The movement for a greater Cooch Behar was revived this week after almost a decade with a massive mobilisation of supporters on the railway tracks at New Cooch Behar railway station. The agitation was called off after police swung into action after 72 hours and the shocking death of three railway passengers, stranded in stalled trains for hours. Police have taken into custody at least 15 leaders of the Greater Cooch People’s Association (GCPA) who had been spearheading the agitation demanding Union Territory status for Cooch Behar district. But the top leadership – headed by Bangshi Badan Barman — seems to have either gone underground or is in the “protective custody” of the security forces.
The sudden momentum for the Greater Cooch Behar movement and the delayed response of the West Bengal state police and the railway administration in dealing with the blockade are to be viewed in the backdrop of the upcoming state assembly elections in April-May. The leader of the present agitation Bangshi Badan Barman went to jail after an ugly flare up in 2005 for the greater Cooch Behar statehood movement. Five people were killed in Cooch Behar town in clashes between GCPA supporters and the police. The dead had three policemen including an additional Superintendent of police. In jail since September 2005, the Mamata Banerjee government classified Bangshi Badan and his 40-plus other associates as “political prisoners” and they were freed in 2015.
Bangshi Badan Barman has political ambitions. In 2009 he contested the Lok Sabha polls as an independent candidate from inside the jail and secured over 37,000 votes. Political circles say that the rail roko agitation by the GCPA was an attempt by Bangshi to draw attention of the political establishment about his clout. It is an invitation primarily to the Trinamool Congress and to a lesser extent to the BJP about exploring political alliances with the GCPA in the ensuing polls. While the TMC had granted the leaders “freedom” from confinement, the BJP too had been cultivating the “indigenous groups” in the region with S S Ahluwalia – the BJP MP from Darjeeling keeping touch with a faction of the GCPA. From the time of his election as an MP, Ahluwallia – while acknowledging the aspirations of the Darjeeling Gorkhas about a “distinctive identity,” had also extended support to “indigenous groups” and their aspirations in the region. A BJP-Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha-GCPA combine can really be a spoilsport for the TMC in many North Bengal assembly seats. It is an additional headache for the ruling TMC who is gearing up to fight a combined Left-Congress adversary in North Bengal. It also largely explains the delayed and soft response of the Mamata Banerjee government to the rail roko. But one can surely expect more complex political manouvering in the region in the weeks ahead.