Simply put: What’s behind the protests, rail roko in North Bengal?

Indian Express explains the agitation for a ‘C’ category state in Cooch Behar that claimed three lives this week.

Written by Aniruddha Ghosal | Published: February 25, 2016 1:16:48 am
The police were slow to move in to break up the protests. (Source: PTI) The police were slow to move in to break up the protests. (Source: PTI)

What is the trouble in Cooch Behar? Why were trains being stopped and protesters clashing with police?

Trouble began on Sunday, with a ‘Rail Roko’, and thousands of protesters squatting on the tracks at the New Cooch Behar station, demanding that the ‘Greater Cooch Behar’ area be recognised either as a separate ‘C’ category state, or a Union Territory.

What exactly is a ‘C’ category state? How is it different from other states?

After independence, the Indian Constitution declared the new Republic a “Union of States”. There were the ‘A’ category states such as Assam, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, which were former Governor’s Provinces in British India, and ‘B’ category states that were princely states or groups of princely states ruled by a ‘Rashtrapramukh’. The only ‘D’ category state was Andaman and Nicobar Islands, formerly administered by a Lieutenant Governor appointed by the central government.

Then, there were 10 ‘C’ category states — a list that included Ajmer, Bhopal, Bilaspur, Coorg, Tripura and Delhi — and comprising both former princely states, and provinces under the governance of Chief Commissioners in British India.

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Who are the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association? Why do they want ‘C’ category status for Cooch Behar?

The GCPA was formed on September 9, 1998 at Kakbari School, but it was only in the second half of 2005 that their movement gained momentum. The GCPA claims to be a development-oriented organisation, and has been mobilising Rajbansis and other ethnic minorities on the issue of a separate state since the late nineties.

The GCPA claims the poor in rural Cooch Behar — particularly the Rajbansis — have been denied opportunities of economic self-assertion. Almost 50% of the rural population in the district consists of Scheduled Castes, primarily landless labourers, and of this, the Rajbansis are the largest group (about 40%). At the time the movement gained the most momentum in 2005, a West Bengal government report had noted that rural poverty in the district was as high as 25.62%.

What is the basis for the GCPA’s claim?

The demand for a separate ‘Greater Cooch Behar’, comprising Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, North and South Dinajpur, and the undivided Goalpara district of Assam, is based on the claim that the original merger agreement between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Government of India was ignored during Cooch Behar’s inclusion into India in 1949.

Cooch Behar was a princely state until it became a part of India on August 20, 1949, and the GCPA argues that its inclusion in West Bengal violated the terms of that agreement. The GCPA maintains that the original agreement between the king of Cooch Behar and the Indian government promised Cooch Behar ‘C’ category statehood, but it was merged with West Bengal — an ‘A’ category state.

How has the state government and the Trinamool Congress responded to the agitation?

The government’s critics have described its response as “delayed” or “soft”. But with Assembly elections around the corner, party leaders say it was important to go slow in order to avoid a flare-up similar to the one in 2005, which saw 5 people dying. This time, police swung into action only after 72 hours of protests, which not only crippled rail services in North Bengal and Assam, but also left three stranded passengers dead.

The top leadership of the protesters, including Bangshi Badan Barman, seems to have been taken into “protective custody”. Barman had been in jail since 2005, and was freed only last year after the TMC government classified him and his associates as “political prisoners”. With Darjeeling’s BJP MP

S S Ahluwalia acknowledging that they were in touch with another faction of the GCPA, Mamata Banerjee’s government has the unenviable task of ensuring that the protests remain “controlled”, and further bloodshed and unrest is avoided.

In what way, if any, is this agitation likely to impact the Assembly election?

On Sunday, Ahluwalia called the Cooch Behar District Magistrate on behalf of the GCPA’s parallel faction. The MP has in the past backed the aspirations of the Darjeeling Gorkhas and extend support to other “indigenous groups” in the region. The GCPA, in spite of overlapping claims in the demand for a separate state, has in the past cooperated with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.

With the Mamata government already facing an understanding between the Congress and CPM, the possibility of a BJP-GJM-GCPA deal can’t be good news. Sources close to the CM said she would hold “unofficial” talks with the GCPA leadership ahead of the election, which the TMC hopes to win.

So, what happens in this agitation from here on?

Before calling off the protest this week, Barman promised that “the GCPA would resume the agitation”. In 2009, Barman had contested the Lok Sabha elections from prison, and won 37,226 votes (3.3%) — and the possibility of the GCPA contesting the coming Assembly polls can’t be ruled out. Through its three-day agitation in Cooch Behar, the GCPA has underscored its continued political relevance.

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