from the past. He speaks of Maharani Gina Narayan, Cooch Behar’s blonde queen who landed in the Calcutta of 1960s, with disconcerting immediacy. Rai switches between past and present, constitutional apathy, political disregard and the ill-treatment of the Koch-Rajbanshis is summarized simply.
“Cooch Behar was never a part of India and now we have to bow our heads to the rules and regulations that aren’t ours,” he says. He refers to the letters between the GCPA and the Union government, reports written by academics, historical documents and sepia photographs before he concludes, “In exchange, we got nothing — no development, no jobs. We want our lost glory back.”
But even as he speaks of the many ways in which Kolkata and Delhi ignored the needs of the Koch-Rajbanshis — deemed a scheduled caste in West Bengal — he grudgingly admits that Bangsibadan Barman, the first general secretary of the GCPA and currently the leader of a separate faction of the group — continues to hold influence on the community.
When Rai was meeting representatives of the central government, Barman — still one with political ambitions — was organising a ‘Rail Roko’ agitation in February. Formerly with the Students Federation of India (SFI), Barman is presently on the run, according to the police. But Rai believes otherwise. “I think he has made an understanding with the Trinamool Congress. He stays out of jail and works against us and the BJP.”
While Barman couldn’t be contacted, a close aide said, “The Rail Roko agitation was completely peaceful. It was the police who unleashed atrocities on us. Since then, Dada (Barman) has been on the run. But we will be coming back soon, and stronger. The Centre will never simply ‘give’ us our right. They will use us, like previous governments in the past.”